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The State of the Short Story

ISSUE:  Spring 1986

In early 1985, Ellen Gilchrist’s short story collection, Victory over Japan, won a National Book Award, but just a few years earlier—say in 1980—it would have been difficult even to publish a book of short stories. Popular publishing wisdom stated that the short story collection had no commercial value, particularly if the author had not previously published a well-received novel. Editors, already worried about the shrinking hardcover market, were reluctant to commit their budgets to such risky ventures, and writers whispered about deals between authors and publishing houses in which so-and-so had been compelled to agree to provide a novel in exchange for publication of their book of short stories. But not only commercial publishing was inhospitable to the short story; the small presses, moving into an area the larger houses had abandoned long before, concentrated their attention on books of poetry, and the university presses, cautious about the audience for short fiction, limited their support to annual open competitions, resulting in the publication of a few prize-winning collections each year.

“I always thought of myself as a short story writer,” said novelist Lynn Sharon Schwartz, in a recent interview with Publishers Weekly. “I wrote novels because people told me that you had to in order to get published. Each time I did a novel, Harper & Row would say, “Wait. When you have a reputation, we’ll do your stories.” I really never thought they would, but they did.”

Schwartz’ first short story collection, Acquainted With the Night and Other Stories, was published in June 1984 with Harper & Row’s timing apparently impeccable. As far as the public is concerned, it is as though the short story, like Rip Van Winkle, suddenly awoke from a long, refreshing sleep. Publication has boomed, interest is at an all-time high, and short story collections are now financially successful—when Bobbie Ann Mason’s first book, Shiloh and Other Stories, was published in 1983, it sold more than 15,000 copies in hardcover and went immediately into paperback, while in 1979, when Ann Beattie’s second short story collection, Secrets and Surprises, appeared, the publishing world was impressed that the hardcover edition sold 7,000 copies.

Obviously, things have changed. Without a doubt, our decreasing attention spans may be partly responsible for the short story’s revival. We are a culture bombarded with stimuli and obsessed with work; it is hardly surprising that we prefer literature that can be consumed in one sitting. And yet, given our relentless absorption of art, the never-ending demand for new creative forms, it is to be expected that the short story, having passed out of vogue in the 1970’s, should return as a successful enterprise in the 1980’s.

Much of the credit for this popular revival of the literary short story must go to a handful of writers—Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robison, and Ann Beattie among them—whose stories, distinct in style, restrained in tone, describe the dislocations and disappointments of modern life with irony and whimsy. Rejecting what might be called interesting plot, their stories reverberate with suppressed emotion conveyed through elliptical dialogues, emblematic images, and a carefully restricted point of view. The action is usually minimal, but the dramatic rendering of a situation, so beloved of Edith Wharton, endures through their powerful presentations.

Elevated to the status of literary stars, sought after to teach, mobbed at readings, profiled in large-circulation newspapers and magazines, these writers, and a few that preceded them, notably Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme, have defined the modern short story. Their books, readings, reviews, and lectures, as well as their publications in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, and the literary quarterlies, have shaped our expectations as readers to an unprecedented degree.

And yet, at the same time that these authors are pushed to the front of the proscenium, like so many bowing divas, it would be impossible to state that theirs are the only voices we hear. There are more than a hundred short story writers in this country, perhaps even more, with rich and distinctive talent, and they don’t all sound like Mason, Carver, and Barthelme. The energy and individuality of the form is demonstrated by its range, and by the fact that distinctive new voices continue to emerge.

For example, Heart Failure, by Ivy Goodman, the 1983 winner of the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction, is an angular, spiky book. Goodman’s first collection demonstrates her considerable talent for making the reader acutely uncomfortable; like passengers squeezed together on the subway, we squirm but say nothing. And yet, as disturbing as these stories are, they are also compelling.

Goodman shares with Raymond Carver a talent for raising expectations of both character and reader, then demonstrating why both are doomed to frustration. Nancy Willard once suggested that short stories are about characters trying to get what they want and how they accomplish that; Goodman’s stories hinge on a character’s realization that her aspirations exceed her real chances, so she is trapped in a no-win situation.

Many of Goodman’s heroines are adolescents. They flounder between the miseries of childhood and the disappointments of maturity, unable to make successful choices. Rather than being free, they are imprisoned, like Amanda, the depressed babysitter in “Resignation,” Joan, the rejected young wife in “Trade,” and Dena, the dutiful daughter in “Last Minutes,” whose mother, father, siblings, and boyfriend all urge her to “hurry up and commit suicide.”

“I was fifteen on the fifteenth. My father died on the first, my grandmother on the twelfth, my boyfriend on the eighteenth. “You’re next,” my mother said to me on the twenty-second. She handed me a pack of razor blades and a blue revolver. “I suggest the revolver,” she whispered, “but either way, do me a favor and crawl into a plastic bag first.” She opened the basement door and waved. “Good-bye, Dena.”” Dena, meanwhile, doesn’t want to die, but in Goodman’s fantasy of family life, its callous pressure, there is no alternative. In the struggle for power, Goodman’s women come out the losers. Authorities on pain, they struggle, then flounder, bitter over the inevitability of their failure.

