Monday, March 30, 2009

Regionalism, Local Color, Kentucky Writing, Gurney Norman as Poet Laureate

Jeff Birkenstein, one of my students from years back who got his Ph.D. in lit from University of Kentucky, just sent me an email with the good news that Gurney Norman has been appointed Poet Laureate of Kentucky.

I have known Gurney’s work for years, but had never met him until last June when we both wound up as speakers at the International Short Story Conference in Cork. Gurney was there to talk about his experience as a student of Frank O’Connor when he was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, while I was there to talk about O’Connor’s theory of the short story in his wonderful little book The Lonely Voice

I was sicker than a dog with some terrible lung infection that made me cough so much that I had to turn down an invitation to sit at Edna O’Brien’s table at the conference banquet. Instead, I stayed in my room coughing so much I thought I would die. (This is the point where you are supposed to feel sorry for the old feller) So I was not very good company when Gurney and I had lunch together one day and talked about growing up in Eastern Kentucky.

Gurney grew up in Hazard, Ketucky, which is only about an hour’s drive up the river toward Virginia from my hometown of Paintsville. He got his journalism degree at University of Kentucky in 1959, just a year before I graduated from high school and went to Morehead State College for my undergraduate degree. Gurney was friends with Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, and other Kentucky writers while at U.K. Two of his professors there were Robert Hazel and Hollis Summers.

I met Robert Hazel in the summer of 1960 when I attended a Writer’s Workshop at Morehead, put together by Albert Stewart. Al got me a scholarship to the Workshop, where I got an award as “Most Promising Fiction Writer.” (This is the point when you are supposed to chuckle at the boy) Hot damn! Heavy stuff for a country boy right out of high school. Hollis Summers was one of my favorite teachers a few years later when I was a graduate student at Ohio University. He taught a seminar called “Stylistics” and taught me the value of placing just the right word in just the right place. (Forgive me, Hollis, if I do not always make you proud.) It surely is a small, small world in the tristate area of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio.

While I was at Ohio, Gurney was at Stanford, studying under O’Connor, Wallace Stegner, and Malcolm Cowley. After a stint in the army, Gurney was a newspaper reporter in Hazard, Ky., before going back to Palo Alto in 1967 to work with Stewart Brand on the Whole Earth Catalog. His best known novel, Divine Right’s Trip, was originally published in The Last Whole Earth Catalog and then later by Dial.

Gurney’s wonderful little collection of short stories, Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories was published in 1977. He then became a teacher in the University of Kentucky creative writing program, later becoming its Director. He is still a powerful force at UK and indeed all over the state.

When I heard about his appointment as Poet Laureate, I got out my copy of Kinfolks, which my brother, who lives in Kentucky, sent me several years ago. It’s still in print. I encourage you to order your own copy from Amazon. The central character, Wilgus, grows up in the mountains and does the best he can to manage the unpredictable behavior of his kinfolks: grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and family friends. It is one of the most honest books about the folks of Appalachia that I have ever read. Gurney is a great defender of the integrity of Eastern Kentucky people. Like me, he will not tolerate anyone making fun of “hillbillies.”

While I am feeling homesick for the mountains, I will impose upon you some other recommendations about Kentucky writers. By far, the best single volume of short stories by Kentucky writers is Home and Beyond, edited by an old friend of mine, Morris Grubbs. Published by the University of Kentucky Press in 2001, it includes some of the very best stories by writers from my home state from the 1940s right up to the year 2000. In addition to the widely known Robert Penn Warren, Caroline Gordon, Jesse Stuart, Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, and Barbara Kingsolver, there are wonderful stories by James Still, Billy C. Clark, Hollis Summers, David Madden, Jim Wayne Miller, Richard Day, Guy Davenport, Chris Holbrook, and Chris Offutt. One of Gurney Norman’s best stories, “Maxine,” is also included. It’s still in print. As someone who is interested in good short fiction, you will find’s God’s plenty here.

