Sunday, September 30, 2007
What Ails the Short Story
By STEPHEN KING
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. As editor of "The Best American Short Stories 2007," I read hundreds of them, and a great many were good stories. Some were very good. And some seemed to touch greatness. 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 Heidi Pitlor, the series editor. 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. There will certainly be a new issue of The New Yorker and perhaps Glimmer Train and Harper's. No need to check out The Atlantic Monthly; its editors now settle for publishing their own selections of fiction once a year in a special issue and criticizing everyone else's the rest of the time. Jokes about eunuchs in the bordello come to mind, but I will suppress them.
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 percent 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 these are the moneymakers and rent payers; these are the glamour ponies.
I walk past the best sellers, 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 stickers). I arrive at the Wall of Magazines, which is next door to the children's section, where story time is in full swing. I stare at the racks of magazines, and the magazines stare eagerly back. Celebrities in gowns and tuxes, models in low-rise jeans, luxury 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 can grab The New Yorker and Harper's while I'm still standing up, 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, 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 crawl along the lowest shelf, where neatness alone suggests few ever go. And here I find fresh treasure: not just Zoetrope and Tin House, 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 and limp toward the checkout. The total cost of my six magazines runs to over $80. There are no discounts in the magazine section.
So think of me crawling on the floor of this big chain store and ask yourself, What's wrong with this picture?
We could argue all day about the reasons for fiction's out-migration from the eye-level shelves - people have. We could marvel over the fact that Britney Spears is available at every checkout, while an American talent like William Gay or Randy DeVita or Eileen Pollack or Aryn Kyle (all of whom were among my final picks) 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 writers who still care, sometimes passionately, about the short story. What happens 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, because 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 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 yucky about it.
Last year, 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. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. If the stories felt airless, why not? When circulation falters, the air in the room gets stale.
And yet. I read plenty of great stories this year. There isn't a single one in this book that didn't delight me, that didn't make me want to crow, "Oh, man, you gotta read this!" 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 Beverly Jensen, now deceased, 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. If these stories have anything in common, 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 about what Bob Dylan once called "the true meaning of a pear."
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 this year's "Best American Short Stories." 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.
Stephen King is the author of 60 books, as well as nearly 400 short stories, including "The Man in the Black Suit," which won the O. Henry Prize in 1996.