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Big Books Feature

Let's Get Short

City Paper's Big Books Issue 2009 takes a look at fiction's overlooked gems

Big Books Issue 2009

Going Short Some authors simply prefer compact storytelling over the novel's wordy road | By Petula Caesar

Let's Get Short City Paper's Big Books Issue 2009 takes a look at fiction's overlooked gems

Neverending Stories Short stories continue to be where sci-fi writers explore their big ideas | By Adrienne Martini

Dead End Has a single James Joyce short story unduly influenced contemporary American short fiction? | By John Barry

The Storytellers 27 Writers on 27 Short Stories from 27 Authors

Posted 9/23/2009

Last week Oprah Winfrey named Uwem Akpan's debut collection of stories Say You're One of Them as the latest title in her book club. Say whatever you want about the quality or choices of Oprah's Book Club selections, but few things guarantee sales like being anointed into Winfrey's reading circle, and if there's a more fitting example of short stories hiding in plain sight in the publishing world than this announcement, I can't think of one. Winfrey started her book club in 1996, and of the 63 titles she has cited over the past 13 years, Akpan's Them is the first short-story collection ever picked.

She's not the only book-world force ignoring the form. In the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction's 61-year history, only four short-story collections have been honored: James Michener (1948), Katherine Anne Porter (1966), Jean Stafford (1970), and John Cheever (1979). The National Book Award has laurelled five short-story collections since 1950—William Faulkner (1951), Katherine Anne Porter (1966), John Cheever (1981), Eudora Welty (1983), and Andrea Barrett (1996). And the Nobel Prize for Literature has historically honored bodies of work, but only two of its laureates—Yasunari Kawabata (1961) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978)—are exceptionally renown for their short stories.

This lowly regard isn't limited to literature prizes. The market for short fiction gets smaller and smaller as fewer print magazines deign to publish them and web publications, well, fail to generate the sort of revenue and readership to encourage short writers to publish with them. And the short story has been, and may still be, the educational tool in MFA programs, the practice 5K runs before heading out on the novel's marathon haul.

But as the late J. G. Ballard notes in the introduction to W.W. Norton & Co.'s The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard, out this week: "Short stories are the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit. At its best, in Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal, a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of your imagination."

Hear, hear: Without the short story, wouldn't our reading lives better a little less rich? Guy de Maupassant practically documented a whole world of late 19th-century life in his shorts. Soviet satire thrives in the short form. Philip K. Dick turned out inventive short stories the way some people sneeze. We wouldn't even know the depth of some writers' fiction gifts—Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Alice Munro, Dorothy Parker, Bruno Schulz—were it not for the short story. And people are still writing them: local author and Towson University English professor Geoffrey Becker's collection Black Elvis comes out in October, and he appears on a panel this weekend during the 14th annual Baltimore Book Festival. (see insert).

For this year's Big Books issue City Paper asked its contributors to consider the short story. Adrienne Martini checks in with the short form's continued life in SF. John Barry wonders whether the American short story might be a little too influenced by a certain Irish master. Petula Caesar discusses the limited outlets short-story writers face these days. And, finally, we offer an assortment of brief mash notes to some favorite shorts. We don't expect to catapult the short story into the limelight with this issue; but if we can get a few readers to remember favorites they've read from over the years, or turn people onto some overlooked writers, then perhaps it will be a minor victory in the short-story's stepchild status.

Related stories

Big Books Feature archives

Neverending Stories: Short stories continue to be where sci-fi writers explore their big ideas

Dead End: Has a single James Joyce short story unduly influenced contemporary American short fiction?

Going Short: Some authors simply prefer compact storytelling over the novel's wordy road

The Storytellers: 27 Writers on 27 Short Stories from 27 Authors

More Stories

Going Short (9/23/2009)
Some authors simply prefer compact storytelling over the novel's wordy road

Neverending Stories (9/23/2009)
Short stories continue to be where sci-fi writers explore their big ideas

Dead End (9/23/2009)
Has a single James Joyce short story unduly influenced contemporary American short fiction?

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