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.


td said...

I know at least two people are reading. Christa, who gave me the link, and me. I think this is terrific. The next time I teach short story writing I'll make it part of the reading list. Happy New Year.

Tyler Dilts

Rolf said...

Charles, Sorry about the lag joining up since you emailed.
But,,, that said, exceptional piece and outstanding blog… it couldn’t be more beneficial for someone like me writing in the wilderness. I’ve been thinking seriously about an MFA program, but in reading this, I’m thinking maybe I won’t need to do that. So I’ll post and answer and spill this to folks I know on a couple of writing/workshop blogs.

Expect a response every week from me from here on.

I’ve got a couple of comments I’ll add to what you have already written, but I wanted to respond to this note on Erdrich.

I just happen to be picking apart “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”— and some of Trevor's stuff; I'm thinking about omniscience. (It's all about the craft for me, as you know.)
But as I’ve backed into SHLFM again, I've bumped into the body of criticism floating around Hemingway focusing on issues like imperialism in SHLFM or his misogyny in general. (Does he support it or not; does he hate women or not?). Much of it reminds me of the lashing Louise Erdrich weathered.

It seems specious and mere sport to take such shots at an author. Certainly Erdrich doesn’t deserve it for simply failing to condemn and Hemingway doesn’t deserve it even for his obvious and well-documented personal failings. At least in the realm of literary criticism I most value.

I guess what I’m saying is, as a writer, it feels like there are really two activities engaged by reviewers and critics. The first is a sort of off-shoot of the great body of celebrity examination. It comes from the same source as the fascination with a politician’s errant bon mot on the campaign trail. (Think of the ‘nappy-hair’ comment; it is a sort of gotcha.) It belongs in the same area as discussion of Angela Jolie’s most recent child acquisition or Cheever’s tragic appetites. That’s popular culture, but I don’t think it’s far from things people want me to take seriously such as: Fiedler’s famous article, ''Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey.” All of them smack of the impulse to expose celebrity for what he or she really is… and that is corrupt.

It’s sport, part of our culture and why shouldn’t it be legitimate? We just have to think of it as entertainment at best and character assassination at worst.

On the other hand, there is another activity-- far more complex, interesting and for me, engaging. That is, the knowledgeable examination of art. As a craftsman, I examined the body of criticism I could find discussing Francis Macomber to find out what people thought of the restricted omniscience of the narrator. The questions engaging me are things are: What does his treatment of the lion’s consciousness do to create the mystery of that story? Does it work to make the piece powerful? Why does the narrator use so many adverbs to describe Margot and so few for the others? How come we spend so much time in Wilson’s brain and not in Margot’s? Does that make the story work better? Or not?

I’ll have more on this later, but for the heck of it, I’m pulling apart Trevor’s story “An Afternoon” in the same way. Both of them masterfully use restriction in omniscience. The mastery comes in being able to restrict vital information from characters or the reader or both, then by so doing, reveal the story. The mystery of Francis Macomber comes from our limited interior view of Margot. (We see more of the lion’s interior emotions.) Trevor leaves us a young girl whose knowledge of the danger she has escaped is both less than the reader’s and in a very odd way, more because she knows herself better than we do. There is a mystery to her interior life that enthralls me.

There’s not a lot written about that sort of thing as opposed to the never-ending (and boring) argument over whether or not Hemingway wanted to punish all his bitch socialite acquaintances with Margot. As for Trevor, I imagine, eventually, someone will get around to writing about him as a champion for pedophilia on the basis of “An Afternoon”.

All of it keeps up the churn over the stories, but all of that sort of critique is just a distraction. The characters, the craft, the turn of phrase, resonance, and what does it mean—why do these characters do what they do? All of it means more to me than any writer’s intention or personality.

This is going to be a great blog... Thanks for taking this time, professor... you'll se more of us soon. Later, Rolf

Charles E. May said...

I am very happy to have Rolf join this discussion. I have read some of his fiction and admire it. I included one of his stories, "The Quail" in a fiction text I edited several years ago, Fiction's Many Worlds.

Rolf raises more questions that I can respond to at this time. I will reread "Short Happy Life" and Trevor's "The Visitor."

However, I do want to comment briefly on the issue of what interests us when we read fiction--the art and craft or the ideas and context.

I learned to read literature during the time of the so-called New Criticism or Formalism. Perhaps Rolf did also. I know that more recent criticism has tried to discredit this approach--which focuses on the art of the work--how technique and theme are inextricably intertwined.

My colleagues must forgive me, but I cynically believe that more recent focus on culture, social issues, biography, history, and other contexts are simply the result of trying "something new" and something "politically correct."

I am still an old-fashioned believer in reading as a passionate engagement with human complexity that cannot be adequately explored by other kinds of discourse, such as history, sociology, psychology, etc.

I believe that readers should practice, to use Francine Prose's phrase in her fine book of the same name, "Reading like a Writer."
I will talk more of Prose's book in a later blog entry.

Lee said...

'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.'

Definitely an interesting point. Have you read any of the work of Kelly Link?