Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Do You Have to Learn to Read a Short Story?

I searched the Internet and found a copy of the essay by William Deresiewicz in The Nation that David Ulin referred to (see the previous blog on “elitism and reading.”) You can find it at http://thenation.com/doc/20081103/deresiewicz

I wanted to comment on it vis a vis reading the short story because I think Deresiewicz is wrong to blast university professors as literary mandarins who see themselves as the last of the readers. Granted, there are those in my profession whose egos are such that they take advantage of their position in front of a class and present themselves as the elite presiding over the great unwashed. It is the old high-brow/low-brow argument that has been knocked back and forth for years, and I don’t see any value of getting into it once again. Obviously, there are some who are more educated than others, more intelligent than others, more experienced in reading than others. Why deny that? If it were not true, there would be no point having university professors who are experts in their field?

I remember the “good old days” when students indeed did argue that there was no point having experts in the classroom, when students tried to take over the classroom and teachers were supposed to be called “facilitators.” A group of students burst into my classroom once, occupied some empty seats and tried to shout me down when I was attempting, (God forbid!) to teach. The idea of anyone “teaching” anything was abhorrent to them. One young woman came up to the podium and picked up the book my students and I were discussing and sniffed, “This isn’t relevant today. Throw down your books and take to the streets.” The book happened to be All the King’s Men. I don’t know if that young woman ever learned anything about demagogues. I waited, and they finally stalked out, with power to the people signs. I continued my class.

It was my opinion then, and it has never changed, that I had some knowledge and skill in reading literature that my students did not have. I was happy to engage in debate with them, but I never condescended to them by pretending that they knew so much more than I did. They didn’t. I never agreed with them just to make them feel good, if that meant reducing the complexity and significance of a story.

More specifically, what I want to talk about here is Deresiewicz’s argument that the essential literary transaction is not between professor and student, but writer and reader, that writers don’t write for academics or critics but for “that large mass of nonspecialist readers, the people who like to curl up with a good book.” He says that the existence of a large mass of adults who read because they want to never crosses the professor’s mind, for if it did it “would be profoundly disturbing, because it would mean that people are reading without professional supervision, and that can’t be any good.”

Well, of course, thankfully, there is a large mass of educated and intelligent literary readers out there. Not nearly enough, as any literary writer will tell you, but still enough, even of the short story, to keep The New Yorker, Harper’s and others (bah to Atlantic) reading them. And they do not need professional supervision. Indeed, most readers of the short story in all those university quarterlies and “little” magazines nowadays are university educated, and they were introduced to the short story and, (again, God forbid!) taught how to read and appreciate the short story by professors who knew how to read short stories and how to communicate that skill with some enthusiasm.

I guess what I really want to talk about is this question: Is reading short stories a skill that can be taught? Does one profit by being taught how to read literary short stories? What does one teach when one teaches others how to read literary short stories?

I have spent forty years of my life trying to teach students skills, hopefully with some enthusiasm, how to read short stories. If any of my students are reading this, they can confirm or deny my enthusiasm, even in the last years of my teaching career.

I think just about any educated person can read a literary novel if he or she is willing to process the words and keep at it long enough. I am not convinced that any person, no matter how educated, can read a literary short story without some knowledge of the form’s techniques, conventions, and devices. Now that knowledge can come from a teacher or it can come from experience of reading lots and lots of short stories until the conventions and devices become internalized. But that knowledge of the form has to be in the mind of the reader or else a single reading of a short story will often result in a puzzled “huh? What does it mean?”

I have a recent example of this I would like to share. I ran across a review in The Wall Street Journal last Saturday of a new collection of short stories by Daniyal Mueenuddin entitled In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Mueenuddin lives in Pakistan; his father is Pakistani and his mother is American. He was born in Los Angeles, but lived in Pakistan until age 13 when he was enrolled in an American school in New England and later went to Dartmouth and Yale Law School. He worked as a lawyer between 1998 and 2001 and then enrolled in the MFA program at University of Arizona at Tucson where he graduated in 2004. He has published three stories in The New Yorker and others in Zoetrope, etc. This is his first book. He will be doing a book tour in the U.S. at the end of the Feb. Watch for him at a bookstore near you. The book comes out late this week.

