Friday, February 8, 2013

The Short Story is Alive and Well

In the past months, patrons have flocked to Book Passage to listen to their favorite authors read.  We’ve had an incredible lineup of writers and some of our most outstanding events lately have been by authors introducing their short story collections. 

Personally, I’m thrilled that the short story is thriving right here - right now.

Publishers and literary agents are often cautious when it comes to publishing a short story collection: “It’s difficult to sell short stories – let us know when you have a novel.”  I’ve heard this truism stated many times.  It drives me nuts when I hear this because a great short story can be as powerful and lasting as a novel.  A short story is its own kind of vehicle.  It’s a pearl inside of a gritty oyster.  Ann Pachett says that if a novel was a map of a country, a short story is the bright silver pin that marks the crossroads.  Many of the greatest writers of the 20th century were (and are) short story writers.

At Natalie Serber’s reading of her debut story collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, I asked her how difficult it was to get an agent to represent her short story collection.   She said that after she published the title story in a respected literary journal, she had three agents contact her.  The first two agents asked, “Do you have a novel?”  The third agent surprised her by asking, “Do you have any more short stories?”  Natalie sold Shout Her Lovely Name and also secured a second book deal.  If you haven’t read Natalie Serber’s work yet, be prepared to discover a great new storyteller.

Author Natalie Serber discusses Shout Her Lovely Name at Book Passage.
The stellar list of short story authors who have come to Book Passage in recent months speaks well for the sometimes undervalued genre.  Take for example the beautifully crafted and unforgettable stories of Ron Hansen.  Ron Hansen (the author of ten books of fiction) discussed his new and selected stories from She Loves Me Not.  Hansen brilliantly weaves each of his stories and flawed characters through the landscape of the Midwest – primarily Nebraska.  Many writers are linking their stories with either recurring characters or by setting them in a specific place, which ultimately gives continuity to a collection. 

Author Mark Maynard, came to the store in January with his debut collection of linked stories titled Grind. Each story is set in Reno and captures a range of both hopeful and down-on-their-luck characters who linger in “The Biggest Little City” too long.  Maynard drops us into the parched Reno landscape and startles us with his measured prose.  We sold every copy of Mark Maynard’s Grind at his Saturday night reading.
A week later, Louise Aronson came to Book Passage with “A History of the Present Illness.”  Aronson, a medical doctor and professor of medicine at UCSF introduced us to her debut collection of 16 elegant and original stories about doctors, patients and their families.  All of the stories are set in the neighborhoods, hospitals and nursing homes right here in San Francisco.  On a Sunday afternoon, we were adding rows of chairs to accommodate the audience as Louise Aronson eloquently shared her stories.
Book Passage chose “A History of the Present Illness” as our ‘First Edition Pick’ for the month of January.  This is an honor given to an emerging author that we feel has a promising writing career ahead of them.  Several of our first edition picks went on to win the Pulitzer Prize – Paul Harding’s Tinkers and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Speaking of Junot Diaz - when he came to Book Passage in the fall, the store was filled to capacity with fans of his brilliant prose. “This is How You Lose Her” is indeed a series of linked short stories.  Several of those stories were first published in The New Yorker.  Diaz talked to a riveted audience at Book Passage about everything from the struggles of writing to cultural stereotypes and politics.

Author Junot Diaz at Book Passage in September 2012.
Book Passage also recently hosted Luis Jaramillo with his prize-winning collection of short stories titled The Doctor’s Wife.  Colin Winnette brought us his beautifully bound collection of short prose titled Animal Collection.  Pam Houston will be in conversation with Joshua Mohr in April.  In the spring, Peter Orner will grace us with the release of his newest book of stories.  And Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! will introduce her dazzling new collection of short stories (Vampires in the Lemon Grove) on February 27tth.    
This brings us to George Saunders and The Tenth of December.  This fourth collection has earned him a stunning review in the NY Times. “The best book you will read all year” kind of review.  Here’s a critic that really gets the lasting power of the short story and I have to admit, I have fallen in love with the intensity, beauty and brevity of Saunders stories.  He’s a “writer’s writer.”  A generous spirit who can masterfully work humor and heartbreak into a single sentence.
On the Seventh of February, over 200 fans of Saunders came to hear him speak at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. The audience was rapt, hushed as he spoke – savoring each sentence of wisdom.  He talked about his process as a writer and how he once longed to be Hemingway but quickly learned that the desire to imitate another writer never works. Advice he gives to his students?  “You can’t hide from yourself.” 
I asked George Saunders to sign my copy of The Tenth of December.  And then I asked him if he would sign my arm - in black Sharpie.  It just felt like it was the right thing to do since I couldn’t hide my self and the admiration I have for this writer’s work.  

Author George Saunders prepares to sign the arm of Book Passage bookseller Melissa Cistaro
If you love the short story form – I promise there is no shortage of incredible new stories out there.  If you haven’t given the short story a real chance yet, take a look at some of these books or come listen to these talented short story writers at our Book Passage events.  I promise - you won’t be disappointed.  And if you write short stories, keep writing them – because there is a fierce hunger for them in our world.

Melissa Cistaro is a Bookseller and Event Host at Book Passage


Darlene said...

Thanks for a great article, Melissa!

Anonymous said...

Melissa,.. you nailed it! Write on..