Christine Smallwood at Bookforum:
A novel is not designed to be read in one sitting. A reader finds herself in different moods, and different chairs, over the course of a novel; its pages become saturated with meals and conversations and days good and bad. A short story is read all at once, and alone. It might get knitted into life if it is reread many times over the years, but it always arrives complete, a thing apart and sufficient unto itself, like an asteroid. It is at once smaller and more vulnerable than a novel, and stranger and stiffer, somehow more independent. It doesn’t ask for attachment. It asks only to be heard.
Three collections of American short stories have been recently published. They are New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus; 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor; and The Unprofessionals: New American Writing from the Paris Review, edited by Lorin Stein. Each is a victory lap and a thrown gauntlet. Their editorial sensibilities could be plotted across any number of axes: experimentalism vs. realism; global identity vs. bourgeois America; political fury vs. apathy; situation vs. character. The editors agree on one thing: The story’s prerogative has something to do with provoking feeling—with giving pleasure, making aghast or afraid, breaking hearts, entertaining. Or inflicting pain. “Each story here is a different weapon,” Marcus enthuses in the introduction to New American Stories. “Let’s get bloodied and killed in thirty-two different ways.” Moore compares the story’s business to “open[ing] up a little window or a door” in the mind, an image whose trepanating horror is only momentarily mitigated by that sunny “little.” Stein is less morbid. Rather than treat the story as hole saw, promising explosion or aeration or enlargement, he politely cites its compactness, “the intensity and perfection found only in small things.”