James Still is the quintessential example of how the writing in this book is both regional and universal at once. For although he has the language of the people of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky "down to a T" and although he knows their customs intimately as an insider, readers who find such regional particularity the main merit of his fiction miss what makes him great. It is Still's ability, without the slightest hint of sentimentality, to magically transform fascinating difference into sympathetic sameness and thus make Nezzie Hargis in "The Nest" break our hearts trying to be "a little woman." There is no "local color" here, no "marginality," no "exoticism," no "social significance"--just pure narrative that is real and transcendent at once.

For those of you who do not know the work of James Still, please let me recommend him highly. James Still was 94 when he died in April, 2001 in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, where he had lived, mostly alone, for over sixty years in a small log cabin on a branch of Little Carr Creek in Knott County.

A writer's writer, never widely read, he was, however, respected and praised by such peers as Katherine Ann Porter, James Dickey, Cleanth Brooks, Marjorie Kinnman Rawlings, and many others. Gurney Norman, Kentucky writer and director of the University of Kentucky creative writing program, called Still the "most influential Kentucky writer of the last 50 years," the parent of all Kentucky writers who came after 1940.

Although Still is best known for his classic novel of the struggles of a coal-mining family in Eastern Kentucky, River of Earth (1940), and his short-story collection, On Troublesome Creek (1941), many critics believe that in his precise and lyrical use of language, he is primarily a poet. When his collection The Wolfpen Poems was published in 1986, James Dickey said the book established Still as the "truest and most remarkable poet that the mountain culture has produced."

Wade Hall, emeritus professor, and a leading authority on Kentucky literature, has said that no one had ever captured Southern Appalachian folk life better than Still. "He was basically a poet," said Hall, with an economy of words that lifted his prose to the level of poetry. This is a view shared by, among many others, Wendell Berry, one of Still's former students, who says Still gives his prose the economy, liveliness, and density of poetry.

Jim Still was one of my teachers at Morehead State back in the early sixties. He introduced me to Gogol, Chekhov, and Turgenev. I was fortunate enough to pay him a visit in 2001 in the Hospital in Hazard, just two days before he died. I wrote a tribute to him in Appalachian Heritage.

The critical issue I would like to raise with this blog posting concerns so-called “local color” or ”regionalism.” I quote below a brief excerpt from an interview I did with a very fine contemporary Kentucky writer a few years ago: Chris Offutt, who teaches in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

May: Flannery O'Connor once said: "The woods are full of regional writers, and it is the great fear of every serious Southern writer that he will become one of them." Do you feel that way?

Offutt: I have never had anybody call me a regional writer. Is Philip Roth a regional writer because he writes about New York? Is James Welch a regional writer because he writes about Montana? Is Flannery O'Connor a regional writer? Is William Faulkner? I think we are beyond those terms. Those were earlier distinctions, when the term "regional writer" essentially meant a second-class writer. By that I mean, writers who were unable in the sophistication of their work to get beyond their immediate surroundings. And there are many, many writers like that all over the country. I don't know what it is related to. It is not related to intelligence or ambition. Flannery O'Connor rarely left her state. Eudora Welty still lives in the house she grew up in. So it's not about leaving. Maybe it is about depth of the writing itself. When I write, I write to be remembered. I write for the masters of literature, not for the region.”

The stories in Chris Offutt's first book, the well-received 1992 Kentucky Straight, were so firmly situated in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky that, Faulkner-like, he included a map, with story locations labeled. In this, his second collection, he has moved most of his characters out of the mountains, mainly to the wide-open spaces of the West. However, the Eastern Kentucky hill country remains a central force in these stories, for no matter where Offutt's mountain men go, the hills haunt them.

His second collection, Out of the Woods is richly flavored with Appalachia, not by local color descriptions, sentimental nostalgia, corny dialect, or trendy marginalized social context, but by characters who think and sound genuine.

