A Master of the In-Between World

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Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource
A Barnum & Bailey Circus poster, early twentieth century

A heretical thought has often crossed my mind, while reading a particularly fine short-story collection by an American writer, that our literature has produced more masterpieces in that genre than in the novel. The-bigger-the-better being our national ideal in just about everything we set out to do, many of our novels, especially in recent decades, when a walloping book of six hundred to eight hundred pages is no longer a rare exception, have tended to be badly overwritten. Even in the best of them, one encounters scenes and descriptions of negligible interest that ought to have been cut entirely or at least trimmed by their authors or editors.

The writers’ and publishers’ defense that readers like sprawling narratives is not without foundation. One of the finest novels in our literature, The Great Gatsby, which is about 180 pages long, failed to sell well when it first came out, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, because it was too short. Despite evidence to the contrary, the belief that the Great American Novel will be a huge book persists. We can see this by the prominence bookstores give to the newly published lengthy novels by familiar-name authors, as if their thickness guarantees both their literary importance and their commercial success.

No wonder short-story collections are kept out of sight. Getting a book of them published in the United States has become nearly impossible. They have been marginalized even more than poetry, despite everyone from college students to serious readers of literature knowing that they are not only fun to read, but are capable of being as memorable as novels. Ranging from realistic to fantastic, and any mixture of the two, they have come in many guises since their origin in the early nineteenth century, paralleling the rise of popular magazines and journals where stories by such familiar names as Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Maupassant, Chekhov, D.H. Lawrence, Babel, Mansfield, Hemingway, Cheever, Borges, and many others first appeared.

Faulkner said that short stories were harder to write than novels. While novels assemble a vast amount of diverse material and rely on its cumulative effect, stories tend to see life on a smaller scale and confine themselves to a short span of time and a small number of characters. Their most admirable quality is associated with what Steven Millhauser calls “artful exclusions.”* Like poems, good stories never overexplain. They only hint that a second, slower, and more careful reading will deepen our understanding. Hemingway once said that the best story he ever wrote contained just six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Short as it is, I find it haunting and inexhaustible to the imagination. Steven Millhauser’s stories have that effect on me. They are never far from my mind and they return for a visit from time to time.

Author of four novels—one of which, Martin Dressler, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997—and seven collections of …

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  1. *

    Interview with Steven Millhauser, Bomb, No. 83 (Spring 2003).