Thursday, February 11, 2010

THE LONG VALLEY, by John Steinbeck

I've been working my way through Steinbeck's famous short story collection THE LONG VALLEY, and one of the thoughts I've held in my mind throughout is how different the literary landscape was at the time these stories were written. A few of the pieces in this book--'The Chrysanthemums' being a prime example--have been embraced as canonical literature. Their focus on character, and their effort to reveal character subtly through action and description, seem intrinsic to our contemporary concept of 'literary' writing (a concept pounded into my head during four years of college English). But at the time these stories were written--in the early 1930s--such concepts weren't nearly as established and universally dominant. 'Literature' just wasn't as tightly nailed down as it is today. And because of that we have stories we know consider 'literary' published side-by-side with stories that feel decidedly 'non-literary.' Steinbeck dips his pen into styles we'd now label 'pulp,' or 'genre' fiction. His piece 'The Snake,' for example, makes me think of the Weird Fiction being written by H.P. Lovecraft and other authors of the time; and Steinbeck's 'Flight' feels like classic Western.

Another question that comes to mind while reading this collection is whether or not such a book could have any chance of success in today's market if Steinbeck was an author just trying to break through now. My gut tells me no. Everything I've heard or read about the short story market today tells me that it's incredibly difficult to get anybody to buy a collection of short stories, which consequently makes it incredibly difficult to get anyone to consider publishing one. In order for a short-story book to be considered it needs to be chock-a-block with Pushcart Prizewinners, or dressed up with some kind of gimmick that makes it look like a novel (like all these 'novel in stories' you see coming out, Amy Tan's JOY LUCK CLUB being an early success), or written by a bestselling novelist. A book like THE LONG VALLEY, with its haphazard collection of stories written by an at-the-time unsuccessful's hard to picture that appearing on bookshelves fresh today.

Then again, it didn't show up on the shelves just after being written, anyway. Steinbeck's first commercial success, TORTILLA FLATS, paved the way for THE LONG VALLEY's later publication. Steinbeck was already a bestseller by the time these early stories ever saw a mass audience. Maybe they wouldn't have made it to press back then, either, if he gave up after writing them, and never got around to the breakthrough book.

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