The collection's title story, about a thirty-year old man who has never been out of the county, is the best. To secure his position with his new wife and her family, Gerald agrees to drive an old pickup two days to pick up his wife's brother who has been shot and is in a hospital in Wahoo, Nebraska. While this may seem like a simple task, for a mountain man it is fraught with unease; the land in Indiana and Illinois is as flat as a playing card with no place to hide, and at night the sky seems to press down on Gerald in a threatening way. When he arrives to find his brother-in-law has died, Gerald meets the woman who shot him--marveling at her purple hair, the gold ring in her nose, and the fact that it all happened over a dispute over a blond wig.

Gerald makes some common-sense arrangements and a few man-to-man deals with the authorities and heads back to Kentucky with his brother-in-law's body in the back of the pickup, stopping once to mound a pile of rich Illinois topsoil for his garden on the body. This homey traveling grave becomes comically grotesque when Gerald stops at a gas station and a dog starts to dig in the dirt; the smell is so bad a man thinks Gerald is taking a dead hog to the renderers. In this carefully controlled account of a simple man's homey, heroic management of an extraordinarily ordinary situation, Gerald's final gesture is to tell a public lie--that Ory was accidentally shot--for the sake of his in-laws.

Chris Offutt is the first fiction writer since James Still to accurately capture the life of the people of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Like Still, he understands and respects his characters. He does not exploit them as trendy exotics, nor does he revel in local color quaintness. Offutt is not a modish socialist with a multicultural message about marginality, but a carefully controlled craftsman who knows how to use language to reflect the essential humanness of his characters. He is not a sociologist playing back a tape recording or illustrating abstractions, but an artist, transforming mere external reality into poetic meaning.

Here is another excerpt from my interview with Offutt:

May: It seems to me that some people who have no idea about the people who live in Appalachia still make judgments about what they call ignorant, red necked, hillbillies. I've been called redneck. Have you ever been called redneck?

Offutt: Oh, yeah, and I don't like it. I feel sometimes like I am a one-man political action group trying to let people know that words like "hillbilly" and "redneck" are very painful. They are on par with any other racial epithet. A lot of people don't understand that. "Redneck" is exclusive to rural, white, poor people, usually men, and a tremendous amount of stereotyped behavior goes along with it. It is always a negative term. There is no equivalent term for rural poor people, for example, in Connecticut. It is almost always Southern. A lot of big city newspapers in the North will use terms like "redneck" and "hillbilly," whereas they would never use hurtful equivalent terms for various racial groups or religious groups.

May: I agree completely; I just wanted you to say it for the record.

Offutt: It pisses me off. I never allow it to happen. Somebody recently gave me a tape of country western music on which they had written in pen, "screaming hillbillies." I tried to explain that a person like me does not think "hillbilly" is a very nice word.

May: White rural Appalachians are perhaps one of the last cultural minority groups in American that it is still quite acceptable to make fun of.

Offutt: That's right, and it's just too bad.

One of the most basic problems about stories largely centered on place is the danger of the dreaded label of "local color" or "regionalism." In a little book called Kentucky Story that my old teacher Al Stewart gave me forty years ago, the editor James McConkey felt he had to remind readers that it was the "manner" of the writing, not merely the "matter" that was important, insisting that the regional details in the stories were used in such a way "that a greater understanding in gained of the universal human spirit." Hollis Summers, in his introduction to Kentucky Stories, published at about the same time (1954), also noted that what was at stake was the artist's "what" and "how," not the sociologist's "why" and "where." To my mind stories should be read, as Hollis Summers said of the fictions in Kentucky Story, not as regional artifacts, but as "stories, succeeding or failing on their own merits."

What do you think? Every writer has to situate his or her work in some particular place? What is it about being specific about “place” that might place a writer in the category of “regionalist”? What are your thoughts about “local color?” How does a writer transcend such labels? Or should one try to transcend such labels? I appreciate your feedback.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Wells Tower--Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned--Smoke and Mirrors?

