George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Random House paperback edition, 2016, 198 pp. Originally published in 1996.
Two Instances of Prevarication
On a Writer’s Acknowledgements Page
“I often marvel at the persona engendered by the influence of the form. The writer presents himself as one surrounded, cushioned, buoyed up by wonderful friends. He is, he says, ‘blessed,’ ‘in luck,’ ‘serene’ even in his obligations. Not a word on the acknowledgements page about grievances, or about offenses received and inflicted. Who would suspect a curmudgeon behind such handsome avowals? But perhaps this is what they are good for. By their virtue, ill-humor, rancor, resentments are temporarily purged, and the author is given a glimpse of the person he might have become, had he formed the habit of privately closing each day with such notations as are called for by the publishing of acknowledgements.” Leo Steinberg Continue reading
Was it the intention of Randall Brown or his publisher to make a statement by putting the word “stories” on the cover of This Is How He Learned to Love (Sonder Press, 88 pages)? I don’t know. Of course, it’s a convention to tag book titles with explanatory genre labels such as “a novel” or “stories” or “a memoir.” But Brown is a particular case. He is a prolific and expert writer of flash fiction as well as the author of A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction. He also writes longer forms (see his novella How Long is Forever), but it’s not unreasonable to think of him as “Mr. Flash,” one of the chief exponents of the form in America. Continue reading
Seven Cries of Delight (Recital Publishing, 170 pages) is not like most collections of literary short stories. As legions of MFA students busily workshop their childhood drama into market-friendly “realistic” fiction, Tom Newton has clearly been following a different muse. These stories (two dozen of them!) range widely in setting and imagery and allusion, but all are hung on a solid spine: a lively curiosity about the deeper, invisible nature of what we call reality. This curiosity is expressed as speculative imaginings and unharnessed mental rovings, with an articulate, wryly humorous voice that obviously springs from a well-traveled and well-read intellect. At every turn are enjoyable discoveries of unlikely connections, unpredictable logic, and unanswerable questions.
For the past couple of years I’ve been reading lots of short story collections by living American writers, looking for something that sparks with creativity, not often finding much. Lauren Groff is generally accepted as one of the prime divas of the MFA world of writing. The stories in this new collection, “Florida” (Riverhead Books, 2018), have been previously published in some of the premier venues in the U.S.: The New Yorker, American Short Fiction, Granta, Tin House, among others. They have been featured as well in three different anthologies of Best American Short Stories. Does that mean they are good? Alas, owing to the stranglehold that the standard MFA racket in fiction holds on these once-august publications, I’ve learned not to get my expectations up too high. Continue reading
When does a presence become a force to be reckoned with? A few years ago, I became aware of Stephanie Dickinson because her name often appeared in literary magazines. She was a prolific writer, popping up in many places. I’d read a few of her flash pieces, which were strong in imagery, but I’d never read an entire book of her work until now. Her latest collection of short stories, Flashlight Girls Run (New Meridian, 254 pages), has made me sit up and pay attention. Continue reading
Good book titles play with a reader’s expectations. A short story collection called The Surprising Place (University of Massachusetts Press, 197 pages) might seem to imply an emphasis on locale, a Winesburg, Ohio-ish evocation of a town and its inhabitants. And, in fact, this volume of stories takes its title from a former promotional slogan for Des Moines, Iowa, which provides the backdrop for most of the action. Still, what is “surprising” in Malinda McCollum’s excellent new book and winner of the Juniper Prize for fiction is not a matter of geography, in the prosaic sense. Rather, it concerns a different kind of space, a province of heart and mind. For lack of a better term, you could call it interiority. McCollum offers intensely observed portraits of her characters’ internal struggles which are often unsettling and full of contradiction.
The Best American Short Stories, 2017 (Selected from U.S. and Canadian Magazines by Meg Wolitzer with Heidi Pitlor), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 303 pp.
Ten years ago the writer Elif Batuman wrote an article on two anthologies titled Best American Short Stories, for the years 2004 and 2005. Her amazing conclusion, well-reasoned and argued, was that many of the “best stories” in these collections were not very good stories. As she puts it, “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.” Domestic realism. Urggh. Continue reading
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