Introduction The short story is in need of a scandal.
The short story should proclaim itself to be based on actual events and then, after a series of fiery public denials, it should hold a press conference in Cannes and make a brave but faltering confession: None of it actually happened. It was fiction all along. Yes, despite what’s been said, it has always been fiction and it is proud to be fiction. The short story should consider staging its own kidnapping and then show up three weeks later in The New Yorker claiming that some things happened that cannot be discussed. Or perhaps the short story could seek out the celebrity endorsement of someone we never expected, maybe Tiger Woods, who could claim that he couldn’t imagine going out to the ninth hole without a story in his back pocket. They are just the right size for reading between rounds of golf. It doesn’t really matter what the short story chooses to do, but it needs to do something. The story needs hype. It needs a publicist. Fast.
I can speak to the matter with great authority because I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately, and the very large majority of them have been shockingly good. They are better than the novels I’ve been reading. They are more daring, more artful, and more original. Yet while I know plenty of people with whom I can discuss novels, there are only two people I know with whom I can swoon over short stories: Katrina Kenison (more on her later) and my friend Kevin Wilson, a young writer who reads literary magazines the way other people read pulpy spy novels, the kind of friend you can call in the middle of the night and ask, “Have you read the latest issue of Tin House?” As valuable as these friendships have been to me, I am sorry to say they are not enough. Since I have recently given my life over to short stories I need to find a larger audience than two. I have the zeal of a religious convert. I want to stand in the airport passing out copies of One Story and The Agni Review. I want to talk to total strangers about plot and character and language, about what makes that Maxine Swann story so moving and the David Bezmozgis so surprising. How did that Kevin Moffett story manage to lull me into such a trance? I’m more than willing to take the message to the people, but the short story is going to have to work with me here. It needs to be a little less demure.
The first thing the short story needs to think about is casting off the role of The Novel’s Little Sidekick, the practice run, the warm-up act. I was extolling the virtues of a particularly dazzling short story to an editor friend recently when she cut me off in mid-sentence, said she didn’t want to hear it. “I’ll only fall in love,” she said bitterly, “and then I won’t be able to buy the book, and if I do buy the book I won’t be able to sell it.” Short stories, it seems, are a dead-end romance in publishing. In the rare instance when a house finally does break down and buy a collection, the usual stipulation is that it must be followed by a novel, a.k.a. something that might sell. But must one think so far down the road as to how things will end? Love the short story for what it is, a handful of pages in a magazine. The short story isn’t asking to be a collection, and it certainly isn’t trying to pass itself off as a potential novel. Who’s to say the short story writer has a novel in him? Is a sprinter accepted to the team on the condition that she will also run a marathon? Certainly many people do both, and some people do both well, but it always seems clear to me when a novelist has turned out a short story or a short story writer has stretched a piece into a novel. There are a handful of people who to my mind are equal in their talents, John Updike leading the list, but then John Updike could probably win a hundred-meter race as handily as he could run cross-country.
It was a genuine challenge to pick a mere twenty stories out of the more than one hundred twenty I received. I would have been happier turning in thirty or even forty, so many of them were excellent, and yet I know I couldn’t put my hands on the twenty Best American Novels for 2006. So what accounts for so many successful stories? (Remembering, of course, that this is not actually a volume of the best short stories in America. These are just the stories that I like best, and I am full of prejudice and strong opinions. The genius of this series, and certainly the reason for its longevity, is that it relies on guest editors who arrive every year with all their own baggage about what constitutes a wonderful story, and as soon as they feel comfortable in their role as the arbiter of Best they are replaced by another writer who is equally sure of his or her own taste. That’s one thing you can say for writers — we know what we like when it comes to writing.) It could be that stories are easier to write than novels, but having taken a crack at both myself I am doubtful of this. I think it is more the case that short stories are expendable. Because they are smaller, the writer is simply more willing to learn from her mistakes and throw the bad ones and the only pretty good ones away. Knowing that something can be thrown away encourages more risk taking, which in turn usually leads to better writing. It’s a sad thing to toss out a bad short story, but in the end it always comes as a relief. On the other hand, it takes a real nobility to dump the bad novel. The novel represents so much time that the writer often struggles valiantly to publish it even when it would be in everyone’s best interest to chalk it up to education and walk away. I know a lot of people who published the first novel they ever wrote. I can think of no one who published his first short story.
So why, if what I’m telling you is true, and let’s assume for the sake of this introduction that it is, aren’t more people running out to buy their copy of Harper’s and turning directly from the index to the short story? Short stories are less expensive, often better written, and make fewer demands on our time. Why haven’t we made a deeper commitment to them? I am afraid it has something to do with the story’s inability to cause a stir. As a novelist I would say I read well over the average number of novels (whatever that is) per year. It doesn’t take much to get me to read something new. I’ll pick up a novel based on a compelling review, the recommendation of a friend, even a particularly eye-catching cover. I troll the summer reading tables in bookstores to fill in the holes in my education. I am forever picking up something I’ve always meant to read (Zeno’s Conscience is on the bedside table now waiting for me to finish writing this, and there is still so much Dickens). But everything I mean to read, and nearly everything I have read no matter how obscure, has had some means of catching my attention. The uncollected short story in its magazine or literary journal has nothing but the author’s name and possibly a catchy title to flag you down. Only in its largest venues does a short story manage to score an illustration. It does not go out and get you. It waits for you. It waits and waits and waits.
Unless of course you have the brilliant good fortune to be chosen as the editor of The Best American Short Stories one year. Because while a single short story may have a difficult time raising enough noise on its own to be heard over the din of civilization, short stories in bulk can have the effect of swarming bees, blocking out sound and sun and becoming the only thing you can think about. So even though it goes against my nature to...