Monday, October 1, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Short Stories

Tom Perrotta, editor, The Best American Short Stories 2012

I keep hitting the same problem reading new short story collections: they’re not short. I first noticed this problem in 1996, though it probably began much earlier. As the magazine market contracts, well-funded glossies find they can sell 50,000 extra copies by slapping a famous novelist’s name on the cover. It doesn’t matter if the story reads like an unfinished outline, or an orphan chapter from a phantom manuscript. Fame outranks content every time.

Meanwhile, critical theory has put forth increasing evidence that short stories—real short stories, I mean, which are actually short—are a different order of beast than novels. Short stories aren’t compressed versions of full-length books, or mere incidents that authors could string together to make a novel. Critics like Charles May and Susan Lohafer show that authors create, and audiences receive, well-made short stories completely differently than they do novels.

This makes it frustrating when TC Boyle or Haruki Murakami pulls an unfinished novel outline from a bottom drawer, sells it to McSweeney’s, and make more for one half-assed sale than I’ve ever made for all my writing combined. The Best American Short Stories, published annually by Harcourt since 1978, has sometimes compounded this trend by spotlighting the wrong works, sometimes resisted it. And sometimes, as in this year’s edition, it does a little of both.

In his intro, editor Tom Perrotta contrasts his early short story influences, tightly controlled writers like Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, with more recent writers, specifically David Foster Wallace. Where Carver and Wolff drill down on one viewpoint and hold taut focus, Wallace’s sprawling, digressive stories use egregious erudition to display the postmodern tragedy. You can view it that way, sure. Or Wallace was an unreadable smart-ass. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

Tom Perrotta
I stand amazed at how fast this collection rockets from laser-focus insight to unsightly mess, apparently without intended irony. On one page, you can have something like Mike Meginnis’ “Navigators” or Julie Otsuka’s “Diem Perdidi,” stories in which not one word is wasted, nor one narrative beat adrift. Then you George Saunders’ “Tenth of December” or Taylor Antrim’s “Pilgrim Life,” both of which feel like outlines the authors haven’t gotten around to writing yet.

The twenty stories in this collection come from writers at different stages in their careers. Some, like Edith Pearlman and Jennifer Haigh, are mid-career journeyman writers, who write to get paid with little expectation of pop cultural acclaim. Others are younger in their careers, with only a few publications, or even Taiye Selasi, whose first professional sale ever is reprinted here.

Importantly, seniority doesn’t affect story quality. Alice Munro, probably this anthology’s best-known writer, turns in “Axis,” a story that is more idea than narrative, so lacking in through-line that I got to the end and shrugged. But Nathan Englander, a jack-of-all-trades who writes so slowly that he goes a decade between books, describes a mighty collision between past and present in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”

It would be easy to blame the sources Perrotta culled from. Several stories debuted in glossies like The New Yorker and Granta, or well-funded literary journals like Ploughshares and Tin House. These magazines’ large subscriber bases make them naturally leery of offending sponsors. Smaller, funkier, less risk-averse rags like Hunger Mountain, Denver Quarterly, or n+1 see their stories appear in the Honorable Mentions appendix.

That would be easy, but it would be facile. My two favorite stories in this collection, Mary Gaitskill’s psychological thriller “The Other Place” and Eric Puchner’s touching science fantasy “Beautiful Monsters,” first appeared in The New Yorker and Tin House, respectively. Both strike cobra-quick, every sentence quivering with potential. I never sensed, reading either story, that any details needed filled in or that any iota of type was wasted.

The problem lies not in the purveyors, but in the marketplace. Working writers have lost interest in short stories, because novels pay the bills. And readers who eagerly embrace long, discursive novels, have grown unaccustomed to short stories’ inherent intimacy. It’s easier to shield our hearts from sprawling romances and epic conflagrations, which are too big to comprehend anyway, than to lay ourselves bare to one moment of intimate frankness.

Perrotta does an admirable job trying to peddle shorts under those circumstances. I don’t blame him for the stories which leave me unmoved, and I thank him for bringing the best stories to my attention. He only suffers for his milieu. I just wish more short stories today were actually short.

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