When I was 16 or 17, it felt like Ernest Hemingway and Willa Cather were my own personal discoveries. I had read through all of Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and T.C. Boyle after discovering their books and then working steadily through their bodies of work until there was nothing left to read. (And it’s amazing to think about how much time I had to read – time that I set aside for reading – back in those days.)Empty-handed, a self-taught reader as yet unaware of many literary greats, I turned to anthologies. They were plentiful at used bookstores and I was already enamored of the form thanks to the New Yorkers lying around the house and to my adolescent thoughts of becoming a writer. What I quickly realized is that these books could open me up to a new world (almost the whole world, really) of literature. Delightful little tomes like A Pocket Book of Short Stories packed an incredible punch, introducing me to the likes of Balzac, Chekhov, Ring Lardner, Somerset Maugham, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Cather – the table of contents is a chronicle of the weight of my discoveries. These discoveries would be made to seem mundane in college when I was instructed in the importance and context of these writers’ bodies of work, but discovering them first, in these beat up, little pocket paperbacks, bought for a dollar or two, was a revelation. Looking through all the tables of contents at the amazing, no frills “Miscellaneous Anthologies” site is like a walk down memory lane, not to mention an unparalleled catalog of the highlights of the form.I ended up collecting quite a few of these anthologies, which I suspect are still ferreted around my parents house, as I can’t seem to find any on my bookshelves now. As my reading horizons broadened, I saw that these anthologies were nearing extinction, brought on by the combined declining market fortunes of both short stories and the declining prevalence of pocket-sized (or mass market) editions of literary fiction.Nowadays, most short fiction anthologies you’ll see fall into three categories: academic (Norton, et al), yearly series (e.g. Best American and O. Henry Prize), and thematic. The latter two categories more and more have become known for the involvement of “celebrity” editors, typically big name authors who can grab a little press for the books. For example, Best American was edited by Stephen King in 2007 and Ann Patchett in 2006.Likewise, celebrity editors are at the helm of a pair of themed anthologies already released this year. Jeffrey Eugenides has put together My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro. Of course, who’s ever seen a contemporary short story that plays out like a fairy tale? As Eugenides told NPR, “I started to realize that not only the love stories that I liked, but actually the love stories that everybody liked, had a certain bittersweet quality to them. The stories in this collection are by no means tragic, but in order to even get to a measure of happiness, the characters usually have to go through a lot of difficulty.” That sounds about right.The Book of Other People, Zadie Smith’s anthology effort, is even more “low concept” (not necessarily a bad thing) than Eugenides’s. We are told her only instruction to her contributors – which include the likes of David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, and a generous sampling of the McSweeney’s set – was to “make somebody up.” USA Today quips “just when you’re ready to howl in frustration at the anthologification of the book world – I’ve seen the best minds of my generation, live blogging about recipes that inspire them – along comes The Book of Other People,” but ultimately the verdict is that the book has flashes of goodness, as is echoed by the Washington Post: “Variety — in approach, style and, in some cases, quality — is certainly on display here.”At the very least, there’s much to applaud in the creativity of Eugenides and Smith in compiling these books, and, for that matter, in the yearly anthologies for insisting by their very existence that the year’s “best” short story is something that matters. However, the idea of carrying a varied compendium of literary goodness in one’s pocket appears to have gone by the wayside, consigned to the dusty shelves of second-hand shops. For those in the know, a treasure trove of short fiction is there for the taking.
