Saturday, December 27, 2008

Social Realism vs. Mythic Experience

Louise Erdrich's new collection of short stories, The Red Convertible, raises another issue about the short story I would like to comment on in this, my final entry for 2008. I hope to create one new entry per week in the coming year.

Blogs are funny things. I have no knowledge if anyone is reading this, but although I did start it in hopes of creating conversations with other students of the short story, I also started it to force myself to continue to think about the form by raising issues that I consider important for reading and understanding the form.

I don't think it is accidental that the short story, since its beginning, has more often focused on fantasy than reality--not fantasy as escape, but rather fantasy as meaningfully mythic. I don't think the short story thrives as socially relevant or even strictly realistic, but rather as a means to explore universal human experiences.

In 1986, Leslie Marmon Silko, the Native American novelist from the Southwest, reviewed Erdrich's The Beet Queen and took her to task for writing about Native Americans in North Dakota without expressing any bitterness over racism in America. She scolds Erdrich that in her pristine world, "all misery, suffering, and loss are self-generated, just as conservative Republicans have been telling us for years."

This diatribe is similar to the famous attack that African writer Chinua Achebe launched against Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness several years earlier for writing a book set in Africa without expressing bitterness against racism. Calling Conrad a racist, Achebe asks whether a novel which depersonalizes a portion of the human race can be called a great work of art, to which he emphatically replies, "No, it cannot."

What Silko and Achebe are criticizing Erdrich and Conrad for is not writing a book that they would have written. This is a common critical ploy when authors review other authors. But it also raises the question about basic generic differences between the short story and the novel. Erdrich's novel had much of its origin in the short story form, and Conrad's story is a novella (which is more like a short story than a novel).

Not only do Erdrich and Conrad have a perfect right to write stories about universal, mythic human experience rather than local social experience, but the traditions within which they work--short story and novella--are more generically able to explore such experiences than the novel is.

Louise Erdrich and Stories vs. Chapters

Louise Erdrich’s new book, due out on January 6, 2009, is titled The Red Convertible, after her early story by that name, published originally in 1981 and then reprinted as a chapter in her first book, Love Medicine, published in 1984.

Subtitled Selected and New Stories: 1978-2008, of the thirty-six stories included here, all but five of them were published first in journals and magazines (most of the later ones in The New Yorker); many of them were then republished as chapters in her novels.

The publication history of Erdrich’s work raises two questions about the short story genre: 1. What is the difference between “stand alone” stories and stories in so-called “short story sequences” or “short story cycles”? 2. What is the difference between short stories and chapters in novels?

My colleague Suzanne Hunter Brown published an interesting article several years ago in which she took a chapter from a novel by Thomas Hardy and analyzed it as a short story, ostensibly to show that there are no distinctive characteristics of the short story that distinguish it from a chapter in a novel.

My own opinion is that what Brown really showed was that a chapter from a novel might indeed stand alone, but that it usually makes a very poor short story. However, when a writer like Louise Erdrich first composes a work as a short story and then uses it as part of a novel, it might very well stand alone as a very good short story.

Louise Erdrich first composed many of the chapters of her novels as short stories, and, given Erdrich’s focus on the fine line between fantasy and reality and her very fine and polished writing, they are usually good stories. But I am not convinced, as some advocates of the short story cycle or short story sequence are, that they gain stature and importance when read within a context of other stories with the same characters and the same setting.

In fact, when a good short story is read as a chapter of a novel or a story in a sequence, it may lose some of its distinctive characteristics by being read hurriedly as the reader rushes on in true novel fashion to see “what happens next.” In my opinion, the power of the short story does not lie in what happens next, but rather in the mythic significance of what lyrically happens.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reading with a Passion not a Position

A good friend and valued colleague just sent me an article from the December 19 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Leaving Literature Behind." The author, Bruce Fleming, a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, argues that we have made a mistake by focusing so much on our professionalized study of literature--e.g. structuralism, deconstruction, multiculturalism. In our desire to turn the study of literature into a science, we have alienated our students by taking the human element out of literature and setting ourselves up as "rulers of a realm that has separated itself almost completely from the rest of the world."

