Short Shrift

“If it happens three times, it’s a trend,” goes the thinking at a lot of publications, so it’s easy to see how A.O. Scott‘s essay in the New York Times on the revival of the short story came to be. There are new biographies out about Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Donald Barthelme; all three made their reputations on their short stories; hence, there must be some newfound interest in reading short stories. “[I]f the golden age of American magazines is long gone, the short story itself has shown remarkable durability, and may even be poised for a resurgence,” Scott writes. (Note that “may,” always a useful hedge in a trend piece.)

Imagine the harm to Scott’s thesis had Brad Gooch figured he’d needed another year to work on his O’Connor biography. That’s the problem; the alleged trend is really just an accident of timing. Calling out Wells Tower‘s new collection as a special example of the power of the short story doesn’t help the argument; after all, no matter how poor the financial prospects of the short story are, every year brings a much-praised story collection. Indeed, wouldn’t the timing for this piece have been better a year ago, when Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth topped the New York Times bestseller list?

Maybe, but back then no editor would’ve wanted to hear it. A year ago critics were engrossed in Richard Price‘s Lush Life, and the kind of people who write trend pieces were talking about the revival of the big, ambitious novel about life in the big city. Scott is a very smart critic, and he’s not so foolish as to suggest that the novel is going to be completely supplanted by the short story—even if he does suggest, glibly, that “the death of the novel is yesterday’s news.” But his notion that the Kindle might revive the short story sounds off, an effortful statement shoved into the piece in order to give it some heft. (And anyway, isn’t the point of the Kindle that it can contain dozens of epics?) Even if a publisher did come up with some kind of dollar-a-story payment scheme for short fiction, the sort of quick-hit storytelling that Scott imagines we crave—a “handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention”—only really exists in flash fiction, and though many have tried, enthusiasm for that form is limited. Ultimately, readers care more about the quality of the narrative than the length of it. After all, no serious person ever recommended Raymond Carver‘s “A Small, Good Thing” to somebody simply because it’s short.

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