I have not read the book yet, but dug out the three New Yorker stories in my files and found the Zoetrope on line. I will talk about Mueenuddin more in another blog when I have a chance to read the book. He is getting a lot of buzz from the press because, well, we just don’t have that many books from Pakistan. Reviewers and interviewers are focusing on how the stories are about the class struggle in Pakistan, but Mueenuddin, like most writers, is more interested in the writing process. I will like talk about this divide between publicity buzz ala cultural/political issues and the writer’s real interest at another time.

But here is why I bring up Mueenuddin in this particular blog. In doing some research on him, I ran across an interview on Beatrice.com in which the interviewer tried to get him to talk about life in the cities and villages of Pakistan using one of his favorites of his own stories.

Mueenuddin, however, wanted to talk about a Turgenev story, “The Singers,” which he said has always puzzled him, especially the ending, which he says is the most vexing part of writing a short story. He tells the interviewer the story of “The Singers,” which is about a singing contest in which one singer seems to have won until the second singer sings with such inspiration that everyone is moved to tears.

Mueenuddin says it is the ending that has always intrigued him. The narrator leaves the inn, falls asleep in a hayloft, and when he awakes, he passes the tavern on the way home. All the men are now drunk and rolling about like animals. As he continues on the way home, he hears a voice calling a name over and over again, “Antropk-a-a-a.” Finally there is an answer, “Wha-a-at?” The caller then cries, “Come here, you devil” The voice responds, “What fo-o-o-r?” “Because father wants to be-ee-ee-at you,” the first voice replies. There is no further response, and the narrator sportsman (This is from Turgenev’s great collection A Sportsman’s Notebook) goes home with the caller still calling the other boy’s name, “Antropk-a-a-a, I still seemed to hear in the air, which was full of the shadows of night.”

Mueenuddin then says, “Andthat’s the end of it—leaving the strange nutty taste of this ending, which is almost unsatisfying, lingering on our palates. What does it mean?”

In my opinion, you cannot answer the question “What does it mean?” unless you have an answer to the question “How does it mean?”

Mueenuddin has a good idea about how the story means when he talks about how “vexing” story endings are. He uses a little analogy to pose the problem. He says in a story it is as though you have the whole weight of the story like a train behind you pushing you toward the terminus, and “yet you must go off the rails: while keeping the whole train behind you pulling up to the wrong station, “the surprising station, the right station, but right in a way that neither you nor the reader expected, built of ice or rococo plaster, rainswept or haunted or full of bankers.”

The great formalist critic Boris Ejxenbaum expressed it with another analogy. He said a story amasses its weight toward the ending. “Like a bomb dropped from an airplane, it must speed dowwards so as to strike with its war-head full-force on the target.” (The essay appeared after World War I in 1925). Unlike the novel, Ejxenbaum says, “The short story…gravitates toward maximal unexpectedness of a finale concentrating around itself all that has preceded.” The story, says Ejxenbaum, is like a riddle, whereas the novel is like a charade or a rebus.

Being the old professor that I am, I could not resist writing to Mueenuddin with my response to his question about the Turgenev ending: “What does it mean?’ Here is what I said:

Dear Mr. Mueenuddin, I have read the three stories you published in The New Yorker and enjoyed them very much. I wish you much luck on the publication of your first book next month and much pleasure on your upcoming publicity tours in America.

I recently read an interview with you on Beatrice.com in which you discussed your reading of Turgenev's marvelous little story "The Singers," a story that Henry James once called "a perfect poem."

It intrigued me enough to go back and reread the story. I am a retired professor of English and cannot resist a challenge. Your question about the ending--what does it mean?--called me to task. I have a suggestion about the puzzling ending that may interest you. I have always loved Turgenev, and after reading your three stories in The New Yorker, see that you share his poetic style.

