Was 2009 the year of the short story?

Some outstanding collections have drawn attention, but doubts remain as to how many actually get read.

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You may not particularly fancy the genre (and many readers say that they do not), but whether you like short-form fiction or not, it's hard to deny the recent critical success of a number of short story collections. Earlier this week, in fact, the Guardian proclaimed 2009 to be "the year of the short story."

As evidence of the rise of the short story, the piece in the Guardian cited the awarding of the 2009 Man Booker International prize to Canadian short story master Alice Munro, as well as the publication of strong collections from writers including Kazuo Ishiguro, Ha Jin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, James Lasdun, and A.L. Kennedy (in addition to Raymond Carver's "Collected Stories.")

Add to that the fact that Elizabeth Strout took the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction with "Olive Kitteridge," a collection of 13 linked short stories about a Maine school teacher. Also, "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders," a short story collection by Pakistani-born Daniyal Mueenuddin, was a 2009 National Book Award finalist. And don't forget that Oprah picked "Say You're One of Them," a short story collection by Nigerian Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan, for her powerful book club this year.

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On top of that, as the LA Times pointed out this morning in a blog that speculates on "the return of the short story," John Grisham's new collection "Ford County" is "selling just fine, resting comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list."

The only thing that surprises me about such assertions is that we didn't hear more of them last year as well. When the Monitor put together its "best books of 2008" list last year, we included eight short story collections, including books by Roddy Doyle, Cynthia Ozick, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nam Le, Jane Gardam, and Lara Vapnyar.

The sad reality, however, is that short fiction most often does not sell well. As a result, the publishing industry is accused of treating it as the unloved "redheaded stepchild of publishing" (the LA Times) or "dirty secrets to be snuck out in disguise" (the Guardian).

Might recent successes change any of that? The Guardian is feeling optimistic. Between the Atlantic's recent decision to sell individual short stories through its Kindle store and recent praise for the "Collected Stories of Lydia Davis," Chris Power is ready to proclaim that "2010's already shaping up to be another good year" for the genre.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/MarjorieKehe

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