Short story renaissance serves readers, not writers

The Argument

There is a genuine explosion in short fiction readership, but the market is not the Good Old Days.

September 19, 1999|By Stephen Proctor | Stephen Proctor,Sun Staff

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."

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