Jean Thompson responds to King’s “What Ails the Short Story?”

Below writer Jean Thompson (Throw Like a Girl) offers a rejoinder to Stephen King’s charge that short story writers are hastening the decline of the form with airless and insular tales. “When circulation falters,” says King, “the air in the room gets stale.”

The 2007 edition of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Stephen King, is out, and Mr. King’s introduction (printed in the New York Times Book Review on Sept. 30 as “What Ails The Short Story?“) is abroad in the land. You should read it for yourself, but to summarize: Mr. King speaks with enthusiasm of the wonderful stories he read in his editor’s role, and with dismay about those he judged less wonderful. He describes a trip to a chain bookstore in search of literary magazines, finding them at last on an inglorious bottom shelf. Could it be, he suggests, that the regrettably small audience for short stories has led to stories mainly written for other writers (or editors or teachers), stories that are “airless, somehow, and self-referring” … “show-offy” … “self-important,” “guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open.”

The next day, 164 comments were posted in response. The American short story’s reading audience is indeed tiny, and it was nice of the entire 164 of them to weigh in.

The comments fell into several camps. One faction dismissed Mr. King as a bad writer, a hack writer, and his criticism along with it. Some stuck up for the short story, its practitioners and its supporting enterprise. Others pointed fingers at the culture itself for the short story’s presumed decline. Round up the usual suspects: capitalism, commercialism, crass marketing pressures, the rise of video amusements, the general dumbing-down of American life. Still others, a considerable group, cheered Mr. King on. Many of these seemed personally offended and wounded by the existence of bad stories, and their language was notably harsher than Mr. King’s. Writers today are “artistically in-bred” … “pretentious” … Too many are products of “elitist” M.F.A. programs, where they lead “insular” lives, they “imitate the mediocrity in journals and classrooms,” spewing “ego-motivated dreck.” There was more, but that’s a fair sampling.

Any art form that can generate this much discussion and diatribe can’t be on life support yet. I find that heartening, even though I also feel somewhat implicated. I’ve published my stories in magazines large and small, but mostly small. In addition, I graduated from one of those elitist M.F.A. programs. “Elitist” is a killer insult, since just about the worst thing you can do in America is act like you’re smarter than somebody else. For the proof of this, I refer you to the 2000 presidential election. As a long-time teacher of creative writing, I’m part of the powerful cabal of professors, literary magazine editors, and critics, dedicated to sucking the marrow out of the contemporary short story and celebrating its pallid, narcissistic shadow.

The criticism merits inquiry. More on that in a moment. First, I tried to replicate Mr. King’s bookstore experiment. I entered my local Barnes and Noble, prepared to hit the ground for the literary magazines. I never found any at all, though I searched both high and low. What I did find, in the Fiction and Literature section (located behind Games and Puzzles), were four and a half shelves of Mr. King’s books. He was also represented in the mass market paperback display, and on the cover of another author’s book, for which he had provided an introduction. On this cover, Mr. King’s name was a good bit larger than the author’s. Maybe the literary magazines were knocking around the store somewhere, but I was too disheartened to ask, let alone look for any of my own books.

Before I left, I purchased the 2007 B.A.S.S. and took it home to read. Whatever his merits as author (neither as bad as his detractors say, nor as good as his sales figures, in my judgement), or arbiter of excellence, it seemed clear that the series publishers had decided to fasten themselves to the enterprise that is Mr. King like barnacles to a whale. Not a bad move, if you want to make a little noise, stir the pot of opinion, and maybe get in one some of that four and a half shelf action.

This year’s anthology has a fine selection of fiction’s thoroughbreds (Alice Munro, T.C. Boyle, Anne Beattie, Rick Russo, Mary Gordon, etc.), plus some lesser knowns and some new writers, and that is as it should be. Anyone inclined to think dark thoughts about Mr. King’s office as editor should be reassured by the volume’s general excellence. Some of the stories are gorgeous, knock-outs; others are less so, but still creditable; others misfire, seeming either overwrought or overstately. And that’s fine too, since part of the fun of any prize anthology is going through it and being displeased by certain of the choices. If I were the guest editor, I’m certain I would displease in my turn. Chacun a son gout, as we say in Elitistburg.

