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For the Long-Disparaged Art of Short Fiction, A Widening Appreciation Of the Form

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007; D01

Last night's PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony could be seen as a rare moment of triumph for the American short story.

Here were a couple hundred loyal supporters of the prestigious Washington-based fiction prize gathered at the Folger Shakespeare Library to celebrate not one, not two, not three, but four modern masters of a literary art form that remains less visible -- and far less commercial -- than its verbose, bulked-up cousin, the novel.

Deborah Eisenberg was being honored for "Twilight of the Superheroes," the most recent of her five collections. Reviewing it in the New York Times, Ben Marcus called its author "one of the most important fiction writers now at work."

When the PEN/Faulkner finalists were announced in February, Eisenberg says, she at first didn't notice that four-fifths of them had been cited for story collections. "I was just thrilled with the list, but it took me ages to realize that they were story writers," she says. "I just thought: 'Wow -- really, really, really superb writers.' "

Edward P. Jones, who couldn't be at the Folger last night, was being honored for "All Aunt Hagar's Children." Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley began his review of Jones's third book and second story collection by asserting that "now there can be no doubt" that the Washington writer "belongs in the first rank of American letters."

"There's no getting around how good he is," says New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman.

Amy Hempel was being honored for "The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel," the culmination of more than two decades spent writing only short fiction. A Hempel story will "make you laugh, and a moment later break your heart," novelist Chuck Palahniuk once wrote, going on to explain what reading Hempel makes other writers understand: "You will never write this well."

Finally, Charles D'Ambrosio, the least known of the four, was being honored for "The Dead Fish Museum," which the New Yorker's Treisman calls "his breakthrough collection." D'Ambrosio says he is so immersed in the world of short fiction that he "didn't think twice" about finding four story collections among the PEN/Faulkner finalists.

When first approached to talk about this seeming triumph, however, D'Ambrosio shot back an e-mail that offered an essential reality check:

"But look who won -- the novelist!" he wrote.

'Not Just a Test Run'

Look who won, indeed. Once again, a novelist did what novelists tend to do in prize competitions, which is to mop the floor with the authors of story collections. Even the fact that this year's PEN/Faulkner winner was Philip Roth, for "Everyman" -- "as a writer you aren't worth [much] unless you've lost to Roth," D'Ambrosio says cheerfully -- can't hide the sad cultural truth:

Short stories get no respect.

For evidence, you need look no farther than that glowing Times review of "Twilight of the Superheroes."

Sure, Marcus called Eisenberg's stories "machines of perfect revelation deftly constructed by a contemporary master." But consider the condescension displayed (perhaps unintentionally) in his opening sentence: "Deborah Eisenberg offers commanding proof that in the right hands, the short story can be a legitimate art form, not just a test run for writers warming up to write a novel."

Can be a legitimate art form.

Please!

You can almost hear Anton Chekhov groaning in his grave.

"Isn't that something?" Eisenberg says -- but there's no anger in her voice. Sounding like a woman who has heard it all before, she points out that there exists an "inexhaustible supply" of similarly patronizing remarks. "The idea is: When are you going to grow up and really write something?"

It's an idea that leaves some short-fiction partisans gnashing their teeth.

A few years ago, Jonathan Franzen -- himself best known for a bulky novel, "The Corrections" -- wrote an impassioned Times Book Review piece arguing that Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro "has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America." Among the obstacles to proper recognition of Munro's brilliance, Franzen wrote, is the fact that people such as former Book Review editor Charles McGrath go around comparing story writers to "people who learn golf by never venturing onto a golf course but instead practicing at a driving range." Worse, Franzen noted, "McGrath's prejudice is shared by nearly all commercial publishers."

Few in the business would disagree.

"Obviously, novels are more central in our culture," says D'Ambrosio's literary agent, Mary Evans. "They're easier to sell and they're easier to make a living from."

The question is: Why?

We live in an era, after all, when the universal complaint is that we don't have enough free time; in a nation that is full of shortening attention spans, that, as Edward Jones puts it, "lives on instant stuff." Doesn't this mean that there should be growing demand for the kind of fiction that can be started and finished over a lunch hour or on a long subway ride?

