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Ann Charters edits The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. The new Compact Tenth Edition is now available.
Are authors of new short stories capable of showing us today’s reality? Or do we now live in such endangered times that only ordinary people – not gifted young fiction writers such as Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and Lauren Groff – can testify to our predicament? In Sigrid Nunez’s short novel The Friend (2018), she presents both sides of the proposition that the existential reality of contemporary life can no longer be expressed through fiction. Since today’s world is full of victims, “we need documentary fiction, stories cut from ordinary, individual life. No invention. No authorial point of view” (p. 191).
As Nunez understands, fiction as autobiography, or autobiography as fiction, has been with us for a long time in the work of international novelists such as Proust, Isherwood, Duras, and Knausgaard (p. 188). In the United States, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) is a ground-breaking example of what he called the “true-story novel,” or a narrative based on his own adventures. Kerouac (1922-1969) was an American experimental writer. His short story “October in the Railroad Earth,” in the tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer, is a description of how he worked a job on the railroad in San Francisco in October 1952. Kerouac’s story is true to the facts of his experience, embellished as fiction with his exuberant wordplay as he experimented with the writing method he called spontaneous prose. His “true-story” approach was taken up by many young journalists and fiction writers. It is now known as “autofiction.”
“Autofiction,” a mixture of autobiography and fiction, is the approach taken frequently by college students enrolled in workshop classes in fiction writing. The danger is that young writers sometimes appropriate into their stories the experiences of other people, invading their privacy and crossing a moral line. An example would be the story “Cat People” by Kristen Roupenian, first published in the December 2017 issue of The New Yorker. You can read more about this controversial story in the revised chapter on the history of the short story in the new Compact edition. As Toni Morrison understood, “A person owns his life. It’s not for another to use it for fiction” (Nunez, 57).
In my opinion, the form of the short story is flexible enough to continue to engage the imagination of young writers today. As Lydia Davis recognized, we live in an ever-expanding world of narrative possibilities, not only on film but also on the printed page. These include flash fictions like Davis’s story “The Caterpillar”; meditations like George Saunders’ “Stix”; and logic games like Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings.”
Gifted young storytellers like Lauren Groff continue to take the traditional approach when they create a work of short fiction out of their sense of being victimized in our challenging moment of history. In her story “The Midnight Zone,” Groff dramatizes the struggle of many women to achieve their own high expectations of “doing it all” – fulfilling the conflicting roles expected of them. Did the accident befalling the mother alone with two small children in a Florida “hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub” actually happen to Groff? Read her story and decide for yourself.
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