For decades the novel has reigned supreme. Suddenly, short story collections by authors known and unknown are being published to great enthusiasm. Once a writer whose forte was the short story, like Kay Boyle, despite her omnipresence in the New Yorker, could not hope to sustain the reputation awarded novelists of like merit. Today, short story writers are on the threshold of being granted their rightful place in American literary life. This is a very good thing.
Especially heartening is that the new collections are not only by masters of the form, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, William Trevor and Bernard Malamud, but by young and fresh voices. They include Brady Udall, whose "Letting Loose the Hounds," a first book, was published by Norton in January, and Robert Bingham, publisher of Open City magazine, a cutting-edge New York literary journal, whose "Pure Slaughter Value" will appear in August from Doubleday.
It has been a truism that a young writer could find a publisher for a first collection of stories only if one or more had previously appeared in the New Yorker. This weary perspective still, alas, holds true to some extent despite the fact that the magazine has lessened its commitment to the story. It's no longer the case that each issue of the New Yorker contains a work of fiction, and the ones being published there vary from the fine to the tiresome.
Still, of Julie Hecht's new collection "Do the Windows Open?" (Random House), every story originally appeared in the New Yorker. Four of the "chapters" of Allegra Goodman's "The Family Markowitz" appeared as short stories in the New Yorker only for Farrar, Straus & Giroux to market the book without designation, permitting readers to believe it was a novel - should they happen not to turn to the acknowledgments page.
The publisher soon discovered that Goodman's stories had captured so resonant a hearing that they were into three printings and counting. Deborah Eisenberg, whose complete stories FSG is now issuing in paperback as "The Stories (So Far)" has also been a New Yorker regular. Even two of Robert Bingham's stories appeared in the New Yorker.
Yet, happily, New Yorker publication as a barometer of literary acceptability seems to be passing. Norton took on Udall's extraordinary collection without the imprimatur of the New Yorker. Francis Ford Coppola has just launched a new magazine called Zoetrope, named for his movie company, devoted entirely to the short story and with only a wistful hope that movie projects might result.
In a "Letter to the Reader" Coppola invokes the "great tradition" of the American story, vowing to make selections "on the voice of the writer, the quality of the writing, the luster of character and depth of plot in the hope of illuminating contemporary life." Unknown writers are invited to apply.
The rousing good health of the short story flows not, as John Banville writes in a recent New York Review of Books (Feb. 20) review of the Munro and Trevor collections, because the short story "is the only literary form to have remained largely untouched by modernism," having escaped the "crisis of identity suffered by the novel."
In fact, the story has evolved from modernism through a post-modern moment to its currently fluid form. What began as the minimalism of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie has led in the young writers of this moment to richly imagined description, unpredictable settings and a set of voices hitherto unheard.
Fragments of meaning
Nor should it be surprising that they have looked to the short form. Life today is perceived by the young in short takes; they fail to find - for themselves or their art - a grand narrative. Meaning has become dispersed into fragments. The limited action of the short story, which may comprise a sequence of psychological moments, best suits an age without confidence in its convictions.
Even physiologically, the short story may be our literary form of choice. With television, MTV and Nintendo, and movies whose short takes are perceived as optic flashes, attention spans have narrowed, a macular degeneration of consciousness. Citizen book buyers, no less than students, read in sound bytes. A short story collection for those who still read is the logical purchase.
Meanwhile the decentralization of literary life has created a plethora of small literary magazines to provide homes for the troops of young short story writers. Their names include Sulfur, Nimrod, Black Warrior Review and Calliope and they join the more venerable Story, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Three Penny Review and North American Review to host the stories being written today.
The new story collections reveal that there is room for more than one school, gender or part of the country.
Udall, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, offers us with vigor and irony stories set in the Indian country of Arizona and Utah along with strikingly unpredictable characters.
Bach Abercorn, the hero of "Junk Court," a story previously published in a magazine called Aethlon, is a handyman who drives a cowboy truck and is writing a paper for a course in "Evolution of the English Language." His idol is Larry Bird ("I would kiss the man's sweaty toes if he would let me"). Bach can't dunk either. By the end, cramped, like all of us, by scarcity America, Bach heads for the Yukon.
The plethora of creative writing programs scattered around the country with their fiction workshops devoted to the short story have of course contributed mightily to this resurgence of the short story. Mary Gaitskill, whose new collection is "Because I Want To," replied to a question before her reading at the Temple University Poets and Writers Series that she prefers the short story form because "it's easier. You don't need the movement or sweep of a novel."
Most students do best to write stories, although contrary to the cliche, no one type of story has cornered the workshops. Diversity of form reigns. Not surprisingly, students in writing programs are also enthusiastic buyers of the new collections.
A somewhat less heartening aspect of this resurgence of the short story is that the form also best suits those writers with the fear, disdain and innocence of history that are hallmarks of this Generation X of writers. Unwilling, wary of grappling with a society they are certain they cannot affect for the better, they pretend in their stories, as in their lives, to live outside of history. Ignorant of the part they are playing in history, or eschewing it, they write about people like themselves.
Cacophony of voices
Novels demand setting. But if the past doesn't exist and the future is unimaginable, the short story is your form. What some of the current crop of new practitioners of the story ignore is that great stories from those of Sherwood Anderson and Richard Wright to those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, like novels root people in their times.
Yet there is ample occasion for excitement as short story collections flourish. No one type of story has captured the market, as the minimalist story did in its heyday. These chaotic times cry out for a cacophony of voices. What better or more democratic form should we then herald than the short story which by definition, by its modest, compact size, allows room by its side for the blooming of a hundred, a thousand radiant, competing flowers?
Joan Mellen teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Temple University in Philadelphia. She has written several biographies, books on modern culture and a novel. Her 13th and most recent book, the dual biography "Hellman and Hammett," was published by HarperCollins last year.
Pub Date: 3/09/97