The Familiar Short Story Take

Articles about short stories come with almost metronomic precision from the major media outlets. You can almost count on their release — every few months, a short story article will try to stir up the literary hornets nest. There was Steven King, there was Mary Gaitskill, there was Millhauser.

Granted, most of these articles say very little new about the situation. Most of them could be recycled quite easily from ones a year or two before. The formula seems to be easy enough. Pick one side of the equation: lament the lack of cachet of the short story, or strike a radical’s pose by bucking the assertion that anything is wrong with the form. The former is of the Chicken Little variety, claiming in vociferous tones that the short story “is dying, it’s dying,” while the latter tends towards the Hasty Generalization by picking hope-catalyzing incidents and applying them to the broader literary environment.

The most recent articles of this last stripe. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott (a favorite movie critic of mine) argues that the short story is seeing a resurgence. For evidence, he cites that three major biographies recently released (on O’Connor, Cheever, Barthelme) might signal the superiority of the short story genre:

“And this work, far from being minor, is among the most powerfully original American fiction produced in the second half of the 20th century . . . Reading through their collected stories, you wonder if novels are even necessary. The imperial ambitions of a certain kind of swaggering, self-important American novel — to comprehend the totality of modern life, to limn the social, existential, sexual and political strivings of its citizens — start to seem misguided and buffoonish.”

A.O. Scott is always a delight to read, and I respect him as a thinker and a critic. But the evidence here does not fully support the conclusion, and what seems semi-plausible (though rather old news) are the scraps he tosses in at the end: that the Kindle might spark a revolution in the short story format (please God, yes), and that despite the death of the golden age of the short story, the form has remarkable staying power.

Might I say, though, that despite my critique of the regularity and formulaic qualities of these articles, that I appreciate that they do appear, because I would hate for short story collections to go the way of poetry and be relegated to the ghettos of journalistic space and attention. Attention is always good news for the form.

In the Guardian, there’s also a piece on short stories. It’s a delight because the editor must have given James Lasdun a long leash, as the piece doesn’t seem constrained by expectations of what a reader might or might not enjoy reading on that newfangled screen thingy.

Lasdun covers One More Year by Sana Krasikov, Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah, and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower. Coincidentally, Wells Tower’s book is also mentioned by A.O. Scott. You know it’s a wonderful collection when it serves as the example in multiple essays of the excellence of the form. And deservedly so — it’s a brave, adventurous collection, full of the type of stories that make you think of the possibilities of short fiction.

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2 thoughts on “The Familiar Short Story Take

  1. cynthia hartwig says:

    The short story seems to be alive and thriving on the web. I subscribe to Narrative Magazine’s Story of the Week and it’s pretty fun to get a new story in my in-box when the rest of the stuff is business and blab. They just released some stats about their readership: last month they got 870,000 page views which is up from 500,000 3-4 months ago. But the statistic I find interesting is that their typical visitor views 13 pages. I prefer reading in hard copy but obviously, I’m in the minority if people are spending that much time on site, it has to mean they’re actually reading. So the short story isn’t withering, it’s just morphing to other venues.

  2. BookFox says:

    I think Narrative is the vanguard for quality fiction on the web, and the Jenks were wise to see that shift coming and lead the charge.
    And yes, nicely said: not withering, morphing.

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