CELEBRATING THE SHORT STORY
WHITHER THE SHORT STORY?
By Eric C. Forbes
FOR THE LONGEST TIME, the short story has been undeservedly playing second fiddle to the novel—the apple of the publishing world’s eye. Is the short story in dire straits? The short story is not exactly a favoured form for writers nowadays. Fewer magazines are publishing short stories and literary agents and publishers tend to shy away from them because they do not sell well enough to justify publishing them. Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy reading short stories and exploring the art of fiction, we have contemporary short-story writers like Deborah Eisenberg, Richard Ford, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, Valerie Martin, David Means, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Annie Proulx, Rose Tremain, William Trevor and Tobias Wolff still excelling at the form, while past masters of the form include Saul Bellow, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Andre Dubus, Ernest Hemingway, Bernard Malamud, V.S. Pritchett and Richard Yates. However, it is good to know that there is at the moment an effort among writers and publishers to reinvigorate the short story as a popular form of fiction.
What is the quality that all great short stories share: they make us stop in our tracks and take a breath of fresh air. They make us see the world from another point of view; they make us do mental somersaults. The prolific Joyce Carol Oates defines the short story as “a minor art form that in the hands of a very few practitioners becomes major art,” while William Trevor, in a Paris Review interview in 1989, called the short story “an art of the glimpse,” whose “strength lies in what it leaves out” rather than what it includes. A good short story resonates far beyond its smallness. Despite languishing in the shadow of the novel for the longest time, the short story is still alive.
Alice Munro is possibly among the world’s most inventive short-story writers at work today. Generational conflict, marital brouhahas and divorce, and youthful alienation in provincial and urban Canada and places in-between are the recurrent thematic threads that bind the fabric of her narratives. “In the past decade,” according to Michael Upchurch, “her tales have become evermore ingenious, growing dizzyingly elastic in structure and complex in tone, without losing any of their immediacy. It also helps that Munro is the slyest of humorists.” She is especially adept at evoking a sense of place and her psychological acuity is as sharp as razor. Munro, however, is highly underappreciated and deserves a wider readership than what she is enjoying now. With her last two collections, Runaway (2005) and The View from Castle Rock (2006), she might just do that.
Bernard Malamud is one of America’s finest but underappreciated short-story writers. He is more well-known for his novels than his stories. His dedication to the craft of fiction writing is undeniable in such novels as The Assistant (1957), A New Life (1961) and The Fixer (1966). The Assistant is perhaps the best of all his novels, though he won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Fixer. However, his stories are wonderful too and should not be ignored. And if you would like to experience his stories, you only need to read The Complete Stories (1997) to enjoy them. He won his first National Book Award in 1958 with his first collection, The Magic Barrel (1958). According to Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post, Malamud’s books’ “… most persistent themes—the search for a new life and the struggle to achieve moral rectitude—have lasting pertinence and have rarely been explored so subtly and perceptively in literature. His prose, at times melancholy and at others jaunty, achieves a near-perfect fusion of American and Jewish-American rhythms. He was as much fabulist as novelist, with the happy result that almost all of his fiction transcends time.”
Another sadly neglected writer is William Trevor, the Irish short-story writer who also dabbles in novel-writing, whose powers of observation and compassion are remarkable, especially in his short stories. The “elder statesman” of the short-story writing fraternity has a prose style reminiscent of such Russian masters as Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev: lean, precise, economical and tightly wound.
Those with a bleak or melancholic disposition might like to try Julian Barnes’s The Lemon Table (2004). The thread that connects the stories in this collection is the encroachment of old age and how we respond to death: fear, disappointment and regret. However, they are not as depressing as they sound because Barnes enlivens his tales with dollops of wry British humour.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” first breathed life as an acclaimed short story in a 1997 issue of The New Yorker and was subsequently published as a novella in 1998. This story is also included in her second collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999). One of the most accomplished voices in contemporary American fiction, Proulx’s trademark pared-down style is especially obvious in this heartwrencher of a story, a “profanely poetic and beautiful elegy on doomed manhood,” set against the craggy, desolate and wide open spaces of Wyoming.
Here are 30 contemporary collections that every library cannot do without, that every good bookshop should stock, and that every booklover should read and keep in their library:
• The Lemon Table (2004) / Julian Barnes
• When the Nines Roll Over and Other Stories (2004) / David Benioff
• Natasha and Other Stories (2004) / David Bezmozgis
• The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (2006) / Susanna Clarke
• The Dew Breaker (2004) / Edwidge Dandicat
• Twilight of the Superheroes (2006) / Deborah Eisenberg
• For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999) / Nathan Englander
• The Stories of Mary Gordon (2006) / Mary Gordon
• All Aunt Hagar’s Children (2006) / Edward P. Jones
• Lost in the City (1992) / Edward P. Jones
• The Stories of David Leavitt (2005) / David Leavitt
• A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005) / Yiyun Li
• Matters of Life & Death (2006) / Bernard MacLaverty
• Island (2000) / Alistair MacLeod
• The Complete Stories (1997) / Bernard Malamud
• The Magic Barrel (1958) / Bernard Malamud
• The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories (2006) / Valerie Martin
• The Secret Goldfish (2004) / David Means
• Birds of America (1998) / Lorrie Moore
• Runaway (2004) / Alice Munro
• The View from Castle Rock (2006) / Alice Munro
• Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006) / Haruki Murakami (trans. from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin)
• The Hill Road (2005) / Patrick O’Keeffe
• Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999) / Annie Proulx
• A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories (2005) / Roxana Robinson
• Constitutional (2005) / Helen Simpson
• Good Women (2005) / Jane Stevenson
• The Darts of Cupid and Other Stories (2002) / Edith Templeton
• Fresh Apples (2006) / Rachel Tresize
• A Bit on the Side (2004) / William Trevor
• The Royal Ghosts (2006) / Samrat Upadhyay
• Honored Guest (2004) / Joy Williams
• The Turning (2004) / Tim Winton
• The Collected Stories (1997) / Tobias Wolff