There’s no question that this has been a very good year for the short story, an oft-ignored (if not outright maligned) form that’s long been considered somehow inferior to the novel. On January 3, the New York Times Magazine published a profile of the short story writer George Saunders that was titled, simply, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” a reference to his then-upcoming collection, Tenth of December, now a finalist for the National Book Award. The following month, Karen Russell released her second collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, to rapturous reviews. In September, she was awarded one of the MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious “Genius Grants,” in part on the strength of that work. And in October, Canadian writer Alice Munro, author of fourteen books of short stories—and, notably, zero novels—was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
To be sure, the form has its drawbacks: Having to locate yourself in a narrative multiple times over the course of a single volume can be trying, and coming swiftly to the end, however fitting, of something you’ve enjoyed is occasionally, well, a bum-out.
But flip them on their heads, and these weaknesses are also strengths: If you’re not connecting with a particular narrator or situation, well, it’ll soon be over, and the ability to immerse yourself in a story that encompasses an entire arc (and often, in Munro’s case, an entire life) in the time it takes to get to work, or roast some vegetables, is truly amazing.
Some proponents argue that it’s this last quality that makes the short story most uniquely suited to modern life, but—as a writer myself—I would maintain that the short story still deserves a shot, even leaving aside the harried schedules and fractured attention spans we’re all supposedly suffering from.
Convinced? Consider picking up one of these new or upcoming collections:
The Isle of Youth
Laura van den Berg’s The Isle Of Youth (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; November 5) is almost comically action-packed: A plane crashes, two men go missing, and a gang of teenage girls robs a bank…and that’s only in the first three stories. The writing, although simple, has a simmering, propulsive energy—much like a more conventional crime thriller, this book is nearly impossible to put down.
Leaving the Sea
The mostly male protagonists in Leaving the Sea (Knopf; January 7), by Ben Marcus, are almost as desperate and bewildered as the women in the book above, although the situations in which they find themselves are a bit more quotidian; happily, the prose is anything but. The title story is the most structurally unique—it’s a single, six-page-long sentence—but form never trumps feeling.
Molly Antopol was recently named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35″, an honor reserved for extremely promising writers who are, yes, under 35 years old (Karen Russell was a previous winner). Her debut, The UnAmericans (W.W. Norton & Company; February 3), spans the globe—as the title suggests—offering readers a chance to visit contemporary Israel, Nazi-occupied Belarus and McCarthy-era Los Angeles, each of which is evoked with uncommon skill and confidence.
Lauren Waterman is a fiction and non-fiction writer—and author of several short stories.