The Trouble with Short Stories
Posted by: Keir Graff
I just filed my reviews of Duane Swierczynski’s The Blonde and Claire Davis’ Labors of the Heart. The Blonde is a collection of short stories that richly evoke the interior lives of people living in small towns of the American West, and Labors of the Heart is about a blonde infected with fast-replicating nanomachines. I mean the other way around. One of the things I love about my job is that I get to read such a wide variety of books, but it’s not always easy to jump from crime to literary fiction and vice versa. Maybe I need a third genre as an intermediate step. Or maybe that would make matters worse.
One odd thing about The Blonde: it’s the second novel of Swierczynski’s that I’ve reviewed, and the author bio on the back of the advance uncorrected proofs says, “This is his second novel.”
Yet the author’s blog has a link to “the first novel,” Secret Dead Men, on Amazon.com. It’s published by Point Blank Press, though, not St. Martin’s/Minotaur, as are The Wheel Man and The Blonde. A simple error by St. Martin’s, or a petty refusal to acknowledge the firstborn novel? Maybe it’s not too surprising. Again, according to the author’s own blog, St. Martin’s misspelled his name on the spine of his book.
At any rate, Swierczynski’s third book is great. I felt a bit as if I was rewriting my review of The Wheel Man, because both books share many of the same qualities. But, as I wrote in my last post, Swierczynski does up the ante with a more inventive plot this time around.
Regarding Labors of the Heart, it’s always a challenge to review a book of short stories. It’s especially difficult to do it for Booklist, in 175 words. I often feel obligated to call out at least three stories, to give an idea of the variety–or lack of variety–in a collection or anthology. But giving the title and a summary of three stories leaves me with about 12 words in which to actually discuss the book. At least in collections there’s usually a chance to talk about the author’s themes and style. In an anthology it gets even tougher, because though the anthology might have a theme, the variety is often so great as to defy summary.
Late last night, though, as I started my review of Labors of the Heart, I kept the book closed. I decided not to call out the usual three stories. Instead, I just started writing about the larger themes that had struck me while I read it. I did mention the title story, but only in support of the overall argument. Revising the review this morning, I was pretty pleased with it. It feels a little less informative somehow–because part of reviewing is to simply let people know what’s inside the book–and yet I think it’s more helpful. Anyone reading my review of Labors of the Heart would probably be less helped by knowing that “Adultery” is about a son’s attempt to make sense of his mother’s adulterous affair with his father and that “Electric” is about a lighting salesman who contemplates having his own adulterous affair than by knowing that Davis is exploring “the phantoms of possibility and fulfillment, how people feel hemmed in by their lives and either make accommodation or fight.”
Either that, or I’m just making an accommodation for my desire to write a poetic phrase.
But I do think that book reviewers have to resist the urge to summarize. Besides the obvious danger of including a plot spoiler, good recommendations have less to do with plot than with tone, pace, setting, and theme. After all, countless books have been written about troubled families–given limited space, it’s less useful to know the particulars than what the author makes of the material.
Just for comparison, here’s what I think is the first short-story collection I reviewed for Booklist, Janice Galloway’s Where You Find It. Even though I didn’t mention too many individual stories, I feel like the review never really hits its stride. In contrast, here’s one–Eric Shade’s Eyesores–where I didn’t mention a single story and yet I feel like I really captured the book (and even alluded to some moments from specific stories).
Okay, now I’m going to go wind down with what looks like a historical spy novel or mystery, Frederick Highland’s Night Falls on Damascus (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne). There better not be any nanomachines–that would wreak havoc on the verisimilitude.