Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Conventional Wisdom On Short Story Collections Is Wrong

Last night, after the Happy Endings reading at Joe's Pub in New York, I introduced myself to Wells Tower, whose collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, has gotten great reviews and is selling very well. The temptation is to say "selling very well for a short story collection," but most authors of any book would be happy with comparable sales; it made it onto The New York Times extended best-seller list, as well as the American Booksellers' extended list, and I'm sure others. Of course, Wells and I started talking about short story collections, and he told me how earlier on some had tried to discourage him from writing a short story collection. He also said that he'd been told it would be better if it were a book of themed or connected stories. Luckily for readers, he pursued his own vision. And the results have been critical and commercial success.

Of course, I've heard anecdotes like this countless times. The conventional wisdom among editors and publishers is that short story collections not only don't sell but they won't sell. Jhumpa Lahiri has proven that theory wrong twice, and Tower, with his first book, is doing the same--and with no major book award, no Oprah, no previous following, and no film versions of his work. Maybe now agents, and especially editors, will put the old truisms to rest. A great short story collection can do well if you get behind it (kudos to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Towers' publisher). So please stop discouraging writers from doing what they do best. I've seen too many natural short story writers forced into writing novels, when all we should really ask from artists is that they give us their best, no matter the form--even if that form happens to be short fiction.