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 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.