The short story gets big


IS 2012 THE year of the short story? It certainly looks that way; as winter turns to spring, story collections are blossoming all over the place.

One of the UK’s biggest publishing houses, Bloomsbury, is bringing out a book of short fiction every month from now until May; at the other end of the publishing scale, the tiny Irish publisher Arlen House has a whopping six collections in its spring pipeline.

Already you can find Éilis Ní Dhuibhne’s Shelter of Neighboursand Adrian Kenny’s Portobello Notebookin the shops. Kevin Barry’s new book of stories, Dark Lies the Island, is due in April, Joseph O’Connor has a new book of stories on the way and, to top it all, the Dublin City Libraries One City: One Book choice for this year is James Joyce’s Dubliners.

So what’s the story? Is it all just a coincidence or is something new in the literary air?

Our passion for electronic media provides part of the answer. Bloomsbury spells it out in an online introduction to its spring story series: “In the last few years there’s been a perceptible growth in enthusiasm for short stories, as opinion and debate are distilled into 140 characters, the internet stealthily erodes our attention span, and advertisers train our minds to receive and buy into new ideas in 30 seconds. As life speeds up, so does our appreciation of ‘short’ and the appeal of a story is perfectly crafted to the length of a commute, a lunch break, the last minutes of the day before switching off the light.”

It makes sense; though it may, of course, translate as “You lot are all obviously too tired and distracted to read or buy novels at the rate we’d like you to read or buy them, so let’s see if you’ll take to the short stuff instead.”

Another part of the answer is that where the US goes the rest of us readers in English eventually follow. And the US, it seems, has already been there and got the Year of the Short Story T-shirt. “People lately have been talking about the resurgence of the short story,” the novelist Eric Puchner observed in the San Francisco Chronicletwo years ago, “as if it had died an untimely death and required a fresh crop of writers to resuscitate it.”

He did a quick internet search and found countless blogs that affirmed 2009 as “the year of the short story”, leading him to conclude that the much-trumpeted “resurgence” of the form was more cyclical than real.

Puchner wasn’t just being cynical for the sake of throwing a pose. He was arguing the case for Richard Bausch, whose 2010 book of selected stories, Something Is Out There, proved, according to Puchner, that the short story has been alive and well all along. Rather than casting talented newcomers as heroes who have saved the form from certain death, this view places writers such as Lorrie Moore, Nathan Englander and Alexander MacLeod firmly in the tradition of John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.

Irish readers may now breathe a sigh of relief. Having a fine tradition of our own, we can point not only to great writers such as James Joyce, Liam O’Flaherty, Sean O’Faolain and Mary Lavin but also to more recent practitioners, from William Trevor and Eugene McCabe to Claire Keegan and Kevin Barry.

Even with all this richness lying around our feet, however, Irish readers have been known to resist the charms of short fiction. When she edited The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, a couple of years ago, Anne Enright was moved to point out, in an essay in the Guardian,that readers often complain that stories are not satisfying. “They are the cats of literary form; beautiful, but a little too self-contained for some readers’ taste,” she wrote.

Enright’s own highly regarded collections, The Portable Virginand Taking Pictures, place her in the distinguished pantheon of which she speaks, and she, like Puchner, argues that we dismiss or devalue that tradition at our peril. Denigrators of the story form have been known to scoff at it for being too contemporary – and thus, in retrospect, too dated – or too formally conservative and thus, some might say, simplistic.

Both criticisms see the short story’s origins, whether in oral storytelling or in the kind of commercial fiction that used to be published in magazines and newspapers, as something of a dodgy skeleton in the family cupboard. Enright, however, is having none of it. “Whoever thinks the short story harmless for being closer to a ‘folk’ tradition,” she declares, “has not read John McGahern, whose stories are the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor.”

