Richard Stern’s retrospective collection Noble Rot: Stories 1949-1988 covers a period during which the short story has suffered an astonishing decline in popularity. Once considered the literary genre in which American authors were preeminent, the American short story is in a situation not unlike that of vaudeville after the birth of talking pictures. During the four turbulent decades covered by Stern’s collection, the commercial market for short stories has all but dried up. As an example, Esquire magazine, which introduced so many outstanding writers in its heyday, published nine short stories in its December, 1949, issue; in its December, 1988, issue it published only one. Other magazines that used to be good markets for short fiction, such as Collier’s, have disappeared from the stands. Aspiring writers, who used to cut their teeth on short stories before going on to novels, now find that they must either make that great leap forward with inadequate preparation or else try to get their stories published in the so-called literary and little magazines, which typically pay just about enough to cover the writer’s paper, postage, and manila envelopes.
Ask anyone the explanation for this phenomenon and the answer is likely to be the same: television. It is true that television has become the dominant medium of escapist entertainment in the past four decades, but that does not account for the fact that when people do choose to read magazines—on an airplane or in a doctor’s waiting room—they prefer fact to fiction. Perhaps the sheer onslaught of all modern media—the “media blitz”—has made people too sophisticated to believe in fantasies. It is a sorry situation, especially if one happens to be a short story writer.
Ironically, as the market for short fiction has been declining, more and more writers have gone into teaching creative writing. This would seem perverse if not suicidal, since they are encouraging people to compete in a field that is already overcrowded. Many of the new writers spawned by all the classes, programs, workshops, seminars, and conferences will themselves gravitate toward teaching for the same reason as their mentors, so the number of writers should be increasing exponentially.
Richard Stern has been a teacher throughout most of his writing career. He has thus taken what seems to be virtually the only feasible route for a contemporary fiction writer who does not wish to become a hack or tread the primrose path of advertising. Since 1955 Stern has taught literature and writing at the University of Chicago, where he is now a full professor. “I have a pretty ideal situation,” he said in a recent interview, “except I sometimes think if I’d taken more risks, if I’d left the university, if I’d depended on myself, I might have done more. I don’t think you should get too comfortable.”
The problem that writer/teachers or teacher/writers encounter is that the groves of academe have been plucked pretty clean. Stern’s stories always require careful reading, and one of the ways to approach them is as examples of the academic literature now being published by most of the literary and little magazines. Because of the insularity of academic life, it is inevitable that these stories tend to fall into a narrow range of categories as well as to take on a certain characteristic experimental or avant-garde tone.
One popular topic of academic fiction is romantic involvements between teachers and students. In the most familiar scenario, a middle-aged, married male professor falls in love with a young female undergraduate. Stern actually wrote an entire novel about a professor in his forties whose life is turned upside down by a love affair with a twenty-year-old student. Titled Other Men’s Daughters (1973), it has been called the best of his...
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