Emma Straub is best known for her novels, but I came to her by way of this short story collection, as is my preference with new-to-me authors that I’ve discovered by chance as much as anything. She seems to have received the most attention for her novels -in interviews, this collection is treated more like a footnote than a full-fleshed part of her body of work. Regardless, I enjoyed it. I had some concerns, do to the way some of her books seem to be marketed, that the book would be a bit fluffy. Fortunately, this is not the case.
The “literary” label is a frustrating one. How does one define literary fiction? Is it “moral” in the John Gardner sense, or an existential striving? Is it defined by its removal from sparkling vampires, mommy-porn BDSM Lite, swords and sorcery, or spaceships? I’d like to think it’s a qualitative determination based on the prose itself, but there’s some bad writing that is proclaimed “literary”. I think, unfortunately, it has more to do with the kinds of publishing imprints that take on a piece and the way it’s marketed than anything else. Thus, the definition becomes rather literally useless.
Bringing things back to Straub, her stories are defined by very good sentence-level writing, compelling characters with interesting thoughts expressed well. The stories are ordinary and focus on human interaction, on documenting it and making sense of it. It’s a good read -nothing that’s a revelation, just good writing. But I feel like I don’t have much to say about it beyond “it’s good, I guess”. There’s nothing that transcends. Straub is a very good writer, but I’m not finding myself especially engaged with this particular work.
Recommendation: Give it a shot, or at least pick one or two stories and see what you think.