It seems to me that one of the short story techniques that Turgenev mastered was the device of the metaphoric ending, an ending that echoes the theme the main narrative develops. To my mind, the story is about the poet's desire to transcend the world and his realization of the futility of that desire.

Whereas the huckster's song is skilled and well crafted, Yasha's song is more than that, not just inspired, but expertly rendered in such a way that momentarily the human yearning for transcendence is felt--sort of like the difference between what Coleridge calls "Fancy" and "Imagination," sort of like the difference between a short story by Joyce Carol Oates and a short story by Alice Munro.

Then the sportsman takes his nap and when he awakes, the world has returned from the "sacred" to the "profane," the world of everyday reality, for when he looks in the pub, all the men are drunk and singing songs of the street.

At this point, Turgenev could have followed the old fashioned technique of allowing the narrator to ruminate about the chasm between the sacred and the profane, between the yearning for transcendence of the body and the lapse into the physical, but instead, he comes up with the little metaphor of the two voices in the wilderness. We do not see the boys; we only hear a disembodied voice calling in tearful desperation a little song of yearning for the lost one. Then, as if from another world, another disembodied voice replies and contact is made. But now that he who was lost is found, the fulfillment of the promise of the desperate song is, as the main story suggests, an inevitable return to body and the punishment that all bodies are heir to. With this knowledge there is no further answer, only the echoing of the desperate song surrounded by the shadows of night.

I don’t really expect Mr. Mueenuddin to reply, but no matter. I just felt that his vexation with Turgenev’s ending could be eased with a professorial suggestion about a convention unique to the short story.


Lee said...

'I am not convinced that any person, no matter how educated, can read a literary short story without some knowledge of the form’s techniques, conventions, and devices.'

I've not read enough by far to contest this based on experience, but I do worry about the restrictions such implicit norms could place on a writer. It's not that I have any beef with expertise, just that some of the most interesting work often rewrites the rulebook. Think of David Foster Wallace, for example.

Charles E. May said...

Any time someone wants to talk about genre issues, someone worries that the very notion of there being genres with conventions (not rules)will hamstring the writer. I don't believe it. Every writer, in my opinion, works within a genre and then bends it to suit his or her own talent, genius, purposes. I just re-read "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" I admire Wallace's fiction, but still for all its seeming innovation, it is firmly within a tradition of such stories by Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, John Barth, George Saunders, etc.

I don't think there are rulebooks. In fact, I abhor the very notion of rulebooks. However,I don't think writers can write or readers read except within literary conventions, i.e. means by which language reconstructs reality. For example, when movies first tried to tell stories, filmmakers had to search about and find previous genres within which to tell stories. And audiences had to learn how to watch movies. Genres establish helpful horizons of expectation, which the artist can certainly bend and break, but never ignore, that is, if she or she wishes to communicate. I will talk more about the genre issue in another post. Thanks for your comment, Lee.

Lee said...

I wasn't really thinking about genre per se, but I certainly agree that, generally speaking - and this applies to most if not all fields of endeavour - one has to be familiar with the conventions and expectations in order to expand/alter/break them. Still, some things often seem like merely that - expectations. My only real definition of the short story is that it's short - go ahead, chortle if you like!

Of course, it makes it easier to evaluate something when you know which parameters to evaluate it against.

Lee said...

I suppose what I really mean is that each text, if well written, teaches the reader how to read it.

Charles E. May said...

I agree that a story teaches the reader how to read it if the reader attends to it. Too often my students read a story as if it were a section of a novel that they could skim. And yes, genre conventions are, I agree, sets of expectations that the good writer loves to tinker with, violate, mutate. My concern as a reader,not a writer, of short fiction, is with the skills my students and I need to give the story the kind of reading that a writer deserves. Whereas I may have some things to teach readers, I have absolutely nothing to teach writers. They are obviously free to do any thing they please. Some things work and some don't. Once the work leaves the writer, the reader must be a judge of that, don't you agree? I'm just saying, a reader should not treat a pomegranate as if it were an apple; he or she may get a nasty surprise.

