In defence of ‘small’ stories – Ann Claycomb

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By Ann Claycomb

In my twenties, I took a fiction workshop from a writer who went on to be shortlisted for the Pen/Faulkner Award. She was generous enough to read the novel I’d written in college; her critique was gracious and precise: “It’s very well-written. I just wonder if the subject matter isn’t a little —banal?”

Ouch. But also, really?

That particular novel sits in a drawer somewhere, as it should. But nonetheless I want to stand up for books that get labeled banal — or something like it — because they are not visibly grappling with issues, or striving for relevance and importance. We need important books, relevant books, books about the horrific lived experience of genocide and about the impact of climate change. When skilled writers build stories around those issues and people them with vibrant characters, we don’t just learn more, we also care more — and maybe as a result we will do more. As we must.

But please, oh please — let these not be the only stories we allow ourselves.

We need stories that risk being small, personal, idiosyncratic, even funny or silly or weird. Because even as great and terrible things happen around us or to us or by our own actions, these other things happen too and always have. We cook meals for each other and eat them; we fall in love and out again; we have children who annoy us when they don’t break our hearts. For as long as we’ve had language, we’ve narrated these experiences. And we’ve discovered that stories can be gifts, of connection, of beauty, of laughter or comfort or tears.

My own first novel is about opera singers, mermaids, and beach vacations. Maybe not banal, but quite possibly: “Huh?” But it’s also about loving someone who can be hard to love, about not giving up hope when things are hopeless, and about the power and magic of music.

So to other writers who worry about telling small stories, writing books that — by some measure — don’t matter enough: Stop it. The story you want to tell is almost certainly like mine — there is far more to it than you can convey in a one-sentence synopsis. And it will matter. Whether it comforts or amuses or delights or inspires, it will be your gift to the readers who are waiting for it, and who didn’t even know, until they turned to the first page, what they were missing.


An inveterate reader of fairy tales, Ann Claycomb believes in the power of faerie, chocolate, and a good workout. She earned her MA in English Literature from the University of Maryland, where she baffled her thesis committee with an argument that Beauty and the Beast is ruined by the Beast’s transformation at the end into just an ordinary prince. She earned her MFA in Fiction from West Virginia University, while writing the novel that became The Mermaid’s Daughter. She lives with her husband, three children, and two cats in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she is at work on her next novel.

harpercollins.com/ann-claycomb

1 Comment

  1. heatheradams2013

    April 6, 2017 at 2:59 am

    Ann – I relate to this so, so much and I love how you are so passionate. I was (through my agent) told by “big NY” that my novel was “lovely, but too quiet.” But it’s found a home with West Virginia University Press (your MFA alma mater, I see!) and comes out this fall. I am off to add your book to my TBR list. Thank you for your encouragement to those of us who write “small.”

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