“When Brevity is a Virtue,” an article by Alexandra Alter in today’s Wall Street Journal, (Nov. 13, 2009; online at http://online.wsj.com) throws a welcome new spotlight on the short story by noting that the form seems poised this fall to get its due with new collections from Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ha Jin.
Alter rightly points out that when great short stories are praised for having “novelistic” qualities, it is a subtle disparagement, instructing us that the novel is the highest literary achievement.
Alter suggests that changing technology and reading habits are giving the short story a boost, as readers discover the form in online literary journals and download short stories to their ipods and e-readers.
However, the article also reminds us of the prevailing opinion among agents and publishers that short stories do not sell. The fact that Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge has sold 472,000 copies after winning the Pulitzer is, according to these Nay Sayers, an anomaly. And Alice Munro’s winning the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for the body of her work is because, well, “She’s Alice Munro, and by the way, why the hell doesn’t she write a novel?” Reviewers forgive her by claiming that her stories are “novelistic.” Munro’s editor Ann Close is quoted by Alter as saying that the precision and vigor of Munro’s plotting and prose allows her to pack as much into her stories as many novels contain. Pack what stuff?
Munro’s new collection, Too Much Happiness, has been out in Canada and the United Kingdom for the past three months and will be released by Knopf in the U.S. next week. The Los Angeles Times published a review of the book this past Sunday, Nov. 8. All the stories have been published previously, mostly in The New Yorker and Harper’s, and I have read them as they have appeared. On a previous blog, I talked a bit about one of the stories, “On Wenlock Edge.”
I will post a blog on Too Much Happiness in a couple of weeks when I get the book and have had a chance to make sure that Munro has not changed the stories since their original publication in magazines. I will try to make some sense out of the frequent, somewhat disparaging claim that Munro’s stories are like novels, an accusation she knows very well, as evidenced by this wry comment from the story “Fiction” in her new collection:
“A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”
None of the short story Nay Sayers can say that Alice Munro is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, not even Oprah, who has said she does not like short stories because she “wants more.” Desiring quantity rather than quality is an Oprah problem that I wish she would not impose on the thousands of her book club members.