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a debut collection of stories by Wells Tower, was published last week by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Towers got his MFA from Columbia and is a contributing writer for The Washington Post Magazine. He also publishes in Harper’s. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s. He has won a couple of Pushcart Prizes and got a boost when the title story for his first book was included in Ben Marcus’s collection ,The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, 2004. Marcus has called Towers “blindingly brilliant.” He will be doing the bookstore reading route in April and May in Cambridge, Boston, San Francisco, and New York, and will be at the Los Angeles Festival of Books in late April.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned got very good reviews in all the pre-publication places: Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal. However, for some reason, the only major newspaper reviews (at least the only ones I can find) were in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. In NY, Kakutani calls him a writer of “uncommon talent” and compares him to David Foster Wallace and Sam Shepard. In L.A., Jim Rutland says he invokes prose that is both “soaring and deep.”

I reviewed the book for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where I have been reviewing rather regularly for the past few years. I guess my review was what they called “mixed.” I enjoyed the book as a general reader but had reservations about it as a professional reader. Does that make sense? Maybe that’s just elitist. I will quote you my first and last paragraph and then try to explain in more detail.

“I gotta tell you. I had fun reading these stories. I laughed out loud eight times during the first one, “The Brown Coast,” and had a silly smile on my face throughout most of them.
The title story is about a bunch of grunts who hump a vicious attack on a small island. But, get this. They aren’t modern army grunts; they just sound that way. They are Vikings, man! When they finally get back home, the main character is glad to be with his wife, but he knows that they could also get attacked, and he lies awake at night listening for the sound of men with swords rowing toward his home. Heavy, man, heavy.
Yeah, I had fun reading these stories, but I have this uneasy feeling I’ll hate myself in the morning.”

I know--a little heavy on the sarcasm. But the title story seemed to be asking for it.

Most of the stories, except for the tour-de-force title piece, as both Kakutani and Rutland point out, are fairly conventional in terms of character and plot. Here are the familiar down-and-out guys engaged in mostly ineffectual efforts to get it back together. One tries to put to create something beautiful out of the creatures he finds in the tide pools, but a thing that looks like it came out of a sewer poisons them all. One buys a mountaintop in hopes of selling chunks as hunting escape hatches for wealthy guys, but when he shoots a huge moose, its flesh is bloated and rotten.

What makes the stories fun is Tower’s humorous observations and one-liners. It’s hard to resist a book that begins with: “Bob Munroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was real discomfort in his underpants.” Or a book that ends with a soldier who has witnessed horrors, fearing for his new family, because he now knows “how terrible love can be.” He ruminates, “You wish you hated those people, your wife and children because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself… You wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.”

I enjoyed these stories, but I did not like them, or rather I did not like myself for enjoying them. I know that all writers, at least if they are any good, try to have their way with me. They use all sorts of games and gimmicks, stylistic flourishes and character configurations to lure me in and keep me there until the end. If that is all they want—to keep me reading—then I can be a sucker for their tricks. But then, what am I left with? It’s not that I want to learn anything. I just want to feel I have got a glimpse of what makes human beings so damned wonderfully mysterious. Is that asking too much?

I just have this feeling that Wells Tower is mostly smoke and mirrors and little or no depth. Don't get me wrong. When it comes to choosing between style and content, I come down on the side of style usually. But for me, it has to be style that explores something, reveals something--not just to get a reaction.

I could use some help there from those of you out there who have read Wells Tower. If you don’t have the book, “On the Show” is in the May 2007 issue of Harper’s and “Leopard” is in the Nov. 10, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. And if you have the Ben Marcus book, the title story is right up front—in between a George Saunders and an A. M. Holmes.

Sometimes I review books that I think are just ordinary and later find out that most everyone else thinks they are terrific. Such things don’t make me doubt myself; it’s just that I don’t understand what the fuss is about. Take a look at reader reviews of this book on And take a look at what several other bloggers are saying about it, especially that rigged title story. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Irish Short Story Tradition

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, how could I not offer a post on the Irish short story? I have a personal connection and love for Ireland. My wife’s mother was born in Belfast and married a G.I. who brought her to California. My wife is thus an Irish citizen, although she was born in southern California. A couple of years ago, we applied for Irish citizenship for our daughter, who now has dual citizenship also.

