The Long and the Short of It


7 April 2009

“The death of the novel is yesterday’s news. The death of print may be tomorrow’s headline. But the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.”  -A.O. Scott, NY Times, 4/5/09 

A.O. Scott thinks the short story may be “poised for a resurgence.”  He points to the recent releases of three literary biographies — of Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Donald Barthelme, short story masters all — as partial evidence.  The present cultural moment is characterized by a “craving for more narrative and a demand for pith,” writes Scott.

“Reading through their collected stories, you wonder if novels are even necessary. The imperial ambitions of a certain kind of swaggering, self-important American novel — to comprehend the totality of modern life, to limn the social, existential, sexual and political strivings of its citizens — start to seem misguided and buffoonish. More of life is glimpsed, and glimpsed more clearly, through Barthelme’s fragments, Cheever’s finely ground lenses or the pinhole camera of O’Connor’s crystalline prose.”

In fact, neither Scott nor anyone else need defend the short-story-as-superior-literary-form.  I don’t know of anyone who would demean the short story as less-than the novel.  One might well argue that short stories are for masters, novels for groping amateurs who lack the not-a-word-wasted craftsmanship of the short-story writer.  

Me, I’m a buffoonish novelist at this stage, I’m afraid.  Some day I hope to write a short story of Chekhovian perfection.  For now, I grope. Take the publishing advantage away — if indeed the short story rises to its deserved eminence — and I’m really up the creek.

Come, all ye slow and long-winded… let us read and write our novels, even if we must rise from the dead.


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