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Short stories: Dead or alive?

September 2, 2008 | 11:40 am

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In her foreword to the latest "Best New American Voices" anthology, author Mary Gaitskill takes on a hot issue: whether or not the short story is dead.

I would not say the short story is exactly dead, but it looks to me pallid and ill from neglect, volumes like this one to the contrary.... Like the best of the genre, all of these stories use their primitive black-and-white symbols to conjure the low, fleeting voices of angels and demons expressed in human words. Will they last? Will the short story last? I've no idea.

The debate on the health of the short story is heated in university writing programs, many of which use the short-story-oriented workshop to teach craft. Short story writers may be getting better and better — the subtitle of this volume is "Fresh Fiction From the Top Writing Programs" — but common wisdom is that there aren't many short story readers. Gaitskill notes that most of the population, even those who read novels, "don't read short stories at all."

That's too bad, if for no reason other than these 14 writers are working very hard. They are not the bratty 21-year-old seniors you might think: Most have been published in literary journals, won awards, gotten an advanced degree (at least one). Many have gone on to postgraduate writers' residencies, securing a coveted Stegner Fellowship at Stanford or a spot at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. (again, at least one). Many have clearly dedicated themselves to the pursuit of writing, and they got out of the blocks with short stories; they're kind of short story champions.

With all this effort, could the short story possibly be dead?

— Carolyn kellogg

Photo by nicolasnova via Flickr

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