The American short story is alive and well.
Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were actually true. The art form is still alive — that I can testify to; I read hundreds of stories between December 2005 (when the first issues of ’06 periodicals came out) and January 2007, and a great many of them were good stories. Some were very good. And some — you will find them in this book — seemed to touch greatness. Or so I felt, and in most cases Heidi Pitlor, my excellent coeditor, felt so too. But well? That’s a different story.
I came by my hundreds — which now overflow several cardboard boxes known collectively as THE STASH — in a number of different ways. A few were recommended by writers and personal friends. A few more I downloaded from the Internet. Large batches were sent to me on a regular basis by the excellent Ms. Pitlor, probably the only person in America who read more short stories than I did in 2006 (in addition to reading all those stories, The Amazing Heidi also published a novel and gave birth to twins: a productive year by anyone’s standards). But I’ve never been content to stay on the reservation, and so I also read a great many stories in magazines I bought myself, at bookstores and newsstands in Florida and Maine, the two places where I spend most of the year.
I want to begin by telling you about a typical short-story-hunting expedition at my favorite Sarasota mega-bookstore. Bear with me; there’s a point to this.
I go in because it’s just about time for the new issues of Tin House and Zoetrope: All-Story, two Best American mainstays over the years. I don’t expect a new Glimmer Train, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find one. There will certainly be a new issue of The New Yorker — that’s the fabled automatic — and perhaps Harper’s Magazine. No need to check out Atlantic Monthly; its editors now settle for publishing their own selections of fiction once a year and criticizing everyone else’s the rest of the time. Jokes about eunuchs in the bordello come to mind, but I will suppress them. (And besides, the one fiction issue that Atlantic does publish is richly represented here.) So into the bookstore I go, and what do I see first? A table filled with best-selling hardcover fiction at prices ranging from 20 to 40 percent off. James Patterson is represented, as is Danielle Steel, as is your faithful correspondent. Most of this stuff is disposable, but it’s right up front, where it hits you in the eye as soon as you come in, and why? Because money talks and bullshit walks. These are the moneymakers and rent payers; these are the glamour ponies.
Bullshit — in this case that would be me — walks past the bestsellers, past trade paperbacks with titles like Who Stole My Chicken?, The Get-Rich Secret, and Be a Big Cheese Now, past the mysteries, past the auto repair manuals, past the remaindered coffee-table books (looking sad and thumbed-through with their red discount priced stickers). I arrive at the Wall of Magazines, which is next door to the children’s section. Over there, Story Time is in full swing. I sort of expect to hear “Once upon a time there was a poor little girl who wanted to be a pop singer,” but Goldilocks is still dealing with the Three Bears rather than prepping for American Idol. At least this year.
Meanwhile, I stare at the racks of magazines, and the racks of magazines stare eagerly back. Celebrities in gowns and tuxes, models in lo- rise jeans, luxy stereo equipment, talk-show hosts with can’t-miss diet plans — they all scream Buy me, buy me! Take me home and I’ll change your life! I’ll light it up!
I can grab The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine while I’m still standing up. There’s that, at least, although New Yorker fiction is almost always at the back of the book, hiding in the shadow of an Anthony Lane movie review, and the Harper’s short story will be printed in type so small that by the time I finish it, I’ll feel like my eyeballs have been sucked halfway out of their sockets. Still, I can make these selections without going to my knees like a school janitor trying to scrape a particularly stubborn wad of gum off the gym floor.
For the rest of what I need to complete this month’s reading, I must assume exactly that position. I hope the young woman browsing Modern Bride won’t think I’m trying to look up her skirt. I hope the young man trying to decide between Starlog and Fangoria won’t step on me. I also hope some toddler bored with Story Time won’t decide I want to play horsie and climb aboard.
