It happened last year, too, when Phil Klay won the award for his debut collection, “Redeployment,” beating bestselling novelists Anthony Doerr and Marilynne Robinson.
And it very nearly happened the year before that, when George Saunders’ collection “Tenth of December” came whisper close to beating James McBride’s novel “The Good Lord Bird.”
For the past several years — perhaps since Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature — short-story collections have been on the rise, gaining in significance and momentum, written by big names, published by big houses and scooping up some of the most significant prizes.
“I think there’s more attention on short stories right now, and I’m really glad to see it,” said Linda LeGarde Grover, who teaches American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and whose story collection, “The Dance Boots,” won the Flannery O’Connor Award.
There are many reasons why we’re entering a new heyday of short fiction: Writing workshops and MFA programs concentrate on short stories. The Internet and smartphones allow people to find and read short pieces in one bus ride, or one flight. We have shorter attention spans, busier schedules.
And then there’s this: intensity. The sense that the craziness of modern life might best be reflected not in long, full novels, but in short bursts of stories.
“I think the short story, the way it glances at experience, feels more realistic today than a novel,” said John Freeman, former editor of the literary journal Granta and founder of Freeman’s, a twice-yearly anthology of short writing.
“I wonder if people are responding to stories not because of the way they read them, but because of the changing nature of experience itself,” he said.
‘Lit by lightning’
The last time short stories were dominant was in the 1970s and early ’80s, when Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie and others were writing stark, minimalist “Kmart realism” stories about struggling working-class people.
Today’s short stories are longer, richer and definitely weirder, and while there’s still plenty of realism out there, there is also an emphasis on “new fabulism” — stories that are “fantastical but not strictly magical realism,” said Megan Lynch, editorial director of Ecco Press in New York.
In Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer,” for instance, a man devolves into a baboon, then a turtle, then a salamander. In Saunders’ “Escape From Spiderhead,” prison inmates are experimented upon with futuristic emotion-altering drugs.
These stories have “almost a kind of comic hallucinatory effect,” said Charles Baxter. “That feeling that real reality is not always very real.”
Baxter, professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota and winner of the prestigious Rea Award for the short story, said that short stories differ from novels in more than just length. “The intensity level is higher. These landscapes are more like ones lit by lightning than by candles or incandescent lamps.”
Characters in short stories seem to have no past, no future. They’re “rootless, impulsive, hardly know what they’re going to do the day after tomorrow,” Baxter said. “Those are the people we find in short stories. And that mode tells us a lot, I think, about the way Americans live right now.”
Baxter pointed to Saunders, whose stories in “Tenth of December” are tinged with absurdity, humor, darkness and a bit of sci-fi.
“For the characters in his stories, America looks like a gigantic theme park,” Baxter said. “It’s a funny idea, but more and more it seems as if he’s on to something. If you’re going to try to give a sense of what it’s like to live in an environment in which people are talking about terror and Black Friday and Donald Trump, you’ve got to ratchet up the metaphors.”
Jane Ciabattari, vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, a member of the advisory board of the Story Prize and the author of two collections, credits the Internet with reinvigorating the short story.
“Short stories are gaining increasing critical respect,” said Ciabattari, who lives in California. “We’re reading on our phones; we’re reading online; we are pressed for time. We can grab a moment and read a complete story.”
The Internet makes it easy to click from journal to journal, “reading innovative work in Tin House, the Paris Review, Esquire, the New Yorker,” she said. “And there are hundreds of online publications open to short and flash fiction.”
The New Yorker recently launched an online novella series, and there’s been all kinds of experimentation on Twitter, with established writers such as Rick Moody, Jennifer Egan and Sherman Alexie posting stories as they write them, 140 characters at a time. The Guardian newspaper publishes flash fiction online each Friday and recently challenged 21 authors to write a complete story in a single tweet.
But do sales follow?
“I’m a novel person through and through,” said Susan Carr, a librarian with Hennepin County. “And what’s on my bedside stand? Two books of short stories — Jess Walter and George Saunders.”
Carr has been ordering books for the Hennepin County Library system for about 10 years, and she has noted rising interest for short-story collections.
“Ten years ago, no matter how prominent the author, we ordered decidedly fewer copies of short-story collections because the demand wasn’t there,” she said. Three copies was average. Now, demand for collections by well-known writers such as Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Neil Gaiman is way up.
“Hennepin County patrons, they are so amazingly savvy,” Carr said. “They know about award winners, they know the literary buzz, so they’re placing requests. We have 57 copies of [Klay’s] ‘Redeployment.’ Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,’ we have 30 copies. That’s really good for a story collection.”
But it doesn’t compare to, say, the latest John Grisham novel, which has 1,000 requests. “Are patrons coming to our librarians asking, ‘I want a short story’? I’m not so sure they’re clamoring for the genre,” Carr said. Rather, they are requesting story collections by authors they admire. “The difference now is they’re more willing to read the short story.”
Lynch, the editor at Ecco, attributes the popularity more to the authors than to the form. “I’m not sure I actually see this trend, although I admit that the idea of it makes me happy,” she said. “What I do see is that many of our best writers excel at the short-story form, and that it’s possible for an individual story or a collection to feel perfect in a way that isn’t feasible for a novel.”
Freeman notes that more authors today are skilled in both forms. “It’s a different kind of mode than the William Trevor, Alice Munro world,” he said. “A lot of these writers who have been winning prizes are people who do both — Adam Johnson, Junot Díaz, Claire Vaye Watkins. I think what’s hard now is to write only stories.” Even Saunders, author of four successful story collections, is now finishing up his first novel.
The rising profile of short stories is not reflected in sales. “There have always been a few collections that have taken off,” Lynch said, “but most don’t succeed commercially.”
Saunders is one of the rare short-story writers who has crossed the divide into popular and moneymaking; “Tenth of December” was a New York Times bestseller, and in December he packed the ballroom at Macalester College in St. Paul for an event. He has also been a guest on late night talk shows, strumming guitar with Stephen Colbert and joking with David Letterman.
“We were all happy when George Saunders’ book got on the bestseller list,” Baxter said. “Whenever there’s a book of short stories that’s a bestseller, all short-story writers celebrate.”