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Can Stories Matter?

ISSUE:  Summer 2004

This issue owes its origins to Michael Chabon—though I’m sure he doesn’t know it. Chabon stirred controversy last year by confessing in his introduction to McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales that he had grown bored with “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.” He lamented the passing of a time when stories were not all “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew” but might have included any number of genres: “the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war or historical story; the romance story. Stories, in other words, with plots.”

As you might guess, Chabon came in for criticism from all sides. Scott Edelman, editor of Science Fiction Weekly, wrote that “all of the many writers out there, working at the peak of their form, creating stories that are important and fun and containing their own epiphanies, would be as bemused as I was to come across a declaration that what they were doing was dead.” Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly dryly commented, “Considering that reflection, introspection, and insight have been all but exiled from every other medium, it seems like a strange time to be stumping for less thought, more action in short fiction.” Some of the more critical attacks were strangely virulent. Philadelphia Weekly, for example, called Chabon’s introduction “windbaggy”—a little odd when you consider that the piece clocks in at barely 1,000 words.

While numerous writers and editors weighed in with their opinions, only Laura Miller, in her column at the back of the New York Times Book Review, adequately engaged Chabon’s complaint. After reading midway through the annual anthologies of the year’s best short fiction, Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Miller admitted that she, like Chabon, found herself “approaching every new story warily. I wanted to buttonhole the central character with a couple of pointed questions: Is anything going to happen? Are you going to do anything? All too often, the answer was no.” Miller argued, however, that the problem of plotlessness was only a by-product of a more fundamental problem:

The least effective writers here do skimp on plot, but that is a side effect of their failure to create interesting characters. Too often, the contemporary short story is about someone ambivalent, ruminative and passive: exactly the sort of character who could never carry a novel (and a personality type common among writers themselves). There’s something generic about these people, as they stumble haplessly through the motions of the Crumbling Marriage story and the Dying Relative story, the pillar and post of Chabon’s quotidian plotlessness. What desires they have flutter as feebly as expiring moths.

Here, it seemed to me, Miller had hit upon the converse truth to Chabon’s revelation. Just as Henry James famously wrote, “Character is plot”—and thus created the modern psychological template for fiction—so F. Scott Fitzgerald realized: “Character is plot; plot is character.” Still, why are novelists aware of this algorithm and story writers (many times the same people) seemingly not? After all, at the most basic level of plot, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a ghost story, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a switched-at-birth yarn, and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude . . . well, there’s that flying carpet.

In short, writers haven’t forgotten what makes interesting fiction; it seems instead that the literary short story has become its own genre, as bound by convention as sci-fi, detective, or romance stories. Except, unlike these genres, which rely on packing each page with an implausible string of events and unlikely characters, the literary story gives us characters so recognizably like ourselves in disposition and daily activity that there’s little interest in hearing of their exploits. Left with nothing to do, nothing to struggle against, the characters turn to navel-gazing and endless ennui. So, yes, I agree with much of what Chabon has to say—but was his solution really the only one? Surely it must be possible to tell a story with action and interesting characters without having to rely on ghosts and Martians.

So I set myself this challenge: could I find fifteen exhilarating short stories by young writers? I chose young writers especially, because they don’t have the safety net of financial success and professional eminence. Faithful readers of VQR will have already noticed that I was intrigued by E. L. Doctorow’s stab at detective fiction and will find plot-driven stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, and Madison Smartt Bell in upcoming issues. All of these writers have secured positions that permit them to loosen the reins and experiment with form and genre, but young writers take chances for other reasons. They are testing the limits of their abilities and the range of editorial tastes. My goal was to find fifteen writers whose efforts we could encourage in this direction—and by bringing them together further the discussion of what needs to be done to reenliven the short story.

Having said all this, I’m pleased to report that this task was remarkably easy to accomplish. Each of these stories leapt from the page; each spoke to our fiction board and to me. Sometimes the action and excitement are immediately palpable, as in Daniel Alarcón’s “Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979,” a story about revolutionaries killing street dogs as political protest; Peter Ho Davies’s “The New Corporal,” set during WWII (and told from a German perspective); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “A Private Experience,” about two women thrust together by a riot in Nigeria; Daniel Stolar’s “Release,” about a son reckoning with his vet father in Vietnam; or Tom Bissell’s “Death Defier,” about journalists stranded in Afghanistan as the Americans are about to begin bombing. Others map the psychological impact of a death—suicide in Mika Tanner’s “Bullies,” self-destruction in Helon Habila’s “My Uncle Ezekiel.” A number of the other stories at first may appear more conventionally constructed, quieter, more measured, but each builds its own momentum, whether through ever-intensifying unease, as in Brock Clarke’s “The Misunderstandings,” deeper and more shattering revelations about the past, as in Jennifer Haigh’s “The Bottom of Things” or Thisbe Nissen’s “You Were My Favorite Scarecrow,” or chilling insights into a character, as in John McNally’s “Contributor’s Notes.” Here, too, are stories that verge on the magical—Dean Bakopoulos’s “Happy” and Cristina Henríquez’s “Drive”—and stories that push painfully against the limitations of what one person can share with another—Merrill Feitell’s “It Couldn’t Be More Beautiful” and Steve Almond’s “The Problem of Human Consumption.”

Taken together, these stories explore the range of everything dramatic and devastating about our exquisite and wrecked world. There is a grasp of larger human suffering, an urgent searching for common ground, that strikes me as both a barometer of the anxiety of our historical moment and a bellwether of better times to come. Is that too much to expect from a story or even a collection of stories? Why should we expect anything less?


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