So hoping, I crawl along the magazine section’s last display module, making my selections from the lowest shelf, where neatness alone suggests few ever go. And here I find fresh treasure: not just Zoetrope and Tin House (both with wonderful covers those browsers unwilling to assume the position — or incapable ooooof it — will never see) but also Five Points and The Kenyon Review. No Glimmer Train, but there’s American Short Fiction . . . The Iowa Review . . . even an Alaska Quarterly Review. I stagger to my feet (the prospective modern bride gives me a suspicious look) and limp toward the checkout, clutching my trove and reaching for my wallet. I will gladly take my Frequent Shopper discount; the total cost of my six magazines runs to over eighty dollars. There are no discounts in the magazine section.
So think of me crawling along the floor of this big chain store’s magazine section with my ass in the air and my nose to the carpet in order to secure that month’s budget of short stories, and then ask yourself what’s wrong with this picture. A better question — if you’re someone who cares about fiction, that is — what could possibly be right with it?
Well . . . the magazines were there, at least. There’s that.
We could argue all day about the reasons for fiction’s out- migration from the eye-level shelves — people have. We could hold symposia, have panel discussions — people have done that too. We could marvel over the fact that Britney Spears has become a cultural icon, available at every checkout, while an American talent like William Gay labors in relative obscurity. We could, but let’s not. It’s almost beside the point, and besides — it hurts.
Instead, let us consider what the bottom shelf does to creative writers — especially the young ones, who are well represented in this volume — who still care, sometimes passionately, about the short story. What happens to a writer when he or she realizes that his or her audience is shrinking almost daily? Well, if the writer is worth his or her salt, he or she continues on nevertheless — be- cause it’s what God or genetics (possibly they are the same) has decreed, or out of sheer stubbornness, or maybe because it’s such a kick to spin tales. Possibly a combination. And all that’s good.
What’s not so good is that writers — even those who claim to spurn Shakespeare’s bubble reputation — write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course; the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something ucky about it.
In 2006 I read scores of stories that felt . . . not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and — worst of all — written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience of readers-for- pure-pleasure. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse on Saturday night, and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. I read dozens of short stories that felt airless, and why not? When circulation — to use a word particularly apropos when discussing magazines — falters, the air in the room gets stale.
I read plenty of kick-ass stories this year. There isn’t a single one in this book (or in the Roll of Honor at the end) that didn’t delight me, that didn’t make me want to crow “Oh man, you gotta read this!” to someone (last year that someone was Heidi Pitlor; this year it’s you). I knew it would be that way. That’s why I took the job. Talent does more than come out; it bursts out, again and again, doing exuberant cartwheels while the band plays “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I think of such disparate stories as Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” John Barth’s “Toga Party,” and “Wake,” by the late Beverly Jensen, and I think — marvel, really — They PAID me to read these! Are you KIDDIN’ me???
Talent can’t help itself; it roars along in fair weather or foul, not sparing the fireworks. It gets emotional. It struts its stuff. In fact, that’s its job. And if these stories have anything in common — anything that made them uniquely my Best American stories — it’s that sense of emotional involvement, of flipped-out amazement. I look for stories that care about my feelings as well as my intellect, and when I find one that is all-out emotionally assaultive — like “Sans Farine,” by Jim Shepard — I grab that baby and hold on tight. Do I want something that appeals to my critical nose? Maybe later (and, I admit it, maybe never). What I want to start with is something that comes at me full-bore, like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky. I want the ancient pleasure that probably goes back to the cave: to be blown clean out of myself for a while, as violently as a fighter pilot who pushes the eject button in his F-111. I certainly don’t want some fraidy-cat’s writing school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream-of-consciousness bullshit about what Bob Dylan once called “the true meaning of a peach.” So — American short story alive? Check.
American short story well? Sorry, no, can’t say so. Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead.
Measures to be taken? I would suggest you start by reading these stories, part of a series that is still popular and discussed. They show how vital short stories can be when they are done with heart, mind, and soul by people who care about them and think they still matter. They do still matter, and here they are, liberated from the bottom shelf.
Copyright © 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2007 by Stephen King. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.