Where does the short story take you?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The New York Times Book Review has been doing a lot of things right lately—like, for example, giving my friend Robb Forman Dew's Being Polite to Hitler a stellar review—and I'm intrigued this weekend by the trio of short-story collection reviews that have been grouped under the heading "Small Moments."  Here the new collections by Colm Toibin, Charles Baxter, and Edith Pearlman all get their due in essays penned by Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates, and Roxana Robinson, respectively.  I particularly love the juxtaposition of these two opening grafs, the first by Prose and the second by Oates:
Why does the short story lend itself so naturally to the muted but still shattering sentiments of yearning, nostalgia and regret? How many William Trevor tales focus on the moment when a heart is broken or at least badly chipped? Though Mavis Gallant’s work bristles with barbed wit and trenchant social observation, her most moving stories often pivot on romantic ruptures and repressed attraction. (This is Prose, who then goes on to note the exceptions to the rule while returning to her theme that the "short story has the power to summon, like a genie from a bottle, the ghost of lost happiness and missed chances.")
Reflecting our dazzlingly diverse culture, the contemporary American short story is virtually impossible to define. Where once the “well crafted” short story in the revered tradition of Henry James, Anton Chekhov and James Joyce was the predominant literary model — an essentially realist tradition, subtle in construction and inward rather than dramatic — now the more typical story is likely to be a first-person narration, or monologue: more akin to nonliterary sources like stand-up comedy, performance art, movies and rap music and blogs. Such prose pieces showcase distinctive “voices” as if fictional characters, long restrained by the highly polished language of their creators, have broken free to speak directly and sometimes aggressively to the reader — as in boldly vernacular stories by Junot Díaz, Chuck Palahniuk, Edwidge Danticat, George Saunders, John Edgar Wideman, Denis Johnson and T. C. Boyle, among others. (Yet Edgar Allan Poe, as long ago as 1843, brilliantly gave voice to the manic and utterly convincing murderer of “The Tell-Tale Heart” — perhaps genius is always our contemporary.) (This would be Oates)
What, I wonder, do you expect when you read a contemporary short story?  Where do you expect it to take you, and by what means?  Where do you hope it will leave you? Who is, in your opinion, the best practitioner of the short story today?


KFP said...

Ah, the short story, one of my first writing-and-reading loves.

I still expect what I always loved about the short story: depth, profundity, startling insight, new understanding, dazzling language, an epiphany and a last sentence so well-wrought and poignant that it leaves me stunned and saying "wow." This is what I experienced over and over when I was reading them a lot when I was young.

I think lately I have been experiencing more of this from contemporary essays rather than any short stories I have been reading--though come to think of it I have not been reading many short stories lately. I think I stopped reading them in part because I was often disappointed in contemporary short stories. Mostly because the endings were ambiguous or confusing. They did not feel done.

Your post makes me want to give them another try.

Can I recommend a blog I like to visit from time to time? It's called "I Read A Short Story Today" by Philadelphia City Paper senior editor Patrick Rapa. Rapa makes me want to get back to reading more short stories as well. (Oh, look: I just went to doublecheck the URL and there is a review of a short story by friends-in-common Ken Kalfus).

The web address is

Lilian Nattel said...

Alice Munro is master of the long story. She can write a novel in 50 pages. I haven't yet done anything with short stories. But I'm tempted for the reasons that Oates says. First person voices that aren't right for a novel, but for something much shorter. Some day.

George B said...

I feel like a small child sitting on the curb watching others ride by with their bikes..riding with experience and joy... while I've spent so much time listening to my own drummer...I've missed the sounds of others and the words they have combined...I find some inspiration in what I have read here. I'm a do it yourself hack with writing and want to be more. Thank you.

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