The Long and Short of Short Stories

Over at Kate’s Book Blog, talk of a short story reading group has made me go all soft and nostalgic about the genre. While I love reading novels (and struggle to write one, as not one but two agents asked me if I had something to show them), I gravitate toward writing short stories. And I enjoy reading them – after all, short stories are to American literature what jazz is to American music. So, I thought I’d share American masters of the form who are favorites, for anyone caring to dip their toes into pithy prose.

If you aren’t acquainted with short stories, I recommend starting with the classics: collections by Raymond Carver, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty, and “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson. Or simply dive into any one of many available anthologies, such as “Great American Short Stories,” ed. Wallace Stegner. For contemporary classics, please don’t miss Tobias Wolff’s “Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories,” an absolute stunner.

Having cautioned you on beginning with the established greats, let me warn you about the current state of short story publishing: It's spotty at best, imitative and shallow at worst – lots ‘o drek. The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, former standard-bearers of quality fiction, should hang their heads in shame. Zoetrope All-Story is good, although it has settled into primarily a showcase for Big Names (this magazine started out as a stellar forum for new authors). Happily, online zines are filling the vacuum left by the print press; despite the uneven quality of work, something rich and new and strange will emerge, I’m sure.

And now, a drum roll, please, for the select few (in LK’s most humble opinion) must-read collections by some of the genre’s best current practitioners:

George Saunders, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Pastoralia”. Dystopian fantasy from one of the most imaginative and funny observers of American culture.

Charles D’Ambrosio, “The Point and Other Stories.” Okay, I haven’t yet read his latest, The Dead Fish Museum (waiting for softcover), but this is an author dedicated to the short story form who pays attention to craft. The quintessential short story writer’s writer.

Annie Proulx, “Close Range.” I am so glad I ran out and bought this book, in hardcover, before all the Hollywood hoo-hah about Brokeback Mountain and Shipping News. Sharp language, stunning metaphors, a tight grip on the American landscape – she’s a national treasure and to be fully appreciated, like Yellowstone, must be experienced in the real setting – that is, in the pages, not on screen.

Anthony Doerr, “The Shell Collector.” This guy uses nature and terrain like no one else, covering locales from all over the world. Evocative imagery, beautiful language. If he keeps up the quality of work that is found in this collection, Doerr has a shot at ranking as one of The Masters.

Denis Johnson, “Jesus’ Son.” His other writing hasn’t hit me that hard, but this tough, haunting collection of stories works as a unit, similarly to Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” Johnson may not ever rise to this level of writing again, but, as in Anderson’s case, maybe once is enough.


Rebecca H. said...

Thanks for the recommendations! I'm particularly interested in Denis Johnson and the latest George Saunders.

Kate S. said...

This is wonderful. Thanks so much for the recommendations, especially the contemporary ones. As you say, there is a great deal out there, and finding the good stuff can be a hit-and-miss proposition.

litlove said...

Oh dear - more books for the TBR pile. Incidentally, have you read Tobias Wolff's short stories? I read his novel Old School and loved it, and am wondering if his other work is as good?

LK said...

Hi, I've read his short story collection "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs," which includes Hunters in the Snow -- a masterpiece.

As you may know, Tobias Wolff was raised by his mother, while his brother was raised by their father. Tobias wrote "A Boy's Life," one of the best memoirs ever, and his brother Geoffrey Wolff wrote his own classic memoir, Duke of Deception. Just two more to add to the pile!

P.S. How can people read trash, when there's not enough time to read the really, really, really good stuff?

LK said...

Correction: Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life."

Rebecca Jane said...

I appreciate your recommendations, too. To return the favor, please allow me to recommend a short story that I really loved: Katherine Vaz's "Lisbon Story," published in this summer's Harvard Review. Have you read her short stories? Some aren't as good, but "Lisbon Story" delivered a powerful kick.

LK said...

Thanks, Rebecca Jane, I will check that author out. I am an avid short story reader and always on the lookout for current practitioners of the form.

M said...

I know this post is a bit old, but I'd like to throw in my two cents on Tobias Wolff. I also loved "Old School" and very much recommend the short stories. "Powder" is a favorite.

The new D'Ambrosio is great.

LK said...

Stay tuned for a future post on favorite nonAmerican short story authors...hope to see more contributions from everyone..

Anonymous said...

Here are some links that I believe will be interested