They may be small, but short stories have been getting a lot of ink lately. This year, the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International award both went to short-story writers, and masters of the form like John Cheever, Donald Barthelme and Flannery O’Connor have all gotten the biographical treatment in 2009. Literary legends like Frank O’Connor and Peter Taylor have new collections out, and Harper has released $10 collections from greats like Herman Melville and Oscar Wilde. More importantly, it has been a banner year for new short-story collections, with impressive efforts from first-time authors and veterans alike. Here’s the cream of this year’s crop.
The Midwestern scribe: Holly Goddard Jones
Her story: Born and raised in western Kentucky, Jones has a keen sense of heartland life that is put to good use in her stories. Girl Trouble, her first collection, is newly out.
Long and short of it: The stories from Girl Trouble are poignant and approachable—ripe for any audience. The human touch and prairie isolation of her characters are pitch-perfect. But whether she is discussing Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in her story “Parts” or riffing on Plato in “Allegory of a Cave,” Jones’ prose is also sharply intellectual. With a debut as striking as Girl Trouble, Jones could very well join the tradition of America’s great Southern writers.
The up-and-comer: Pasha Malla
His story: Malla has written for Salon and Esquire, but The Withdrawal Method, published by indie powerhouse Soft Skull Press, marks his literary debut. His narrative style is sometimes flimsy, but we’ll chalk that up to rookie jitters. His fanciful yet emotionally realistic plots and attuned sense of life and mortality make Malla an author to watch. His second book, a novel, is slated for a 2010 release.
Long and short of it: Malla’s best stories from the collection—“The Slough,” “Being Like Bulls”—are all plot-driven pieces bordering on novella. This tendency may mean Malla’s real strength is as a novelist, but his stories are engaging nonetheless. He also deserves credit for sidestepping common pratfalls. Many short-form writers exploit quirk, especially in opening sentences (Malla’s weirdest: “The day Ewing tried to bugger one of the goats, it went like this …”), as a means of quick entertainment. Malla uses his openers to build emotionally textured characters.
The internationalist: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Her story: References to Adichie, who just published the short-story collection The Thing Around Your Neck, as her generation’s Chinua Achebe are so common that they have become cliché. Comparisons to literary greats aside, Adichie is an emotionally and politically honest writer who confronts the modern world and the troubles of her native Nigeria.
Long and short of it: The Thing Around Your Neck explores myriad facts of Nigerian life, from assassination attempts on outspoken journalists to the struggles of Nigerian immigrants in the U.S.—and even, in the story “Jumping Monkey Hill,” the current state of African literature. The collection is not groundbreaking like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but it is still an elucidating look at contemporary Africa.
The old hand: Jay McInerney
His story: McInerney is a titan of American lit, but he is chiefly known for his novels like Bright Lights, Big City. How It Ended, his short-story collection released earlier this year, proves the acclaimed author is equally adept at all forms of fiction.
Long and short of It: The stories in How It Ended come in two groups—a shoal written in 2007 and 2008 and those from earlier in McInerney’s career. The early works—“My Public Service,” about a licentious presidential nominee; “In the Northwest Frontier Province,” set in Pakistan and Afghanistan—are astoundingly prophetic. The more recent offerings, especially “Invisible Fences,” which deserves a spot on any collegiate short-story syllabus, showcase the powerhouse author at the top of his game.
The guilty pleasure: Nairne Holtz
Her story: Holtz, a Quebecker with a flair for writing about love and sex, has been penning gay fiction for a while now. She’s not going to win a Nobel anytime soon, but her down-and-dirty fiction makes for a solid fun read.
Long and short of it: Lesbian sex, straight sex, lesbian-on-straight man, straight woman-on-lesbian—whatever sultry hookup you want to read about, Holtz’s collection This One’s Going to Last Forever has got it. It’s not a title to name-drop at cocktail parties, but no good guilty pleasure ever is.