Ten years ago the American short story was in decline. Now it is once again a vital genreby Ruth Franklin / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Best American Short Stories 2011
edited by Geraldine Brooks and Heidi Pitlor (Mariner, £9.35)
Ladies and Gentlemen
by Adam Ross (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)
The short story is an amuse-bouche: luscious, glittering, to be consumed in a single bite. It should be artfully conceived, but not so dainty that you can’t sink your teeth into it. It should restrain itself to the confines of its setup rather than spilling out messily over the edge of the page. Most important, it should satisfy the reader’s immediate appetites while making him or her hope for more. What it is not, in other words, is a shrunken novel. The story seizes a moment of emotion and captures it under a bell jar. The novel takes the long view, working extended magic through patterning and repetition, more like a multi-course meal: formal or informal, paced leisurely or at a rapid clip, but always exhaustive.
Chefs, painters, and jewellers all attest to how hard it is to work in miniature. Yet the short story is often mistakenly thought of as a beginner’s form—a literary way-station en route to bigger endeavours. Get your first story collection out of the way quickly, one imagines creative writing students are told, so you can move on to the novel as soon as possible. From John Cheever and Philip Roth to Ian McEwan and Jhumpa Lahiri, writers typically use the short story to cut their teeth before trying their hand at longer fiction.
But not always. In November Don DeLillo, at the age of 74, published his firstever short story collection. Adam Ross has followed his well-regarded first novel, Mr. Peanut, with a book of short fiction rather than a second novel. And at least half the writers in 2011’s Best American Short Stories anthology—among them Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Powers—are better known for their novels, often significant ones. Many of the contributors’ notes mention that the stories were years or even decades in gestation. Rebecca Makkai writes that her story of an actor whose life is derailed by stage fright took five years to finish. Sam Lipsyte’s contribution took him 20.
If writers who can do anything—from epic-length novels to elaborate social satires—are choosing to go back to the diminutive short story, it may be a sign that the form has attained a new relevance.
Ten years ago, the American short story was in serious decline. One by one, magazines that published fiction decided to stop or cut back: GQ, Esquire, even the Atlantic. Editors argued that in the wake of 9/11, the reading public was simply less interested in fiction than it had been. And by incorporating devices that were once exclusively the purview of fiction, long-form narrative journalism was chipping away at the aspect of reading on which fiction had always had a monopoly—pleasure. “Certain traits that used to be standard in fiction, like a strong sense of plot and memorable characters in the service of important and morally charged subject matter, are today as reliably found in narrative nonfiction as they are in literary fiction,” Cullen Murphy, then the editor of the Atlantic, told the New York Times in 2005. “Some might even say ‘more reliably’ found.”
That last line was a little dig at a certain type of experimental short story that was on the rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Pioneered by the literary magazine McSweeney’s, which Dave Eggers created in 1998, this type of story substituted a generic nihilism for the kind of epiphany that had characterised the traditional American “New Yorker short story.” Closely associated with Eggers and his literary model, David Foster Wallace, these stories typically included a catalogue of puns, typographical quirks, and other linguistic cutenesses that quickly turned distracting. They rejected conventional notions of structure, character, or coherence for a lugubrious fictional haze in which ideas and images seemed to float free, unhindered by structure. Sentences followed upon each other apparently at random; characters would appear without introduction and disappear without warning. (A set of facetious manuscript guidelines published in an early issue of McSweeney’s warned that “material possessing beginnings, middles, or ends will be read with suspicion.”) These stories could be as whimsical as elementary-school compositions—and about as meaningful.
At first the McSweeney’s story seemed to be edging the New Yorker story out of the way. Eggers generated a lot of the publishing buzz in those days, and the excitement spilled over onto the writers he championed, including Arthur Bradford and Ben Greenman. But more recently, the two sides have settled into a wary détente. After Deborah Treisman became fiction editor of the New Yorker in 2003, the magazine began pushing its boundaries with work by writers such as George Saunders. Likewise, recent issues of McSweeney’s have featured the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Colm Tóibín—very different writers, but all adhering to classic notions of beginnings, middles and ends. Desperation makes for strange bedfellows, and in a magazine culture dominated by shrinking ad sales and page counts, perhaps there simply wasn’t enough territory left worth fighting over.