Well -- no.

Talk to enough writers, editors and agents and the attention-span argument gets knocked down pretty fast. "Any good story," as Eisenberg puts it, "is going to be compressed and very, very layered," which means it requires more of your attention, not less.

Ann Close, Munro's longtime editor at Knopf, agrees. It takes longer to read a book of well-written stories than it does to read a novel, Close says, because once you get going on a novel you can often just "whip through it," but with short fiction, you're constantly starting over. "You have to enter again into every story."

D'Ambrosio offers a related theory. "The natural home for a short story is probably not the book. It's a magazine," he says. The book "is the container for a novel."

This might not be a problem if only more magazines would publish stories and pay decently for them. But the magazine market for serious fiction has evaporated to the point where it essentially consists of the New Yorker -- which runs about 50 stories a year and buys them for sums that can reach into the five figures -- and a bevy of high-minded, low-budget literary magazines rarely seen by the broad reading public. (Online publishing has the potential to reach short story fans more efficiently, but it, too, generates scarcely any income for its "content providers.")

Even though they can't pay much, magazines such as Tin House, Zoetrope: All-Story and McSweeney's remain essential to the literary ecosystem. "They're the doors," explains Margaret Atwood, who, like many well-known writers, is a booster of the little magazines. "They're how young writers get in, how they may attract attention."

But the attention, she says, routinely comes with a thick string attached.

Atwood, whose latest story collection is "Moral Disorder," is at home in multiple forms -- novels, stories, essays, poetry -- and she's long past having to fight with publishers about which she chooses to work in. Not so, she explains, with newcomers to the field:

"With a young writer, they're always going to say: 'Well, this is a lovely book of short stories, dear, have you got a novel?' "

The Lack of 'Upside'

And why shouldn't they? Even the fiercest short-story fans don't dispute that novels are far more likely to attract paying customers.

A look at the sales figures for the PEN/Faulkner Four makes this all too clear.

According to Nielsen BookScan, which offers the most complete sales figures available (though it leaves out those from Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, food and drug outlets and specialty stores), Eisenberg's "Twilight of the Superheroes" has sold roughly 10,000 hardback copies to date, plus 3,000 more in paperback. Hempel's collection has sold 16,000 hardback copies and D'Ambrosio's 3,000, with paperback sales mostly to come.

Jones's numbers look a bit better. "All Aunt Hagar's Children" has sold 29,000 in hardback (it will come out in paperback in September). But that modest success may have come, in part, because Jones's novel, "The Known World," won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, sending its paperback sales (715,000 copies to date) through the roof. And even in hardcover, with almost two-thirds of sales coming before the Pulitzer, the novel has outsold the stories by 50,000 copies.

As for the winning novelist: Roth's "Everyman" has sold 73,000 copies in hardback (in part, clearly, due to his name recognition). The paperback edition, just out last month, is selling briskly.

Small wonder publishers are novel-obsessed.

D'Ambrosio has a patient agent who totally believes in him. "Charlie's just special," Evans says. "He's one of the two clients I've taken on on the basis of one short story." Still, she minces no words in outlining what story writers are up against.

"The potential for a short story collection is so much more limited," she says.

This lack of "upside" has to do not only with the clear preference of American readers, but with the even deeper bias of readers overseas. "It's very difficult to sell a collection abroad," Evans says, noting proudly -- but with a hint of astonishment -- that D'Ambrosio's book has actually made money for its German publisher.

What's more, she says, most short-story writers "don't have a glimmer of hope" of augmenting their meager incomes with a movie deal. There are exceptions, of course: "Brokeback Mountain," for one, and the recently released "Away From Her," based on an Alice Munro story. But for the most part, studios trolling for what Evans calls "franchise characters" find them in novels.

The indignities continue. Publishers encourage story writers to sign two-book contracts, on the condition that the other book not be a collection. Agents push this strategy, too. "You say, 'Are you working on a novel?' and then you'll do a two-book," Evans says.

Marketers, in their search to avoid the short-story curse, will often package a short fiction collection in which the same characters recur as "a novel in stories." They'll also grasp at far looser thematic similarities. Evans once sold a collection whose author had titled it "Female Impersonators." The stories all began with a quote from Mae West. "By the time the publishers got through with it," Evans says, the book was called "Come Up and See Me Sometime."

