In the 58th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Patrick Somerville, author of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (Featherproof Books), stakes out a place for short story collections.
What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
First and foremost, I think a good short story collection should deliver something that a novel can’t deliver, that television can’t deliver, and that film can’t deliver—it should justify its own existence by being able to get to emotions, meanings, and situations that are simply not attainable with visual mediums or a long-form story that follows the same characters for two, three, or four-hundred pages. For a form to be relevant, it has to fill a space and a want in the culture, it has to do something, even if that “doing” is providing a very specific and esoteric experience, and while the role of short stories in our culture and the economics of short stories have changed in the last 60-70 years, no doubt, I still feel as though there’s a place for them, and I feel—even more so—that there’s a place for collections of stories. Maybe even a need.
It’s funny, because if you were to step back and take a broad look at how our culture works, what a typical day looks like for a middle-class person, what the experience of a leisurely evening might be like for that same person, I sometimes feel as though novels make the least sense of all anymore, and that they’ve continued to be popular only because of inertia, or marketing, or their similarities to feature films. Good short story collections, though, even though they rarely sell or get read in the same way good novels sell and get read, do something that seems absolutely crucial me: they coexist in a state of being fractured and a state of overall cohesion. To me, that’s the perfect description of contemporary experience and of contemporary minds, too. It’s in our nature to create a cohesive self and move forward with a unified identity, or at least the illusion of one, but in truth most people’s days are broken into tiny parts that are both different and the same. Especially people like me, people who’ve allowed gadgetry and the internet to become crunched into their consciousnesses. And in the same way, collections of stories are broken up and unified simultaneously. It seems like it should work.
The point is only this: Good short story collections, whatever they’re about, always teach a weird lesson about the parts and the whole. They provide a good reminder that if you overvalue one, you lose the other, and vice versa. It’s so important, just to avoid insanity in the contemporary world—and by that I really do mean actually going fucking insane—to have the psychic flexibility to sometimes see forest, sometimes see trees. Good collections put readers in a state of seeing both forest and trees at the same time. It doesn’t last, because it can’t, but a good collection will get you into that state and let you glimpse it for a time. And grow.
What book made you want to become a writer?
Catch-22. And it's funny to answer that question right after I've gone on about collections of stories, because I think that while it was the humor in Catch-22 that captured my imagination when I was a teenager, what I went back to, and keep going back to, is the form of that book, how it's put together, why it's put together in the way that it's put together. It's a novel that you might be able to argue is a deeply disguised collection of linked stories; it's episodic, fractured, and nonlinear, and yet the reader moves forward, bit by bit, and slowly reconstructs the straight line of time. You circle back and you circle back, and the radius of the circle keeps expanding, but it’s the same circle. I wonder about Heller's experience of writing that book, about the convenience he afforded himself by building it in the way that he did. He got himself into a great position—he had this huge, epic story on his hands, but he could also sit down and sketch out a little incident, insert it, and not have to completely freak out about the bigger storyline. Because despite how complicated that book is, the bigger storyline is very simple: Make things more nuts. Make the crazy grow, and push it to the point, by the end, that no one can bear it any longer. Not the characters, not the readers. My God, I absolutely love that book.