Keeping it Short
WEEKENDER | Wed, 03/31/2010 4:22 PM |
There are more than a million books published around the world every year, with short story collections accounting for less than 1 percent of them. Still, the last two years have seen the publication of some of the most intriguing anthologies by authors of all backgrounds, making 2008 and 2009 very successful years for short fiction. In the long run, it remains to be seen if the short story will gain the publishing upper hand. Maggie Tiojakin reports.
Short stories are hard to write, that’s true; but they’re even harder to sell, and that’s a fact.
Ratih Kumala is known for her quirky and sometimes disturbing stories that appear regularly in leading national dailies, including Kompas and Suara Merdeka. She’s the author of three novels – Tabula Rasa (2004), Genesis (2005) and Kronik Betawi (2009) – as well as a collection of short stories, Larutan Senja (2006), distinguishing her as one of the most promising young writers today.
The 14 stories included in Larutan Senja (Potion of Twilight) feature some of Ratih’s best writing to date, recounting anecdotes of a world driven by faith (or the lack of it), mysticism, fantasy and (some) horror. Yet the anthology is almost impossible to find in local bookstores and available for purchase only through the Internet. This is despite the fact that Larutan Senja was listed as one of the few notable books in the year of its publication.
“Our editorial department has often expressed a great interest in publishing short story collections,” says Hetih Rusli, a senior editor at publisher Gramedia Pustaka Utama. “But our marketing department has always been more than a little hesitant to put them out there because they never sell as well as we expect.”
Nevertheless, according to Ratih, the lack of interest on readers’ part in purchasing anthologies of short stories may also be attributed to the fact that local short stories are readily accessible in newspapers’ weekly cycle.
“This is a unique tradition for Indonesian writers and readers,” she says. “We’re accustomed to reading short stories while browsing the weekend edition of the national dailies, whereas we read books when we’re in the mood to get lost in larger works, like novels or even novellas.”
Over in other countries—notably the United States and Canada—short fiction remains somewhere at the center of all literary preoccupation. How could it not? North America is home to some 800 graduate creative writing programs and more than 1,000 literary journals (both print and electronic) whose dedication to short fiction is unrivaled in any other English-speaking country. Supporting these journals are creative writing departments in more than 2,000 American colleges, as well as annual anthologies the likes of Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.
Tom Perrotta is an American novelist, short story writer, screenwriter and essayist. He’s the author of the novels The Wishbones (1997), Election (1998), Joe College (2000), Little Children (2004) and The Abstinence Teacher (2007), as well as a short story collection, Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies (1994). For him, the short story as a form “has gone in and out of fashion” in the face of publishing challenges.
“The main role of the short story collection … is to introduce new voices,” he tells the WEEKENDER. “Publishers hope these new voices will follow with a novel … [because] only a handful of major writers – Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant – have managed to carve out distinguished careers writing only in the short form.”
For Simon Van Booy, however, at the heart of all forms of writing is the story itself. The 2009 winner of the International Frank O’Connor Prize, arguably the most prestigious for short story writers, Van Booy is a British author who has penned two short story collections – The Secret Lives of People in Love (2007) and Love Begins In Winter (2009) – three books on philosophy and countless essays. His first novel is set for publication sometime next year.
“I think some stories are just more suited to [the short story] format,” Van Booy writes to the WEEKENDER. “A few stories in my imagination are yet to find their mode of deliverance.”
Ratih, though, believes the short story form is the equivalent of a beginner’s class for writers experimenting with and trying to find their own voice before eventually graduating to a novel.
“Writing a short story is how writers begin their career,” she says. “It’s a training ground, and a difficult one at that, because not all writers can do it well.”
Lori Ostlund agrees. A recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, her collection The Bigness of the World (2009) has been hailed by critics as a remarkable debut.
“Short stories are the way that young writers build up their résumé,” Ostlund says in an email interview. “But it isn’t always the case that someone who writes a short story can also write a novel. Some people are fundamentally novelists and others are short story writers.”
Even so, on the point of short fiction as a literary commodity, most people tend to step back. While it’s true there are more literary outlets today than at any other time in history – taking into account the small presses and electronic-based journals around the world – there have also been a lot of financial cutbacks and loss of readership over the last few years.
Will short stories ever be able to outshine the bulky magnum opuses penned by genre authors such as J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer?
“I’m not sure I see the short story as an especially commercial genre,” says Perrotta. “Yes, a few story collections do well in the marketplace, but most reach a relatively small audience, though there have been some high-profile exceptions.”
Among the special few is Jhumpa Lahiri, whose first collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won the Pulitzer Prize and gave her an early taste of international fame. It was a groundbreaking volume, matched by her debut novel, The Namesake (2003), and second collection, An Unaccustomed Earth (2008).
