This post, by Kevin McFarland, originally appeared on The AV Club on 1/25/13.
The backlash had to begin sometime. George Saunders’ fourth short-story collection, Tenth Of December, landed on the New York Times Bestseller list in its first week after garnering significant praise, and even a lengthy, glowing New York Times Magazine profile. Saunders is unusual among anointed writers because his major works are all story collections. He’s never published a novel. Which opened up the doors for Adrian Chen at Gawker to waltz in and kick him with the assertion “George Saunders Needs To Write A Goddamn Novel Already,” a demand heady with ignorance about Saunders’ career and what makes him notable in the first place.
The premise of the Gawker piece is that any writer should want to write a novel. But plenty of great living writers (or “literate humans,” as Chen’s opening sentence calls them) haven’t. Sopranos creator David Chase doesn’t write novels. Neither does Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, or Friday Night Lights and Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims, or Hugo screenwriter John Logan, or Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal. Aaron Sorkin, Community and Modern Family writer Megan Ganz, Angels In America playwright Tony Kushner, and God Of Carnage playwright Yasmina Reza have never written novels either. It doesn’t make sense that only a writer focused on short stories must wantto write a novel, or end up stuck in the minor leagues.
This isn’t so hard to believe. “The novel” is no longer the sole measuring stick of a writer’s quality in our time—not when books compete with film and television writers. Chen severely over-romanticizes the importance of a novel in the writer’s landscape today. For a specific subset of fiction writers, it’s the most important form, but by no means the only way to tell a story, or to prove they can produce.
The Pulitzer Prize is the highest award for an American fiction author. The category recognizes all works of fiction, not just novels. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter Of Maladies have all been awarded the Pulitzer since 2000. All three are short-story collections. (Arguably, the first two are linked story collections, novels-in-stories, or story cycles, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but Lahiri’s book is without a doubt a traditional short-story collection.) And that’s just counting the winners, rather than the anthologies that have been nominated.