When Shepard was asked why short stories were not doing better than they are in our Twitter/Facebook era, here is what he said:
“It’s hard to understand why short stories don’t catch on given that they seemed to be suited to our frenetic modern lifestyle. I wonder whether that’s partially because readers feel that if they’re going to invest their imagination, they really want it to pay off in terms of time. They think: If I’m going to get invested in a world, I don’t want that world to go away so quickly. They want a trilogy or an 800-page novel or something.
Part of it also might be the mostly unfounded suspicion that short stories are like homework, that they’re closer to poetry than a novel. When you tell readers to read a poem, I think their impulse is often to think: Am I going to understand this? Nobody feels like picking up something for pleasure that will make them feel stupid. So maybe there is a little wariness about short stories, a little worry that they’ll be oblique and unsatisfying open-ended. But those are just theories. I don’t think anyone has an answer for why short stories aren’t doing better.”
Shepard may have found a way to make short stories more interesting to readers by appealing to the public preference for nonfiction. He has published four short story collections: Batting Against Castro, Love and Hydrogen, Like You’d Understand Anyway (shortlisted for the National Book Award)¸ and You Think That’s Bad. His stories have attracted some attention from reviewers because most of them are derived from Shepard’s reading in a wide range of subjects. A Shepard Acknowledgements page usually runs to two or three pages, with his introductory admission that most of his stories would not have existed “or would have existed in a much diminished form without critically important contributions” from…(and then he provides a long list of books.) I have read many of the reviews of Shepard’s collections, which are almost uniformly positive, but I have a suspicion that reviewers have responded so well to his stories because they are “different,” because they are so meticulously researched that the reviewer has a “handle” on the stories, i.e.—a great deal of factual information to talk about without actually talking about the stories as stories.
Although Jim Shepard gets the impetus and context for a story from his reading in nonfiction, he doesn’t get his story until he finds some personal involvement in the facts or when he invents some particular human engagement in the historical context he researches. Shepard says the title story of his collection Love and Hydrogen, which was picked for the 2002 Best American Short Stories, began when he was browsing with his four-year-old son in the children’s section of his local bookstore. When he ran across a children’s book about the Hindenburg airship, he was struck by the immensity and the hubris of the thing. He continued his research into zeppelins, looking for someway to elevate a story about them beyond a child’s fascination with big things that blow up, when, just after creating his two main characters, he wrote these two sentences: “Meinert and Gnuss are in love. This complicates just about everything.” Thus, only when he invented a love story between two men who were working on the Hindenburg on that fateful day it exploded did he have a story.
Similarly, his fascination with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror bore no fictional fruit until he ran across a book entitled The Remarkable Saga of the Sanson Family, Who Served as Executioners of France for Seven Generation. The result was the story “Sans Farine,” chosen for the 2007 Best American Short Stories volume, in which, buttressed by gobs of ghoulish information about the invention and uses of the guillotine, he invents a story about how one man and his wife try to cope with his inherited profession of executioner during the Reign of Terror.
Shepard says that like most of his fiction, the two stories in You Think That’s Bad chosen for the 2010 Best American Short Stories (“The Netherlands Lives With Water”) (and the 2011 Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories (“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You”) began from his browsing in bizarre subjects and finding his “imagination caught by a particular moment that resonates” with him emotionally. In the former, he was struck by the notion that a skier might cross a given area with no effect, while another might cross the same terrain and cause an avalanche. In the latter, what got his imagination going was the staggering engineering feats the Dutch developed to protect themselves from the implacable sea, even as global warming made their most ingenious efforts inadequate.
However, the avalanche story is really about one man’s guilt for inadvertently starting an avalanche that killed his brother. The Netherlands story is less particularized; although the conjugal conflicts of a couple of scientist/engineers are at the particularized center of the story, it is really a generalized account of the Netherland’s efforts to stave off the risking sea caused by global warning.
In answer to the FiveBooks interviewer’s question about whether “historical short stories” provide readers the pleasure of both fiction and nonfiction, Shepard replied:
They do feed the hunger that readers have for nonfiction in fiction. When I first started reading literary fiction, I was struck by how much I was learning – not only about the human heart, which is traditionally what literature is supposed to be about, but also about how the world worked and the way the world was. So when I read Ernest Hemingway’s [short story] “Big Two-Hearted River,” I felt I was learning not only about Nick Adams’s interior but also about fly fishing.”
Although Hemingway always creates such particularized experiences that he does indeed make me want to go fly fishing, I think the fishing information in “River” is only as good as for what Hemingway uses it—a means by which Nick tries to deal with the implications of his war experience. Indeed, when one gets intrigued by mere “information” in a story, one runs the risk of neglecting the complex human experience the language of the story attempts to create.
