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To Make a Long Story Short…

2013 February 5

Following the very successful release of George Saunders’ most recent story collection, The Tenth of December, there’s been a great deal of buzz surrounding the writer. Profiles sing his praises, interviews abound, and sales of short stories have soared (at least his have).

I recently finished his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.  I understand the hype. He’s an extraordinarily gifted storyteller. His imagination is boundless, and he’s able to create alternate worlds in which somehow, we recognize all of the people and the sorrow as from our own time. Though it’s clear that his characters are suffering, lonely and sad, it’s also clear that Saunders loves them, and he wants us to love them too. And we do. Which makes it all the more difficult when things continue to spiral downward for them, inevitably. But it’s this abject misery coloring Saunders’ stories that make his readers appreciate our own world all the more for it. And that’s what makes his writing so beautiful and evocative.

George Saunders is a rare breed in the literary world–he has never written a novel. His only books are collections of short stories and essays. For many, this is unfathomable. Others see it as a squandering of talent. He’s a genius, for crying out loud, so why can’t the man write a novel?

In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, Saunders answers this question quite nicely, basically by saying that writing a short story is about capturing the essence of what needs to be said in a short timeframe. That task is often more difficult than saying what is essentially the same thing in a span of 300 pages versus 10 pages. It’s about urgency, leaving the reader with a clear impression, all right there in the span of a few pages. It’s powerful stuff.

This is not to say, of course, that novels aren’t powerful, because they most certainly can be, and often are. But I love reading short stories because it’s a different experience, a very different way of writing. I think the tendency for the book-buying public is to discount short stories as somehow lesser than novels or other longer books, but that’s just not true. They are an art form all their own, and well worth reading the good ones.

Here are some of my favorite short story collections:

  • CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
  • How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer
  • Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Orientation and Other Stories by Daniel Orozco
  • How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers
  • The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter
  • Hateship, Frienship,  Courtship,  Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
  • What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg
  • St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
  • Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
  • Hymnal for Dirty Girls by Rebekah Matthews
  • The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
  • Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston
  • AM/PM by Amelia Gray
What are your favorite story collections? Do you prefer novels?



3 Responses Post a comment
  1. Raquel permalink
    February 5, 2013

    I love both short stories and novels, because while both are fiction, both are very different beasts.

    And honestly, a masterfully done short story can often take my breath away far more powerfully than a novel.

    I adore “You Are Not A Stranger Here” by Adam Haslett. His stories have made me cry on subways and if I could only recommend one short story collection ever, I’d recommend his. Mavis Gallant is also a great short story writer. I liked ZZ Packer’s collection, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” a lot too. Can’t think of others off the top of my head, but yes: Yay for short story collections!

    I am really looking forward to reading some George Saunders! His interview on Colbert was pure comic and artistic genius, talking about ducks and jokes. I loved it. If his strength is writing short stories, he should stick with it and not do a novel if he doesn’t want to. Can’t force a square peg into a round hole.

    • Jill permalink
      February 5, 2013

      Great suggestions! I added Packer and Haslett to my “to read” shelf…if that thing were a real shelf, it would be collapsed under too much weight by now!!

      I definitely recommend Saunders, if for nothing else than his ideas of what the future could look like.

  2. Kelli permalink
    February 6, 2013

    I loved this post and your recommended “to read” list. I love novels but adore short stories as well – I agree, they’re an entirely different world from one another. I’ve been reading a lot more of them lately (Rebekah’s is currently on my nightstand). Last year I read Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle which I really enjoyed — I still find myself thinking about the very first one in the collection.

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