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Forty Stories, a Gift to Readers

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At a time when publishers are concerned about ebook pricing, many believing that going below a certain dollar amount devalues both the book and the author (a theory I am sympathetic to), an intriguing project from a major publisher is taking place. Forty Stories, a labor of love spearheaded by Cal Morgan, publisher and editorial director at HarperCollins, is available today as a free ebook through all major retailers.

In January of 2009, Morgan started an online community for short story writers called Fifty-Two Stories. As the name suggests, each week a new story would be posted for free on the website. For all you trivia junkies, Simon Van Booy’s “The Missing Statues” was first. From 2009 until the first half of 2011 the output was consistent. Then, in August of last year, something happened and only one story was posted that month. Someone would have to be a complete jerk not to forgive Morgan and his crew for the lapse, given that no one involved is paid. (According to an excellent profile on the ebook collection from The Atlantic Wire, Morgan spends his Sundays reading through and selecting from hundreds of submissions that come pouring through the site’s open call for works.)

You’d think the people behind Fifty-Two Stories would pick up where they left off without a word, as if nothing happened, but no, they actually thanked readers for their patience and decided to make good on the stories they “owed”—all forty of them. These stories were first made available a few weeks ago as a downloadable PDF—a rough layout for anyone who’s experienced one on their ereader—but today, the official release date, a fully formatted edition is here.

Included in the collection are innovative up-and-comers—a subset of fiction writers that Cal Morgan has become known for publishing—as well as a few who have made a name for themselves over the years. There are also a handful of unknowns, some of whom will see their work published for the first time.

The book opens with Ben Greenman’s “Ambivalence” and, as would be expected of Greenman’s ever-engaging prose, the first few lines are bound to hook the reader:

When a girl is skinny, and calls you late at night, and you glance at the calendar, and it is four days before you are scheduled to get married, and the girl you are marrying is not the skinny girl but another girl, a girl who has already departed for the city where your wedding is to be held, it is your job, most probably, to hang up the phone. When you do not hang up the phone, you have not done your job. When you invite that skinny girl to your apartment, and then you jump into the shower so that you will be clean, taking special trouble to wash the parts that matter, and then you mess up your hair so that you will look as though you haven’t gone to any special trouble, then you are doing another job entirely.

Another contributor who I was excited to see involved with the book is essayist, editor, and short fiction writer Roxane Gay. “In the Manner of Water or Light” tells the story of a multigenerational family in Haiti as told by a granddaughter far removed from the atrocities her grandmother suffered as a young woman. As Gay is known to do, she makes the reader consider the political and social situations of those beyond the borders of American and European patriarchies.

Other writers in the collection whose names might resonate with readers of this blog are Blake Butler, Adam Wilson, Shane Jones, Jess Walter, and Elizabeth Crane—many of whom are published by HarperCollins. While I dug into the stories written by those known to me, I was equally eager to discover the unfamiliar. Among those I hadn’t yet heard of, two stood out: Lindsay Hunter, with her chilling abduction story “A Girl,” and Alexander Lumans, whose “Eighty-six Ways to Cross One Desert” is comprised solely of odd questions.

In a time, as mentioned in my introduction, when the publishing industry is questioning the future of the printed book and the health of the market as a whole, I couldn’t help but wonder, will people, after reading this collection, go out and buy the work of the authors who are published or will they seek out the next free ebook? Putting aside my financial curiosity, it’s obvious that anyone who cares about books will find this project heartwarming. Forty Stories proves that just because something is free, doesn’t mean it’s cheap. This collection is priceless.

::[Links]::
Fifty-Two Stories website
Forty Stories PDF
Profile in The Atlantic Wire

Contributors interviewed on the Other People podcast with Brad Listi
Roxane Gay
Blake Butler
Adam Wilson
Elizabeth Crane
Scott McClanahan
Jess Walter talks with Ed Champion on The Bat Segundo Show

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Written by Gabrielle

July 17, 2012 at 6:56 am

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