In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” (English translation in Illuminations, 1968), Walter Benjamin says, “information” threatens storytelling in the modern world. The difference between the forms of storytelling and forms of information, argues Benjamin, is that whereas storytelling always had a validity that required no external verification, information must be accessible to immediate verification. Storytelling differs from information in that storytelling does not aim to convey the pure essence of the experience in some distilled way, but rather imbues the story with the life of the storyteller. Aspects of the storyteller cling to the story; this is the reason why many storytellers begin with the circumstances by which they have gained access to the story they are about to tell.
This distinction between storytelling and information points to one of the primary differences between the "truth" of story and the truth of other forms of explanation characteristic of discursive writing. Whereas, in such forms of discourse as history, sociology, psychology, etc, the aim of the work is to abstract from concrete experience so that a distilled discursive meaning remains, in story, the truth is somehow communicated by a recounting of the concrete experience itself in such a way that the truth is revealed by the details of the story, not by abstract explanation.
The first true storyteller, says Benjamin, is the teller of fairy tales, for the fairy tale provides good counsel. According to Benjamin, whereas realistic narrative forms such as the novel focus on the relatively limited areas of human experience that indeed can be encompassed by information, characters in fairy tales or stories encounter those most basic mysteries of human experience which cannot be explained by rational means, but which can only be embodied in myth. The wisest thing the fairy tale teaches is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and high spirits. What the fairy tale, and therefore the tale, does is to tell us how to deal with all that which we cannot understand.
In my opinion, another writer who does a more convincing job of integrating historical context into a complex human story is Shepard’s colleague at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., Andrea Barrett. Barrett understands some basic similarities between science, history, and storytelling. She knows that all three construct narratives—whether they are called scientific theories, historical accounts, or fiction--to reveal connections, relationships, the interdependence of all things; all are human efforts to understand, or perhaps construct, what makes life meaningful.
Barrett once told an interviewer that after doing graduate work, first in zoology in the late seventies and then in history in the early eighties, she began to see a way to weave science and history together with her love of fiction. The resulting elegant tapestry was her collection Ship Fever and Other Stories, a surprise winner of the National Book Award in 1996.
Although the stories in Ship Fever focus on characters caught up in pursuits in the natural sciences, Barrett’s real emphasis is on the vulnerable human element behind the scientific impulse. Many of the stories are historical fictions in the classic sense: They involve real people from the past, often very famous scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Carl Linnaeus, and they present the past as it impinges upon and informs the present. All of Barrett's stories use scientific fact and historical events to throw light on basic human impulses and conflicts.
“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds," which was selected for The Best American Short Stories in 1995, is typical of Barrett's short fiction. Told by the wife of a mediocre twentieth century science professor, who greatly admires the geneticist Gregor Mendel, it includes the historical account of how Mendel allowed himself to be misdirected from his valuable studies of the hybridization of the edible pea to a dead-end study of the hawkweed by the botanist Carl Nageli until he finally gave up in despair. "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds" also contains the more personal story of how the narrator's grandfather accidentally killed a man who he thought was trying to abuse her as a child. These stories from the past are paralleled by stories in the present in which the narrator finds herself leading a meaningless life at middle age and in which her husband, having achieved nothing of scientific value himself, spends his retirement continually retelling the Mendel stories his wife told him.
Barrett also explores connections between science, history, and storytelling in the six stories in her second collection Servants of the Map. Like the scientists and historians in her work, Barrett says she is highly obsessive; all of her stories and novels are the result of painstaking research and scrupulous writing and rewriting. However, for all her attention to detail and focus on fact and the mysteries of science, the real mystery in her stories is the mystery of human motivation, particularly the drive to “see” and to “know.”
The title story is a carefully constructed novella about Max Vigne, a nineteenth-century surveyor who is part of an exploration party to the Himalayas. In a series of letters to his wife Clara back in England, Vigne discovers writing’s power to construct reality by going beyond mapping and recording to a higher level of perception, thereby creating a map not only of the physical world but of the human mind. The story was selected for The Best American Short Stories: 2001 and Prize Stories 2001: The O. Henry Awards.
Although I have to admit that I was fascinated by Jim Shepard’s account of how a Japanese special-effects expert created the film creature Godzilla (“Gojira, King of the Monsters”) and how an American infantryman coped with the hardships of an attack on the Japanese in New Guinea (“Happy with Crocodiles”). I was even riveted by the horrors of fifteenth-century inhuman pedophiliac monster Gilles de Rais who killed so many children. However, the absorption I felt when reading these stories was due largely to the specificity of the interesting information. Although Shepard writes well, it was still the “stuff,” not the “style” that appealed to me. The particular human experience he explores in his stories too often seems to me mainly an excuse for the array of the interesting information, whereas in Andrea Barrett’s stories, the informative background is secondary to the human conflict at the heart of her stories.