Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The American Short Story in the Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The American Short Story in the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

Although the short story, pioneered by Poe in the early nineteenth century, is often said to be a uniquely American invention, few American writers have ever been able to make a decent living from the form. The most obvious fact about the short story in American publishing is that agents and editors are seldom enthusiastic about taking on a collection of short stories - unless the author is a name with a novel to his or her credit, or unless the author is promising and will promise a novel in the near future. Most people would rather not read short stories. As the popularity of "reality" television in America makes clear, most people prefer the real to the fictional. The ratio of nonfiction to fiction in popular periodicals is about 99.9 to 1.

If readers do not want to read short stories, publishers certainly will not publish collections of them, and periodicals that have to make a profit will stick to pictures and celebrity-oriented nonfiction. The fairly large-circulation magazines that pay well for short fiction are few: The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy and Harper 's Magazine. Back in the Fifties, the New Yorker published between 100 and 150 stories a year; now it is only about 50. With the other three publishing one story an issue or fewer, the total number of stories in wide-circulation magazines per year in America is less than a hundred. Many hundreds more appear in such reviews and journals as Agni, Cimarron, Cottonwood, Descant, Gulf Stream, High Plains, Kalliope, Nimrod, River Styx, Rosebud, Salmagundi, Thin Air and ZYZZYVA, but their subscription lists are largely limited to university and college libraries, so they often go unread.

Most of those who do read fiction would rather read novels than stories. This has always been the case. Readers like to believe that characters have a life of their own, and they have to live with fictional figures for a while in order to believe that. Once you get started with a novel, you become friends, get familiar, take up residence. With a short story, you are no sooner introduced to a character than the story is over, leaving you a bit dazed. With a collection of stories, you have to do this over and over again. Unlike chapters in a novel, which tease you with the illusion of continuity, short stories are always ending. And often those conclusions - one of the form's most important aspects - are frustrating in their inconclusiveness. When readers finish novels, they close the book with a satisfied thump and a sense of a big job well done. Afterward they can talk about their experience with others - at the Xerox machine or at a cocktail party. Readers often finish short stories with a puzzled "Huh?" Few people open a conversation with "Have you read that story in the New Yorker this month?"

Occasionally a short story writer will arrive on the scene at just the right time, with just the right voice and vision, to reignite interest in the form. This happened in the late Seventies and early Eighties with the appearance of Raymond Carver, who, along with others such as Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff, wrote short stories of such hallucinatory realism that reviewers and critics had to create a name for it - "minimalism" or "hyper-realism"- a critical affectation that marked the end of the trend almost as soon as it had begun. However, for a time there was such a resurgence of interest in the short story that critics claimed that the form had experienced a "renaissance". But after the death of Carver and the denigration of minimalism by critics, the short story once more languished in the shadow of the novel. The following twenty major American short story collections published in the first six years of the twenty-first century, divided into characteristic categories, are fairly representative of the form today. After a brief discussion of new stories by some of those writers who participated in the minimalist boom of the Eighties, I discuss stories by young writers trained in America's burgeoning MFA programs, stories that primarily depend on narrative tricks and games, stories that are linked together novelistically and, finally, stories that, by their individual stylistic and thematic complexity, transcend any such categories. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.