Go Big Or Go Home?

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When George Saunders’ Tenth of December was released, the New York Times magazine declared it to be “the best book you’ll read this year,” and many others offered similar encomiums. Elizabeth Minkel noticed that a few dissenters from the praise asked just how great a short story writer could be:

[I]t was suggested that someone who can’t seem to accrue enough pages to pen the Great American Novel couldn’t actually be considered the writer of our time. The whole debate volleyed around the bookish corners of the Internet for a few days, one of those weird, insular, overly prescriptive bouts of literary navel-gazing. Whatever, I said. The conversation was an irrelevant one. I loved George Saunders. I was going to love this book.

After reading the collection, she fears the critics might be onto something:

If it’s so important to me to figure out how these stories work, it feels similarly important to understand how the sum of their parts seems to fall short. I felt, at times, that the stories themselves were unevenly matched: big famous ones, like the two bookends, “Victory Lap” and the final, eponymous story, shine so brightly that some of the others feel like paler echoes. And then there’s the literal echo — Saunders’s language, the tricky rhythm of modern colloquialisms that’s often so beautifully awkward — in the words of that Times piece, it’s frequently “a kind of heightened bureaucratese” — can feel gimmicky in story after story, the sheen wearing off a bit. These criticisms — the pace, the shtick —  are ones I and many, many others have leveled before all sorts of short story collections — and it’s there that we loop back around to the silly question of whether a writer who only produces short stories can really be considered the pinnacle of the profession. The question makes me cringe, for reasons I can’t quite articulate — maybe it’s because it does feel like a weird, insular, overly prescriptive bout of literary navel-gazing. Or maybe it’s because I’m beginning to suspect that it’s true.