The Recent Renaissance in Short Story Republication

Written for and dedicated to a friend who is seeking to learn about and read more short fiction, by its most passionate reader & connoisseur (and its lousiest practitioner). Thank you for always being as supportive of my life efforts, including my writing. You’re as good a human being as they come.

The last few years have seen what I consider to be a renaissance in short story republication. The rediscovery of short story authors who vary between not-often-appreciated to entirely obscure and never-before published-in-short-story-collection form, to one who hardly published at all in their lifetime.

Quickly, some vocab:

Short story collection – books containing stories which do not typically appear in the authors’ other short story collections and are usually organized by the author with some rhyme or reason in mind.

Selected Stories – books containing stories selected from various periods in the author’s career, whether from short story collections or being stories published as standalones or in some wonderful cases stories that have never been published prior to the Selected Stories’ publication. A Selected Stories can be curated by either the author theirself, or by someone else.

Collected Stories – These are comprehensive: they attempt to include every story published by the author, and, again, just as the above vocab word, in some cases we get stories that have not been published until now. These are usually compiled by someone with an enormous appreciation and passion for the author’s work, and are not usually done by the author theirself, but I could imagine a situation where they might.

Short Story Anthologies  – These can be fun because they gather stories from a variety of writers based on some theme.

The Stories of Alice Adams (2019)

Alice Adams, for example, is on the former end of the spectrum: her contribution to inventing templates and tropes for a particular variety of New Yorker fiction. Her stories did receive the short story collection treatment (six collections, and a Collected stories volume, were published all in all). When she passed away in 1999 she seemed to drop out of interest; New Yorker readers looked forward to her stories, but critical acclaim does not seem to have been long-lasting. Her closest appreciator seems to have been her editor at the New Yorker, Victoria Wilson, who we can thank for The Stories of Alice Adams (2019). I have been unsuccessful in figuring out whether or not this is a “Collected stories,” (encompassing all her published short fiction,) or merely a very large “selected stories,” (a sampling of short fiction across a career or particular era of a career). But it is a pretty great selection. Some stories perhaps I didn’t care for, but on the whole Alice Adams had a distinct voice which she used to tell stories which, as she gets later in to her career, reach a sort of maturity which allowed her human insight and her impressions of her experiences to flourish.

In terms of strengths, the common thing noted about Alice Adams’ writing is her voice. It’s the first strong characteristic Wilson references in the Introduction, it is included in a blurb for the book by Joyce Carol Oates, who herself has quite the ear for her own voice, and is the common thread which engaged me in this book, even through the handful of stories I cared slightly less for. I don’t want to be too specific about which stories because I don’t find that sort of criticism useful since I don’t know why they don’t click with me, but as the book gets into the later career, I like her stories more and more.

This is a pretty great book, overall. My favorite stories are probably “The End of the World,” “Elizabeth,” “The Last Lovely City,” and “Earthquake Damage.” The only story I have specific criticism for is “Winter Rain,” which appears to be the earliest story to be published among the stories gathered in this volume. The writing is terse, and the connections between disparate layers of the story are not exactly integrated well. Any other story in this book I didn’t like (which is only a few,) is largely a result of the story not clicking with me. These are pretty greats stories over all, and the voice is not only remarkably consistent but becomes refined over time; Adams shaped her voice to account for new subject areas, rather than adapting an entirely new one for different topics. That’s honing your craft if I ever saw it.

A Manual For Cleaning Women (2015) and Evening in Paradise (2018) by Lucia Berlin

            Lucia Berlin has become one of my favorite short story writers. To date, there is not a single Berlin story I have ever not loved. Lucia Berlin published “brilliantly but sporadically” (as the “Note on Lucia Berlin,” printed and reprinted respectively in the back of these two volumes, puts it,) throughout her career and this is in part a reflection on her lifestyle: she lived sporadically throughout the United States. This not only is reflected in her publication pattern but also her unwavering empathy and compassion for the array of humanity which was displayed before her. The stories, selected by Berlin’s friend Stephen Emerson, and the first volume with a foreword by Lydia Davis[1] and the 2nd has an Introduction which is actually an essay about Berlin written by her son about four years after she passed away, repurposed as an Introduction.