Heart Failures expresses anger and frustration that there’s no way out, particularly for women. Pain is the human condition, Goodman suggests, but there is a special hell reserved for girls. However, the paradox in Goodman’s work is that her very bleakness, so depressing to encounter, strives for life. “Life continues. Until we end it,” a character says, but Heart Failures challenges that assumption.

John J. Clayton, author of Bodies of the Rich, another first collection, also knows that people are supposed to suffer, knows that dreams cannot substitute for accomplishment, recognizes the split between ideals and action, but his stories joyously suggest how we might face the central dilemmas of modern life. While Goodman’s characters are essentially isolated, Clayton’s are very much in the world, enmeshed in a thick soup of responsibilities. Balanced as precariously as tightrope walkers, the men in his stories waver between a sense of responsibility and connectedness and a desire to tear free from the web of wives, lovers, parents, friends, and children they have unknowingly created.

Herb, the divorced, idealistic lawyer in “Part-Time Father, ” is removed from his son’s affluent life, afraid the boy thinks him a failure, and frustrated by his ex-wife’s glossy materialism; Peter, the overeducated carpenter in “Old 3 A.M. Story,” can neither live with his children’s mother nor forget about her; Dave, the regional high-school teacher in “Fantasy for a Friday Afternoon,” wonders why he is so unhappy living out in the country if he got “just what he asked for”; Chris, the “stunned” and “unknowing” Midwestern boy who moves to New York to take classes at Columbia, somehow cannot connect with the life he is so eager to experience, and just watches passively as his roommates love and argue.

All of Clayton’s characters are afraid that they have taken a wrong turn in making choices for themselves, and they fantasize about escaping into other, more valid lives, lives that reflect their inner reality:

It all seemed his private, single struggle, personal humiliation—at being a man, at not being a man. Outside, along Broadway, mothers pushed their baby carriages and walked children in a protest march; their milk, their food were being poisoned by radiation. From his bedroom window he could hear them chanting. A few blocks away, at Columbia, he took political science and history. All that was outside. Then there was the private, the inside: sex and love and being a man and finding something to do with his life he could at least stomach,

        (“Bodies Like Mouths”)

Recognizing their dilemmas, Clayton’s characters fight to resolve them successfully. Chris may be a passive, frightened figure, afraid to talk to girls or enter a nightclub, but by the end of the story, he has, by his lights, succeeded in becoming a better man. He is active where he once was passive, involved where he once was detached, sexual where he once was afraid. His success consists of his finding a place in the world, coming to terms with life.

Ivy Goodman’s stories suggest that the purpose of fiction is to withhold traditional narrative techniques and plot resolutions to startle and shock the reader into insight. John J. Clayton’s stories suggest that the short story’s principal function is to tell what the late John Gardener called “the truth about people and the world,” and to show our progress through it. A third possibility is represented by Ellen Wilbur’s short stories. Wilbur, who seems to share Flannery O’Connor’s idea that a short story is a dramatic event revealing the mystery of a personality, showing how and why that character reacts as he does in a given situation, writes fairy-tale-like, allegorical stories. Her work, like that of Dianne Benedict, the 1982 winner of the Iowa School of Letters Award for Shiny Objects and Other Stories, is concerned with illuminating an intense inner life.

Paul, the hero of the title story in Wind and Birds and Human Voices, tells us that he has gone mad for six months of every year, ever since he saw combat in the Second World War; because of this he has spent the last 20-odd years in a mental hospital, moving, like Persephone, between the light and the dark. Paul’s youth centered on his passion for the piano; enormously talented, he was able to lose himself in the music and transform it into a form of life. “He played to the noise of voices, footsteps, birds, and the steady whine of insects, as if the sounds of summer were his orchestra. And when he played his best, he disappeared into the music, drifted on the notes right out the window of the lonely room into the brilliant summer yard, rose above the buildings, moved in the heavy laden trees, or wafted out across the grass with an intensity that made his mother put her trowel down and turn to stare at the empty dark window.”

Like his passion for music, Paul’s madness comes to dominate him utterly. Every summer, he goes mad, his mind occupied by an imaginary but very real army; every December, they pack up and leave him sane. Utterly isolated, Paul has only minimal human contact until he befriends another patient, the mute and mysterious Henry (the Baron), a war veteran with a bandaged face who seems bereft and abandoned. Quickly, Paul becomes attached to him. “I began to visit him every day, and when I was with him, I noticed that his tears stopped. After about a week he began to squeeze my hand or nod his head to show he understood. This excited me a great deal. In fact, I felt triumphant. The more he responded to me, the more I felt compelled to stay with him.”

Gradually, Paul moves out of his utter isolation, developing a relationship with another person that strengthens his ties with the world around him. But one of Paul’s early responses to the bond is fear; he tells himself that he must warn Henry about his inevitable, approaching bout with madness, and yet he continues to hesitate, afraid of the devastating effect his absence might have on his friend. “I could imagine it so well, how Henry, having been so cruelly and inexplicably abandoned, would regress right back to the way he’d been when I first met him. Only this time, maybe worse. And perhaps by Christmas, when I came back to him, he’d have become unreachable.”

