I ran into an acquaintance today at the grocery store (clichéd, I know; you could never write that scene into good fiction) who had seen some of the recent reviews of my book. His comment? "You'll be rolling in the dough soon, right?" Um, yeah. This is clearly not somebody who understands the state of the current publishing industry in this country. When it comes to money-making books, a collection of literary short stories is pretty much on the bottom of the heap. This has me thinking today about why, exactly, that is. Truly, it seems to me that short fiction fits the modern American lifestyle almost better than anything. Don't we have shorter attention spans? Hasn't the television industry shortened the length of the average television scene and commercial because of our complete inability to stick with one thing for too long? At a time when blogging has gained massive momentum and handwritten letters have become all but obscure in the face of email, one would think the popularity of other short forms of written communication would follow suit.
Who among us hasn't complained that we don't have time to read as much as we like? A good friend of mine recently admitted that she hardly reads at all anymore, because as soon as she's sucked into a good book, she ignores everything else in her life and things just pile up. It seems to me that the short story is the perfect form for this frenzied new American lifestyle. Stick a collection of stories in your bag and you can whip it out when you have ten minutes in the waiting room at the dentist's office, or read just one quick story before bed. It's less of a commitment, certainly, than a novel; or, at least, a commitment of a different kind. You can put down a collection between stories and pick it up a few days later without worrying about forgetting something vital to the book in those lost days.
Maybe that's part of the problem, though. Yesterday, I mentioned my tendency to stay up all night reading a good book. I have to admit that although I love the short story form almost more than any other, I don't think I've ever stayed up all night with a collection of stories. Once a story comes to a resolution, it's easy for me to put it down and pick it up again the next morning. But there's something intense and magical about those nights with a good novel that you just can't put down even though you're so tired it's hard to read through your blurry eyes.
Too, part of the problem might be the nature of modern short stories themselves. I have to admit I winced when I read Peter Manseau's blog post last month as he summarized Tom Wolfe's "assertion that American fiction had been poisoned by the standing waters of MFA programs, where, he said, all manner of writing diseases were bred." I winced for two reasons: 1) I am a graduate of an MFA program myself, and 2) there is probably some truth in what he says. Fiction writing workshops have become, out of convenience, almost entirely about the short story. It's far easier to workshop multiple short stories a term than novel excerpts. I taught a creative writing workshop at ASU with Jay Boyer that has forever changed my notion of the short story. When we sat down to work out the syllabus, Dr. Boyer listed more novels than short stories. I had never been in a writing workshop in which the reading list including anything other than short fiction. What I learned in teaching that class is that it is impossible to write a good short story without being intimately acquainted with its opposite: the novel. Short fiction is as much about exclusion as inclusion, as much about what you don't include as what you do. This is the genius of a really good short story, the thing that makes short fiction among the most powerful of literary forms. Unfortunately, many stories written today don't seem to take this into account. Too many short stories do feel like the result of a pat formula learned in an MFA workshop.
Some of the modern short story collections I most admire: A Kind of Flying (Ron Carlson), Elbow Room (James Alan McPherson), The Necessary Grace to Fall (Gina Ochsner), Friend of My Youth (Alice Munro), and A Stranger In This World (Kevin Canty).
Books mentioned in this post
Elissa Minor Rust is the author of The Prisoner Pear: Stories from the Lake