I’ve made two appearances in the B.A.S.S., over gaps of many years, and I’ve been in the bridesmaid’s section, the list of Distinguished Stories in the back of the book, a few times more. My last appearance in the anthology was about a decade ago. I offer this account of the story’s provenance as an instructive tale. It was first published in a little magazine (after being rejected by some larger ones), which paid me ten dollars for it. There was some testy correspondence back and forth about what constituted payment and what was insult, but in the end I cashed the check. Hey, ten bucks is ten bucks. In due course the story appeared in the B.A.S.S., a happy thing. A couple of years passed before I met the guest editor who had chosen it. In fact, I’d been told, the editor had actually selected two of my stories ( reading them blind, that is, without the author’s name attached), and was told to pick one of these. But when I introduced myself and thanked him, he looked at me blankly, not remembering either me or my stories. Anyone still in awe of this sort of literary success may approach and touch the hem of my garment.

The short story has been declared dead more times than a horror movie villain, and in similar fashion, the corpse always rises up to attack one more time. Two of the finalists for the 2007 National Book Awards are short story collections, by Lydia Davis, and by Jim Shepherd, one of Mr. King’s B.A.S.S. picks. The creature lives! Before addressing Mr. King’s bottom shelf observations, let us stipulate that bad stories of the sort he describes do walk the earth, are even published and praised. Literature can exhibit all the sins of human character — pride, anger, sloth, etc.- plus a number of its own: sloppy, tired, inexact or overblown language, unoriginality, lack of verisimilitude, manipulation, sketchiness, glibness — I’m on a roll here — dullness, confusion, disorganization, inauthentic feeling. And more. I recognize the type of story that Mr. King describes as “show-offy,” in which the writer seems desperate to get our attention like the loud talker at a party. Or the loud talker juggling dinner plates while riding a unicycle. Such cleverness fatigues me, although I do admire the artful cleverness of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (a novel, yes, but with some of its chapters published as stories), which manages to keep all those plates aloft and whirling throughout.

Back now to the central question. Are short stories on that bottom shelf because they deserve to be, having become too rarefied and precious? Have we failed to deliver the goods? If we’re so smart, why ain’t we rich? Who among us wouldn’t like the widest possible readership, bushels of money, universal critical reverence? (Any two out of the three wouldn’t be bad.) Some of the audience problem really is a matter of faulty distribution. Several posters wrote in to direct people to the Internet, where so much of news, commerce, and now art has migrated, to web sites and literary blogs dedicated to the promotion of short fiction.

But beyond that, what to do? These days, editors who reject a book or a story, and I have reason to know this, often fall back on the formulation that they didn’t “love” the work, another complaint that’s difficult to answer. Why do you not love us? Do we make too many demands, challenge people in ways that other, flabbier entertainments do not? Should we give our readers (or non-readers) a good scolding? One recoils from the notion of writing that is championed as being good for you, like cough syrup. And yet. I have a friend who runs a stable where she boards and trains horses. She really only likes to read fiction that prominently features horses, and I would not deny her that pleasure. I just wish she were not so dismissive of all the non-horse writing out there.

When readers complain that short stories leave them unsatisfied, confused, that they lack drama or closure, the writer must acknowledge this response. The great imperative of fiction, as Mr. King correctly notes, is making the reader care passionately about what comes next. But it’s also true that the world is complex, ambiguous, difficult; it often makes us feel lost and fearful. Any fiction that attempts to do justice to those complexities can seem disquieting in turn, if what one really wants is a clear prompt, how to react, how to feel, like a television newsperson’s intoning about a tragic vehicle accident. For the same experience rendered new and strange, read Denis Johnson’s story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” (Another Nat’l Book Award nominee for his novel, Tree of Smoke.)

Mr. King laments the era when stories filled the Saturday Evening Post, as opposed to their current shrunken estate. I’m old enough to remember the Saturday Evening Post (I was a kid who read everything), and none of its stories remain in my mind, although the Dickens, Chekhov, Ray Bradbury, Willa Cather, and Hawthorne I read at the same time have done so. (OK, I was a weird kid.) The Post stories were for the most part sturdy and comfortable, like those Norman Rockwell covers, but I can’t say I mourn their passing. The relationship between excellence and audience is not necessarily an inverse one — we need art that entertains, and entertainment that partakes of artistry — but evaluating fiction as product or commodity, like tubes of toothpaste sold, is not helpful. Mainstream, jetstream, stream of consciousness — you pay your money and you take your choice, and some of us out there are real bargains.

