Sunday, April 7, 2013

Has the Short Story Come Back?

In January 2013, The New York Times magazine had a cover story of George Saunders' Tenth of December, calling it "The Best Book You'll Read This Year." What's remarkable about this accolade, to me, is that Saunders' book is not a novel or a nonfiction exposé, but a short-story collection. And it's not just the Times going nuts for Saunders: he is everywhere. He's been interviewed by the Times, The Huffington Post, The Paris Review; he was on Fresh Air, Charlie Rose, even the Colbert Report.

We've got more, too: Karen Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove has made a huge splash, as has Yoko Ogawa's Revenge. Recently when I was on Facebook, I saw NPR Books not just recommending I read Claire Vaye Watkins' Battleborn, but yelling at me to do it. "YOU MUST READ THIS NOW!" (They really used all caps: it worked. I obeyed.) Junot Diaz, a mainstay of The New Yorker's fiction section, recently released This Is How You Lose Her, to gushing praise. Alice Munro's Dear Life has been called "stunning," "masterful," and "brilliant," by various major reviewers, with Munro herself enthusiastically labeled "the best short-story writer in English today" by Booklist. It's not just that novelists are putting out a few short-story collections: these are writers who specialize in the short story. And it's working for them. Their collections are selling.

What is going on? Ten years ago, I never read short stories. I didn't see them on bookstore shelves, and nobody was talking about them. I'm not sure they were really being made, except singly for publications like The New Yorker and The Sun. The last time most of us read short stories regularly was in high-school or college, when we were assigned them. Why the resurgence? Shorter attention spans, perhaps?

Whatever it is, I'm caught up in it. I inhaled Tenth of December, which really is one of the best books I've read in years. (When I first put it on the library hold list, there were eighty holds ahead of me. Eighty! I have never seen a hold list that long.) I gobbled up Revenge and Battleborn, too. I have read other collections by Diaz and Munro and will read the new ones as soon as they come in from the library. I've never read Russell but I've heard her read excerpts from Vampires in the Lemon Grove on several podcasts now, and I am already hooked, so that's also on the library hold list. (Thirty-six holds, in case you were interested.)

So apparently I love short stories. I love to read them, and I enjoy writing them. Some people don't. I think I get the reasons for both: on the pro side, they are bite-sized. I love reading fiction in general because I love exploring alternate realities, other lives, and I get that many more of said with a collection of short stories. All those worlds, all those ideas, all those characters: it's like a feast of a thousand appetizers!

But I get the complaint, too: all that work to get to know a new world and a new set of characters, and just as you get attached, the thing ends. To return to the food analogy, sometimes you don't want a thousand appetizers, you want a gigantic pot roast, or a tub of Ben & Jerrys. One delicious thing that you can savor for a long, long time.

Now what about writing short stories? I'm bad at finishing things but I am far more likely to finish a short story than a novel, so to me that's one big point in their favor. I also appreciate that the twist ending is no longer required. It's OK to have a big shocker ending, but it seems more fashionable now to leave a story at an ambiguous point. While this works for me as a writer, it can be pretty unsatisfying for a reader.

So now I turn it over to you: has anyone else noticed an uptick in short-story collections? Do you like reading them? Prefer them to novels? Prefer writing them to novels? Why?


  1. Before answering your questions, I have one for you: have all these authors you mention previously published a novel? It seems to me that if you're established, then it's plausible to publish a book of short stories, but I think it would be extremely difficult for an unpublished writer.

    I started by writing short stories (in college) and I loved doing it. I haven't read short stories in a couple of years, but when I did (it was a book of famous authors) it was a pleasure because you got a taste of the different styles. However, I prefer novels (all those appetizers leave me hungry, ha ha). I think it has to do with what you mention: having to go thru the effort to visit new worlds again and again.

  2. I think only Diaz, of this group, is famous for a novel over short stories. (Oscar Wao is his novel, but really he's a short-story writer.) Saunders has never written a novel; he has tried several times, he says, but his stories "keep shrinking." So he's managed to become pretty famous on short stories alone. Munro is also solely a short-story writer, and she's collected loads of prizes. Russell has written "Swamplandia!" which was critically acclaimed, but of her three books, two are short story collections. This is Watkins' first book.

    I'm guessing you're correct that it's still easier to get published and recognized for novels, but what I'm wondering is if that's changing. It seems that short stories are becoming more accepted as an art form, and writers are now "allowed" to specialize in them.

  3. Interesting topic, Steph, because I've never noticed a decline in short stories or short story collections. When I started taking writing seriously about five or six years ago, every contest I was interested in was strictly for short stories and hardly any for novels. It's still that way now unless you're a published novelist. Short story contests abound! If you're interested in reading any anthologies put out by short story contests, then let me recommend to you Glimmer Train, The O'Henry Prize Stories, or the Zoetrope Awards. There are others, but it's been a while since I've tried my hand at short stories. I've never been very good at writing them and I think my main reason for that is because I see stories in a really big picture with lots of plot development and lots of twists and turns.

    I think the only author I've read that you mentioned is Alice Munro. I read "The Love of a Good Woman." I didn't really care for it because I felt the stories were all over the place and I really didn't connect to many of her MCs. I think I'm like Lorena and like a satisfying fictional meal!

    1. Thanks for those recommendations, Mary Mary! I get the Best American Short Stories books, and the Pen/O. Henry collections, from time to time, but haven't tried Glimmer Train. I know contests focus on short stories, presumably because they are much easier to read/judge than a novel! I just hadn't seen single-author collections on shelves. It seemed like there was a long gap between the time when John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver were famous for short stories, and now, when George Saunders has become acclaimed. I probably just wasn't paying attention, though. :)

      Since I wrote this blog, I listened to a Saunders interview in which he says the brain processes short stories differently than novels. A short story is processed like a joke or an anecdote. The novel is like a life; we compare it to our own lives. That long span of time. I thought that was interesting.

    2. I'd say I'd have to agree with Saunders concerning how short stories and novels get processed. I always tend to struggle through a book of short stories, simply because they constantly stop and start with a new group of characters. I'd say the most fascinating collection of short stories I've read was an anthology of authors who wrote about Las Vegas. They all painted a grim, creepy, almost sadistic picture of Las Vegas and it gave me the heebie-jeebies!


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