Recently I’ve decided to read and review what are generally accepted as the best short story collections by living American writers. With publication of All Things All at Once (Norton, 365 pages), Lee K. Abbott, widely acknowledged as a “writers’ writer,” has seven collections of stories in print. His work has appeared in some of the most highly regarded literary journals. In addition, his stories have been featured in Best American Short Stories and have won O. Henry awards. This most recent collection features new stories, plus several previously published.
In a recent rant I wrote on the sad state of the contemporary American short story, I railed against what is sometimes known as ‘The New Yorker story,’ that all-too-common pedestrian thing called “domestic literary fiction.” Happily, there are always exceptions to egregious trends, and George Saunders (Tenth of December, Random House, 272 pages), who is a contributor to The New Yorker, is a big one. Exception, that is.
How is his fiction different from the normal, run-of-the-mill domestic stuff—the kind of fiction I can’t stand? A good place to begin would be with a comparison between his Tenth of December and another book of short stories recently published, The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I picked up Nguyen’s book with high expectations, having read his novel, The Sympathizer, which has great writing, wonderful sentences on every page.
THE GREAT AMERICAN BOONDOGGLE
(The Sad State of the American Short Story)
The situation has been the same for years. Nothing ever seems to change and practically no one deems it necessary even to talk about it. Almost forty years ago a colleague at the university where I taught, a lifelong reader of The New Yorker and a person whose intelligence I respect, said to me, “I love The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. ‘The New Yorker story’ does not appeal to me.” In a visit to my general practitioner a month ago, the doctor, an avid reader of classical literary fiction—the canonical literary works of the world—remarked, “I love the articles in The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. Most of it is a total bore.” Over a period of forty years how many other intelligent readers of fiction have said the same thing? Repeatedly. Why is nobody listening? Continue reading
What to say about Things we Lose (New Island Press, 228 pages) a book that stunned me, time and again. I might call Billy O’Callaghan a “writer’s writer,” if that term did not immediately consign a writer to obscurity. (In the USA, Richard Yates is often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” and until the movie Revolutionary Road, few people, apart from those who taught in MFA programs, knew his name.)
I would like to invent a new way to describe what I think Billy O’Callaghan will leave as his literary legacy. I would call him a “human’s human” (with a pen) or an “explorer’s explorer” of our dreams. I would call him a poet of the spirit. Or, maybe, to use a more prosaic analogy, he is a housekeeper who assiduously dusts the cluttered rooms we keep closed, even from our conscious minds. Continue reading
The premise here is interesting: an anthology of flash fiction with the bylines removed so that the reader can’t know the identity of the author. According to Nicole Monaghan, editor of this collection, the purpose is to question a reader’s assumptions about gender.
As an experiment, Stripped: A Collection of Anonymous Flash Fiction (PS Books, 102 pages) recalls I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism and his withholding authors’ identities from his Cambridge students in the 1920s in order to come to grips with their literary values. It was a step forward in reading awareness. We live in a very different world now, to put it mildly—gender was not on Richards’ radar—but some of the same questions of reception persist. Continue reading
Pedro Ponce offers eighteen very short stories in this slender volume (Cow Heavy Books, 55 pages). Within the brief space Ponce delegates for himself not much can happen, but these vignettes do manage to develop vigorous fabula-like themes. In each short piece, a subject is opened, then skillfully closed. Continue reading
Professor Pedro Ponce’s recent collection, Alien Autopsy (Cow Heavy Books, 55 pages) is a departure from his most previous work Superstitions of Apartment Life (Burnside Review Press, 2008), but the imaginative, elegant, if not sweetly written observations one finds time after time in Ponce’s work have not been sacrificed. The newest collection treads more heavily into realism and more lightly into the magical-realism that often echoes in his short work. Continue reading