The other day I was reading Lorrie Moore's short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here," which is possibly the most devastating story of the decade. I first read it years ago, like in 1998 or so, when it came out. It's held up even better than I remembered. It's about a couple -- a woman, mostly -- whose baby son gets a kidney tumor. Downer, yes? No -- yes -- sort of. The story's mostly about the experience of taking a baby to the hospital to get treatment and suddenly finding oneself in the strange alter-world of sick kids.
But it's also very much about what it means to use one's life experience in writing. Moore says in the bio section of Best American Short Stories, "This story has a relationship to real life like that of a coin to a head." In other words, it happened. The husband in the story says, "Take notes on this. We need the money." The woman, the writer, bridles at this -- this isn't fiction, it's real life! But the last lines of the story are "Here are the notes. Where's the money?" Damn!!! It's devastating!!!!
In 1998 I was a writer, too, and I had a year-old son. If something horrible happened to me, maybe I too would exploit it. In any event, I empathize.
With all the talk lately about the "death of the short story," I've been making a mental list of short stories I love, and this one is on it. Honestly, I don't think there's a single story on my top ten from before 1980. I like stories that are about what it's like to live now, to be a human being on this planet at this time. I admire stories like "Hills Like White Elephants" (just an example) but I don't love them as I love the Moore story, or "Sleep" by Stephen Dixon, or "Glenn Gould" by Lydia Davis, or several Alice Munro stories. Is it because I'm self-absorbed, and need to hear stories about myself? Maybe! Is that a bad thing?
For me, reading is very much about figuring out the world as I know it. I'm drawn to stories about women, about writers, married people, mothers, sisters, snowstorms, school, the 80's, the 70's, right now. I also like stories about thinking and psychology. Not exclusively, but still: it seems like an awfully narrow way to read, but there you are.
Maybe one reason I'm so excited by short stories right now -- even if there aren't as many new ones as there used to be -- is because so many people with my particular interests are writing them.