More likely, however, is that Cullen Murphy was on to something. To read the first volumes of McSweeney’s from 1998 and 1999, in which nothing at all seemed to be taken seriously, is to travel in a time machine back to the irrational exuberance of those years. Now, a little over a decade later, America—and American fiction along with it—is in a very different place. The continuing upsurge in domestic anxiety has created a demand for literature on “important and morally charged” subjects—both in long-form narrative journalism and in the stories that can still be found interspersed with it. Who, turning the page from a spread of photographs from Abu Ghraib or investigative pieces about CIA prison sites, would want to come upon another lighthearted exercise in irony? The 1990s experimentalists simply weren’t equipped for the 2000s.
Now, to judge from this year’s edition of Best American Short Stories, the McSweeney’s-style short story has been left firmly behind. In her foreword, Heidi Pitlor, the series editor, openly acknowledges her own phobia of experimental fiction. Geraldine Brooks, who chose the selections for the current volume, also professes a disdain for what she calls “tricksy, clever” writing with little emotional content, or writers who treat the conventional ideal of plot “as if it were a hair in the soup, unwelcome and embarrassing.” But she is equally disturbed at the “hive mind” she finds to be at work in contemporary fiction. “There’s nothing wrong with writing stories set in bedrooms, classrooms, kitchens,” she writes. “These are the places where we spend large slabs of our lives. But the air becomes stale there.”
Is that the choice: linguistic trickery or domestic ennui? Happily, the stories in Best American Short Stories 2011, which range across an impressive spectrum of subjects and incorporate a variety of styles, belie the pessimism of the volume’s editors. Drawn from nearly a dozen different publications—McSweeney’s accounts for two, the New Yorker for six—these stories feel far removed from the suburban subdivision. Several of them are literally distant, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Ceiling,” about a Lagos businessman unsure he made the right choice in marriage, and Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in which an Israeli boy learns about the reverberations of the Holocaust in contemporary life. But even those that conform most closely to the model of domestic realism can still surprise. Allegra Goodman, the author of generational sagas like The Family Markowitz and Kaaterskill Falls, demonstrates a flair for minimalism in her contribution, “La Vita Nuova,” which describes an emotionally bruised babysitter’s connection with her charge. The language is repetitive and plain, with all the story’s emotion hidden in the spaces between the sentences—a style in the vein of Raymond Carver or even Hemingway.
Virtually all the stories in this volume, even a few that verge on the supernatural, are characterised by their plain style. “The Sleep,” by Caitlin Horrocks explores what happens when some of the inhabitants of a small town decide to hibernate throughout the winter. The story unfolds in the mode of Shirley Jackson’s classic “The Lottery,” as various residents debate whether to resist or succumb to the pressure to participate in “the sleep.” There’s an element of social satire as well, as the TV cameras discover the town and commentators interpret the practice as a political statement.
In a very different vein, George Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead” describes a futuristic world in which prisoners are the subject of scientific experiments in producing—and dispelling—emotion. Injected with a love potion, they fall head over heels for the first person in sight and forget him or her just as quickly. But it turns out that even a constant drip of chemicals through the veins cannot entirely control the actions of a human being. This story, which plunges the reader headfirst into a deeply unfamiliar scenario filled with unrecognisable jargon, is initially tough going. But part of its uncanny effect is how quickly the reader grows accustomed to the brave new world it presents.