            Lucia Berlin is probably not very well known partly due to the crappy book design of Sparrow Press’s three-volume complete gathering of Berlin’s 70+ short stories, the very, very limited print run of her the original short story collections to begin with, and her sporadic publishing. (As to why Black Sparrow chose the gaudy cover designs of these books which should have gone down in history as one of the fine achievements of short fiction publication due to its comprehensiveness and all-inclusiveness, I can only surmise they attempted to market these stories to completely the wrong audience.)

            Regardless of the publishing industry’s wrongdoing to one of art’s most empathetic and insightful genius, certain rightings are being enacted in the publication of Manual for Cleaning Women (2015), the title story, the opening story “Angel’s Laundromat,” and the single-page story, “Macadam,” which is placed about halfway into the selection, is something a book-browser could easily flip to ands see clearly the way Berlin’s knack for insight and empathy for the experience of the Other play out in her prose style. “I used to use to say ‘macadam’ out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.” Evening in Paradise is a continuation of the effort to make Berlin’s stories available in books which look like they would be for the audience who would most likely appreciate Berlin’s stories: readers of literary short fiction.

Where the Light Falls: Selected Stories of Nancy Hale (2019)

            Yet a third happy discovery, this book has a selection of stories by author Nancy Hale which stretch from the early 30’s to the mid-60’s, selected by Lauren Groff[2]. Nancy Hale herself lived from 1908-1988, and Groff’s method of organizing Hale’s stories is chronologically to parallel Hale’s epiphany that, whatever biography she would end up writing about Mary Cassatt, the art gallery she saw if the painter in the late 70’s spoke to her as biographical. Nancy Hale comes from Boston-founding line, which is where she grew up. Her grandfather was Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister in Boston.[3] As Groff puts it in the Introduction to this Selected Stories, “The larger, refined Boston world of Hale’s youth was pedigree-bound,” and this is bound up in Hale’s own identity as a Bostonian. Both her parents were painters, her mother being a portrait-painter, which is on-and-off an important style in the history of Boston, so much so that author Van Wyck Brooks begins his five-volume historical epic on literary culture in New England with the biographical sketch of portrait painter.

            The maturation of Nancy Hale’s stories is gradual, but even her less impressive, early stories are engaging. These stories range from summer romances to political and social commentary, and as her writing matures, her settings and characters become more enriched and alive. Also like Alice Adams, a great deal of Nancy Hale’s stories appeared in the New Yorker.

            The interesting thing about having Nancy Hale’s Selected Stories in print is that this is the first time her stories have ever been gathered in any fashion between two covers: she never published a short story collection, nor a Collected Stories, let alone a Selected Stories of her own. A story of hers was included in an anthology, 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, she appears very little in anthologies in general. Lauren Groff hopes this selection of Hale’s stories serves “as a necessary correction to Nancy Hale’s slow slide into oblivion,” and given that Groff herself admits little exposure to Hale prior to this project despite being a connoisseur and practitioner of the craft of the short story form, this marks Groff as an Innovative, Discovering Reader[4].

            As I said, Hale’s later stories feel stronger than her early ones, and yet even her earliest stories are pitch-perfect in tone, shapely in form (Jerome Sterne would have appreciated these stories[5]) and Hale seemed to have already settled on a layering method which she refined over time where the surfaces of the stories are smooth and quiet but envelope a growing tension that tends to continue ringing like a final note after the story is finished; its meditating on this note after finishing the story that reveals the meaning. My favorites from this book are: “Who Lived and Died Believing,” “The Bubble,” and “How Would You Like To Be Born . . .”.

