Reflections on short fiction

It seems like a lot of people just don't like short stories (or claim not to), including those who are otherwise very literary-inclined.  I've been thinking about this a lot lately.  I think probably most peoples' first experience with short stories, at least stateside, is in the form of xeroxed copies of O. Henry's "Gift Of The Magi" or Maupassant's infamous "The Necklace" (this was the common thread running through my entire public school experience, but every time a new English or French teacher presented it, he or she seemed genuinely puzzled by the resulting groans).  Next up is the dreaded best-of anthology.  There was probably a time when I thought short stories just came in anthologies the way cereal comes in cereal boxes.  Or maybe that they were like an extra in a cereal box, some clever witticism in a fortune cookie or wrapped around a piece of Bazooka gum.  This was the attitude they were mostly presented with:  Here's some clever shit you need to understand for the reading comprehension portion of the ACTs.  By the end of high school, I think the only author who I had been incited to read multiple short stories by was Hemingway, and what I mostly remember about that experience was that my American Studies teacher spent an hour talking about the fact that a lot of academics thought Nick Adams was gay but that this was just silly because Hemingway was a man's man.

Even in college, I mostly accrued more anthologies.  An anthology of fifty stories, say, for one class, and five of the stories in there would be read to illustrate a point, or to highlight a theme in a novel or epic poem we were reading.  In my African Storytelling class, the professor put a $60 textbook of African folk tales on the syllabus and then decided a few weeks into the semester that we were going to ditch the book and spend the rest of the allotted time reading his autobiographical account of his childhood in Turkey.  At this point in my academic career, I had been assigned to read hundreds of novels and hundreds of poems in literature courses.  And yet in creative writing classes we were assigned Andre Dubus and Alice Munro to read at the same time we were expected to crank out short fiction like this was the most natural thing in the world, while the Literary Traditions 101 class across the hall was not going to come close to acknowledging that these writers even existed.  It was this discrepancy that was partially responsible for the mental nausea that at the time made me question what I was doing with my life.

The fact that I had not read more short stories was, of course, no one's fault but my own.  And at the time I was much more interested in poetry than fiction, anyway.  But I was very tuned into the fact that there were certain books you were supposed to read for your own cultural edification and then certain books you were supposed to read if you were interested in studying the craft of writing, and that there weren't very many short story collections in the former category.

I was reading an interview with Nam Le a while back where he was talking about the fact that short fiction is much more respected in the United States than anywhere else in the world and my first thought was, really?  Of course, after thinking about it and looking into it I realized that this is more or less true.  We have programs that are almost designed to produce short fiction writers and in a way even the idea of the short story is very American.  But there is a huge cultural divide between the fiction we award prizes to and the fiction we canonize and deem as worthwhile reading.  I do have to wonder, of course, how much of this I am saying with Midwestern blinkers on.  I have the impression that we and the East Coast are much more likely to nix the teaching of white Southern writers out of a misguided sense of cultural consciousness.  Faulkner is okay to represent the entire South because he's like our Joyce, that is, a man who writes long sentences that people don't understand and therefore recognize as being important.  But Flannery O'Connor was deeply religious and wrote in a way less amenable to straying from the point, so her work is questionable territory.  Of course even Hemingway converted to Catholicism for a time and is more questionable in terms of his attitude toward just about any minority group, but he was from Oak Park and more accurately represents America's idea of itself.  My point is that every high school graduate has read some Hemingway, and every serious writer of fiction has read Flannery O'Connor.  One is associated with being competently educated and the other with being interested in words on a page.  I'm not sure what this means or even if it's an entirely bad thing, just that it appears to be true.

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