Short Roth stories long on quality

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I just finished reading a short story from Goodbye, Columbus, the collection that launched Phillip Roth’s career 50 years ago this month. The gem included in the Norton North American Literature Anthology was Defender of the Faith, a tight, plainspoken tale about three Jewish Army trainees and the Jewish sergeant who both learns and teaches a lesson about the boundaries of faith.

Roth has plenty of acclaimed long works to his name, having won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. But like so many great novelists, he honed his craft on short stories. About himself writing Goodbye, Columbus, he said in a 30th Anniversary Edition:

With clarity and with crudeness, and a great deal of exuberance, the embryonic writer who was me wrote these stories in his early 20s, while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, a soldier stationed in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., and a novice English instructor back at Chicago following his Army discharge. Eisenhower, who was president, the embryonic writer despised, though not nearly as much as he was to despise Eisenhower’s Republican successors.

His cultural ambitions were formulated in direct opposition to the triumphant, suffocating American philistinism of that time: he despised Time, Life, Hollywood, television, the best-seller list, advertising copy, McCarthyism, Rotary Clubs, racial prejudice and the American booster mentality. Among the writers he was reading when he wrote these stories in the 1950s — and he was reading all the time, all kinds of books, dozens and dozens of them — were David Riesman, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Randall Jarrell, Sigmund Freud, Paul Goodman, William Styron, C. Wright Mills, Martin Buber, George Orwell, Suzanne Langer, F.R. Leavis, David Daiches, Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, Ralph Ellison, Erich Fromm, Joseph Conrad, Dylan Thomas, Sean O’Casey, e.e. cummings — who collectively represented a republic of discourse in which he aspired to be naturalized.

Hooray for a Pulitzer’s worth of stories

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Short stories get short shrift. These gems of tales, usually less than 3,000 words, usually can’t find a publisher or a publication, but everybody professes to enjoy reading them. Count among the satisfied the jury of the Pulitzer Prize, which awarded the 2009 fiction prize to a collection of stories by Elizabeth Stout, Olive Kitteridge.

To be precise, this lovely book is a “novel in stories,” a collection of tales with recurring characters but not bound up with a narrative though-line. Reading a novel in stories is easy for people who only read once in awhile. You always feel like you’ve gotten everything there is to tell in a novel in stories, so long as you finish the chapter you’re on. Every chapter is a self-contained story.

Six years ago, I saw a novel-in-stories slammed by a prize-winning novelist. Ann Patchett came to Austin to give a keynote speech at the Austin Writers League “Why Fiction Matters” conference. Patchett spoke knowing she’d just won the PEN/Falkner award for her novel Bel Canto. In the course of her talk Patchett said in passing, “and then there’s the novel-in-stories, a form I loathe, by the way.” We didn’t all want to know what she liked to read, or thought was worthy. But some of us knew something Patchett didn’t. The conference organizer Karen Stolz had published a successful novel in stories, The World of Pies.

So maybe — since Stout’s novel in stories won the Pulitzer, like fiction of Phillip Roth and Michael Chabon — Patchett might want to revisit her judgment about the worth of novels in stories. She could reconsider while she’s dusting off the section of her bookcase that’s still waiting for a Pulitzer prize. Bel Canto is based on the Lima Crisis news event, but Olive Kitteridge doesn’t need that kind of based-on-a-true-story leg up. It’s Elizabeth Stout’s world of coastal Maine residents. Booklist said in a starred review

But appalling though Olive can be, Strout manages to make her deeply human and even sympathetic, as are all of the characters in this “novel in stories.” Covering a period of 30-odd years, most of the stories (several of which were previously published in the New Yorker and other magazines) feature Olive as their focus, but in some she is bit player or even a footnote while other characters take center stage to sort through their own fears and insecurities. Though loneliness and loss haunt these pages, Strout also supplies gentle humor and a nourishing dose of hope.

Never let it matter that anyone, no matter how awarded their career might be, reviles your writing style. You can find single-star reviews for Bel Canto on Amazon, after all. Be your own judge and let yourself — not just your writing or publishing — be the beauty in the world.