Many posters offered their own lists of good short story writers as rebuttal to the notion that the story is a minor art form. Some number of them mentioned Flannery O’Connor as an exemplar, often with the regret that they don’t write them like that any more. I’d like to imagine that some of these were former students of mine, to whom I fed heavy doses of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” “Greenleaf,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, and others of her stories. Poster #94 pointed out that O’Connor attended one of those much-disparaged M.F.A. programs, the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. I’ll go you one better: her first published story, “The Geranium,” appeared in 1946 in a small literary magazine, Accent, edited and published by a group of creative writing teachers at the University of Illinois. “Flannery O’Connor has been doing graduate study at Iowa,” her contributor’s note reads. I have a copy of that issue, which also contains a story by Katherine Anne Porter and a poem by Richard Wilbur. It’s the drabbest of little brown books, about 6″x9″, thinner than the Dean and Deluca catalogue I got in the mail the other day, and without any hint of graphic embellishment. On its back cover New Directions advertises “7 Unusual Books,” one of them Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, available for $1.50.

I anticipate the argument that neither M.F.A. programs nor little magazines are as good as they were back in the good old days, and maybe not. But I don’t see what’s so pernicious about the proliferation of M.F.A. programs, even though many are called and few are chosen, and only some minute percentage of their hopeful graduates will achieve careers as writers. Why not train people to value the written word and the habit of careful thought? It provides a counterweight, no matter how slight, to all those other enterprises out there, humming along so splendidly, bringing us war, brutality, poisons, lies. Writers, editors, and teachers were readers before they were anything else, and they remain as passionate readers. Nor should little magazines take it on the chin for being what they so often are, proving grounds for new writers, giving them their first audiences, first accomplishments, first sense of nervous public scrutiny.

Most art is failed art, when you think about it. It misses by inches or by miles, it grasps at an ideal, falls short, and rallies to try again. Flannery O’Conner revised “The Geranium” as a better story, “Judgement Day.” We should not be sorry that the lesser version saw the light, or that short stories and their readerships carry on, despite all the forces arrayed against them. Publishers greet short story collections without much enthusiasm, and this too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve published four books of them by now, and I’ve had my share of favorable notice. Still, I’m only “popular in certain circles,” like Aunt Rose in Grace Paley’s “Goodbye and Good Luck,” another story published in Accent, another writer premiered by that magazine. Short story writers are used to swimming upstream against the odds. Heap scorn upon us for our fusty, stubborn ways. We are so flattered that you noticed.

There is in much of the criticism the inference, or the downright accusation, that writers of highbrow fiction lead effete and timorous lives, as opposed to the robust and brawny ones of those who write the solid, homespun stuff that people really want, and whose hearts, as well as wallets, are in the right place. But writing is always a balancing act between involvement with the world and the solitude and retreat needed to render it in words. One does one’s best in both arenas, and then resolves to do still better the following day.

As for Mr. King’s wish for stories that have the impact of “a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky,” I lived in Kansas for a little while, in Wichita, and though I never saw a meteor, the sky was busy with all manner of other things. Jets from McConnell Air Force Base deafened us, tornadoes approached and retreated, cold air funnel sightings sent us down to the basement precincts for anti-climactic waits. Even on days when the sky was largely vacant, a baked blue or grim gray, there was always plenty going on with me, my students, colleagues, and neighbors, more than enough for stories. There were hearts aflame and hearts broken, alcoholic crises, marital crises, alcoholic/marital crises. The kid two houses down was a gang member whose friends came to pick him up with shotguns visible in the back seat of the car. Going to feed friends’ cats while they were out of town, I found their door kicked open and their belongings scattered, a ceiling fan rotating idly above the wreckage. Operation Rescue had set up shop in Wichita, picketing the abortion clinics, holding rallies and demonstrations, slapping full-color fetus posters against car windshields. An anti-abortion parade went past my front door, with marching citizens, kids waving from wagons, and a farmer driving a tractor bearing a hand-lettered sign, “Stop Killing Our Consumers.” Two of my students, out driving around one night, well liquored-up, decided to harass the driver of the next car they saw with a pro-life bumper sticker. Which turned out to be driven by a fellow student. That’s the kind of thing you can’t put into fiction without it seeming contrived. And if you want to read a perfectly chilling story about the abortion turmoil, try T.C. Boyle’s “Killing Babies.”

The life nourishes the art, and for the artist, life resonates in ways oblique, mysterious, unexpected, so that our best work is a revelation even to ourselves. Those of us who love the short story love its capacity for such surprise, as well as its elegant compression, its craft, its many shapes and modes, as various as types of birds: hunting hawk or meadowlark, fancy chicken, migratory seabird, Woody Woodpecker cartoon, stylized origami crane. Imagine a whole flock of great stories set loose at once to trill or squawk or soar. Now that’s a sky I’d like to see.

Jean Thompson previously contributed a guest piece on favors writers ask and are asked.


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