Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Has George Saunders Caused a "Boom" in the Short Story in 2013?


Can one high profile collection of short stories actually spark a “Boom” in the short story?  Can one rapturous review spark a frenzy of publicity and sales for one collection of short stories?  I know I have talked a bit about this earlier, but since the “Boom” idea has gained some more traction in the last week, I thought it might be well to revisit and summarize the buzz created by George Saunders’ collection of stories, Tenth of December.

It’s always a pleasure for me when a writer I admire publishes a collection that gets the popular media to talking about short stories.  On January 8, 2013, George Saunders, who has been publishing intelligent and carefully controlled satiric short stories for almost twenty years, published his fourth collection, and became an overnight sensation.  The book has been on a number of bestseller lists for the past six weeks, and Saunders has been interviewed by just about everyone on television, newspapers, and the Internet. 

It’s hard to tell how much of this much-deserved ballyhoo is due to a story by Joel Lovell that appeared in The New York Times Magazine on January 3 entitled GEORGE SAUNDERS HAS WRITTEN THE BEST BOOK YOU’LL READ THIS YEAR.  Well, hell! How could you resist that daring challenge, coming on the third day of the New Year?  And if that was not enough, a review featuring Saunders’ new book appeared in the January 5 U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal with the headline, GIVING HOPE TO THE AMERICAN SHORT STORY.

In his long interview profile story, Joel Lovell calls Saunders “The writer for our time,” another irresistible sound bite picked up by journalists and bloggers.  Lovell then goes on to define “our time” as an historical moment in which we are dropping bombs on people we know little about, a time when we are desperate simply for a job, a time in which we are scared out of our wits for reasons we find hard even to name. 

It is this  “our time” that Lovell says Saunders is “the writer” for.  For George Saunders is, above all other things, a satirist.  When Saunders' first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline appeared in 1996, it received rave reviews, with well-known writers such as Garrison Keillor and Thomas Pynchon calling Saunders a "brilliant new satirist" with a voice "astoundingly tuned."  Based on that one book, Saunders was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award, and New Yorker magazine named him one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty. 

Lovell’s praise for Saunders was bound to get some reaction.  Adrian Chen, of Gawker blog, who does a lot of reacting, posted an essay on January 23 with the title, ‘WRITER OF OUR TIME’ GEORGE SAUNDERS NEEDS TO WRITE A GOODAMN NOVEL ALREADY.  Calling the novel the Super Bowl of fiction writing, Chen says that without a novel there’s no chance for Saunders to reach the sort of “era-defining” status that Lovell imagines for him.

It did not take long for the reaction to Chen’s childish remarks to get a response.  On January 25, Kevin McFarland of the AV Club blog posted a piece entitled WHY GEORGE SAUNDERS (OR ANYONE ELSE) CAN WRITE WHATEVER THEY DAMN WELL PLEASE, calling Chen’s tone “patronizing” and his remarks “heady with ignorance about Saunders career and what makes him notable in the first place.” 

Then Hector Tobar published a piece in The Los Angeles Times entitled PERFECTING THE SHORT-STORY FORM, in which he praised the short story form and suggested that Saunders hasn’t written a novel because he is too much of a prose perfectionist and likes the control the short story gives him.

The Saunders publicity is all good publicity for the much neglected and oft-ignored short story form, and probably gave impetus to a February 15 piece in The New York Times by Leslie Kaufman entitled GOOD FIT FOR TODAY’S LITTLE SCREENS: SHORT STORIES.  Kaufman opens by saying that short story collections, “an often underappreciated literary cousin of novels, are experiencing a resurgence,” but argues that the cause of this is the proliferation of digital options. 

Kaufman notes that 2013 has already yielded an unusually “rich crop” of short story collections,” including Saunders’ Tenth of December, which debuted “with a splash normally reserved for Hollywood movies.”  Kaufman also mentions Karen Russell’s new collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Amber Dermont’s Damage Control, and Jess Walter’s We Live in Water.  Kaufman also mentions last year’s collections by Nathan Englander and Junot Diaz.  Dermont is quoted as saying that “the single-serving of a short narrative is the perfect art form fro the digital age…. Stories are models of concision, can be read in one sitting, and are infinitely downloadable and easily consumed on screeens.”

The problem with Kaufman’s piece is that it does not really make any connection between the so-called digital age and the popularity of such collections as those by Saunders, Diaz, and Englander—all of which have been published in the traditional hardcover, soft-cover editions. 

This was pointed out by Laura Miller in a Feb. 21 story on Salon.com entitled SORRY, THE SHORT STORY BOOM IS BOGUS, who summed up the current situation of the short story this way:

A short story can be anything from an exquisite specimen of the literary art to a diverting pastime. In its mid-20th-century heyday, when even magazines like Mademoiselle published short fiction by writers like William Faulkner, stories offered readers an hour or two of satisfying narrative entertainment at the end of the day. Television has largely replaced that function, and the literary short story itself became a more rarefied thing, a form in which writers exhibit the perfection of their technique, rather like lyric poetry. With the exception of certain communities of genre writer and readers — most notable in science fiction — these writers aren’t reaching a wider audience because they aren’t especially trying to. 

