Friday, July 06, 2007

What Has Happened to the Short Story?

For most of the last 20 years I have had aspirations to write (and hopefully publish) fiction. I have produced numerous short stories over the last 15 of those years and have published none of them. Not virtually none of them or almost none – literally, none. And it’s not for lack of trying. I send them out routinely. I’m not complaining about this, although I wish it were different; it’s just the truth. The only reason I bring it up is to concede the point in advance that for me to write the following post is a not a little presumptuous. Fine, I do concede. But I still want to make some observations about the current ‘state’ of the short story. And I do so as a reader if not as a writer of stories.

Last Christmas my mother got me a subscription to The New Yorker, which I wasn’t sure I would like because I am not always so fond of their elitist tone/vibe or their left-leaning political slant, but as it turns out it has been a superb gift. I really enjoy reading many of the articles, and have been pleasantly surprised in general by how much I get out of the magazine. But the main thing I am interested in is their short stories, which they publish one of every week (more on rare occasions). The New Yorker is justifiably famous for their stories; for better or for worse, they represent more or less the gold standard for writers of short fiction. If you publish a story in The New Yorker, you have truly arrived. Perhaps The Paris Review and a short list of other magazines have similar heft, but for my purposes I consider stories I read in this magazine to be representative of what the people who ‘run’ the literary world think are the ‘best’ stories around today.

Which is where I find myself scratching my head. For most of the last year I have been reading The New Yorker. I make sure that I read every single story that comes my way. It’s a weekly magazine, so there have been many. I really enjoy the anticipation and the actual experience of reading these stories – but I am finding that most of the short stories I am reading leave me, in a word, flat. The more time goes by, the more New Yorker stories I read, the more I find myself asking the question, ‘THESE are the best short stories being written today? This is the best fiction in the world?’ Because the simple fact is, no matter how big the name of the writer is (and not all of them are instantly recognizable), most of them don’t seem that remarkable to me. They don’t blow me away. They strike me in most cases as better than I can do, but I expect more from The New Yorker – I think, if these guys are the very top of the tier, then each story should be a stunner. But most of them aren’t.

I realize it’s an objective thing, and tastes vary from person to person. But there should be some ineffable whiff of the very highest quality that comes through in New Yorker stories, if you consider their status and reputation, and I don’t get that from many of them. Obviously, there are exceptions. Just in the last year I have read what in my opinion are truly exceptional stories in the magazine – “A Tranquil Star” by Primo Levi (but he’s been dead for 20 years), “See The Other Side” my Tatyana Tolstaya, “Hanwell Senior” by Zadie Smith, and “Bravado” by William Trevor are some examples.

Nonetheless I have just come off of a run of reading numerous stories from the magazine – in part because I moved and missed a bunch of weeks’ worth of issues, which of course all came in one shot later on – and have been disappointed again and again by the stories, some by famous writers, some not. When I received the magazine’s annual fiction issue, I was terribly excited. They published four stories in that issue, and I figured there had to be something good in there. But I read all four, and they were all boring, terribly depressing, or generally pointless, or all three.

The best of these was Denis Johnson’s “1966”which was about a guy during the Vietnam Era in Hawaii getting involved with the wrong crowd, but the ending came up a little short, and the writing was fine but not the greatness I expected based on Johnson’s reputation from feted books like Jesus’ Son. A story by Miranda July, who has just published a book of them called No One Belongs Here More Than You, was about a woman who meets someone very, very famous on an aircraft, which I think was supposed to be some kind of riff on the celebrity-obsessed culture, but seemed to be more of that pointless and boring variety I spoke of. And anyway, the celebrity-obsessed culture is a boring thing to riff on. Nothing much happened, except the woman in the story at the end seems to regret that nothing much happened. Then there was ‘debut fiction’, a story by a young writer who had never published a story before. This must have been a big deal for him, a young man named David Hoon Kim; I laud his accomplishment, but again wasn’t impressed with the story. I was impressed with the fact that there were at least three different languages that played into the story, and evidently the young man who wrote it is of Korean descent but grew up partially in France and Denmark, lived in America, and has worked (logically) as a translator. But the story itself was very close to Haruki Murakami, another highly lauded contemporary writer whose greatness escapes me, and had a tragic ending that seemed almost like it was there because that’s the way most stories seem to end, badly.

