In Praise of the American Short Story


April 5, 2009

In Praise of the American Short Story

To call an American writer a master of the short story can be taken at best as faint praise, or at worst as an insult, akin to singling out an ambitious novelist’s journalism — or, God forbid, criticism — as her most notable accomplishment. The short story often looks like a minor or even vestigial literary form, redolent of M.F.A.-mill make-work and artistic caution. A good story may survive as classroom fodder or be appreciated as an interesting exercise, an étude rather than a sonata or a symphony.

A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome. That kind of thing is just not commercial. Contrary examples like Raymond Carver, who wrote almost no piece of fiction longer than a dozen pages, tend to confirm the rule. Carver, who died too young in 1988, was praised for his reticence and verbal thrift. He was a great miniaturist whose work grew in an anxious, straitened era, whose virtues lay in going small and staying home. But the conventional wisdom in American letters has always been that size matters, that the big-game hunters and heavyweight fighters — take your pick of Hemingway-Mailer macho sports metaphors — go after the Great American Novel.

But this maximalist ideology may be completely wrong, or at least in serious need of revision. The great American writers of the 19th century, whose novels are now staples of the syllabus, all excelled in the short form. Herman Melville’s “Piazza Tales” are as lively and strange as “Moby-Dick”; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales and sketches are pithier than “The Scarlet Letter”; Henry James’s stories, supernatural and otherwise, show a gift for concision along with the master’s expected psychological acuity. And the first great American fiction writer, Edgar Allan Poe, secured his immortality by packing more sensation into a few pages than most of his contemporaries could manage in a volume.

The near-simultaneous appearance of three new literary biographies offers a powerful and concentrated challenge to the habit of undervaluing the short story. The subjects of these lives — Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever and Donald Barthelme — all produced longer work as well, but their reputations rest on shorter work. And this work, far from being minor, is among the most powerfully original American fiction produced in the second half of the 20th century.

Much of it, indeed, makes the novel look superfluous. The literary landscape of the 1950s and early ’60s was thick with Southern writers, Roman Catholic writers, writers who dabbled in the gothic and the absurd, but none came close to the blend of grotesque comedy, moral seriousness and steel-trap intellectual rigor that courses through O’Connor’s tales of wayward Southerners. And no sprawling, anguished epic of marital unhappiness or suburban malaise can match the insight and elegance of, say, “The Swimmer,” Cheever’s perfect parable of affluent anomie.

As for Barthelme, he not only brought the energies of the indigenous avant-garde to the pages of The New Yorker, but also somehow married high-powered experimentalism with middlebrow entertainment without betraying either. If the big, anti-realist novels of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon are giant machines — more than a little imposing, perhaps a little dangerous — Barthelme’s sketches are ingenious gadgets that rest comfortably in your hand, throwing out sparks and shocks.

Reading through their collected stories, you wonder if novels are even necessary. The imperial ambitions of a certain kind of swaggering, self-important American novel — to comprehend the totality of modern life, to limn the social, existential, sexual and political strivings of its citizens — start to seem misguided and buffoonish. More of life is glimpsed, and glimpsed more clearly, through Barthelme’s fragments, Cheever’s finely ground lenses or the pinhole camera of O’Connor’s crystalline prose.

Barthelme, Cheever and O’Connor were not exact contemporaries. (Cheever was born before World War I, O’Connor in 1925 and Barthelme in 1931, a year before John Updike and two years before Philip Roth.) They came up in very different social milieus and show no marked affinities of style or influence. Their biographers — Blake Bailey for Cheever, Brad Gooch for O’Connor and Tracy Daugherty in the case of Barthelme — dabble in psychological portraiture while attending to the vagaries of three distinct literary careers.

What their three subjects shared was the good fortune of writing at midcentury, when the institutions of print supported the flourishing of the short story as never before or since. There were mass-circulation magazines and more-exclusive journals that would pay writers for stories that readers would spend money to read. In addition to The New Yorker, there was Esquire and (a bit later) Playboy and a host of publications with “Review” in the title: Saturday, Partisan, Kenyon, American, Evergreen, some of which still publish. All of them fed a boom in short fiction that may not have been sufficiently appreciated at the time.

It is easy, perhaps irresistible, to wax nostalgic for those days. But if 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. Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” provides the most vivid recent example of the way a good story, or a solid collection of them, can do more than a novel to illuminate the textures of ordinary life and the possibilities of language. And the short story may provide a timely antidote to the cultural bloat of the past decade, when it often seemed that every novel needed to be 500 pages long and every movie had to last three hours — or four years, if it took the form of a cable series.

The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?

The death of the novel is yesterday’s news. The death of print may be tomorrow’s headline. But the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.