Eric Simonoff, who is Jones's agent, shares Evans's views on the hurdles short-fiction writers face. "I feel as if I'm girding on armor when I go out with a really good story collection, in a way I don't with a really good novel," Simonoff says.

He also offers a widely shared explanation.

"I think I know why stories don't sell," Simonoff says. "I think people who read fiction like to enter into an imaginary universe." There's a "setup cost" to get accustomed to that universe, then "you settle in for a long ride." With a story collection, by contrast, "every 30 or 40 pages the rug is pulled out from under you."

Simple enough.

But how then to explain another Simonoff client, who published a debut story collection in 1999? BookScan's numbers don't go back that far and Simonoff won't confirm sales figures, but Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies," which went on to win the 2000 Pulitzer, is said to have sold over a million copies.

Call it the exception that proves the rule.

"It was selling extremely well before the Pulitzer," Simonoff says. "It was amazing to watch."

A 'Fiendishly Difficult Form'

So why is it -- in the face of readers' apparent preference for novels and publishers' strong bias in their favor -- that supremely talented writers such as the PEN/Faulkner Four keep turning out stories?

"There's no shortage of people writing those things," as D'Ambrosio points out, "and no one's getting paid." Story writers survive by grace of teaching positions, nonfiction magazine gigs, frugal lifestyles and spouses with real jobs.

One attraction is that it's easier to find the time to finish a story. The legendary Raymond Carver used to tell his editor, Gary Fisketjon, that he could lock himself in the car long enough to crank one out.

Still, a really good story collection, Fisketjon believes, is actually harder to write than a novel. "There's no margin for error," he says. "It's just a more fiendishly difficult form."

It's also a form to which Jones, Hempel, Eisenberg and D'Ambrosio are deeply attached.

Jones is the most ecumenical in his views on novels versus stories. "There is no difference for me," he says; both are just a matter of pulling characters out of his imagination, of saying, "How can I make this person real for a reader?"

Hempel, by contrast, has written nothing longer than a novella. She reads a lot of poetry, which she finds helpful because -- like her stories -- it deals in "precision and distillation."

Eisenberg, too, appears wedded to the short form. "My impulse is to compress," she says. "I love to compress." Someone once told her that the short story is "the poetry of the novel," and she has noticed that it tends to be poets who like her writing the most, because "they understand leaving things out."

Unlike her three fellow finalists (and most other short-fiction writers, it seems), Eisenberg is not the product of a postgraduate creative writing program. "I took high school English and I never took another English class in my life," she says. Born in 1945, she started writing 30 years later, in part because the "wonderful man" she still lives with -- playwright and actor Wallace Shawn -- talked her out of her total lack of ambition.

"He said, 'You will not be happy if you do nothing at all. Nobody does nothing at all.' " Eventually, she gave up waitressing. A University of Virginia teaching job now pays the bills.

Might she ever write a novel? It could happen, but there's a problem. Novels usually depend on "a kind of propulsive plot, a very energetic sort of clean line" -- and she doesn't see reality that way. With stories, freed from the requirement of getting a reader from Page 1 to Page 573, she can "explore very evanescent aspects of experience."

As for D'Ambrosio, he says he started writing stories in the late 1980s while working construction in Hoboken, N.J., mostly from a lack of faith that he could finish anything longer. "I felt that I could begin and end them in a future I found believable," he explains.

He got pretty far into a novel once, but put it on hold. He put story writing on hold, too, having lost confidence in his fiction -- despite having once received an out-of-the-blue fan letter from Roth, who'd read one of his stories in the Paris Review, which he calls "one of the great moments of my writing life." Eventually, encouraged by the New Yorker's purchase of a story the magazine had initially rejected, he got going again.

And the future?

D'Ambrosio hopes to become one of those writers who's at home in both short and long forms. He's got another novel going and he's working on the second draft. But for now, he says -- with his wife taking time off from her teaching job -- "we're going to try to live off short stories for a year."

The award-winning writer laughs.

"I'll probably end up mowing lawns," he says.

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