Reviewer James Broderick, Ph.D: James is an associate professor of English and journalism at New Jersey City University. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he is the author of six non-fiction books, and the novel Stalked. His latest book is Greatness Thrust Upon Them, a collection of interviews with Shakespearean actors across America. Follow Here To Listen To An Interview With James Broderick.
Author: Debbie Jones
Once upon a time, the short story was a very popular literary genre. Many writers who are now canonized in the pantheon of “Literature with a capital L” made their reputations – and won a loyal readership – with the humble short story. James Joyce, William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates, James Baldwin, Philip Roth and countless other “biggies” established themselves as writers worthy of being read by their work in the short story.
But that’s mostly history. Although there are still some highly respected authors working in that form, the short story has become a niche genre, the province of the “serious” reader and the academic classroom. Very few “average” readers (who used to be called “middlebrow” until that term acquired a pejorative whiff of inadequacy) regularly read short stories. The novel has now become the avatar of literary significance.
Critics who still care about this sort of thing have theorized about why the short story has fallen into general public disregard. To my mind, there are two reasons: the first is the migration of short fiction from popular periodicals to specialized “journals.” Short fiction used to be a staple of many popular weekly and monthly magazines, from the Ladies Home Journal to Vanity Fair. As the publishing world faced pressure to maximize profits and advertising revenue declined, news holes (the space available for print) shrank, and shorter, flashier, more provocative fare rushed in to fill the void. And as younger readers became accustomed to these “quicker hits” (celebrity Q&A, lifestyle quizzes, weight loss tips, relationship dos and don’ts, etc.), the short story began to seem a quaint vestige of the past.
The second reason for the decline in popularity of the genre is the changing emphasis of the short story on “interiority,” bred largely by a generation of MFA-trained writers seeking literary “significance” rather than good old-fashioned storytelling. And though “literary fiction” can be thoroughly dazzling in the hands of a gifted artist, too many writers seem to have forgotten that the primary obligation of a storyteller is to, well, tell a story.
So now, specialized journals exist for the “serious” short story writer, while the rest of the general reading public heads to their local Barnes and Noble for the latest James Patterson, or Stephen King, or Janet Evanovich to get their storytelling fix.
But for those of you who still love the short story form, I bring you good news in the form of a new collection of stories that ought to find a place on every short fiction lover’s bookshelf: Tales of Wonder from the Garden State, by Debbie Jones.
This slim collection (150 pages) presents four short stories – nominally connected to New Jersey – offering an eclectic mix of subjects and characters. Each of the stories in the collection is well-wrought (Jones is an award-winning playwright and former English and Latin teacher) and highly satisfying. Jones is a terrific writer and her playwright’s training shows in her ear for dialogue and her spare but lyrical descriptions. The writing is never self-consciously showy. Each of the stories surges forward with the narrative energy driven by compelling plots. The writing is elegantly simple – much more difficult to achieve, by the way, than writing floridly with multiple literary digressions. (I don’t think you can’t teach someone to write simply but you can learn it from reading Hemingway or E.B. White or Flannery O’Connor.)
Take this example, from the bizarre, breath-taking story “Madame Toullaine and the Big Red Head”:
“She watched the fog finger the screens. Fog bothered her. She liked the dark. The dark was rich. But the fog was an intruder. You could see it coming for one thing. The dark came like the dawn sweeping into and through the sky’s palette. It was a regular thing. Fog was a leak. The dark was dependable. A woman could shut out the dark by turning on a light or just let it be and sit there in the dark thinking things and watching what the dark could do to the sea. The dark could be stopped by a candle. The fog shut you in – it penetrated, it made the air thick and still and it could not be stopped with headlights or even the strobe of a lighthouse.”
The control of language, and the restraint here, is impressive – especially in the service of a story that is truly wild. “Madame Toullaine” is a kind of minor masterpiece that deserves wide circulation. All of the stories in Tales of Wonder, however, are well worth a reader’s time.
In this dark and beautiful collection, Jones reminds short story lovers everywhere of the intense power of the compact form and the satisfactions of a well-told story. I hope this gem of a book somehow breaks through. A writer of Jones’ literary subtlety and thrilling originality might just be what we need to begin the short story renaissance I have begun to fear would never arrive.
Click Here To Purchase Tales of Wonder from the Garden State