It should be noted that the best-selling short story collections of the past several months-- Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About when we Talk About Anne Frank, Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her, and George Saunders’ Tenth of December--all have “special interest”: Englander’s “O. Henryish” well-made stories on Jewish culture, Diaz’s potty-mouthed sexcapades with women he dropped, and Saunder’s sharp satires on modern culture.  The only other collection of the year that stayed a time on the best-seller list is Alice Munro’s Dear Life, but then Munro writes so well that she does not have to have a “special interest.”

I plan to write a short essay on the “magic” of George Saunder’s stories, for I don’t think it is the satiric pieces that are the most representative of the genre or his best stories, even though they indeed may be the most readable and the most popular.  Junot Diaz (whose stories I do not care for and who I think has been highly overrated this past year), does, however, put his finger on the key to Saunder’s excellence that I hope to explore further.  He told Joel Lovell that although there is no one who has “a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital” than Saunders, on the other side is “how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion.  Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or as deep as Saunders does.”

I agree.  It is Saunders’ moral vision, combined with his respect for the word and the sentence, that makes him a great short story writer. In one of his many recent interviews, he said the litmus test for him is always the language.

I will come back to Saunders in March.

3 comments:

sloopie72 said...

Hi again, Prof. May: George Saunders has been making the rounds (and not of the usual literary spots) hasn't he. I was very happy to also see him, along with Michael Chabon, Ayana Mathis, and Victor Lavalle, invited to an extended segment on a (strongly liberal) political talk show – the topic was "the Obama narrative" and continued the TNY article by Junot Diaz a couple of years before. But I was happy to see actual writers brought in to look at things from a storytelling perspective. The show is still available online, in four 10-minute segments (with forced advertisements beginning each one, for a special little twist of irony); if you're interested I put more info in a blog post, including links to the segments and a few writing-related quotes.

I'm eager to see what more you have to say about Saunders. I haven't read the collection (yet), though I've read several stories through TNY (I seem to recall I liked the title story a lot more than you did, though it made me really work for it).

He may not have as high a profile as Saunders, but David Means has also defendedhis focus on the short story. And no one pesters Alice Munro. I wonder why not… because she's a woman (not expected to do "hard' things like novels), because she's Canadian (is it only Americans who are yammering about short stories being inferior to novels?) or because of her age (new tricks and all that)? Or – speaking hopefully, if naively – because she's so good at it?

Karen Carlson

sloopie72 said...

Hi again, Prof. May: George Saunders has been making the rounds (and not of the usual literary spots) hasn't he. I was very happy to also see him, along with Michael Chabon, Ayana Mathis, and Victor Lavalle, invited to an extended segment on a (strongly liberal) political talk show – the topic was "the Obama narrative" and continued the TNY article by Junot Diaz a couple of years before. But I was happy to see actual writers brought in to look at things from a storytelling perspective. The show is still available online, in four 10-minute segments (with forced advertisements beginning each one, for a special little twist of irony); if you're interested I put more info in a blog post, including links to the segments and a few writing-related quotes.

I'm eager to see what more you have to say about Saunders. I haven't read the collection (yet), though I've read several stories through TNY (I seem to recall I liked the title story a lot more than you did, though it made me really work for it).

He may not have as high a profile as Saunders, but David Means has also defendedhis focus on the short story. And no one pesters Alice Munro. I wonder why not… because she's a woman (not expected to do "hard' things like novels), because she's Canadian (is it only Americans who are yammering about short stories being inferior to novels?) or because of her age (new tricks and all that)? Or – speaking hopefully, if naively – because she's so good at it?

Karen Carlson

Keith Hood said...

I love your blog and I'm looking forward to your comments about Saunders' latest collection. Here's my brief take on "Tenth of December."

I really like "Victory Lap." "Sticks" is decent enough as a flash fiction. "Puppy" is okay, too, "Escape from Spiderhead" kind of pissed me off because I thought the ending was a cop-out. Wouldn't any creative writing teacher (K-12 or college level) advise their students not to end a story with a first person narrator describing their own death? Of course, the "rules" are there to be broken but I didn't think Saunders' breaking of the rules in this story worked. For me, a great story was reduced to a flawed story by the ending. I'd love to hear why I'm wrong about this.

"Exhortation" was okay, nothing special. I liked "Al Roosten" a bit more but, again it was nothing special.

"The Semplica Girl Diaries" was fun. I've read all of the New Yorker stories before. I enjoyed this one when reading it in the New Yorker and I enjoyed it even more on rereading.

"Home" may be my favorite story in the collection. It's poignant and ambiguous in a way I like. I've heard it said Chekhov's stories end as if they were trains on a track: You can't see where they're going but you know where they're going. "Home" could be a train on a track headed to redemption or it could be a train headed toward a hell-like disaster. The uncertainty works for me.

I like "My Chivalric Fiasco" but I think it may too much of a retread of earlier stories by Saunders.

I love the title story: "Tenth of December." I think it's a great, great story. Again, I read it in the New Yorker and rereading it is even better.

In summary, my favorites from this collection are "Victory Lap," "Home," and "Tenth of December." I enjoyed the other stories. My only complaint about this collection the beyond-death-experience" ending of "Escape from Spiderhead."

All in all, it's a really good collection but I have a feeling that the collection is not the best book I'll read this year. It will probably be "one of the best" but there's a lot left in the year and I'm already reading a collection by Daniel Mueller (Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humprhey) that I may love even more.