After a visit to Ireland some thirteen years ago, I loved the country and the people so much that I applied for and received a Fulbright Senior Fellowship to teach the American short story at University College, Dublin and Trinity College. My wife, daughter, mother-in-law (whose husband died at that time), and I lived in the suburb of Blackrock, south of Dublin, for a year. Our daughter, who was 11, went to an international school. It was a great experience for all of us. I got to know Dublin quite well.

So well, in fact, that for the past two years I have taken a group of 20 American students from California State University, Long Beach to Dublin for three weeks in June to study Joyce’s Dubliners and Ulysses. We lived in a youth hostel near Stephen’s Green, and I held classes on the Trinity campus each morning. In the afternoons, we visited museums, including the Martello Tower at Sandycove where the first chapter of Ulysses takes place, and walked the walks described in those two great books; reading them in Dublin made for a marvelously integrated experience for the students and me. Being in Dublin on Bloomsday and having a bit of Gorgonzola cheese and a class of burgundy at Davy Byrne’s Pub, as did Leopold Bloom, was a corny, but pleasurable, treat. Although I do not plan to take a group this year, I hope to do it again in the future.

Now after that little personal introduction, here are a few comments about the Irish short story.

It is an undisputed fact of literary history that whereas British writers and readers have always favored the novel over the short story, just the opposite has been the case for their Irish neighbors. Irish short-story writer Frank O'Connor has attributed this distinction to differences between national attitudes toward society. Whereas in England, O'Connor says, the intellectual's attitude toward society is, "It must work," in Ireland it is, "It can't work." The implication of O'Connor's remark, echoed by many critics since the 1963 publication of his well-known book on the short story, The Lonely Voice, is that whereas the novel derives its subject matter from an organized society, the short story springs from an oral, anecdotal tradition. According to J. H. Delargy, in a frequently cited study of the Gaelic storyteller, ancient Ireland fostered an oral literature unrivalled in all of Western Europe, a tradition that has influenced the growth of the modern Irish short story.

Delargy describes Irish story telling as being centered on a gathering of people around the turf fire of a hospitable house on fall and winter nights. At these meetings, usually called a céilidhe (pronounced "kaylee"), a Gaelic story-teller, known as a seanchaí (pronounced "shanachie") if he specialized in short supernatural tales told in realistic detail, or a sgéalaí (pronounced "shagaylee") if he told longer fairy-tale stories focusing on a legendary hero, mesmerized the folk audience.

It is the shorter, realistic seanchas or eachtra (pronounced "achthrah") rather than the longer, epical fairy tales that have given rise to the Irish literary short story. This type of story, which usually featured supernatural events recounted with realistic detail suggesting an eyewitness account, has been described by late eighteenth and early nineteenth century German writers as the source of the novelle form, which usually featured a story striking enough to arouse interest in and of itself, without any connection to society, the times, or culture. The German novelle then gave rise to the short story.

This view of short prose narrative as a form detached from any cultural background, drawing its interest from the striking nature of the event itself, has always been a central characteristic of short fiction. One of the most important implications of short fiction's detachment from social context and history, argued early theorists, was that although the anecdote on which the story was based might be trivial and its matter slight, its manner or way of telling had to be appealing, thus giving the narrator a more important role than in other forms of fiction. The result was a shift in authority for the tale and thus a gradual displacement away from strictly formulaic structures of received story toward techniques of verisimilitude that create credibility. The displacement is from mythic authority to the authority of a single perspective that creates a unifying atmosphere or tone of the experience. It is this focus on a single perspective rather than on an organized social context that has made the Irish short story largely dependent on anecdote and the galvanizing voice of the storyteller.

