Unlike novels, short stories don't need to be plot-driven. Readers who value the short story form have more in common with aficionados of poetry than with readers of novels, best-selling or otherwise. Short story fans value precise and surprising use of language, complexity of character and subtlety of situation. Because of the sparseness of the form, compression is essential. Because of the compressed quality, which requires readers to work at understanding, short story collections don't sell as well as novels.
For this reason, major publishers are reluctant to produce collections unless their authors have some public notoriety. The task of bringing intelligent, literary stories to print has fallen to smaller literary presses.
One publishing house that has stepped up to this challenge is Press 53, an independent house based in Winston-Salem. Publisher Sheryl Monks says the mission of Press 53 is to bring out high-quality literary books that commercial publishers don't consider "economically viable." It publishes prose and poetry and has even reprinted two John Ehle novels. But Press 53 is particularly interested in short fiction.
Its most recent publication is indicative of the type of quality literary writing that Press 53 seeks. "Stories from the Afterlife," a collection by Greensboro author Quinn Dalton, contains 10 stories that deal with temporary relationships, small yet unpredictable lives, and the ways people embrace or avoid the truth in order to find happiness.
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The stories in Dalton's collection recall the work of Raymond Carver. They focus on people who hold on to thwarted dreams and recognize the necessity to persevere, even when they know that their choices have gone awry. A white father is rejected by a child born to him by his wife's black caretaker; a college kid in love with his employer's sexy wife moves on as the object of his affection declines into poverty and addiction; a gay laborer has to return home and attempt to comfort an estranged brother after the brother's suburban, capitalistic wife dies in a plane crash -- all people struggling to deal with the daily drama of restricted lives.
"Stories from the Afterlife" is a perfect example of the type of intelligent, nonsensational work that rarely gets published these days by major presses. Instead of opting for easy irony or witty sarcasm, as many contemporary writers do, Dalton strives to write stories that reveal the deeper lives of her characters, who tend to be the ordinary people would-be populist politicians talk about. Dalton knows them.
Quinn Dalton is exactly the type of writer Press 53 seeks out. When Monks heard that Dalton, whose first two books "Bulletproof Girl" and "High Strung" were published by imprints with Simon & Schuster, was looking for a publisher for her new story collection, she courted Dalton until they struck a deal.
Other writers featured in the Press 53 catalog have similar credentials. The anthology of short stories, "Surreal South" -- which features work by, among others, Robert Olen Butler, Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Abbott and Andrew Hudgins -- was edited by Laura Benedict and Pinckney Benedict. Laura Benedict's first novel was published by Ballantine, which will also publish her second. Pinckney Benedict has published two novels and a collection of short stories and has won fellowships from the NEA and the West Virginia Council on the Arts.
Press 53 also keeps an eye out for new writers who have made a commitment to writing but not yet a name for themselves. Amy Knox Brown -- who received an MFA in writing from N.C. State and has published her short stories in literary magazines around the country -- had her first collection, "Three Versions of the Truth," published by Press 53. The stories are set in the Midwest, but Monks wasn't concerned; Press 53 may be a local press, but its vision is not limited by regionalism.
Like all small publishers, Press 53 struggles to make ends meet. It supports its publishing by book sales and contests -- poetry, stories, novels and even writing by students. Its books, which physically are just as well produced as those by the major New York houses, are published through print-on-demand by Lightning Source, a subsidiary of Ingram. Because of that connection, its books are in the databases of Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders and bookstores in the U.S. or U.K. For more information, see www.press53.com.