The world of American letters has seethed with internal debate over the popularity and/or utility of short-story collections for almost as long as it’s been pumping them out. Despite the very few breakout sales successes one can point to (let’s see: J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories; more recently, George Saunders’ Tenth of December), writers of short-story collections may receive critical acclaim or literary awards, but commercial success is unlikely. More often they share the experience of Edgar Allan Poe, Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner (no slouches in the acclaim department): confusion on the part of the publisher, shrugs on the part of the reviewers, and dead-eyed disinterest from the book-buying public.
Yes, there are some signs of popular success. Some established authors – writers who’ve made names with best-selling novels or decades of glowing reviews and awards, like Stephen King or Alice Munro – have been able to sell the heck out of a story collection. Tenth of December did remarkably well, spending large chunks of 2013 hovering on various best-seller lists, but even Saunders isn’t posting the numbers of your average vampire novel. More popular than straight-up story collections are “novels in stories,” like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – a collection of linked stories qua chapters, featuring the same characters and telling the same events from different angles. This approach may be the thin end of the wedge in getting the public to open up to short stories, with their multitude of voices requiring readers to readjust to a new world and grasp a new personality with each new piece.
Accepting the challenge, local publisher Burrow Press has made a commitment to the form. Five of its six most recent books are short-story collections, and two more single-author collections are planned for 2015. This may have roots in the fact that Burrow Press is a nonprofit, and therefore can disregard the profit motive – as do university presses and literary journals, many underwritten by donations and most of them outlets for the (often very fine) work turned out by America’s burgeoning MFA writing programs.
“While I think it’s inaccurate to say the major publishing houses have abandoned short story collections, it’s true that many collections get overlooked or passed on, and that leaves room for small presses to pick up excellent work,” says Burrow Press publisher Ryan Rivas. This month Burrow Press releases two collections of note.
Vanessa Blakeslee, an Orlando resident, serves forth an assortment of men and women (mostly women) on the edge in Train Shots. Nasty brushes with a cruel world beset these people: lost dogs, bad jobs, jail, suicides. Refreshingly, Blakeslee avoids the common fault of placing all her stories in a blue-collar milieu, as though this will lend them some sort of down-home cred; her characters span the American class system and are (or feel) no less downtrodden for it. The darkness inherent in each story’s arc belies a preoccupation with surfaces – most apparent in “Princess of Pop,” a brilliant take on the Britney myth – leaving the reader somewhat depressed, but hoping for more. This being Blakeslee’s debut collection, no doubt this wish will be fulfilled.
Fans of George Saunders or Donald Barthelme will (not might; will) enjoy John Henry Fleming’s Songs for the Deaf. Like those writers, Fleming’s skill lies in conjuring up surreal situations and presenting characters for whom they are utterly quotidian. The problem of how to keep a floating girl hitchhiker tethered to earth is no more or less compelling than how to cheer her up, or how to forget one’s own misery, in “Weighing of the Heart.” Story by story, Fleming presents 11 miniature worlds, none linked to the other by anything but the assuredness of his telling.
William Giraldi, in his essay “The Mysterious Case of Novel-in-Stories,” points out that American writers dominate the genre of short stories, much as the Russians and the French do novels and the British do plays and poetry. “No other country in the world has produced story writers whose genius rivals that of Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter, Raymond Carver and John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor and John O’Hara. We have made the modern form an American original,” claims Giraldi. The support of small presses not bound to sales success may be the only thing propping up this American triumph for now.