Prominent Irish critic Declan Kiberd, in his book Inventing Ireland, has suggested that the short story has always flourished in countries where a "vibrant oral culture" was challenged by the "onset of a sophisticated literature tradition"; thus the short story, says Kiberd, is the natural result of a "fusion" between the folk-tale and modern literature. William Carleton is the most important Irish mediator between the folk tale and the modern realistic story because of his attention to detail and his creation of the personality of the teller. His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830, 1833) is an important early example of the transition from oral tale to modern short story. The purpose of the first-person narrator in romantic short fiction, as Carleton, and later Poe and Hawthorne knew, is not only to verify the truth of the event being narrated, but also to transform the event from an objective description to an individual perspective.

Critics of Irish fiction generally agree that Carleton's story "Wildgoose Lodge," with its focus on the horrified emotions of the narrator, its terse style, and its suggestive detail, is his best, similar to the modern short story later developed by Poe and Hawthorne in America. "Wildgoose Lodge" recounts the revenge murder of an entire family by a Catholic secret society. Although ostensibly merely an eyewitness report by a former member of the society, the structure of the story reflects a self-conscious patterning of reality characteristic of the modern short story. A completed action, treated as if it were an action in process, "Wildgoose Lodge" is a classic example of how romantic short-story writers developed techniques to endow experience with thematic significance without using allegorical methods of symbolic characterization and stylized plot.

What makes "Wildgoose lodge" a modern story is the heightened perception of the engaged first-person narrator, who is both dramatically involved and self-consciously aware at once. Moreover, the story's selection of metaphoric detail with the potential for making an implied ironic moral judgment--the atmospheric weather, the ironic church setting, the physically isolated house, and the imagery of the leader as Satanic and his closest followers as fiendish--shift the emphasis in this story from a mere eyewitness account to a tight thematic structure. It is just this shift that signals the beginning of the modern short story most commonly attributed to Poe in the following decade.

The main development of the Irish short, from its roots in the rich folklore of the Irish people to its post-Joycean modernism, has been one in which the old local color conventions and stereotypes of Ireland and its people have been replaced with an image of Ireland as a modern European country. Although many tourists may bemoan the loss of the old rural images, lamenting that Ireland and its literature is losing its distinctiveness, the fact is, most of those stereotypes were due to the biting poverty of many of the people, the harshness of British rule, and the despair and hopelessness that lead to the stereotypes of Irish immigration and Irish drinking. The people of the New Ireland, until recently the shining star of economic development in the European Union, are not sorry to see those myths laid to rest. The short story will probably always be a powerful literary form for Irish writers, but it will probably never again be a form that perpetuates the old local color legends of the Emerald Isle.

The question I pose to you is: Why do you think some countries give rise to great short story writers, while other countries favor the novel? For example, it has been suggested that the French have always been much better at the short story than the Germans. Why did the short story take such strong root in America, I mean other than the publishing issue (British novels were widely available in America because of the lack of copyright protection; thus, periodical publication of short fiction became the favored outlet for American writers.)? Why do you think that the Irish have always been better at the short story than the British?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I lift high a pint of Guinness to all of you!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Do John Cheever's Stories Deserve a New Look?

In the quarter century since his death, John Cheever has been mostly neglected by students and scholars. He is enjoying some new attention this month because of the release of a new biography by Blake Bailey and the publication of his Complete Novels and his Collected Stories and Other Writings (both edited by Blake Bailey) by Library of America.

The books have been well reviewed in all the important places, and most all the reviewers raise the issue of the relationship between an author’s personal life and his or her work. All, of course, focus on Cheever’s alcoholism and his bisexuality, as well as his generally boorish behavior to his wife and acquaintances, which makes the LA Times reviewer, Susan Salter Reynolds, suggest that it may not be a good idea to read the biography alongside an author’s work.

This is the issue I would like to raise with this post. Having been educated in the Formalist tradition, my own view is that I do not need, nor even necessarily want, to know anything about the author’s life. In my opinion, an author may draw from his or her own life when writing, but other factors—his or her reading, use of language, knowledge of the short fiction tradition, etc.—are more important for my understanding and appreciation of the story. I am just not interested in gossip about the author’s personal foibles or weaknesses—too much like gratuitous prying. What do you think?

