An Endangered Species


by George Saunders
Riverhead, 188 pp., $22.95

George Saunders
George Saunders; drawing by David Levine

The short story is a minor art form that, in the hands of a very few practitioners, becomes major art. Its effect is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative; a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts. In isolation, striking and original as individual stories might be, it’s likely that they would quickly fade from literary memory, as a few scattered poems of Emily Dickinson, separated from the poet’s great body of work, would have long since faded into oblivion.

Yet one might argue that collections of short fiction have been among the major literary accomplishments of the twentieth century. Surely the astonishing stories of Franz Kafka (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “A Country Doctor,” “A Report to an Academy,” “The Hunger Artist,” among others) are a greater accomplishment than his uncompleted novels. Thomas Mann’s shorter works—“Death in Venice,” “Mario and the Magician,” “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” among others—are an achievement equivalent to that of the lengthy, ambitious, doggedly cerebral great novels.

In a very different vein, there are the brilliantly realized short stories of Katherine Mansfield, who never wrote a novel. There is Jorge Luis Borges, whose wonderfully original, idiosyncratic work consists almost entirely of enigmatic ficciones, some of them very brief. The short stories of Ernest Hemingway, including the entirety of his remarkable first book, In Our Time, are a greater accomplishment than the novels that brought him wealth and celebrity; no novel by Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Peter Taylor, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, among others, is the equivalent of their short stories. J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories is at least the equivalent of the immensely popular adolescent saga Catcher in the Rye, and of more abiding interest to adults. And there is the example of Raymond Carver, who wrote short stories and poetry exclusively, and who has ascended since his premature death in 1988 to near-mythic status as “the American Chekhov”: a posthumous celebrity that suggests a certain bleak irony if one is acquainted with Carver’s personal life.1

The perennial question “Is the short story an endangered species?” would seem to assume a perilous contemporary climate for the survival of this purely literary form. Despite the present-day profusion of literary magazines of varying degrees of excellence, and recent publications of outstanding short story collections by writers who have made the form their primary mode of expression, among these Tobias Wolff, Thom Jones, Lorrie Moore, the late Andre Dubus, and the veterans Grace Paley and Alice Munro,2 one doubts that the twenty-first century will be as hospitable to short story writers as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been. Short stories, unlike novels, are invariably “literary” and the audience for serious literature is said to be static; in some quarters, it’s likely that the perusal of reviews of books…

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