The short story is dying. An art form relegated to undergraduate literature seminars, products churned out by endless MFA candidates, the literary short story holds little appeal for the average modern reader; it lacks commercial viability. The short story is dying – or is it?
The publishing industry is widely accepted to be facing a pivotal evolutionary moment. Whether the advent of the electronic book spells the doom of the written word any more than the audio book, the printing press, or the development of writing itself, history will have to determine. What seems more certain is that the means of conveying written language to the public is in flux. Literary magazines, long the bastions of the more condensed varieties of fiction, the rarefied homes of great literature, are particularly vulnerable. It is possible that a majority of the populace would rather watch videos of feline antics for free on the computer than seek out and pay for a quarterly periodical, particularly one not readily available at the local big-box store. After all, don’t we get all of the written information we need from Twitter and Facebook?
However, it is just this Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, micro-second attention span that may save the short story. So-called “flash” or “micro” fiction, stories generally 2,000 words or fewer, is surging in popularity. Literary magazines are developing an internet presence; in fact, web-only publications are becoming commonplace. Narrative, an internet-based literary mecca, recently announced a pending iPhone app, and developed a submission category for correspondingly short works. For a populace over-committed by time-saving, multi-tasking devices, works of literature that can be held in the palm of one’s hand may be the answer.
Unfortunately, the greatest risk to the survival of the literary short story lies in the form’s greatest strength. All of the complaints come down to this: discussions of length, of marketability, of theme are merely fronts. The problem is not the length, it is the difficulty. Ours is a society ill-at-ease with discomfort. We don’t need to suffer; there’s a pill, a gadget, or an app for that. Yet, the human condition is, at its core, an extremely uncomfortable one. Good literature reflects and causes us to reflect upon that condition. The short story, at its best, is a distillation, a concentration of all that is true to humanity; it is a form that is sometimes difficult to bear. And, yet, to bear this, to read these truths brings us to a better understanding of ourselves.
The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories represent the English-language acme of this format. Founded in 1918 by friends of the late, iconic storyteller, William Sydney Porter (known by his famous pen name of O. Henry), the O. Henry Prize was formed with the intent to “strengthen the art of the short story and to stimulate younger authors.” Twenty prize stories are selected by the series editor from literary journal submissions throughout the United States and Canada. Journals submit issues in their entirety, and the only criteria are that the stories must be originally written in English and must be published in the U.S. or Canada within the last calendar year. The 20 stories are read by jurors who are blinded to authorship and author nationality. Each juror selects a favorite story and writes an essay about that selection. In 2009, the collection became the PEN/O. Henry Prize stories. The PEN American Center is, according to the press release, “the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization.” Past PEN presidents have included such literary luminaries as Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Salman Rushdie.
The global influence of the PEN centers is felt in the 2010 prize stories. Edited by Laura Furman, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010 was judged by Junot Diaz, Paula Fox, and Yiun Li. The stories range in geographic flavor from the hardscrabble American West in “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx to Pakistan in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “A Spoiled Man.” We also visit Malaysia with Preeta Samarasan in “Birch Memorial,” Greece in “Fresco, Byzantine” by Natalie Bakopoulos, several African countries in Damon Galgut’s semi-autobiographical “The Lover,” colonial Nigeria with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in “The Headstrong Historian.” We see South America through the eyes of the blind, the sighted, and the emotionally blind in Daniel Alarcon’s “The Bridge.” Ireland haunts us in William Trevor’s “The Woman of the House.”
Americans will view their own country in a different light, too, after looking at San Diego through the lost eyes of Brad Watson’s divorced father in “Visitation” or experiencing Appalachia with Ron Rash in “Into the Gorge.” New York appears, as one might expect, in the awkwardly redemptive meeting between Holocaust survivors living in that city and native Viennese shown by Lore Segal in “Making Good.” We also experience New York through the detached life of a Russian-immigrant nanny in “Clothed, Female Figure” by Kirstin Allio. The closing of a relationship and the disintegration of all that is known unfold in the same city for the protagonist of Peter Cameron’s “The End of My Life in New York.” The excruciating detachment of the Washington D.C. bureaucrat is dissected by Jess Row in “Sheep May Safely Graze.”
Furthermore, we return to Fitzgerald’s Long Island with a young boy in George Bradley’s “An East Egg Update,” while Alice Munro carries us back to post-WWII, small town America in the company of “Some Women.” Wendell Berry’s “Stand by Me” makes its home in rural America in those years surrounding that war. We travel deep into the woods of love and betrayal in James Lasdun’s “Oh, Death.” Ted Sanders takes us to a place few of us willingly contemplate, but all will someday visit, in “Obit.” Keyhole views of people and places are glimpsed in the appropriately titled “Microstories” by John Edgar Wideman.”
Beginning this review, I had intended to emulate the prize jurors and describe a favorite among the stories. I find this more of a challenge than I had thought. While all of the pieces are exquisitely crafted, several linger in my mind. “Them Old Cowboy Songs” turns the American ideal on its head, stripping away the gold screen of the Old West, and showing a world where hard work did not always yield success, where despite the best of intentions, people lost to circumstances and to each other. In “The Bridge,” the narrator’s blind uncle and aunt walk hand in hand off of the gap in a damaged pedestrian bridge. Their deaths force the narrator to remove his own emotional blinders and view the madness and shadows of his family. In “A Spoiled Man” Daniyal Mueenuddin’s descriptions of the hills of Pakistan fill the senses even as the compelling and misguided connection between a wealthy American woman and an elderly peasant churns with Shakespearean inevitability toward disaster.
The story that stayed with me the longest was Natalie Bakopoulos’ “Fresco, Byzantine.” Set among political prisoners interned in an island camp during the military dictatorship of Greece in the early 1970’s, “Fresco, Byzantine” explores the concept of fidelity – to art, to ideals, to loved ones, and to oneself. Bakopoulous’ delicate descriptions are as lovely as the choices confronting her protagonists are heartbreaking. Two prisoners first collaborate, then, as the men’s and women’s camps are separated, communicate through the restoration of the painted frescos in a ruined church. Art, ideology, and love collide as some of the prisoners face release.
Confronted with the task of reviewing this dazzling vastness of fiction, I chose to dodge the impossibility of adequately analyzing each piece. Suffice it to say, this is a selection of the best that contemporary literature offers us. Redemptive, suffocating, searing, illuminating, unsettling, haunting, memorable – pick an adjective; perhaps the only one that would not apply is comfortable. These stories inspire, and for a writer of fiction, intimidate. Here we find humanity in its uncomfortable, awkward and transcendent whole. These stories are the magnifying mirror of our souls. In these pieces, birth, death, failure, and transformation are always with us.
No, the short story is not dying, but it is mortal. As readers, we can support the vitality of this unique art that encapsulates all that we are, or we can allow it to fade with neglect. In the end, our art informs us, and our art defines us. The stories of a civilization are its record, outlasting the individuals, even paintings, statues, and monuments. We are remembered through our words.