Hay festival: Is America still the home of the short story?

 May 28, 2008

John Freeman

Hay festival: Is America still the home of the short story?

Readers and writers in the US are traditionally more receptive to short fiction than their British counterparts. But is this still the case?

Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore in Manhattan. Photograph: Lisa Carpenter

In publishing circles it's taken on the shape of an urban legend. So much so that one of the first questions posed to Lorrie Moore at Hay this week was propped unsteadily upon its back. "I work in publishing in England," an audience member began. "And we have this idea that in America the environment is much more receptive to short fiction. Is that really the case?"

It is - and it isn't. Most collections in America are published on university presses, with small print runs for pocket-change advances. Many writers cannot make a living writing them. Most major magazines have cut the space in which they run them. Most bookstores stock story collections in limited numbers, and most readers don't read them. Every year most major book awards overlook short fiction.

All that said America has three things that Britain doesn't have which keeps our audience for short stories alive. For starters, we have a magazine and literary journal culture. Besides the New Yorker, Harper's and The Atlantic, all of which still publish fiction, there are hundreds of literary journals in the US in which a writer can (try to) publish a story.

There are glorious old publications - like the Virginia Quarterly Review - which put out early work by Nadine Gordimer; experimental journals, like Fence, where a story can look more like a lyric essay; new journals, like McSweeney's, where new voices and old maestros mix, and hundreds of journals associated with the universities which teach creative writing: the Louisville Review, the Harvard Review, the Kenyon Review.

This constellation of university programmes produces far more writers than can be published, and all of them practice on the short story. This means there needs to be writers to teach them - and authors from the UK, such as VS Pritchett, Frank O'Connor and Julian Barnes have been among those to do this job.

Not long ago, there was a rather bogus debate over whether these MFA programmes were creating a certain kind of writer. Hanif Kureishi recently compared these programmes to mental institutions. Clearly some schools are better than others, but the idea that they produce a certain kind of writer is rubbish. Iowa Writer's Workshop, the most famous program in the US, can claim as graduates Jane Smiley, James Michener, Flannery O'Connor, and Andre Dubus, who someday should be rediscovered in England the way Richard Yates was recently.

But it's not just workshop graduates who write stories in the US - virtually all of America's major writers do so too. John Updike, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx and Edward P Jones all debuted in the story and have continued to publish them. Going back further, writers who came of age in the era of the slicks - when a writer really could make a living off writing stories - wrote numerous short stories, including Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, Vonnegut and Katherine Anne Porter.

Of course, many of Britain's major writers have also written and published short stories - AL Kennedy, Will Self and Ian McEwan all debuted in the form, while notable collections have been released by writers as diverse as VS Naipaul, Rose Tremain and Ben Okri. But aside from publications such as Granta and Prospect, the stories are not published in an environment where stories are part of a public's weekly reading experience. No one ever got rich writing them.

The days when one could do so in America are long gone, but the echoes of that era still exist in the cultural institutions they have inspired. America has annual anthologies, such as the Best American Short Stories, which regularly sell over 100,000 copies a year, as well as prizes for stories and workshops galore. Occasionally a collection strikes a cord and people buy it. Ethan Canin's The Emperor of Air was a bestseller, as was Lorrie Moore's Birds of America, while Jhumpa Lahiri's latest collection, "Unaccustomed Earth," which is tremendous, debuted on the "New York Times" list at number one (you can read an extract here).

Lahiri's phenomenal success in the form is still, of course, an aberration. In response to the publisher's question from the audience, Moore ultimately argued that Lahiri's book of stories was such a phenomenal success because the publisher believed in it (and because it's also a very good book). Both are true. But Lahiri is also standing atop a short story writing tradition that goes back, as she pointed out at her event in Hay, all the way back to Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the realm of literary history, it is perhaps the only arena in which America has Britain beat.

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