L. Rust Hills and the Death of the Short Story

Two stories worth pressing against each other. First, today’s news that L. Rust Hills, former fiction editor at Esquire, has died. Hills provided a home in Esquire‘s pages for Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and many more. But:

When he was first hired at Esquire, in 1957, the magazine’s fiction had turned away from its original lofty aspirations; once the home of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, by the late 1950s it had shifted more toward adventure stories for adventure’s sake.

That’s a detail worth noting in relation to Stephen Amidon‘s interesting recent meditation on the death of the short story in the Times (U.K.):

Even in America, the readership for short stories is undergoing a significant contraction. Fewer large-circulation magazines are publishing fiction, and those that do fail to pay enough to keep writers in the black. (The New Yorker pays a dollar a word for first-timers, which means you can’t even buy a car if you are lucky enough to place a short story there.) Lahiri notwithstanding, New York publishers are increasingly less likely to take a chance on a short-story collection.

It’d be facile to extrapolate any big statement from this—to either say that the short story is on its deathbed, or that these things are cyclical. Esquire still publishes fiction (gives it its own silo on its Web site, in fact), yet people don’t read as much as they used to; it’s complicated. But there’s little question that a book like Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth is an outlier, that by and large the short-story collection doesn’t have the prized place it did, say, 20 years ago. It may be that Lahiri is one of the few working writers today who feel the form is a destination, not a launchpad. It may be there are fewer magazine editors today who care to curate the form. Money’s probably involved, too. In any case, Amidon’s piece is worth reading as a cautionary essay—a warning that while the short story will never die, it’s at risk of becoming a niche enterprise.

The Problem With McSweeney’s

(The obscure indie-rock references will stop soon, promise.)

In the London Times Stephen Amidon addresses the joys and frustrations of the McSweeney’s diaspora. Yes, it’s irreverent and experimental, which is a good thing. But the McSweeney’s brand also winds up serving a very narrow coterie of readers, in part because that brand is defined by Dave Eggers‘ particular brand of irreverence and experimentation:

The ideal McSweeney’s reader (or writer) lives in Brooklyn, wears interesting T-shirts, has a blog he works on in coffee shops, and knows it’s cool to oppose globalisation but uncool to go on too much about it. And while grouping together such distinctive authors as Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, Roddy Doyle and David Foster Wallace is about as easy as herding cats, most of the writers allied with McSweeney’s do share an occasional interest in mixing reportage and fiction, as well as in buffing the surfaces of their prose with italics, unusual fonts and antiquated typography.

Eggers lost me after the first 100 pages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, once it became clear to me that all his rhetorical feints–the run-on sentences, the faux-narcissism-that-isn’t-really-faux, the italicized exclamations!–was doing more to obscure character and story than to reveal it. I kept trying, but McSweeney’s always felt a little like homework, The Believer always felt like My Weekly Reader, and Eggers’ Genius follow-up, You Shall Know Our Velocity! was so jumbled it barely qualified as a novel. I tried to extricate myself from this stuff, but as a Kirkus reviewer I still had to confront it–Yannick Murphy‘s Here They Come was so dispiriting and exhausting a novel that I couldn’t bring myself to even try to read What Is the What, despite all the acclaim it’s received.

McSweeney’s doesn’t seem to be run by editors so much as boosters, which reflects a certain contempt for readers. I very much want to have faith in what McSweeney’s does, because its support of writers, writing, tutoring is good and important. But those good efforts are lashed to a lot of bad writing–and if you alienate enough readers with awfulness, you’re destined to remain interesting only to the coffee-shop-blog set, when you ought to be transcending it.

[HT:The Literary Saloon]