On Short Stories
That people won’t read story collections is an axiom at publishing houses and a common notion in newspaper idea pieces. Whether it was ever true I tend to doubt, but it certainly isn’t now. Evidence springs effortlessly to mind — Junot Díaz, ZZ Packer, Lorrie Moore and George Saunders are just a few of the youngish writers beloved first for the short fiction that started their careers — yet the distrust persists.
When a good novel fails to find an audience, it’s the fault of bad marketing, unappealing cover art or a public too dim to appreciate literary fiction. But if short stories don’t sell, publishers blame the form. The resulting skittishness may account for the rise of the “novel in stories,” a hybridized creature typically denoted, as in the case of Ellen Litman’s “Last Chicken in America,” by an italicized subtitle.
The worst of these books are chilly and labyrinthine. You follow dour characters down corridors of plot, theme or emotion that threaten to lead to some destination, but never actually do. Litman’s elegantly constructed web of stories about Russian-Jewish immigrants living in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh is the converse of such aimless solemnity. It’s warm, true and original, and packed with incisive, subtle one-liners.