This past weekend, Stephen King, writing in the New York Times Book Review asks “What Ails the Short Story?” “The American short story is alive and well,” he begins, then continues “Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were true.” King claims mixed health for the short story, but is excited about the stories chosen (by him) for the Best American Short Stories of 2007, of which he is the editor. He does complain, however, that many short stories read like they were written for an audience that consists of “other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines.” Later he says these stories seem to be written “for editors and teachers rather than for readers.” He attributes this problem to the shrinking audience for short stories; almost no one reads short stories in magazines any more, he says, especially in literary magazines.
I want Stephen King to know that the audience for short stories has recently grown by one – this volume by Alice Mattison is the fifth collection I’ve read this year. However, I would agree with him on the charge that very few people buy literary magazines. I know I don’t, and I also almost never read the short stories that appear in magazines such as The New Yorker. King does make a good advocate for his Best American Short Stories of 2007, though, and I think I will give that a try.
The connected stories in In Case We’re Separated encompass fifty years in the life of an extended family in
The author also features several recurring themes within the stories, which brings me to my next topic, King’s comment that many modern stories seem to be written “for editors and teachers.” At the end of this volume of stories is a note from the author telling us that the stories were crafted according to the dictates of a double sestina, a complicated poetic form that requires recurring words or themes for each stanza (or in this case, each story) which must repeat in a prescribed order. Wow, tricky. Did I miss this? Yes, I did, even though one of the stories in the middle of the book is called Brooklyn Sestina, and it describes the form. I did NOT miss all the recurring themes, however, though some are more obvious than others. Only someone familiar with the sestina and its variations would have noticed that the author did this, someone like an English teacher, or a poet, for example. So is King right? Is Alice Mattison, by employing a complicated poetic form, seeking to gain the admiration of other writers and professors, the only people likely to notice (and by King’s assessment, the only people reading short stories)? Or did she just take this route as a way of challenging herself as a writer? I don’t know. But it’s interesting.
(Book 43, 2007)