Saturday, July 14, 2007

What Has Happened to the Short Story?: A Brief Response from Duke

After reading Mutt's interesting and provacative post from a week or so ago ("What Has Happened to the Short Story," 7/6/07) I was moved to post a comment or two of my own, but then I thought it might be worth responding more thoroughly, with a few short reflections along the same vein.

First off, I should say that I agree with Mutt's basic premise that something in fact has happened to the short story -- that is to say, to paraphrase an old cliche, "they don't make 'em like they used to anymore." Of course this is a generalization, but I know that Mutt does a better job than anyone I know of keeping up with contemporary fiction, and he's digested quite a few new stories in the past several months, as well as read thousands of them from authors both long gone and very much alive. He is an avid student of the craft, you might say. And he and I have discussed this very topic on many occasions, after he's told me about yet another story from the New Yorker that has left him cold and wanting.

It hit me after reading his post that a reading experience I have recently had confirms his bleak but truthful diagnosis. Several months ago I picked up for $1 a beat-up hardback, jacketless book called "Great American Short Stories," something that might have been cobbled together and published by Reader's Digest 20 or 30 years ago. I didn't read the entire thing by any stretch, but I did read many of them, and was stunned by the power and originality of almost every single story I chose. The names are familiar, and the ones you would expect to find in any collection of writings by great American authors -- Fitzgerald, London, Wharton, Hemingway, Bret Harte, O. Henry, Ambrose Bierce, Hawthorne, Walter van Tilburgh Clark. But each story seemed to be more impressive, and surprising, than the next. These were stories that gleamed and glinted, with the beauty and precision of cut jewels. But even more importantly, they struck me, and with force. Either in the sheer artistry of their prose or the seriousness of their themes (and very often, both), they lingered in my mind and rang in my imagination like fire alarms. Who can ever forget the vivid description of slow freezing and palpable desperation depicted in Jack London's "To Build a Fire" once they have read it??

Stories today just don't seem to have an impact like that, by and large. They seem to be smaller somehow, or more mundane. Less concerned with the most important questions and more concerned with everyday minutiae. I mean, recently the New Yorker ran a story by a woman writer (whose name I can't now recall) called "Playdate," and it was about exactly that -- two cosmopolitan, New York women get their kids together after school, and have a playdate. The end. There was nothing remarkable at all about the prose, nothing really compelling about the story. No illumination at the end that might cast the entire narrative into a different and more revealing light. Maybe I'm just unhip and ignorant, but... who cares?? But to reiterate Mutt's dumbfounded question: this is what makes it into the New Yorker these days? This is the best stuff America has to offer? It seems very hard to believe.

Of course I don't have any answers to why this might be the case either, but I can say this, based on recent and past reading -- if this is, in fact, the best we got, we have certainly fallen a long, long way in a relatively short time. The glory days of O'Connor, Cheever, Updike in his younger years, Welty and Faulkner seem like an age long since hardened into layers buried deep under the accumulated crap of American culture.

Naturally I realize how this all sounds, and I realize too that I am not really qualified to judge these things -- but here's the real test. Go to the New Yorker web site and download a bunch of their short stories, and then, find an anthology of classic American short stories (by such as the authors I have cited above). Read them all, and then, you tell me if anything has "Happened to the Short Story."

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