Fleming says we are not teaching literature, but the professional study of literature. "Nowadays the academic study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the more rarefied a college you attend, the less literary studies relates to the world of the reader. The academic study of literature nowadays isn't, by and large, about how literature can help students come to terms with love, and life, and death, and mistakes and victories, and pettiness, and nobility of spirit, and the million other things that make us human and fill our lives."

I agree with much of what Professor Fleming says, but I cannot go so far as he does. It is a mistake, I think to react so completely against what we have learned from Northrop Frye and Jacques Derrida and other profound readers that we go back to the bad old days of using literature as an excuse to shoot the bull about whatever subject interests us.

Fleming uses his teaching of Flaubert's Madame Bovary as an example. He says his students come into class after reading the first section of the novel saying Emma is a slut. Fleming chides them with being too literal and then leads them into identifying with her dreams by comparing them with their own dreams that brought them to Annapolis.

But Fleming forgets that Flaubert's intention in creating the book was to write a novel about nothing. To read Madame Bovary as a novel about a slut or a novel about a woman with romantic dreams is to read it as if it were a clear glass through which we see a not very interesting person, rather than a complex work of art, a texture of carefully constructed language that creates a compelling experience with human complexity, not the least of which is the complex creation of a language structure that engages us. The book is neither about stoning the whore or following your dream. It is a complex work of art that deserves our careful attention to the text.

It would be too bad if we react so completely against the excesses of deconstruction and multiculturalism that we reduce literature to simple human lessons and illustrations and our professional interest in literature to leading Socratic bull sessions on simplistic ideas.

I love the short story because it never lets us forget that it is a carefully constructed language structure that grapples with the most profound human experiences. I agree with Fleming that we must confront what is human in literature, but what is human is not so simple as he suggests. To try to get at that human complexity by ignoring the language of the story and the literary devices that communicate its complexity is to miss what makes literature so different from other forms of human discourse.

Literature professors are students of literary studies. They do have a profession. They do have something to teach students about what literature is, how literature works, and how best to read and react to its human complexity.

My own hope is that my colleagues, especially those just now entering the profession, will reject the jargon of their graduate seminars, rediscover their love of literature, and teach with passion the beautiful way that artists create human interactions that no other forms of discourse can, especially in the most beautiful, but most underrated, literary genre--the short story.

William Trevor's "The Woman of the House"

My intention in writing this blog is not just to comment on stories I have read, but to explore basic characteristics of the short story, identifying issues that might be controversial or debatable enough to stimulate conversation with my readers. I probably will discuss new stories or new collections for the most part, because I hope to encourage my readers to read new stories. Otherwise, the short story as a form will continue to remain largely neglected and unread.

One of the most important sources of new short stories in American publishing continues to be The New Yorker. I stopped my subscription to The Atlantic when they decided after so many years to stop publishing short stories. The special summer fiction issue, since it is not available to subscribers, but must be searched out on the Barnes and Noble or Borders magazines racks, does not reach as many readers as the regular monthly issue of The Atlantic. I still cannot understand why they do not have space for one story per issue. I continue to subscribe to Harpers, who still publish one story per issue.

One of the great pleasures of getting The New Yorker each week is the occasional publication of a story by the Irish writer William Trevor or the Canadian writer Alice Munro, who, in spite of advancing age, continue to publish in The New Yorker because the magazine has first refusal rights for their work.

I have yet to read a critic or reviewer who does not agree that Trevor and Munro are the two greatest short-story writers still publishing. However, no one has ever really talked about what it is that makes these two such masters of the form. I have an article in the Canadian journal, the Wascana Review about why I think Alice Munro is so good at the form. “Why Does Alice Munro Write Short Stories?” Wascana Review 38 (2003): 16-28.
I will talk about Munro another time, hopefully when she publishes her next story in The New Yorker.

The Dec. 15 issue of The New Yorker has a story by Trevor entitled "The Woman of the House." I thought I would try to suggest a few of the characteristics of this story that are unique to the short story.

