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Friday, April 10, 2009

Short Stories Getting Attention in New York and London

Two newspaper articles on short stories in major broadsheets (NY Times, Guardian) on the same day (April 4th)??? Have we slipped through a wormhole into another dimension? Welcome, I say... bring it on!

First, James Lasdun, the winner of the inaugural BBC National Short Story Prize in 2006, "celebrates growing confidence in an often overlooked form", in the Guardian:
'Art requires honour", declared Cicero. Of the literary arts the short story has always been the least honoured, trailing into the House of Fame a humble fourth after novels, plays and poetry. Between Chekhov and Cheever there can't have been more than a dozen major reputations founded solely or even largely on this unassuming form. You might have thought that in our own attention-deficient age, a narrative art based on speed and brevity would have become the main attraction, but outside the creative writing workshop, where its small scale makes it convenient for study (a dismal basis for survival), that hasn't been the case. Lack of encouragement may be the cause, or it may be something inherently skittish about whichever muse presides over this delicate art: a reluctance to settle anywhere long enough to generate a heavy-duty literary industry. It may be the relative newness of the form (if you accept Turgenev's claim that "we all come out from under Gogol's Overcoat", you can date its birth precisely to 1842), or it may be that people regard it as somehow highbrow or artsy; an insider sport for practitioners and aficionados only. Whatever the case, people still seem to want their blockbusters.
Lasdun's article takes a more positive turn and does something which is very dear to The Short Review's heart: he reviews five debut short story collections: Sana Krasikov's One More Year, Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck, Petina Gappah's An Elegy for Easterly, and Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. And just because he is celebrating the short story form, don't think that this is a puff piece; Lasdun is pretty tough, and he pits one collection against another, which is an interesting way of reviewing. Not all the stories do what he would like a short story to do:
I think there's at least a unique potentiality in the short story, and that it has to do with, among other things, omission and a quality of internal resonance between the parts that, if handled well, can escalate the emotional power of the whole.Colette's story The Hand consists of little more than a young bride looking at her husband's hand as he sleeps, omitting almost all biographical information. But the isolated image and the woman's long, transformative gaze, under which the hand turns from human to ape-like to crab-like to "a panoply of war", conveys all the precarious freight of feeling attendant on a new marriage. Jhumpa Lahiri's Sexy runs its investigation of sexual desire through two parallel relationships that glance off each other in ways that send out progressively brighter sparks of illumination, facilitating a final, stunningly dramatic release of self-knowledge in its central character. Krasikov, Mueenuddin and Adichie are all self-evidently gifted writers who seem likely to engage large audiences whatever shape their work takes. But for what it's worth (and for most readers the distinction probably isn't very important), their approach to the short story seems to me largely novelistic, in that they tend to favour a complete, upfront delivery of the goods over this kind of fugitive alchemy.
Read the full article here.

A.O Scott focused on the American Short Story in the New York Times, but the refrain is similar to Lasdun:
To call an American writer a master of the short story can be taken at best as faint praise, or at worst as an insult, akin to singling out an ambitious novelist’s journalism — or, God forbid, criticism — as her most notable accomplishment. The short story often looks like a minor or even vestigial literary form, redolent of M.F.A.-mill make-work and artistic caution. A good story may survive as classroom fodder or be appreciated as an interesting exercise, an ├ętude rather than a sonata or a symphony. A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome.
However, it is time for a rethink:
The near-simultaneous appearance of three new literary biographies offers a powerful and concentrated challenge to the habit of undervaluing the short story. The subjects of these lives — Flannery O’Connor,John Cheever, Donald Barthelme — all produced longer work as well, but their reputations rest on shorter work. And this work, far from being minor, is among the most powerfully original American fiction produced in the second half of the 20th century.

Much of it, indeed, makes the novel look superfluous.
Scott also mentions Wells Tower, flavour of the moment - which is no bad thing for the short fiction community! - calling his collection "the most vivid recent example of the way a good story, or a solid collection of them, can do more than a novel to illuminate the textures of ordinary life and the possibilities of language. And the short story may provide a timely antidote to the cultural bloat of the past decade, when it often seemed that every novel needed to be 500 pages long and every movie had to last three hours — or four years, if it took the form of a cable series." And The Short Review heartily applauds Scott's suggestion at the end:

The Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention?
Exactly! Read the full article here.

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