Whatever Happened to the American Short Story?

Article excerpt

RECENTLY, Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, made a controversial statement that American writers 'were too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture'. He added: 'The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining'. Not since Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993 has an American received it, leaving partisans of Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, and Joyce Carol Oates to complain about the injustice. The sheer volume of literary output in America dwarfs anything produced by other countries. But how much of it is of quality, and does Engdahl have a point?

On the whole, his assertion about American literature's insularity is dead-on. Ironically, this seems to have been less true prior to America's emergence as the biggest global power after World War II, than in the days since. This may have had something to do with earlier American writers feeling insecure with respect to Europe's literary accomplishments, and wanting to be part of the great conversation, as Engdahl would have it. The short story is arguably America's literary form par excellence; it suits shorter attention spans, fulfilling the craving for concentration and economy. Until the 1960s, Americans probably wrote the best short stories of the twentieth century, not only from writers better known to the world, but from a legion of masters of the short form who were regularly anthologized in the Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize Stories, in the 1930s, 1940s. 1950s, and with evidence of high quality, well into the 1960s. To open any of these ancient anthologies at random is to come across example after example of mastery of the craft, from writers like William March, Harvey Swados, Kay Boyle. Roderick Lull. Robert M. Coates, David Cornel DeJong, William E. Barrett, Jean Stafford, R.V. Cassill (interestingly, the founder of the Associated Writing Programs, the umbrella for the nation's burgeoning creative writing departments, who later advocated its abolition), and countless other masters. But after the 1960s, writing became too professionalized, publishing too commercialized, and it became much safer - certainly more profitable - to wallow in the culture's narcissistic obsessions than to critique it in any substantial manner. America's 300 university writing programmes compel callow graduates to produce enormous quantities of short stories, published by literary quarterlies so great in number that there is no parallel in the world. These truly meet the definition of insularity breeding on insularity. Removed from the arena of experience, the professionalized teacher-writer now gives us not the existential hero of John Cheever and Richard Yates, at odds with society, but the inarticulate slouch of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. The steep decline in short story writing rather accurately reflects determining trends in politics and culture. The insularity is of a peculiar kind, insofar as it is premised on a sad masochism - a psychological retreat in the face of the nation's mastery of global economic and scientific processes.

To illuminate this retreat, I wish to postulate a theory of decadence to explain current American compulsions in literary fiction. The term typically applies to art and style of the last fin de siecle in the 1890s, but aside from the starkly absent fixation on pleasure for its own sake, the rest of the structure works well again today. Borrowing from C. E. M. Joad's Decadence: A Philosophical Inquiry (1947), and Henri Lefebvre's Everyday Life in the Modern World (1971), I see all American fiction today as representing categories of victimization. A stronger theoretician than I am would connect today's victim chronologies with changing modes of nostalgia in its temporal and spatial manifestations. All American literature now is self-conscious pseudo-minority literature (when did America have a majority literature, and what happened to eclipse it? …