I.In the ongoing conversation about the future of literature, novelty is a rare thing. For at least forty years, American novelists and critics have been worrying about the fate of the novel – and of reading itself – and though the finer points of the argument have changed, the basic contours have stayed remarkably constant. Electronic mass media poses a threat – or at least a serious challenge – to literature; the novel functions as a kind of coal miner’s canary, a bellwether for the health of the culture at large.I’m sympathetic to the need to assert some kind of narrative control over the technological revolution, but I had assumed the stance of a weary spectator at the “death of the novel” when, in the fall of 2007, a diagnostic shift piqued my interest. Suddenly, it seemed, it was the short story that was ailing. Witness Stephen King’s introduction to the Best American Short Stories anthology:[American short fiction,] if not quite dead on the page… [has become] airless, somehow, and self-referring… show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open.”Or witness the introduction to the second issue of the literary quarterly Canteen, which took issue with King’s assessment. Or witness another excellent lit-mag, One Story, whose “Save the Short Story” direct mailings reached me alongside pleas from Planned Parenthood to save reproductive rights and from the ACLU to save civil liberties.II.Though the hue and cry seems abrupt, the conditions for the short story’s endangerment have been developing for a quarter century. Once-reliable “general interest” venues like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post have disappeared from newsstands. The New Yorker long ago ended its practice of running several stories per issue. Esquire has drifted away from the stringent editorial commitments of Gordon Lish. Harper’s confines itself, more or less, to a stable of old hands. The Atlantic recently cut its monthly fiction offerings altogether, in favor of a single annual “fiction issue” (part of a series of missteps that included putting Christopher Hitchens on the masthead and spending 30 back-of-the-book editorial pages helping people with too much money figure out how to spend it.) In 2007, fewer than 100 short-stories were published in the traditional general-interest outlets.At the level of the little magazine, the current trend seems to be toward ever-more print outlets with ever-smaller circulations… good for building the C.V.s of aspiring writer-academics, but bad for generating consensus around work of surpassing distinction. And the economics of running a print magazine outside the institutional shelter of the academy are inhospitable to longevity, as we can see from the recent folding of the print editions of Grand Street, Pindeldyboz, Ballyhoo, and numerous others. Websites such as failbetter.com have begun to fill the gaps, but it will be some time before online publication supplants print as a commonly accepted arbiter of the good and the beautiful.Not surprisingly, things get even grimmer when we turn to the publishing houses. I won’t claim that my own inability to sell a collection of short stories is attributable to anything other than their own shortcomings, but I will note how many complimentary rejection notices from publishers tend to end with phrases like “…but you know how hard it is to market book of short stories” or “of course, a novel would be more marketable.” It is nearly impossible to imagine a word-drunk ephebe moving to New York to become a short-story writer, as so many New Yorker contributors did at mid-century. Given the prospects for remuneration, you’d be better served to move to wherever the cost of living was cheapest – North Dakota or Guatemala.Interestingly, however, the transformation of the literary marketplace has not dampened the supply of short stories. If anything, the opposite. In the aisles of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Book Fair last weekend, I passed literally thousands of aspiring novelists looking to publish their short stories. It became obvious that my preliminary sketch of distribution mechanisms for the short story had failed to account for a technology even more important than the Internet: the photocopier.The photocopier is the single indispensable technology for the rise of the graduate creative writing program – there are now more than 350 – and the graduate creative writing program is without question the single biggest contributor to the boom in short story production. The pedagogical staple of M.F.A. programs is still the workshop, and the workshop requires complete, coherent, and (above all) short bits of fiction that can be photocopied and distributed to eight or 10 classmates. Chapters of novels, shorn of context, are difficult to work with. Stories on the short side – 3,000 to 5,000 words – are best, if one wants to avoid pissing off one’s peers. The ideal workshop story can be digested in a week, returned to the writer with comments, and improved. How? Through the application of a certain set of principles of what the short story should be. We call these principles, collectively, “craft.” In the fiction workshop, “craft” is king, simply because it’s teachable. Thus writing teachers, themselves former M.F.A. students, tend to talk about Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor as if it were their formal balance, rather than their deep strangeness, that brings their stories to life.Think about the numbers: 350 fiction programs. 