Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Stand tall, you short stories!

ISBN-10: 0812993802
ISBN-13: 9780812993806
Published: Random House, 01/08/2013
Pages: 272
Language: English
First, a list of things that are both short and good (or essential):

*Shortstops (baseball)
*Short stacks (a reasonable amount of pancakes)
*Shorts (abbreviated pants)
*Short stories

This last one apparently gives some folks a moment of pause. I've long been a champion of the form, but for many readers, the short story is a lesser version of a novel, something too brief to encompass an entire story or too artsy to be immersive. My goal, as a bookseller, reader, writer, and all-around lover of the written word, is not to push short stories over novels, but to give them their chance, to keep them from being relegated to dusty shelves or heaps in a store-room. I think of past decades, when the short story was serialized or featured prominently in national magazines, and wondered what prompted its decline. The writerly folklore is that, once upon a time, you could make your living publishing short stories. That's sort of akin to the myth of $0.75 gasoline or soda fountains on every main street in every town. Much like the decline of journalism (or corollary with the decline of journalism?), it's getting harder and harder to find venues that pay writers decently for short fiction, and perhaps as a result, the quality of said materials varies widely.

Still, like LPs and newspapers, I have some faith that the genre won't go the way of the snow leopard. Increasingly rare, sure, but still an invaluable part of literature as a whole.

If you're looking to dip your toes in the pool of short fiction, there are several accessible collections I'd recommend.

George Saunders' much-praised Tenth of December epitomizes what a short story can accomplish. This is masterful stuff, prose so thoughtful and taut that it should be required reading for anyone looking to do a creative writing course. The New York Times raved, uncharacteristically enough, and other writers often cite Saunders as a veritable sensei of prose. This is one of my favorite collections of all time, and certainly my favorite book of last year.

Kelly Link's Pretty Monsters is a 180 degree turn from Saunders' style, and that's part of why it made this list. Equally captivating but entirely different, these tales run the gamut from teenage werewolves to post-apocalyptic vacations, and where Saunders employs stoicism and profundity, Link balances whimsy and reality, placing equal stake (no pun intended) in a character's status as a vampire and their difficult love life. This is one I'd hand to anyone who likes YA, sci-fi, or magical realism (emphasis on the "magical").

And for the sake of diversity -- because what is literature if not diverse? -- I'd also like to draw your attention to Lydia Davis' Collected Stories, which is less tome and more surprisingly-slender-volume. The manageable size is due to Davis' propensity for flash fiction, with some stories clocking in at a mere two or three sentences. That's not to say anything here is skimpy; because she's one of the best short story writers in the country, she's able to erect and destroy an entire world in a matter of a few words. If you think I'm a liar (hey, you're entitled), you can trust in the opinion of the folks at Man Booker, who gave her their International Prize.

I encourage you to give one of these collections a try, or pick up a different one. This barely skims the surface of short story collections I keep close by on my shelves so I can pick them up whenever the mood strikes. Like old friends, these are tales whose characters and themes cycle through my mind often, revisiting when they have something else to tell, blooming perennially.

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