Now that I'm home again, I can go down to my bookshelves and look at our story collections — we have hundreds of them, it would take a year to read through them all... but still it seems like we're just starting, given the number of great short story authors, alive and dead.
The common wisdom is that short stories are a hard sell these days. Talented, even established, writers have trouble placing their collections. Publishers are, in some cases, even actively avoiding story collections. The form is currently a pariah in the industry. This perplexes me. There has always been a readership for short stories — smaller than that for novels, larger than that for poetry, perhaps... but we readers of stories have always been there, and likely always will be. It's not like there's been a virus that has wiped out only readers of short stories.
When I was writing Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, I was devouring short stories. Mostly modern American practitioners of the form, but I went nuts on the South Americans too (Borges, Cortazar), and European work in translation (Calvino, Bruno Schulz)... it didn't matter, I was just loving the form. Slowly, through writing and reading these controlled explosions of experience, where voice and precision of language are arguably as important as in poetry, I began to wonder (as others have) if the short story might be the most difficult genre to master. What do I mean by "difficult?" I mean honed, like Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," O'Connor's "Good Country People," Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O.," Cortazar's "Blow-Up," Carver's "Where I'm Calling From."
One book that deeply influenced me when I was writing HMJC was The Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard. There are only ten stories in it. Richard was 34 when he published it and this was his first book. He was a wonder. As his publisher put it, he could "draw fully realized characters in two sentences, render the surreal completely palpable." But there's also great sadness and compassion in the comedy Richard offers, like the boys in "This is Us, Excellent" who clearly know how completely their home life has become a nightmare, and yet they hold fast, instinctively perhaps to themselves and each other: loud, crashing, optimistic little boys, surfing the chaos while their world goes to hell.
Less gothic but no less brilliant at the time were the stories in Richard Ford's Rock Springs, and Tobias Wolff's Back in the World and In the Garden of the North American Martyrs — especially the gob-smacking story "The Liar," in which the young narrator deals with the difficulties in his life by telling everyone who'll listen morbid stories about awful tragedies and trials that have wiped out his immediate family. Problem is, he gets so good at lying about them that in the end he reaches a strange state of grace. It's the kind of story O'Connor might have written, except a little more compassionate.
In the final scene of Wolff's story, his young liar sits among his captive audience on a bus pulled to the shoulder in a downpour, and in trying to concoct another gruesome dispatch of his parents (in Tibet, "killed when the Communists took over"), improvises a song in Tibetan... which he doesn't speak, so he just makes it up: "The windows went blind with rain....Outside the muddy light flickered to pale yellow, and far off there was thunder. The woman next to me leaned back and closed her eyes and then so did all the others as I sang to them in what was surely an ancient and holy tongue." It's hard to think of a more apt explanation of the urge to tell stories, and of our need to hear them. Many writers would see themselves in this kid. The writer as liar. The lie as a beautiful and necessary thing.