In Praise of Compressed Vitality

41ugrGr1YpL._BO2,204,203,20035,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_George Saunders is the kind of author people describe as a "writer's writer." That's not always meant as a compliment, and it certainly doesn't always translate into book sales. He's also a "genius," having won the MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the "Genius Grant." You can add "gateway drug" to his list of titles, at least for me. 
His most recent book Tenth of December has enjoyed remarkable success. It has spent its entire life as a New York Times best seller, and it's still one of the top books on the Amazon best seller list a month after publication. We picked Tenth of December as a January Best Book of the Month, and perhaps most notably, the New York Times daringly called it "the best book you'll read this year." That's remarkable for any book, but it's not what really sets this one apart from the pack. 
What's remarkable is that Tenth of December is a short story collection.
When I worked in publishing, short story collections presented devilish temptations to acquiring editors. Being offered a short story collection by an agent was like being offered a pet hermit crab--which is to say they often seemed like good ideas at the time. To continue the pet crab metaphor, no matter how well-written the collection was, these small wonders rarely lived up to expectations, and often became nuisances (and frequently disappeared with hardly a word spoken about them). The reason was not that the collections were bad-- to get short stories published in a book, they generally have to be very, very good-- but it's "common knowledge” among publishers that short story collections don't sell. I guarantee the publisher's cry of "OK it's brilliant but does the author have a novel?" has been heard more times than anyone can count.
But maybe something has changed. Maybe the ice is breaking. 
Looking ahead, the Amazon Editors have noticed a number of excellent short story collections on the horizon. I've been gathering theories to try to explain why. Maybe short story collections are an appeal to readers' supposed short attention spans. (I don't believe book readers have short attention spans, otherwise they wouldn't read books.) Maybe it's just a cyclical thing, like cicadas or global warming, and a bunch of really good collections just happened to come out this year. (OK, global warming is a bad comparison.) I've even heard it suggested that George Saunders' success is the reason for the short story upsurge. (Impossible because Saunders' book was acquired long ago by the publisher, as were the other collections in this piece, before anyone knew Tenth of December would be a runaway success). 
In the end it doesn't really matter why all these great collections are coming out. What's important is that that they are coming out. After reading Saunders' collection and enjoying it so much, I made a point of getting my hands on as many other collections as I could. I read eight in total, and, I can say I've gained a whole new respect  and understanding for short stories. That's saying a lot, because some of my favorite stories-- the ones that got me into reading in the first place-- are short stories. 
There's something really special about being able to sit down and finish a story in one sitting-- to set the world aside and enter a different world, and to be able to consider the full arc of what you've just read. The cover copy on one of the collections I read spoke of short stories as "compressed vitality." That's a nice way of putting it. 
Here's a list of current and upcoming examples of compressed vitality:
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders - His weirdness won't be for everyone, but he's a true American genius. (pub date: January 8th)
  • The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison- Technically, not a collection of short stories, but these two novellas deserve mention. (pub date: January 8th)
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell - Russell seems most comfortable in the short form. Funny, strange, and extremely well written. (pub date: February 12th)
  • Middle Men by Jim Gavin - These stories about men in all their stages are like a comfortable chair that you keep wanting to return to. (pub date: February 19th)
  • We Live in Water by Jess Walter - A wildly varied debut collection of short stories from the author of last year's Beautiful Ruins. (pub date: February 19th)
  • Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal - Where'd this guy come from? These stories are strange and wonderful. And pretty unforgettable. (pub date: April 2nd)
  • The Fun Parts by by Sam Lipsyte - Sam Lipsyte writes funny, smart stories. To me, he's like a best friend who has no idea he's my best friend. (pub date: May 1st)

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Posted by: deyerjuxsrt | Thursday February 7, 2013 at 2:54 PM

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