3,000 new graduates per year. Each taking let’s say four workshops, each of which requires three submissions. That’s 36,000 short stories for each graduating class of writers, who have worked to convince each other that the top 1% of short stories – those that come closest to generating workshop consensus – may be published in a literary magazine. A literary magazine whose readership may largely comprise writers looking for a place to publish their short stories. “Guarded self-consciousness” starts to look like a mathematical inevitability. Perversely, then, the greatest danger to the short story may be the very institution that’s sustaining it.III.Yet, even if the foregoing manages to capture something true, I’ve neglected all the factors that guarantee that the short story will survive in the 21st century… and even thrive. First, there is the durable insanity of writers, which a proper education channels, rather than cures. To be sure, some workshop students are angling for literary celebrity, and others rightly see graduate school as a comfortable alternative to a desk job. But my own experience suggests that a significant fraction of M.F.A. candidates write short stories because, like Chekhov and O’Connor, they are helpless not to. These are the writers I want to read.Second, there is the competitive pressure on editors to create venues for the short story that stand out in a crowded marketplace. In addition to the upstart publications mentioned above, recent years have seen the advent of such forums as McSweeney’s, Zoetrope: All Story, The Oxford American, 9th Letter, A Public Space, Black Clock, and NOON… This is not to mention the continued excellence of Conjunctions, Witness, Callaloo, ZYZZYVA, and The Paris Review, to name a few.Finally, the very shortness of the short story ensures its necessity in our new century. Like the sonnet, it is both a form and a discipline, but the short story also offers its acolytes remarkable freedom. Because the reader absorbs it in a single sitting, it has the capacity, like Seamus Heaney’s swans, to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” And for the writer, there is the possibility that anything may happen on the page, in a way that there isn’t, quite, in a novel. I think of my favorite living practitioners of the short story – David Means, Edward P. Jones, Diane Williams, and Deborah Eisenberg (about whom I’ll be writing later this week) – and I remember a series of surprises, like colored scarves drawn from the sleeves of magicians. That is, I see cause for celebration.Perhaps “saving” the short story simply means to read it, devotedly, and to write it, when called, and otherwise to let the market sort itself out. We could do worse than to follow the example of Henry James – no short-story slouch himself – who wrote, “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
Edward Champion’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Philly Inquirer, Newsday, as well as more disreputable publications. He blogs at Return of the Reluctant and podcasts at The Bat Segundo Show.I’m reserving my hosannas for this year’s lit for another place, another time, another Bizarro universe, another silly excuse to rip off my clothes, dive into the almighty ocean, and shout (“Holy shit, it’s freezing!”) the ten names of the ten greatest books to the heavens and presumably Xenu himself. There was one writer I rediscovered this year after a ten year absence, a guy who knocked my socks off, a man who I understand was passed up for a special National Book Award because he was considered too experimental, too out there, too not right for the vox populi. Never mind that his instinctive perversion of carnal and literary conventions is exactly the apposite kick in the ass the American public needs right now and exactly the kind of subversive thrust that can galvanize today’s young writers.That man is John Barth, who, at 77, is indeed still alive and still writing and may face a Gilbert Sorrentino-style shutout in his last years if we’re not careful. You’ll even find one of his tales, “Toga Party,” in this year’s Best American Short Stories. And this story of anxiety and distress and growing older demonstrates that the old guy still has it.But if you need convincing in novel form, start with his first three books, all of which I reread this year. The Floating Opera and The End of the Road were each written in three months, amazingly during the same year. Each volume is a glorious decimation of Puritanical values, whether they be sex, psychiatry, the legal system, or even the manner in which one obtains employment. But the piece de resistance is Barth’s third book, his masterpiece, The Sot-Weed Factor, a picaresque 17th century monster that befuddled and delighted even the great Darby M. Dixon III! Not only is this book an immensely entertaining satire of a real-life Maryland poet named Ebeneezer Cooke, but it features lengthy explanations on arcane historical topics, perfectly fabricated notebooks that rethink the John Smith-Pocahantas relationship, and a sustained examination on how absolutist ideologies are inextricable thorns in the grand American rose. This is a book that a capsule post cannot do justice to. That it is not uttered in the same breath as Gravity’s Rainbow or The Recognitions or Gormenghast is a sure sign that literary standards have fallen.More from A Year in Reading 2007