An Indian-American writer, Lahiri’s popularity marked an interesting juncture in the development of American short stories. Following her success, and perhaps unintentionally so, other writers of foreign backgrounds began to emerge and mold their careers in the United States, where the literary market is highly selective and, at times, impossible to penetrate. Notable foreign writers on this list, whose American identity is bound by geographic upbringing and education rather than heritage, include Nam Le (Vietnam-Australia), Uwem Akpan (Nigeria), Alexandar Hemon (Bosnia) and Yiyun Li (China).
There were, of course, others before them: Russia’s Vladimir Nabokov, for one, whose controversial Lolita became the talk of the world back when it was first published in the 1950s, and whose short stories appeared in distinguished journals such as The Atlantic.
The Atlantic, a monthly journal of literary and political commentary founded in 1857, is one of the first outlets many American short story writers turn to for publication and also to establish their reputation as masters of the form. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott, among others, launched their careers through the magazine. And for the next 148 years, it continued to publish monthly fiction.
Nevertheless, in 2005 the magazine changed gears. Fiction is no longer a part of its monthly editorial, though in its place is an annual collection of at least 10 short stories.
“Our Fiction Issue is designed to function a bit like an anthology,” says Sage Stossel, an editor at The Atlantic. “With short stories, poetry and articles about writers and writing all gathered together in one place.”
In December last year, The Atlantic began offering two short stories a month published exclusively through Amazon’s Kindle, priced at US$3.99 each – the first of its kind. If anything, it’s probably a sign that short stories are enjoying the kind of popularity to which they were previously unaccustomed.
“The Atlantic has historically served as an important outlet for short fiction,” says Stossel. “And it remains committed to publishing short fiction.”
In Southeast Asia, publishers are only just beginning to warm up to short fiction. Kuala Lumpur-based Silverfish Books, for instance, commits itself to publishing short story volumes by Malaysian authors. And Singapore’s QLRS (Quarterly Literary Review Singapore) has, for the past decade, regularly posted up short stories, criticism, essays and poetry by local authors.
Shih-Li Kow is a Chinese Malaysian whose debut short story collection, Ripples and Other Stories (2008), was shortlisted for the International Frank O’Connor Prize.
Expounding on the notion that most readers are now responding better to short stories, Kow says the key rests with the publishers and not (strictly) with the readers.
“I believe publishers are the ones who open up to different types of short fiction,” she says. “There can only be a potential readership if something is published.”
Asked about what drew her to the short story as a medium, Kow says, “It wasn’t so much that I chose the medium. I felt I didn’t have a choice but to write short stories.”
A similar sentiment is shared by Ostlund, who teaches creative writing at the Art Institute of California in San Francisco. Though currently at work on her first novel, Ostlund admits her heart belongs to the short story.
“I think there are a lot of readers out there who … don’t always run toward the novel,” she says. “And I’m gratified by the number of really good short story collections that I’ve been coming across lately, hoping for more to come.”
Overall, short fiction – individually and as a collection – does have its own irresistible appeal that puts readers and writers alike into a state of trance. The small moments of revelation contained within, the illuminating truth spoken by voices so familiar they sound like our own, as we mull over the quick yet subtle narrative, piercing dialogue, and often unpredictable ending. These are the winning points of the short story, which render the form arguably the most difficult to master, and the reason it continues to evolve.
Europe, a continent best known for its novels, poetry, plays and essays, whose literary market for many centuries has been divided by language, culture and history, has now entered the fray by publishing, for the first time, an anthology of 35 short stories by authors hailing from Albania to Wales.
The stories, selected by Hemon, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, are collected in a volume aptly titled Best European Fiction 2010. Released in January, the collection is expected to serve as the new benchmark for short stories.
Indonesia, by comparison, isn’t lagging far behind. Besides the weekly short stories in newspapers, some of which go on to be anthologized by the end of the year, there are also the prestigious Pena Kencana Award and Khatulistiwa Award, both of which recognize the contributions made by short stories to the Indonesian literary scene.
But is it enough to boost a writer’s ambition?
“Generally, [short story] writers aren’t well appreciated in Indonesia,” says Ratih. “And it’s understandable for our readers to choose novels over short story collections, because why go to the trouble of reading something that forces you to think hard rather than simply entertains?”
Surely, though, that isn’t what short fiction is all about.
“I think short stories have the sort of power that can seduce a reader,” says Van Booy. “The way you fall in love first and get to know the person later. A good story to me is something I can’t forget.”
Perrotta, whose short story “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” opened the anthology of Best American Short Stories 2005, credits fellow writers for preserving the form.
“The short story continues to prosper because talented young writers haven’t abandoned it,” he says.