IN SHORT: THE NEW REALISM
Is it that the novel is simply too cumbersome in this microchip age, that it demands of a potential readership raised on the electronic media and advertising - accustomed, in short, to messages that are highly condensed - an attention-span not only extended but also fragmented?
The contention is framed as a question because your humble correspondent possesses neither the courage nor resources to herald any such decline of the novel. Besides, it doesn't really wash anyway, because fiction best-seller lists are still dominated by the novel, as opposed to prose in any other forms. But there can longer be any doubt that in American letters at least the most exciting new writing is in the realm of short stories. Thanks to authors, to name a few, like Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, Elizabeth Tallent and Frederick Barthelme.
In fact, all the talk now is of a renaissance of the short story. It has even been described as the Silver Age of the short story, after the Golden Age of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner and their ilk in the Twenties.
Certainly, if quantity, rather than quality, was the only criteria, then the short story is back and with a vengeance. Maybe it never left the ‘small magazines', literary journels and the like, but now again it also graces the pages of popular, glossy American magazines like Esquire, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker (and in this country even this magazine itself). Paperback anthologies – like The Best American Short Stories and The Editor's Choice – also proliferate.
The immediate, superficial appeal of the short story is fairly obvious - it can, after all, be consumed in approximately the same time the average TV sitcom runs. The short story, as opposed to the novel, is perhaps also well-attuned to our times in that it’s able to present a slice oflife without the novel’s need to find order or meaning, a resolution, where one may not even exist anyway. At any rate, this open-endedness has become a common characteristic of the contemporary short story.
Raymond Carver, perhaps the leading light among the new American short storyists, has spoken of the fragmented nature of the world today, and his own desire to write (short) stories that “would work without the author obtruding.” Carver, to date, has published three collections of short fiction, and he was drawn to the form partly because he could finish a piece in “one sitting, two sittings at the most.”
After the various red herrings American literature proffered in the Sixties and Seventies, writers like Carver have breathed real life back into the art of prose.
Traditionally, short stories were regarded as a warming-up exercise for writing novels, the Real Thing. Conventional publishing wisdom was that books of short stories by aauthors who hadn’t written novels wouldn’t sell. But this new wave of writers has to a certain extent redefined the short story and elevated its status and popularity.
Picador in Australia has recently released The Stories of Raymond Carver, which compiles his three previous American volumes, Fires, Will You Please be Quiet, Please? and Cathedral. Picador also carries Tobias Wolff’s one collection to date, Hunters in the Snow, which was published in 1983. Both Bobbie Ann Mason and Elizabeth Tallent are also represented by single volumes, through Chatto & Windus, entitled Shiloh and In Constant Flight respectively. And early last year Penguin rreleased Frederick Barthelme’s debut, a collection called Moon Deluxe.
Last year, Penguin’s immensely successful literary magazine Granta, which comes out quarterly in paperback, published an edition entitled “Dirty Realism: New Writing from America.” All the aforementioned authors were represented, and the label stuck. But as Tobias Wolff was quoted on the jacket to say, “these writers, while not necessarily a school, nevertheless for a new voice. They are able to speak to us about the things that matter.”
What they share – stylistically – is a hunger for clarity. You won’t come across any purple prose or structuralist riddles here; rather, plain and simple language understandable by all and aiming directly at the point. In this sense, these writers are more than worthy successors to the likes of Hemmingway. But beyond that, they vary as much as they do in location and milleau as they do angles.
Ray Carver’s stories take place as if always in wan light. His scenarios can be almost inert, but still they invite fascination for their detail, their atmosphere and an almost spiritual sort of suspense.
Everything about Carver’s stories is spare. Looking at things not coldly but dispassionately, nothing is adorned beyond all that’s necessary to evoke the vision. Carver’s stories can seem suffused with ennui, which is not without good reason – the world, after all, is not what was promised. But carver refuses to take refuge in total cynicism, because even if the hand of fate is cruel his characters seem to stand up under it. Even in the most mundane of everyday events, which he continually portrays, Carver finds profound nuances, so that his stories resonate richly. Carver’s is a wry celebration of the will to survive.
Tobias Wolff’s stories are astringent. Set largely in his native north-west, their sense of palce is part of their strength, but Wolff’s final concerns are moral and universal. With luminous prose, he realizes action in his stories – something happens – and this extends beyond the merely physical. His characters – unoutstanding people, who are as weak as they try to be strong – are put to a test and while they may not necessarily emerge triumphant, they won’t be unscarred. It is how our wounds heal that we learn to live on, and this is the hope at the heart of Tobias Wolff.
Bobbie Ann Mason deserves every superlative she can wear with grace, a quality she already posses in abundance. Shiloh is a book that’s beautifully written and brimming with warmth and pathos. Mason is a native of Kentucky, and again it’s her knowledge of the territory and its people that forms the basis of her stories. Small-town life, it seems, suffers for the same trials as anywhere. Mason’s characters have begun to reveal cracks in their make-up – most of their marriages end in divorce – but they resolutely refuse to break. These are real people who will touch you gently and have you urging them on.
Elizabeth Tallent’s stories sparkle from within. She’s more likely to portray peripheral characters, and so her stories incite a colourful ferment, but still the dilemma is to find some common ground where communion – love – may grow. All that keeps us apart, it seems, is gravity itself.
Frederick Barthelme is unique in this company in that his stories are comedies of modern manners, funny in the way that’s usually described as ‘wicked’, and cutting almost to the quick because Barthelme has enough sympathy for his characters, and their foibles, to allow them an essential optimism. Barthelme, who lives in Mississsippi, sets his stories in suburbia, signposted by supermarkets, freeways and condominiums. His characters’ grappling, awkward attempts to make contact with others – generally a member of the opposite sex – are inevitably foiled, but like slapstick they just keep bouncing back for more.
There’s lots of worse ways you could spend the short time it takes to read a short story, and what else can offer a complete other world in a capsule like that?