Tuesday, December 20, 2011

End-of-the Year "Best" & "Notable" Books Lists: 2011

If the annual end-of-the-year lists of “notable” or “best” “books of the year” in the various media are any indication of the health of the short story in 2011, then the paucity of short-story recommendations this December suggests that…well, what else is new?—the short story remains in the shadow of the bigger, and therefore obviously better, novel.
The only real short story winner in the “best” lists this year is Don DeLillo’s The Lady Esmeralda: Nine Stories. The first collection of a writer who has been, arguably, claimed to be American’s premier novelist, was bound to get some press. I have not yet read these stories written, perhaps to while away the time between DeLillo’s more important work over the past 32 years. I will. I will. Sometime in the next few weeks. But I am in no hurry, having found myself more than once unable to get through one of DeLillo’s “baggy monsters.”
A friend and colleague sent me a review of The Lady Esmeralda by Joe Gross, written for the Cox newspaper syndicate, which he opened by saying that to read this book “is to think it’s past time, or perhaps the exact right time, for the short story to make the comeback it richly deserves.” Well, God bless Joe Gross. I hope he is right, but will reserve judgment of course until I read the book myself.
Gross suggests that we might be moving toward a period of modern literature in which our culture has no time for anything but a “concentrated blast of meaning.” He cites Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction as being a work in which any chapter could be removed and published on its own. (As a matter of fact, most of the chapters were published as short stories on their own). I agree, and am encouraged that Egan’s book has not only won the big awards, but has also remained on the paperback bestseller lists for months. I liked Goon Squad and will try to find some time to write about its short story qualities after the first of the year.
Gross ends his review by saying DeLillo’s collection has made him ready for “shorter fiction to become common coin, for stories to be discussed with the same gravity as the novel.” I hope he is right.
In addition to The Angel Esmeralda, the New York Times lists only the following two short story collections in their list of 100 Notable Books of 2011:
Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, Charles Baxter
Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories. Barry Hannah

The Washington Post lists no short story collections.

Kirkus lists only Steven Millhauser’s We Others.

The Library Journal lists only Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family.

David Ulin, of The Los Angeles Times, lists two short story collections:

Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, Edith Pearlman.

You Think That’s Bad: Stories, Jim Shepard

The most frequently listed works of fiction this year were, of course, novels:

Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife

Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot

Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding

The one novel I was happy to see on several lists was Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which has, as I suggested in a previous blog, many short fiction characteristics.

In my opinion, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision and Steven Millhauser’s We Others are the best books of fiction of the year. But then, you knew that, didn’t you?

As a final note, a brief comment on an article by John Stazinski in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets and Writers: Stazinski, who teaches writing and literature at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, MA, and has published in several prime places, talks a bit about a fiction workshop conducted by Grub Street, an independent center for creative writing in Boston, that he thinks should be the wave of the future—a workshop that purports to teach fiction writing by workshopping novels rather than short stories—a task that many MFA programs steer away from because of the novel’s forbidding length.

Stazinzki says the Grub Street experiment raises some “uncomfortable questions” for MFA programs across the country, arguing that although the short story may be a “great pedagogical device for teaching certain aspects of fiction writing,” “no one dreams of writing the Great American Short Story Collection” and every MFA candidate knows that when publishers want fiction, they want a novel.

The difference between a novel and a short story, says Stazinski, is like the difference between a symphony and a country song. The difference between constructing a short story and a novel is like the difference between “building a rowboat and building a yacht.” He quotes approvingly William Giraldi’s essay in Rumpus, who says the novel is as different from a collection of stories “as a truck is from a tricycle.” Lord, how I hate these glib comparisons which consider only at the external size of the work and not the difference between their narrative ways of exploring what we so casually take to be “reality!”

Stazinzki concludes that the Grub Street folks at Boson may have found a whole new way for novelists to workshop. If this is true, if MFA programs begin teaching fiction writing by workshopping novels rather than short stories, there may indeed be important implications for the future of the short story. It is probably true that most of the writers devoting a great deal of time to the short story nowadays are MFA students, and it is often the case that their first books are collections of stories workshopped in MFA classes (books in which the writing was good enough for publishers to take a chance on if they promised that their second book would be a novel.) One of the basic differences between the novel and the short story is that the writing on the crucial sentence level is usually better in a short story than in the novel. What’s going to happen if MFA programs begin to focus more on the macrocosmic structure of the novel and ignore the microcosmic structure of the short story? More on this in the New Year.

I apologize for neglecting this blog in the past few weeks. I have been reading a great deal, but reading in the relaxed atmosphere of my family—in an easy chair in front of a fire rather than hunched over my computer in my cold study. I will return to my more regular posting in January—commenting on what I have been reading, replying to the comments I have received about my planned new book, and responding to the poll of readers about a possible name for that book.

Have a wonderful holiday, whatever you celebrate!


Stephen Stark said...

I read John Stazinski's piece in P&W with interest, but not for its implications for the MFA program necessarily. I've published a few short stories but have always felt way more at home in the novel. I agree that the comparisons are a bit on the blunt and facile side, but found interesting the distinction Stazinsky drew between the short story and the novel. Or perhaps more accurately the way he drew it, because I hadn't really thought of it that way. I started thinking of the really memorable short stories I've read, and it struck me that more often than not that the memorable thing wasn't a character or group of characters, but a concept or metaphor or combination thereof.

A nose separates itself inexplicably from the man who owns it and goes around town besting the man.

Scientists who have been listening for life in outer space come across a tone that, when listened to, makes the listener so pleasantly high that all else ceases to matter.

A kid is obsessed with snow and when it doesn't snow, it snows in his head, causing perhaps a mental whiteout.

There is an alien invasion but it's in the form of a gentle, snowing powder that is at first sort of beautiful but becomes really scary, but in a subversive sort of way.

Buddies discover a body while fishing but don't do anything immediately, and the discovery and inaction reverberates through their lives.

Those are just a few examples. They read almost like those descriptions of TV shows in the paper, or of movies on Netflix.

Compare that with say, An unhappy Russian woman has an adulterous affair with a dashing count and she ends up throwing herself under a train.

Or, A tennis prodigy from an eccentric family loses his mind.

Or, A sportswriter-turned-real-estate-agent drives cross-country with his son.

Whenever anyone asks me what a novel "is about" I tend to cringe, because they tend to be about so many things. And, as a novelist, I tend to want to go on at novelistic length, which probably makes the person who asked the question want to go get his/her root canal taken care of.

Frankly, when Stazinsky got back to Grubb St., I'd forgotten all about it.

Don Hackett said...

I notice some silly and self-serving metaphors. The novel, compared to a short story, is more a symphony compared to a string quartet; a truck compared to sports car; or a yacht compared to a racing hydroplane. It seems to show obsession with size, coming from where I can't think, besides being very American.

Anonymous said...

The good news may be that we see the end of the MFA short story and see work by people who actually think in short stories. Dex