The plot of the story is quite simple. Two young men are hired by a Irish man to paint his house. Before they finish painting the house, the Irish man disappears and it seems clear that his wife hides the fact of his death so she can continue to receive his pension check. The two men finish the house painting job and leave. That is all that actually happens in the story. Not only is the plot minimal, but we do not know much about the characters. What we do know is this: The two young men are European and speak little English. They are usually taken to be Polish, but they are not. The Irish man is crippled and restricted to a wheel chair. The "woman of the house" may be his wife, but this is never specified. In the past, she has often had sex with the butcher in the village in exchange for free meat. Now, she is obese and getting older and less attractive to him.

So what is the story about? Not the plot, which is mildly interesting, but not engaging. Not the characters, who we know too little about them to really be involved with them. Then what?

To discover what this short story is about, we must look at details repeated so often in the story that they creates a thematic pattern. I suggest the following.

The two young men seldom speak, communicating by nods and gestures.
When the woman of the house goes out to the shed to be fondled by the butcher, they do not speak.
She never tells the crippled man about the money she gets back from the butcher, hiding it in a Gold flake tin.
When the crippled man disappears, what is noticed by the two young men is the silence in the house.
When the two young men investigate the newly dug garden, "They did not say this was a grave, or remark on how the rank grass, in wide straight path from the gate, had been crushed and had recovered."
The story ends with the woman, and the two young men, keeping silent about the disappearance of the crippled man, knowing no one would miss him for no one ever comes to the house.

So, what does this all add up to? What is the story about?

I think it is about silence, about not saying, about the basic mystery of human personality, about Chekhov's famous comment that in the short story, it is better to say too little than too much, even though he admitted he was not sure why that was true. The story is a fine example of the short story form's focus on basic and universal human characteristics, even though I know that the word "universal" is not appreciated by postcolonial and other cultural critics, who seem more concerned with what separates us than what unifies us as human beings.

I hope you read the story and offer your own comments on what the story is about and what makes it such a great story.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Best Short Story Collections for 2008

This has not been a good year for newspaper book reviews. The Los Angeles Times, which I read regularly, has lost its book review insert on Sundays and now must make do with a few pages in the Calendar Entertainment section. Oscar Villon, book review editor of The San Francisco Chronicle took a buyout, and I doubt if they will have room for free lancers like myself anymore. Geeta Sharma Jensen, book review editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for which I review fairly regularly, has had to cut back the number and length of her reviews. But Geeta is one of the strongest supporters of the short story among newspaper book review editors. I hope to continue to write reviews of short story collections for her, at least for a time.

In spite of these cutbacks, several large newspapers still publish their lists of "Best Books of the Year" at this time, and the short story has not done too badly this year.

Of the 41 books of fiction listed as "Best Books" by The New York Times, 8 are short story collections. Twenty percent is not too bad, given the fact that the ratio of novels to short story collections published is probably more than 100 to 1 (That's a guess. I would appreciate more exact figures if anyone has them).

The collections listed as "Best Books" by The New York Times are:

A Better Angel by Chris Adrian
The Boat by Nam Le
Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser
Dictation by Cynthia Ozick
Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx
Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Yesterday's Weather by Anne Enright

The Los Angeles Times listed 23 books of fiction as their "Favorite Books," of which 6 were short story collections. Twenty-five percent is pretty darned impressive. Their choices were:

The Boat by Nam Le
Dictation by Cynthia Ozick
Knockemstiff by Donnald Ray Pollock
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Washington Post listed 40 books of general fiction, of which 9 were short story collections. Twenty percent is still pretty decent. They are:

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser
Dictation by Cynthia Ozick
Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff
Foreigners by Caryl Phillips
Poe's Children ed. by Peter Straub
Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan
The Size of the World by Joan Silber
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Yesterday's Weather by Anne Enright

Of the above, I have reviewed the following: Dangerous Laughter, Dictation, Our Story Begins, Unaccustomed Earth, Fine Just the Way It Is, Ms. Hempel Chronicles. I will make some comments on these in future blog entries.

I still plan to read The Boat, Yesterday's Weather, The Size of the World, and Knockemstiff.

As a side note, the collections Ms Hempel Chronicles and The Size of the World have been identified and/or reviewed as novels. I will also comment on this in a later blog.