Finally, when Paul misses a morning walk with the Baron, things come to a head. Running outdoors in a storm, Paul chases after the other man, catching up with him on the steep promontory over the mountains where they liked to sit. Guilty and alarmed, Paul intends to describe his illness; instead, to his own surprise and horror, he remembers a long-submerged, terrible incident, buried since one traumatic night in Anzio, Italy during the war, a secret that tumbles out of him “like a machine switched on and driven separately from me.” After this extraordinary catharsis, Paul and the Baron go into the empty, unlocked chapel on the hospital grounds, and the Baron sits down at the organ and begins, brilliantly, to play, pumping the pedals with withered, useless legs. Of course, at that moment it suddenly occurs to Paul that perhaps his friend Henry isn’t actually real.

Paul dreams about the Baron, seeing him miraculously whole and restored, and when he awakens, in a strange hospital bed, the nurse tells him that he has had a stroke and cannot speak. Looking out the window, however, he realizes that it is already summer, and that his madness, which should be occupying his mind like a “great invasion,” is gone. For the first time in 25 years he is wholly, utterly sane.

Ellen Wilbur’s marvelous, moving story describes the pain of mental illness, its awful metamorphosis of the everyday, but it also demonstrates a man’s capacity to make himself whole. Imprisoned in his own madness, Paul still finds a way to redeem himself. Stopping short of R.D. Laing’s thesis that all mental illness is a matter of perception, “Wind and Birds and Human Voices” celebrates the undeniable fact that the mind, focused inward, can generate waking dreams of great power, punish and heal itself.

Though all the stories in this collection reiterate Wilbur’s sense that the inner life is an alternative to the restrictions of the everyday world, not all of them are as successful as the title story. “Sunday,” and “Wealth” rise to the high standards Wilbur establishes for herself, but other pieces in the collection, notably “Three Vignettes,” “Ned,” and “Perfection,” are exceedingly slight. One wants every story to be as great, as elevating and sublime as “Wind and Birds and Human Voices,” because Wilbur, at her best, is capable of unusual power.

Scott R. Sanders, Susan Neville, and Lynne Sharon Schwartz all write stories about a world in which nothing can be taken for granted, in which all the traditional values, supports, and relationships are in doubt. Each of them writes about a particular locale—the Midwest or the urban East— but none of them is what we would traditionally call a regional writer, as in, “Nobody can do this justice who ain’t from our town.” Instead, each of them offers a deep knowledge of a place, its customs, mores, and terrain, and of the particular crises and conflicts these intersections of characters and locales engender.

Schwartz is urban, a New Yorker, and my favorite story in Acquainted With the Night is “The Age of Analysis,” a cutting bit of satire particularly relevant to inhabitants of a city where every other citizen is in therapy and children graduate from child pyschologists to adolescent experts. Neville is a city dweller, a landlocked Midwesterner, and The Invention of Flight depicts the few magical moments of joy her tired, serious characters ferret out of their rather routine lives, lives they negotiate as though they were larded with danger. Sanders is from Tennessee and, according to the jacket of Fetching the Dead, now lives in Indiana, but the terrain of his stories is the dark hill country of William Faulker. He is earnest, brooding, and dramatic in his stories of Jesse Morgan and his family; they unfold in a way that reminds me of As I Lay Dying.

Like Frederick Barthelme and Bobbie Ann Mason, Janet Beeler Shaw’s stories in Some of the Things I Did Not Do, work the now-familiar territory of the new fiction: brightly lit, worn-out laundromats on Saturday night; isolated towns in the Colorado mountains; cheap efficiency apartments; exercise salons; an endless procession of shiny vans, cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Her characters, too, seem familiar to sophisticated readers: an aging cowboy who wants to buy a sulky young wife (not his) a washer and dryer combo; a doctor drawn into marriage with an unstable, anorexic girl; a widow in love with an adulterer’s blonde baby; an unemployed man, living on his savings, who drives off to the lake every day while his wife thinks he’s at work.

Though Shaw’s stories touch us, drawing the reader into her fictional world, where each character’s life seems defined by the pull of an unrealized longing, their impact is limited by the modishness of her voice. For all her considerable insight, and skill, it is difficult for me to read Shaw without automatically comparing her to Mason and Barthelme. Her stories—well crafted and literary—make me think more about their similarity to other pieces in The Atlantic than about what Shaw has to say. Bette Howland, the New York Times reviewer of this collection, was correct, I think, in wishing Shaw would stretch her considerable talents a little farther than she does here.

Like television shows, hit singles, and take-out food, the quick form of the short story implies that it is shaped for our immediate pleasure. Carried on a bus, read in an hour, the short story is experienced in one sitting, but may linger in the mind, to be returned to later. Sometimes, a story I read may remind me of a ringing temple bell, full-toned and resonant; occasionally, I imagine a story as an ugly squawk of indignation, proof that writers really do create out of a desire for revenge. Are short stories the news bulletins of our lives, dispatched across the country? Or has the author become a sort of ventriloquist, describing not himself, but someone he impersonates? Fortunately, the current revival of the short story seems to encompass all these possibilities, and more.


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