This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

New York, 7 May 2001 — Since the heady days of the Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver-led short story renaissance of the 1980s, it's been hard times for short fiction. A few sorta–revivals — the "linked story" fad following Melissa Bank's Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing comes to mind — now seem more like marketing ploys (in much the same way that a "linked story" collection now seems more like a "failed novel").

The problem, it is often said, is that story collections have never sold much, although I'd point out that they've never been promoted much, either. Hype them as heavily as some novels get hyped — Raymond Carver, Melissa Bank — and they sell just fine, thank you. I mean, no American should ever forget that we live in a country where someone not that long ago made a fortune selling pet rocks at Christmastime.

Nonetheless, the saw persists. Even during the 80s heydays, as I can attest, it was common for short story authors to get calls from publishers and agents saying how very much they loved your stories — now, do you have a novel to show? The inability to see much distinction between literary forms save marketability has, amongst major publishers, only become more prevalent over time. As more and more of the traditional marketing outlets for stories — large circulation magazines — cut back severely on the amount of fiction they carried (the New Yorker, Esquire) or quit carrying it altogether (most of the major women's magazines), major book publishers developed an aversion to publishing short fiction that's akin to their aversion to publishing poetry. They're convinced both are highly refined forms that are, essentially, too snooty to attract a large audience, and they're not going to publish any more of the stuff than is absolutely necessary to give one of their writers — or themselves — the faintest of literary veneers.

One can't blame the audience, then, if the publishers have made their own prophecy come true, and stories are now generally considered by the average reader as either something haughty, like a dern poem, or something lesser than a novel, or in any case something they're not going to buy.

And thus have the major publishers contributed their fair share to the fabled dumbing–down of American society. In short, the bigger and more profit–driven publishers have become — i.e., the more dedicated to the lowest common denominator — the fewer short story collections they publish, except, as I say, as glossing every now and then for some whipper–snapper–novelist–in–training, or as a sop to one of their major authors.

But lo and behold if a few of these books didn't turn into surprise mini–hits last year — in the spring, first Pastoral, by George Saunders, then Sam the Cat, by Matthew Klam, and then The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie, all won critical praise and actually sold well as a result. Then, soon afterwards, some big–name writers better known as novelists — Russell Banks, Frederick Busch — put out some well–received collections, too.

Then, throughout the fall and into the winter came a flurry of new collections from some short story masters: Alice Munro, William Trevor, Alistair MacLeod, John Updike, and even Ann Beattie and the long–gone Ray Carver (Call If You Need Me, a repackaging of old work with five new stories recently found amongst his papers).

It was a surprising series of events, with no aspect of trend about it, and completely unnoticed as such. But the interesting thing is, it hasn't really stopped. Throughout this spring, still more story collections are being published — more story collections than usual by far, and covering an even broader spectrum of writers, most of them lesser–knowns. More remarkable still: a lot of them are really good.

Could it be that this time, the revival's for real? It's worth a closer look.

Leading the pack, at least publicity-wise, is The Collected Stories of Richard Yates (Holt, $28), the first-ever such omnibus of the late New England writer's work, much of which had lapsed out of print. Always critically admired, Yates never reached a mass audience during his lifetime. He has remained, though, one of those writers other writers cite. Yates' pensive, character–driven stories about family relationships achieve a Chekhovian pacing and depth, and are a refreshing antidote to the cleverness so prevalent in modern fiction.

Meanwhile, in stories set in Northern California, Don Lee, in Yellow (Norton, $22.95) writes about Asian–Americans in a decidedly funnier though no less graceful prose. In fact, Lee's occasional dips into a dark brand of humor give the stories a heightened realism that belies their classic shape and makes them all the more involving as they examine the vulnerabilities of being an Asian in a white culture.

At first glance, Laura Glen Louis, in Talking in the Dark (Harcourt, $23) seems to be covering similar turf — that is, Chinese-Americans in northern California settings. But story fans are attuned to subtleties, and Louis' style plumbs those subtleties of form in a prose that's clipped yet richly descriptive. Her widely varying cast wrestles with romantic love amidst cultural discomfort to achieve stories of a lush, moving humanity.

Pediatrician–short story writer Perri Klass, meanwhile, in Love and Modern Medicine (Mariner, $13) is once again writing about characters who can navigate complicated surgeries at work but don't know how to handle their four–year-old at home. Her wonderfully complex characters, rendered in sharp but lucid prose, are both intellectually and viscerally engaging, with a beguiling sense of wonder, even as they grapple with sorrows that science can't help them with.

Covering a more wide–ranging swath of America is Bill Roorbach's Big Bend (Georgia, $24.95), winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. From the deserts of the Southwest to New York City, Roorbach trains a pitch–perfect ear on characters in transition — an aging widower, shocked to find himself falling in love, a young man dealing with his estranged family, a blues musician contemplating the settled life. These vibrant stories capture something still tender and hopeful about the culture that's surprisingly affecting.

Russian avant–gardist Zinovy Zinik, meanwhile, in Mind the Doors (Context, $21.95), writes about the expatriate experience — usually, of a Russian in London — with a digressive style that's sometimes experimental, often funny, and always deeply philosophically engaging. Stylistically reminiscent of both traditional Russian story–telling and Soviet–era fabulism, these five long and widely divergent stories are startling in their inventiveness, and invigorating in their delivery.

There's something old–fashioned, meanwhile, about the tight, exquisitely plotted stories of Kevin Canty's Honeymoon (Doubleday, $21), and his prose has a terseness that belies his gift for lyricism. Both aspects combine to give these often brief stories a surprising impact, as they study people from rural and suburban America for whom falling in love is a frightening leap of faith.

The elegant, classically–shaped stories of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in The Unknown Errors of Our Lives (Doubleday, $23.95) range from India to the United States, exploring relationships between the two cultures through the lives of immigrants and their families. Divakaruni's evocative, sensuous prose portrays characters trying to adjust to life in America, or come to terms with their Indian heritage, and she specializes in a refreshing candor about intergenerational tensions.

Finally, one of the season's most notable releases is the two–volume Edith Wharton: Collected Stories, edited by Maureen Howard (Modern Library, $35 each). People more familiar with Wharton's classic novels will not be surprised to learn that her penetrating wit, and keen eye for character and the ironies of social convention are well–suited for the subtlest form of fiction.

It is, in the end, enough to make us rejoice in the form, and remind us that not only is the short story flourishing this spring — it is a thing of far greater persistence than scoundrels would have you believe.

Last Week’s Column: "STAND–ALONE" . . . Some of the country's most prestigious newspapers, in the country's biggest book markets, are cutting back their book review sections, despite reader opposition. What's the real story?


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