Between the Lines: Short and long

The New York Times recently announced its list of 100 Notable Books, and of the 45 works of fiction only six are collections of short stories.

books 88 (photo credit: )
books 88
(photo credit: )
The New York Times recently announced its list of 100 Notable Books for 2007, and of the 45 works of fiction only six are collections of short stories. Privileging the novel over the story is nothing new. Story collections don't sell as well as novels, which means that fewer are published. The pool of novels is deeper, so the Times has more to choose from. I don't blame publishing companies for looking out for their bottom line. The book business is difficult enough these days. A couple of weeks ago, the United States' National Endowment for the Arts released the findings of its new study, "To Read or Not to Read," and it seems more and more people are opting for the latter. "Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20-year period, from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004." It's noteworthy that the NEA's report was published this year, the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom's book critiqued the contemporary university and its move away from the classics of Western civilization. Bloom lamented the decline of a certain type of reading, not reading in general, but he foreshadowed things to come. Indeed, the current literary landscape doesn't only affect the publishing companies. Artistic endeavors are not immune to market forces. Writers of literary fiction know that writing is rarely a path to fortune, but most authors still hope to make some money from their craft. This, in part, accounts for an ever-more prevalent quasi-genre of literature: "a novel in stories," books that are divided into discrete and finite chunks, but contain interrelated narratives. The 2007 Times list includes one such work: Later, at the Bar by Rebecca Barry. While the NEA's opinions about the social effects of less - and poorer - reading are somewhat alarming, I'm not convinced that it's an indication of Western civilization's demise. But as a reader, I think it's unfortunate that the shrinking market has helped narrow the scope of fiction. The value of a fictional narrative is not dependent upon its length, a fact reaffirmed for me recently when I read Ethan Canin's 1994 story collection The Palace Thief. Canin is beloved by other writers, and the title story from The Palace Thief was the basis for the 2002 film The Emperor's Club starring Kevin Kline. Yet until a friend mentioned Canin's name a couple of months ago, he had fallen through the literary cracks for me. Canin's prose is straightforward - nothing stylish - yet it's as intimate as any contemporary fiction you're likely to read. "I am an accountant, that calling of exactitude and scruple, and my crime was small," begins the collection's first story, "Accountant." In some ways, Canin's tales are predictably American: short on action, long on pathos. But unlike his minimalist peers, Canin's stories contain deep character studies. And while length does little to set the boundaries of quality, it isn't irrelevant to the way a piece of fiction unfolds. The stories in The Palace Thief are "long" short stories, each about 50 pages, lengthier than most stories, shorter than a standard novella. But, really, who cares that there's no special name for this genre? It's a formula that, in this book, works wonders for Canin. And for his readers. And this is where I worry about demise of the short story. Canin shows that, while length is not a metric for literary quality, it does help determine the parameters for literary possibility. And limiting literary possibilities limits cultural expression and, thus, the capacities of human expression. And whatever your thoughts about contemporary literature, this is surely a shame. [email protected]