It’s actually not a bad definition of the effect of a good short story. It must somehow explode in the mind, make an impact, give the reader a hit. Writing in the New York Timesin 2004 about the stories of Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen explained that, as a reader, he likes short stories because “they leave the writer no place to hide. There’s no yakking your way out of trouble; I’m going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you’ve got nothing to say I’m going to know it.”

Franzen added that it takes the best kind of talent to invent fresh characters and situations while telling the same story over and over. “All fiction writers suffer from the condition of having nothing new to say, but story writers are the ones most abjectly prone to this condition. There is, again, no hiding. The craftiest old dogs, like [Alice] Munro and William Trevor, don’t even try.”

All stories, at some level, are old stories: tales of love, death and a limited number of epiphanies in between. But while the reincarnation of the short story form may have been overstated, there’s no denying that stories do evolve and develop as the years go by.

Our desire for material that works well and looks good on screen has almost certainly contributed to the current vogue for the short-short story, aka flash fiction – well known to the readers of this newspaper through its regular presence on the Life & Culture pages. To see a master at work in this genre, open Jon McGregor’s This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like Youand read its tiny but devastating opening piece, That Colour.

There also seems to be, just now, a fashion for collections of linked stories. It’s possible to read Jennifer Egan’s recent book A Visit from the Goon Squadeither as an episodic novel or as a series of interwoven stories. The same goes for Roshi Fernando’s exuberant Homesick, which Bloomsbury is publishing next week. A rambuctious portrait of an extended Sri Lankan family in south London, it’s as addictive as any full-length book by Vikram Seth or Michael Ondaatje.

Whether these are genuine formal shifts or simply temporary stylistic readjustments remains to be seen. After all, Jorge Luis Borges was doing the flash-fiction thing way back in the Paleolithic. And if it’s thematic links you’re after, you won’t find a more intricately woven collection than Joyce’s Dubliners.

Which brings us back to where we started. One thing, though, is certain. With the number of short stories being published this year – short stories, long stories, funny stories, arty stories and just plain odd stories – there are hundreds of reasons to read short stories in 2012.

Tall tales: Six classic stories to savour . . .

1 James Joyce Eveline

Everybody talks about The Dead, but this five-page portrait of a woman on the cusp of escape from her claustrophobic Dublin life is a tiny gem.

2 William Trevor A Bit on the Side

Gives a whole new meaning to the expressions “married man” and “mistress”.

3 Alice Munro Walker Brothers Cowboy

Munro doing what she does best; a Great Lakes family saga in glittering miniature.

4 Ron Rash Into the Gorge

A man’s family property is sold to the government as parkland; this O Henry prizewinner is a masterclass in storywriting.

5 Lorrie Moore Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People

An American teacher and her mother visit the Blarney stone. Only Moore could render such a topic transcendent as well as laugh-out-loud funny.

6 Roald Dahl Lamb to the Slaughter

Hilarious, horrible, delightfully Dahl

...and six new ones to try

1 Jon McGregor Wires

So there you are, driving along, when a sugar beet smashes into your windscreen . . . Wildly funny and deeply unsettling.

2 Adrian Kenny Harry

The stories in Portobello Notebookgrew out of this historic area of Dublin; this six-pager features an elderly Jewish dealer. For fans of Dubliners.

3 Stuart Nadler The Moon Landing

Eight edgy tales from contemporary Jewish Brooklyn, to be published in April; this one links the Apollo astronauts, alcoholic parents and a pair of brothers clearing out their childhood home. For fans of Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan.

4 Nam Le The Boat

Eponymous, heartbreaking final story in the award-winning debut collection from the Vietnamese Australian. For fans of Yiyun Li.

5 Alexander MacLeod

The Number Three

The final story in his new collection, Light Lifting, has a man who has spent his life building cars, a road-traffic accident and an unforgettable closing image. For fans of Alice Munro.

6 Lucy Wood Diving Belles

Title story from her debut collection of weird and spooky tales in which Cornish folklore creeps into everyday life. A woman wakes up to find her husband gone and a tiny, gasping fish on the pillow next to her.