Which brings me to another point (I don’t even remember the fourth story in the fiction issue, by the way, try as I might). As Duke and I have frequently observed in conversation, short stories in the ‘big’ magazines are almost always bleak. Why is this? Is it anyone’s experience that all stories are sad ones? Or maybe only the ones worth telling are? Why do we seem to have this fascination in contemporary literature with sadness and melancholy, as if these were the only themes? A great example again is a recent New Yorker story by Colm Toibin called “One Minus One”, which was a truly sleep-inducing tale about a guy who loses his mother and otherwise muses on how miserable his life is after some failed relationships. Not only is this depressing, but it’s everyone’s story – everyone's trash - for who hasn’t had failed relationships? THIS IS THE BEST STUFF??!!

Or again, consider the British writer Helen Simpson’s recent short story “Homework” in the magazine, in which a woman and her thirteen-year-old son sit in a kitchen together and she helps him to ‘write’ (or take down) a fabricated essay for school about one of the most important moments in his life. For reasons we’ll never know or understand, the woman, who seems resolutely dissatisfied with being married and having a son, tells him to write about the devastation of his parents’ divorce and the havoc it has wreaked in his life, even though it has never happened. The boy is confused, but he plays along; he’s thirteen and just wants it over with. I guess this is the woman’s way to play out some kind of fantasy about what she feels she might have done but didn’t have the guts to do, and maybe some women can relate to that. But whatever it is, it’s bleak, it’s depressing, and it’s boring. Another story I just read last week by a contemporary German writer named Maxim Biller was notable for its brevity and its un-American feel, but it was still about a relationship that seemed to be falling apart, which is more of the same. It ended with an inexplicable mutual decision that seemed totally incongruous with the previous events, as though the characters decided to do the opposite of what they obviously needed to for no other reason than martyrdom.

As I established in the beginning, I am certainly no expert, but it seems to me that the world of short fiction has to be better than this. My favorite story writers all seem to be dead ones, with a few exceptions like the great William Trevor. I have never seen anything in The New Yorker that comes even close to the work of Flannery O’Connor in terms of humor, details, or sheer impact. John Cheever’s stories may seem highly dated now but they were richly detailed, carefully crafted and bore the distinctive mark of one steeped in the great literature of the past. Raymond Carver’s stories were not exactly inspiring or optimistic but they were at least exquisitely crafted and seemed more concerned with being honest about humanity than trying to sound smarter or cleverer than everyone else, or more irreverent.

I can’t come up with any firm conclusion or overall diagnosis, but I will say that the above reflections have been in my head for some time and it makes me want to undergo some kind of mission to find the truly great stories in the world, from dead writers or current ones that remain undiscovered (to me). It strikes me that very few short stories really blow me away, and I want to find more stories that do that and see if I can determine why they do, and whether or not those writers achieved that level of excellence consistently or only on rare occasions. I think what I am going to try do is devote a good chunk of my reading for the rest of this year to short stories to see what I can discover.

I also think that because I have tried and failed so many times to write a legitimately good short story, right up to my most recent story “In the Throes”, I want to find more stories that are clearly of a high quality and try to examine them closely. I could take it as encouraging that so many other writers seem to be failing too, except they’re getting published in The New Yorker and I’m not. In any case, the short story is truly a difficult art form to master, and it’s obvious to me from my experience in the last year with the New Yorker that no matter how a writer goes about successfully placing one of their stories there, it by no means indicates that the story itself is a great one or even a good one. And if that is true, I guess success at writing fiction may come down to ‘who you know’ after all.

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