introducing readers to writers since 1995

April 08, 2004

The American Short Story in Decline?
Perhaps Not Yet

by Ron Hogan

I don't have enough data to agree or disagree, since I (gasp!) don't read the New Yorker regularly, but see what you think of Jimmy Beck's attack on this week's Ann Beattie short story and, by extension, most of the recent fiction selections. Beck's argument comes at an interesting time for me, as someone to whom I'd sent a link to a Jim Harrison story from a few weeks back, recommended by one of the web's leading literary lights, wrote back this afternoon to say the lazy, self-conscious writing in it made her blood boil. I should check out these links more carefully before I pass them around, I guess...

UPDATE: It turns out that "by extension" line was probably a slight misreading on my part, and that Beck's not quite as mad as I thought. Though still quite mad. And Dan Wickett of has some leads on short stories that don't suck.


Well now,

I recently gave a copy of Hard Revolution to a friend and his wife read it first. She hated it.So, what can you do?

I have been both recommending Jim Harrison's "Father Daughter" and admonishing various of my preferred web literary arbiters on their egregious lapse in failing to mention Harrison's very rare appearance in the pages of the New Yorker.

I was once having a talk about books with a bookish type whose opinion and vision I greatly admired and she dismissed Harrison as a paragon of "male sentimentality". Okay, that didn't change my mind about Harrison (though sadly she has never invited me back to her house for dinner)nor did it affect my regard for said opinionater.

So who knows? Maybe Harrison breaks on a male /female divide.Who knows? I am surprised that it seems you passed the recommendation without reading the story. Have you read it yet? And if so, what do you think?

Here's the URL for anyone still curious:

Posted by: birnbaum at April 8, 2004 05:50 AM

Thanks to RB for passing along the link.

As for the " extension, most of the recent fiction selections," I didn't see Beck's attack as stating such. He was really just decrying this particular piece of garbage story (sorry, but I agree with him about Beattie - I've only finished one of her efforts and I hated myself every moment I was doing so). He mentioned many of the standard carriers of short fiction in the New Yorker, or at least seemingly at their disposal, with praise.

As for the title American Short Story in Decline. I hardly think so. Recent collections by Anthony Doerr, Karl Iagnemma, ZZ Packer, Kellie Wells, Brad Barkley, and especially Dean Paschal certainly show otherwise. Sadly, I bet the New Yorker has only heard of Packer.

Posted by: Dan Wickett at April 8, 2004 02:28 PM

My impression was that Beattie was the straw that broke Jimmy's back, largely on the basis of the line "If I must endure the Beatties and her ilk in order to get the 10 good stories and the 3 or 4 transcendent ones," which only accounts for about a quarter of the fiction the magazine publishes a year.

As for why I passed on the Harrison link before I read it, well, it's because I trust the source, plain and simple, and I knew my correspondent to be a fan of the short story, so I figured she might like that one. Maybe it is a gender gap; on the other hand, once I read it, I wasn't quite clear what all the fuss is about.

Posted by: editor at April 8, 2004 02:39 PM

For the record, I think we're lucky to have Mr. Birnbaum and his site and great interviews, even if we don't all share his boner for Jim Harrison (I liked "Father-Daughter" very much, BTW).

Second, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the New Yorker has indeed published ZZ Packer, though only after the buzz became deafening.

Third, if by "mad" you mean furious, I'd probably disagree--seething, perhaps. If you mean "out of his fucking gourd" then I'd say guilty as charged.

Posted by: Jimmy Beck at April 8, 2004 03:27 PM

Absolutely--one dud reaction to a story in now way negates my general admiration for Identity Theory and the recurring appearances in The Morning News.

I like the early paragraph in "Father Daughter" about how the daughter made her grandmother cry. That was a good paragraph.

Posted by: editor at April 8, 2004 03:32 PM

So correct me if I'm wrong, but the lessons learned are:

1. The New Yorker's fiction section is troubling, but every now and then, there's an unexpected nugget.
2. Most literary-minded folks are ready to storm the Conde Nast building with AK-47s, "Bel Canto" style.
3. Never mention Jim Harrison if you hope to get into the sack.

And actually the New Yorker has published at least three of Ms. Packer's stories. ("The Ant of the Self" and "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" appeared there, one well before the collection.)

Posted by: Ed at April 8, 2004 04:27 PM

Birnbaum's interviews are a great resource, either at identitytheory, or at The Morning News.

I believe Jimmy is correct, they finally did publish a Packer story, and I think he's correct again in that they did so well after her book was already being super-hyped.

Posted by: Dan Wickett at April 8, 2004 04:27 PM

I don't count myself a fan of Ann Beattie's fiction, but one story (I haven't read it) in the New Yorker that doesn't appeal hardly seems the basis for such an all-out attack. Ms. Beattie has a considerable track record, and perhaps some further discussion of how this story does or does not match up to previous work might be in order. Even if all of Beattie doesn't add up, a broader analyis of the flaws in her work more generally might be even more convincing.

Posted by: Daniel Green at April 8, 2004 05:26 PM


This has been a mixed bag.

The praise is heartwarming. Thank you.

And I guess Edward is correct about revealing my 'boner'(What a quaint word!) for Harrison if I want an amorous interlude or a repeat dinner invite.

This is truly a literary dilemna

Posted by: birnbaum at April 8, 2004 10:45 PM
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