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John Grisham and the Short Story


PUBLISHED: December 17, 2009

Here are some facts that I know about John Grisham:

  1. Four of his legal thrillers were made into movies, two of which starred my childhood crush Brad Renfro (may he rest in peace).
  2. I have seen his books for sale at a CVS in Charlottesville, a Monoprix in Paris and a train station’s waiting area in Tokyo.
  3. He is very tall in person, and wears very expensive-looking loafers, and has a very lovely Southern accent. This I discovered after having the pleasure of listening to him discuss why he writes fiction when he visited UVa’s MFA workshop.

However, until last month, what I did not know about John Grisham was what his writing was like. I consider myself an avid reader and yet, embarrassingly enough, I had never picked up one of his books. He’s one of the most widely published writers in the world. How had I never picked up a copy of The Pelican Brief or A Time To Kill?

When a package arrived for me one month ago, I looked first at the cover, then at my boyfriend quizzically.

He read the title aloud. “Ford County. Grisham’s doing short stories now. I thought that as a short story writer, you would like them.”

Ford County

Typically, in an MFA workshop, fiction writers live and breathe the short story. We send out our short stories to literary magazines, and we teach short stories to undergraduates as well (Carver! O’Connor!) with the hope that they, too, will learn to love and embrace the short story like we have. The prospect of writing a novel looms ahead of us, and still, we stubbornly cling to the idea of possibly publishing a short story collection. Agents come to visit, telling us, “it’s all about the novel now. Short stories simply don’t sell.” Over the past few years, literary magazines have been folding faster than kudzu grows. In 2007, Stephen King wrote a riveting essay (“What Ails The Short Story”) in the New York Times Book Review, which he summarized in his closing:

So — American short story alive? Check. American short story well? Sorry, no, can’t say so. Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead.

What did it mean if John Grisham—the man who has published over twenty books of both fiction and non-fiction—has, for the first time in his career, put out a short story collection? As of today, Ford County is number four on the New York Times bestseller list (a fantastic feat, in my mind, for short stories).

In light of the short story’s steady demise over the past few years, perhaps with signs like Grisham now turning to short stories, this means that it’s time for a comeback. In 2009, short story collections like Wells Towers’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It were received well by reviewers. Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage (from Wayne State University Press) was nominated for the National Book Award. And, recently, The Atlantic announced that they will publish short stories directly through the Kindle, a change from their 2005 decision to publish fiction only once a year.

I checked Grisham’s website if there was a direct reason why he switched to short stories, and in his author letter he wrote this: “The good stories stick, but they’re not always long enough to become novels.” The survival of the short story is vital, and I think Grisham’s reason is as good a reason as any.

4 Comments

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John Gorman's picture
Hi Megan, This is a great piece. I too have never read anything by the other J.G. I tend to read in that godforsaken landscape of lit fiction. I think it is the blessing and curse of our MFA upbringings. I had the good fortune of interviewing Bonnie Jo Campbell on my Paper Cut blog. She’s a real spitfire. A truly amazing writer. Yes, short stories are really coming alive. Let’s not forget “Brokeback Mountain” is a short story by Proulx as is “Green Mile”, “Shawshank Redemption” which comes from Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” My point is that the public is already acquainted with these works but we as short story writers have to remind everybody else every so often.
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Stan Pecan's picture
Stan Pecan · 10 years ago
John Grisham is not “very” tall. Maybe you were just so shmitten to have him in your workshop that he appeared tall? He’s lucky if he’s six feet tall. Now, Steven King, there’s a tall pop novelist–6’, 4” I believe. Also, why didn’t you just ask Grisham about all this? His office is on the Downtown Mall…also, I swear, I’ve been reading these “demise of the short story” pieces for the last 25 years, usually by people who write short stories, and they are thick with worry that their chosen art form is being neglected in our culture. But artists have always had it rough. That’s the way it is. But, hopefully, you don’t do it with the hope you’ll make the NYT best seller list or get a movie offer (Grisham’s short story book sold because he’s John Grisham…he could write a poem on a cocktail napkin and people would buy it). As King said in his book, On Writing, “Life is not a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” and they drip with longing for their art o be taken seriously fear that what they’ve devoted their life to is seen as meaningless by society
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
John Grisham is not “very” tall. Maybe you were just so shmitten to have him in your workshop that he appeared tall? He’s lucky if he’s six feet tall.
I’m 6’4”, and having met him on a handful of occasions, I can report that he’s nearly my height. Certainly over six feet. (IMDB reports that he’s 6’1”.)
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Robert Nagle's picture
We can talk about the commercial potential of short stories vs. novels. Or we can talk about the relevance to our culture. There is no question that people are more likely to purchase a novel than a short story. But let’s talk about relevance. Consider these things: 1)new gadgets make reading on the run more popular (and that means shorter forms). 2)people spend less overall time reading 3)people read a lot of stuff on the Internet. It is much easier to read short stories on the Net than a novel. 4)it is riskier for an author to devote a year or two to a novel than to some stories. 5)podcasts are better suited to short stories than novels (although this is not a hard and fast rule). Short story collections often are not memorable unless they are thematically arranged or have some external unity. Tim O’Brien’s Things they Carried was a collection of interrelated stories, with the same characters popping up in different stories. That’s a very workable idea and is not quite a novel. Short stories can try a lot of experimental things that would seem ponderous in a novel. Maybe the better question is: if a young writer had three years to launch a literary career, would it be better to write a single work or a series of smaller works? (John Grisham doesn’t count; he doesn’t have to worry about the market).
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