Sunday, September 30, 2007

Stephen King: 'What Ails the Short Story'

Is it just me, or is Stephen King's commentary in The New York Times Book Review a wee bit self-serving?

But first, a thanks to the best-selling novelist: It's always great when a household name draws attention to an area of artistic achievement that's too often given short shrift.

The short story frequently is underappreciated by readers and big publishing houses and, sometimes, by academics too quick to dismiss the genre as a form of literature inherently inferior to the novel.

King first identifies his problem with the art of the short story, as practiced by today's young writers: "Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers."

Then he identifies his solution (insert drumroll, please): Buy his book, er, the book that he's guest-editing this year. Says King: "Measures to be taken? I would suggest you start by reading this year’s 'Best American Short Stories.' They show how vital short stories can be when they are done with heart, mind and soul by people who care about them and think they still matter. They do still matter, and here they are, liberated from the bottom shelf."

So, uh, King has succeeded where others have failed, by identifying the truly great short stories out there?

Don't let that stop you from acquiring the above-mentioned collection, which includes pieces by John Barth and one of my favorite contemporary writers, T.C. Boyle. Earlier editions have been packed with great short tales by writers who, in some cases, have gone on to greater fame and fortune.

Other recommended short-story anthologies: The O. Henry Prize Stories, New Orleans Noir and the others in the 'Noir' series, and McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.

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