Short fiction an endangered species?

07/29/2010 12:00 AM |

One thing you learn as a librarian, a professional adviser to readers, is that a lot of people “hate” short stories. As far as fiction is concerned, they only read novels. They may come in looking for another book by T. Coraghessian Boyle because they loved his “Road to Wellville,” and if you suggest his latest publication, “The Wild Child,” they get all excited until they find out it’s a collection of his short stories. There is no use arguing with short story haters. Something happened to them in their reading past that no amount of logic can change or undo. Perhaps a literature professor made them feel inadequate; their goldfish died while they were in the midst of John Cheever; a beautiful and complicated person they were falling in love with said, “If you don’t understand and love the Seymour Glass character in J.D. Salinger’s short stories then you couldn’t possibly understand or love me!”

Short stories get no respect. In his introduction to the “Best American Short Stories — 2007,” which he himself chose, Stephen King says that American short fiction is “if not quite dead on the page … [then] airless, somehow, and self-referring … show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open.” If that’s what your friends say about you, you have no need of enemies.

Conditions for the short story’s endangerment have been developing for a quarter-century. Once reliable “general interest” venues like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post have disappeared from newsstands. Harper’s confines itself, more or less, to a stable of old hands. The Atlantic recently cut its monthly fiction offerings altogether, in favor of a single annual “fiction issue.” The New Yorker long ago ended its practice of running several stories per issue. In 2007, fewer than 100 short stories were published in traditional general interest magazines.

It may be a time problem for some of the short story haters. The rhythm is different. You meet the characters, inhabit the setting, something happens, things are revealed, perhaps a twist and then — poof! It’s over. Some people feel more comfortable staying longer. They like the same place to return to and people they have already been introduced to next time they pick up the book they are reading. You CAN have that in a collection of short stories, the aforementioned J.D.Salinger, Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fight in Heaven,” John Updike’s “The Maples Stories,” but it’s a surer thing in a novel.

I have a touch of fabulabrevephobia (fear of short stories) myself, but I am actively fending it off. I recognize that there are some authors I really like who specialize in short stories or are better at them than at novels. Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro are some names that spring to mind. I love the National Public Radio program “Selected Shorts.” After many years as a children’s librarian, reading aloud to children, I have recently been trying out library programs where adults read short stories out loud to an audience of other adults. And I’ve always liked an image of women at work in Cuba rolling cigars or sewing clothes while someone read aloud. These days one can always listen to respected actors and professionals reading books, novels, nonfiction or short stories in many available audio formats, downloads to your iPod or compact disks in your car stereo, but it isn’t the same as having a live person in the room with you, reading you something.

Meanwhile, between short stories, I reread Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth.” I read it as a teenager and was so outraged at the treatment of women that I don’t remember even considering its value as literature. This time I read it with more historic distance and more of an appreciation for the way the cadences of the King James Bible inform the telling of the story. Pearl Buck was born in West Virginia and raised by missionary parents in China. The story of one Chinese peasant’s life, from the day of his marriage to the day of his death, is epic and consistently moving. Wang Lung is a completely rounded character who lives, as the Chinese curse goes, “in interesting times.” There are enormous political upheavals, droughts, floods, wars and famines, but the story stays relentlessly focused on this one man and his family as their fortunes rise and fall and rise again. “The Good Earth” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, the first and only American woman so honored until Toni Morrison won it in 1993. The book was an immediate success when it was first published, has been translated into many languages and has continued to be read and admired. Oprah picked it in 2004 for her Book Club. Ms. Buck’s many other published works, including many short stories, have not been treated with such reverence and are largely out of print and forgotten, but a new biography, “Pearl Buck in China” by Hilary Spurling, has been garnering rave reviews and may bring this author back again from the brink of irrelevance. Which resuscitation will be good for both the lover of short stories who may discover some long-ignored treasures and the hater of short stories who can stick stubbornly to reading Buck’s great big satisfying novels.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.