Why short stories? Not even short story collections or anthologies but stand-alone, honest-to-goodness short stories. After all, the novel has often been treated as the measure of an author’s greatness and his/her short stories considered as afterthoughts or, worse, decorative paraphernalia in a career of writing. People talk about the Great American Novel but rarely about the Great American Short Story. The Russians have always been more known for writing dense and weighty tomes even though they arguably have the most acclaimed short story writer of all-time. Critics and writers alike have even considered short stories as the prelude to a career devoted to writing novels.The short story, in short, has always been regarded as the novel’s lesser sibling.
I find this unacceptable. We are already living in a world where Alice Munro, a short story purist, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A world where some of the most critically acclaimed books are short story collections by writers who mostly write short fiction. A world where Jhumpa Lahiri has won the Pulitzer with her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. A world where George Saunders has won the inaugural Folio Prize for his latest collection of short fiction, Tenth Of December. We must stop questioning the status of short stories in the world of literature. The short story has done more than enough to earn its rightful place beside the novel as equals.
This blog and, in particular, this monthly feature is an effort to create greater awareness for the short story and perhaps gain converts in appreciating such a sublime art. Here’s how it works: Every month, an individual from The Short Story Station shall highlight two short stories and present them for consideration to our readers and, at the end of each month, the writers of this blog will share their thoughts on the short stories.
For this month, I am the individual who will have the discretion to choose the short stories to be featured and I am going to highlight two short stories from two of my favorite short story writers, Alice Munro and George Saunders.
“A girl was not simply what I was, it was what I had to become.”
From Alice Munro, I choose Boys and Girls which is taken from her debut collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. I remember that this is the short story that convinced me of Munro’s ability as a writer of short stories. Her dissection of gender roles in society in the eyes of a child who’s still growing up and trying to figure out her place in the world is nothing short of majestic.
“I do not want to only speak of my love in grunts! If I wish to compare my love to a love I have previous knowledge of, I do not want to stand there in the wind casting about for my metaphor! If I want to say like, Carolyn, remember that RE/MAX one where as the redhead kid falls asleep holding that Teddy bear rescued from the trash, the bear comes alive and winks, and the announcer goes, Home is the place where you find yourself suddenly no longer longing for home (LI 34451)—if I want to say to Carolyn, Carolyn, LI 34451, check it out, that is how I feel about you—well, then, I want to say it!”
On the other hand is George Saunders’ Jon, taken from In Persuasion Nation, which is a love story set in the future where capitalism has permeated into the every facet of American life from education to social class. If George Saunders is a prophet, we should all be terrified but maybe assuaged by the fact that love still exists in such a society that’s only concerned with sales figures and whether your jacket is made by Hermès or not.
Why these two stories? For the simple reason that these are the stories that I want people to read when I am introducing them to these two giants of literature. From here, a reader can move on to Munro’s The Bear Came Over The Mountain, Who Do You Think You Are, Turkey Season and Saunders’ Pastoralia, CommComm, The 400-Pound CEO. But for now, read these two because both are gateways to a world of words that, I am sure, you haven’t seen before.
There will be time to discuss these stories in the weeks to come. For now, read and, while you’re at it, I leave you with Jonathan Franzen’s words from his introduction of Alice Munro’s collection, Runaway:
“[D]espite the short story’s Cinderella status, or maybe because of it, a high percentage of the most exciting fiction written in the last 25 years — the stuff I immediately mention if somebody asks me what’s terrific — has been short fiction.”