Lee said...

I agree wholeheartedly about the reader as judge. In fact, it's one of the main reasons I prefer not to discuss my own writing publicly. In any case, the writer may not be the best judge of it.

I certainly do wish I had had the sort of short story course at university that you must have taught, since a writer by necessity has to be first and foremost a good reader. So please, more posts, many more - and with all the close reading you can bear to blog. You've got at least one very attentive reader here!

Is the Boris Ejxenbaum essay available online? I'd like to read it.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the kind encouragement, Lee. I appreciate it. I like doing this blog because it forces me not to get lazy about reading the short story. I don't know about the online availability of the Ejxenbum essay. It was published several years ago in a small paperback by the University of Michigan. The whole thing is not as interesting (since it is mostly on O. Henry), as are the first few pages, which are more general and provocative.

ChrisG said...

Lee - As a former grad student of Dr. May's (American Short Story class and an Alice Munro seminar), I can tell you without hesitation he was my favorite teacher. When an erstwhile classmate of mine told me about this blog, I practically did backflips.

Dr. May - I can hear that Eastern Kentucky inflection in your words and it's good to hear your voice again. I saw you at the Sherman Alexie reading at the University last year; I met Alexie afterward and he is a sweet, funny man (as you know). Thanks for the blog; my own laziness has kept me from commenting thus far, but I do enjoy the posts.

It seems to me that one does have to "learn" how to read a short story, and the source of that learning does have to be someone's (perhaps one's own, perhaps a teacher's) experience with the form. That said, your comment that "genre" as a hard-and-fast term is elusive is accurate: writers reinvent themselves and the conduits of their stories every time they write. Last year, I taught Vonnegut's _Slaughter-House Five_ and O'Brien's _The Things They Carried_ in an intro to lit course at my local community college, expressly because they blurred the traditional notion of genre. (That they had some interesting things to say about war and its effect on the human condition was nice too, of course.) Some students embraced the dissonance and explored it in classroom conversation and in essay prompts; others hated one or both books, the writers, and me for making them read such "confusing" texts.

(As though _Great Expectations_ would've been a novelistic walk in the park...)

Becky said...

I think reading short stories well does require knowledge of the form. I had to learn (in your class!). And I recall feeling baffled after reading many a short story. Peter Taylor comes to mind. I know he's one of your favorites, but man did he drive me a bit goofy. I came to college having read a lot, but it was mostly true-crime novels, grocery-store paperbacks. The aim of the short story is far, far away from the goals of those books. Over time, my brain cells rearranged and the short form no longer seemed that elusive.
I remember when you said in class that what we experience when we read a good short story is "religious." (oh dear, it was a long time ago. I'm probably paraphrasing poorly.) And I remember thinking, "Yes! That's the difference!"
Actually, speaking of your classroom gems, Kelly Shire (do you remember her?) and I were talking about a story (can't remember which one) and I said, "Remember what May said? If money can solve the story's problem, then it's not a real problem?" Oh, you know what. We were talking about life, not a story. But that makes my point better. Good short stories deal with life's abstractions(in a good sense), and new readers need help understanding that.
And about the teacher vs. facilitator controversy. Do you remember Dr. Mittleman? He was hardly the "facilitator." I remember the first day of class he told us that he did not care what our interpretations of the stories/novels were, (yes, he actually said that he didn't care)that after maney years reading and studying the texts he's confidant that his interpretation is correct. And then he said that if we wanted to argue an alternative reading, we'd better feel passionately about it, and fight for that reading. Ha! How dare he? I loved it!
As you can imagine, that angered quite a few students (and I wouldn't suggest that all teachers employ his style). That taught me, at least indirectly, that the text, the form, should be respected. The story will not bear out whatever shady little interpretation I want to impose on it.