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Short story renaissance serves readers, not writers; There is a genuine explosion in short fiction readership, but the market is not the Good Old Days.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In April, Nathan Englander publishes "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," a debut collection for which he received an astonishing $350,000 advance. By May, the book is in its fifth printing.oooooooooooooo In June, The New Yorker anoints Generation Next in a special issue featuring the 20 best writers under 40. Fiction editor Bill Buford finds, after decades of angst over the future of literature, "a generation flamboyantly at ease writing fiction."

In August, Harper's publishes an essay whose headline proclaims "the quiet renaissance of American short fiction." That same month the New York Times Book Review suggests as summer reading five collections of stories -- all debuts, all by women.

What to make of this buzz? The answer depends on the meaning of renaissance.

If it means the story writer's work is so indispensable that he can live by his art, then we are, as John Updike puts it, a long way from the days when The Saturday Evening Post kept F. Scott Fitzgerald in champagne, Nathan Englander notwithstanding.

But if it means the form is vibrant and evolving -- that the last decade of this century will be remembered as a wonderful time to be a story reader -- then short fiction is indeed experiencing a renaissance.

One need look no further than The New Yorker's special issue, the one it dubbed "The Future of American Fiction," to sample the feast spread before story readers. Its impressive array of styles and voices shows the story to be in vigorous health.

There is David Foster Wallace's "Asset," a delightfully twisted interview with Johnny One-Arm, who takes advantage of his deformed appendage by using it to shame women into having sex with him.

There is Tony Early's lush and poignant "The Wide Sea," in which a young southern boy on his first trip away from home is taken to see the Atlantic and along the way discovers a world as big and tumultuous as that ocean.

There are stories by Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri, whose characters bear the weight not only of their own relationships -- with a lover, a father or a bride -- but also of the immigrant's struggle in America.

As exciting as this work is -- and collections by these writers could keep one in fulfilling reading for a long time -- the happy truth is that it represents but a sliver of the short story landscape.

They join a long list of writers doing brilliant work in the form, people like Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, Stuart Dybek, Thom Jones, Denis Johnson, Tim O'Brien and veterans Alice Munro and Updike.

What's more, the story increasingly makes literary news with a debut collection that draw raves, as Julia Slavin did in July with the publishing of her wonderfully off-center "The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club."

Katrina Kenison, editor of the "Best American Short Stories" series, should know better than anyone how this decade shapes up. With Updike, she co-edited the "Best American Short Stories of the Century," and in the process read all 2,000 of the stories published in that series in the past 100 years.

Her conclusion? "I'll bet that 10 or 20 years from now we will look back at the '90s and say, 'Wow, what a great time for short fiction.' "

Kenison and other editors, among them Lois Rosenthal of Story magazine, see a freshness in the form. Stories are more daring, more playful, more ethnic, more brutal -- and less often shackled by the constraints of realism.

Many of those interviewed for this article -- writers, editors and professors -- see this as a healthy backlash against MFA Syndrome, the tendency of Master of Fine Arts programs to produce fiction that all sounds as if it came from the same workshop.

But underlying this enthusiasm are two nagging issues, the first of which is best expressed by Updike in his introduction to the century collection. "My firm impression," he writes, "is that in my lifetime the importance of short fiction as a news-bearing medium -- bringing Americans news of how they live, and why -- has diminished."

It's true. Short fiction has been a sidelight in our culture since it disappeared from mainstream magazines like Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post.

The storytellers of this era are newspapers, movies and, especially, television. Their focus often is celebrity -- "another sort of fiction," Updike says.

Whatever the role of short fiction, Updike is lukewarm about stories he read from this decade in editing the century collection. "They didn't speak to me," he says. "I thought they were weaker, more diffuse, more personal, less decided in what they wanted to say, a little more like exercises done in class."

Updike argues, and he is by no means alone, that graduate writing programs have weakened the story. "There is a limit," he says, "to how vital a genre can remain when it is so academicized."

But, he cautions, what he says must be considered in its context, as the view of a man far along on his life's journey. "It is hard for me to duplicate the reverence I brought to the short story when I was an unpublished writer," Updike admits.

Even if you accept that rare personal insight and believe, as so many do, that the short story is in robust form, there is no escaping the second issue -- the way the financial landscape has changed for writers.

Consider this: In 1931, the Saturday Evening Post paid F. Scott Fitzgerald $4,000 for his short story "Babylon Revisited." Converted to 1999 dollars, that comes to a whopping $43,736. Fitzgerald wasn't always paid as handsomely -- sometimes he got half that much, sometimes as little as $360 -- but the bottom line is he could make a living writing stories.

About the only way to do that in the 1990s is to hit the Nathan Englander lottery. Story magazine, for example, pays contributors $1,000, while the New Yorker typically pays between $3,000 and $6,000.

"You either hit it big, or you starve," says Lois Rosenthal, editor of Story.

Still, there is reason to be hopeful. A decade ago, it was practically impossible to publish a collection of stories without first having written a novel. Now debut collections appear regularly, get more critical attention and, not infrequently, wind up on the best-seller lists, as did Melissa Bank's "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing."

"It's no longer scary to publish a collection of stories," says Shannon Ravenel, editor of the "New Stories from the South" series. "Why? Who knows?"

The answer may lie in sales figures for that bellwether of short fiction, the annual collection of "Best American Short Stories" published by Houghton Mifflin Co. Sales of the book have nearly doubled in the past decade, says Clay Harper, the company's executive publishing analyst and strategic planner. The 1989 edition sold just over 67,000 copies, but by 1998 sales had surpassed 128,000. The best-of-the-century collection is doing even better, with sales expected to top 160,000 by year's end.

"It suggests there is a real hunger for short stories," says Kenison, editor of the series.

Cynics might see this growth in the market as a result of America's diminishing attention span. More likely it is part of a larger resurgence of interest in things literary, the best evidence of which is the growing enthusiasm for poetry.

Ravenel, of "New Stories from the South," offers an intriguing theory to support this notion. Whatever graduate writing programs have done for, or to, the craft, she believes they have created a generation of literary consumers. Is it too much to hope for short story slams?

Even Updike, despite his reservations, acknowledges that the form still calls to him. He ends his interview musing about whether it can really be 45 years that he's been writing short stories.

"I still love to do it," he says. "I'm still thrilled when the New Yorker takes one. For me, it feels like real writing."

Stephen Proctor is The Sun's assistant managing editor for features. He recently completed a year's sabbatical as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, where he studied, among other things, the modern short story.

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