Breece D’J Pancake

            The attempt on the part of the Republic of Letters to incorporate Breece D’J Pancake into the fabric of contemporary literature is an uphill battle fought with a needle against a storm not because there is anyone in opposition to his stories; indeed, everyone who discovers Pancake’s stories feels they have discovered gemstones. These gemstones were mined by Pancake in the mountains of West Virginia.

            The factors that have led to Breece D’J Pancake’s steep obscurity are various: anyone familiar with and supportive of the Regionalism approach to framing literary taxonomy as a viable approach to reading and understanding will already find it a startling realization that not much fiction comes from, and is about, West Virginia; secondly, much like my favorite poet Emily Dickinson, Pancake only published a couple of his stories during his life, despite his apparent integrity and dedication to a work ethic surrounding his writing; thirdly, before he could get around to publishing any of the numerous stories he spent so much time on, he took his own life in 1979, forever closing the door on the possibility of not hoarding his genius.

            The book that probably only a handful of truly dedicated short fiction lovers are probably familiar with is Back Bay Books’ The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake published in 2002. This is the one I am familiar with. However, the attempt to get Pancake into print begins just a few years after his suicide; Little Brown published the original hardcover in 1983, of which the Back Bay paperback is apparently a long-overdue reprint.

            A few weeks ago, book-review magazine Rain Taxi included in its latest issue a review of the most comprehensive survey of Pancake’s writing, published by Library of America and containing a freshly-written Introduction by Jayne Anne Phillips,[6] who herself grew up in West Virginia and who also writes about her home state in her fiction.

            Library of America, by the way, is not only responsible for The Collected Breece D’J Pancake, but also The Selected Stories of Nancy Hale. In back-to-back years, nonetheless.

            This book I have not gotten my hands on yet, but I plan to do so very soon, firstly because that Back Bay paperback always left me wanting more from a person so dedicated to soul-searching and self-exploration, and secondly because it really does feel like there is a renaissance in short story publication: it seems to be in the air of the Republic of Letters to rescue a number of wonderful writers from “the slow slide into oblivion,” and to help keep the writings of short fiction authors alive long after they’ve passed.

            Short fiction to begin with is a genre resigned to a limited audience. I think it was Deborah Eisenberg who once joked while giving a discussion that probably everyone who cares about short stories equaled the number of people in the room she was speaking to (probably not more than a couple hundred). So, when a short story author eludes even the periphery of the short story lover, it really is truly a task to get an author you discover to be shared and appreciated by a larger audience than an audience of one, so I hope that this brief survey of some recent books, and this blog in general, contribute to these authors being discovered, enjoyed, and appreciated by an audience at least one reader larger than it was yesterday.

[1] an important practitioner of the short story form, known for her brevity, conciseness, and minimalism; her story collections were prematurely “collected” in a really nice, small Picador paperback in 2009 and whose names has not seen the last of its appearances on my blog; I am very fond of Break it Down (1986), Can’t and Won’t ( 2014) and another short fiction writer I like a great deal, Miranda July, has a style which seems to branch off from Lydia Davis’.

[2] Lauren Groff has been really knocking it out of the park the last few years: she published her cricitcally acclaimed and well regarded book of linked short stories, Florida, in 2018; in 2019, she selected and Introduced these Nancy Hale stories for Library of America; and in 2020 she was chosen by the Everyman’s Library to organize and introduce the Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore, one of the living legends of the short story form.

[3] Edward Everett Hale is lightly sketched out in the first volume of Van Wyck Brooks’ Makers & Finders series, The Flowering of New England (1936). For more on the tangled legendary family lineages if the reader has read Van Wyck Brooks, I plan to create a series of historical sketches at some point covering this topic.

[4] As always, credit to Cinzia DuBois’s video criticizing “Book Canon Snobs,” 06-10-2015; watch the 3:35-4:00 mark.

[5] Jerome Sterne is the author of the modern classic guide to writing fiction, Making Shapely Fiction, assigned reading in the short story workshops I attended.

[6] Herself a little-known author, who wrote a brilliant collection of stories titled Black Tickets in 1979, as well as other several great books: novels, short story collections, and some other stuff.

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