This is a different kind of experimentalism from the form that dominated ten years ago—more influenced by Jennifer Egan than Dave Eggers. Egan’s 2010 novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer for fiction last year, is a series of lightly linked stories (one of them also included in the Best American anthology), moving non-chronologically through a period of time that ranges from the 1970s to about 20 years into the future, inventive in both language and structure. (One chapter is framed as a PowerPoint presentation.) In a year that also saw the embrace of the conventional cadences of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Goon Squad was an unexpected hit. But what Egan brings to her experimentation—and this is true also of Horrocks, Saunders, and the other convention-defying authors in the collection—is an emotional and moral centre that was entirely lacking in the McSweeney’s-style story, which tended to be affectless, unmoving, and untroubled by ideas reaching beyond its own narrow borders. All the typographical gimmicks in the world are useless if at bottom you have nothing to say.
There is, however, a strange uniformity to the Best American collection, though it’s not the unity of concern and setting that bothers Brooks. The volume has a distinctly male cast. Not the authors of the stories, who divide almost evenly down the middle by gender. But only four out of the 20 stories have female protagonists. Five of the female authors wrote stories with male protagonists, but only one man—Richard Powers—wrote in the voice of a woman, in one of the collection’s most unconventional pieces, which tells the story of a woman’s life from the perspective of her relationship with a book. “You are, by the way, female,” Powers writes (the story is in the second person)—demonstrating that most readers will assume the opposite of an unidentified character in a story by a male writer.
This is also the case in Adam Ross’s new collection, which is called Ladies and Gentlemen but focuses on the latter. Nearly all the stories here revolves around a man: his job search, his friends, his uneasy relationships with women. Even when the men are married, the focus tends to be more on their relations with other men than the connections between husbands and wives. (Judging from the deeply misanthropic premise of his novel Mr Peanut, in which married couples openly fantasise about killing each other, perhaps Ross doesn’t put much stock in those connections.) Nothing is technically wrong with this, of course. Most writers—especially those who, like Ross, went through the postgraduate creative writing grinder—tend to write what they know. Still, the inconclusive resolutions of these characters’ situations, which offer little emotional payoff and less opportunity for growth or change, is ultimately frustrating. You want to tell them to find a job, fall in love, get a life.
In “Futures,” Ross traces the decline of David Applelow, who has drifted through early adulthood in a series of poorly paid jobs. Down to his last $2,000, he responds to a mysterious ad placed by a company called Auratec, where the attractive female interviewer will tell him nothing about the job except that it involves clairvoyance—the reading of people’s auras. Ross plays nicely with the corporate-speak of the working world—“Are you perceptive, analytic, a troubleshooter? Have excellent interpersonal skills you were never sure how to parlay into $$$?” reads the ad that snares Applelow. But the reveal at the end of the story feels like a cheap cop-out, akin to a character waking up and finding out that it was all a dream. “Middleman” feels almost like young Philip Roth, and not only because it features a three-year-old boy questioning his Jewish identity. Jacob Rose, who has developed an enviable career as a child actor in TV commercials, uses his professional experience to try to woo Elsa, the sister of one of his friends, who wants to break into acting but soon grows tired of him. At the story’s climactic moment, Elsa drags him into an audition for a chewing-gum advert so that she won’t have to kiss a stranger. The story cuts out just as the camera cuts in—at the elusive moment of contact. But for all the charm of Ross’s plots—which he definitely does not treat like a hair in the soup—there’s something deadening about the pile-up of so many similar protagonists.
The fact that men—particularly Ross’s type of drifting, directionless men—are also the subjects of so many stories by women is more alarming. Over the past year, the advocacy group Vida, devoting to promoting “women in literary arts,” has published a number of highly publicised charts tallying the count of male and female writers in various publications, including many that publish short stories. With few exceptions, the pie charts are weighted heavily towards the male side. In the wake of these results, some handwringing has taken place among editors, many of whom argued in their defence that they receive far more submissions from men than from women. One wonders, after reading the Best American, if women have unconsciously—or deliberately—taken to writing in the voices of men to increase their chances of publication.
Or there might be a more optimistic explanation. Alice Munro, perhaps the reigning champion of the English-language short story, once said that the form ideally suited the lives of women in the years before liberation, who had to dedicate their days to housekeeping and childcare and lacked extended blocks of time. Maybe now, in the era of the equitable marriage, more women are writing novels.