Another issue that a rereading of Cheever may raise is whether it is as a novelist or a short-story writer that one may most likely lay a claim on literary importance if one practices both. Is a great novelist unlikely to be a great short-story writer and vice-versa? Most all the reviewers agree that Cheever’s short stories—121 of which were published in The New Yorker-- are more accomplished and more important than his novels. David Propson in The Wall Street Journal says that Cheever’s stories form “an essential part of the postwar canon”—forming a link between F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike. Jonathan Dee in Harper’s agrees that none of Cheever’s novels approach the “mastery of the stories.”

Perhaps the most poignant review is the one by John Updike in The New Yorker; for it may be his last review for the magazines. With a title of “Basically Decent,” Updike identifies himself as a reader “often enraptured by Cheever’s prose and an acquaintance who generally enjoyed his lively company.” Updike also focuses more on Cheever’s stories than his novels.

Cheever first made his impact as a short-story writer in the 1950s with The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953). He continued to publish important stories for the next two decades, climaxing his career with The Stories of John Cheever winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. Cheever is one of only five writers who have won the Pulitzer for fiction since that prize was instituted in 1948: Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1966), Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1970), A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler (1993), and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000).

I went back to my battered red paperback of The Collected Stories and re-read the following: “The Enormous Radio,” “O Youth and Beauty,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” The Country Husband,” The Death of Justina,” and “The Swimmer.”

I did not feel the same pleasure in reading these stories as I did when I first discovered them many years ago. “The Enormous Radio” and “The Torch Song,” two of Cheever’s Hawthorne-like fables, seemed too easy and predictable for me this time around. “Oh Youth and Beauty” and “The Country Husband,” two of Cheever’s more realistic stories seemed to focus on stereotyped characters. Is this because I have read so many stories since I first read Cheever that I am jaded? Or are these stories just a bit too conventional? Maybe so many other writers since Cheever have modeled their works after him that I now have that strange feeling that what once was so original now seems the copy. I made the terrible mistake of rereading Catcher in the Rye a few years ago. Holden, who I once so admired, I now thought was a smart-mouthed brat. I wish I had not reread it. I wanted to hold on to Holden.

The best-known story from Cheever's late collection, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), is "The Swimmer," which combines a common theme of earlier Cheever stories--middle-aged men trying to hold on to youth and some meaningful place in life--with his penchant for the fantastic seen in such early stories as "The Enormous Radio."

The complexity of this story of a man's decision to swim home from a party through his neighbors' swimming pools derives from its subtle combination of fantasy and reality. Although the action is presented as a real event, clues increasingly point to a distortion of time in the story. Because the protagonist must be allowed to believe that his metaphoric swim through the future and past is an actual swim in the present, the reader is never sure which events in the story are real and which are fantasy. The metaphoric nature of the swim is suggested by Cheever's presenting the protagonist as a legendary explorer and the pools as a "the river of life."

Frank Perry directed a screen play by Eleanor Perry of the story in 1968, featuring a still statuesque (maybe just a bit gone to middle-age) Burt Lancaster as the protagonist Ned. The film focuses very nicely on a character trying to transform himself into a legend, keeping the reader somewhat unsure if he or she is witnessing reality, a fantasy, or a fable. If you ever teach short fiction and film, it is a good film with which to explore this ambiguity.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

More on Short Fiction and Film: "Hills Like White Elephants "and "Brokeback Mountain"

In a “Comment” on my earlier post on fiction and film, Lee suggests that film adaptations of short stories may be more effective than I have argued, offering Brokeback Mountain as an example of an effective adaptation of Annie Proulx’s story.

I agree with Lee that Brokeback Mountain is a fine adaptation of a complex story. And indeed there have been several very fine adaptations of short stories in the past few years, for example the Julie Christie movie, Away From Her, adapted from Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”

However, the short story is less mimetic than film; stories often do not present individualized characters, nor do they always depend on the similitude of a real physical or social context. Moreover, some of the best short stories in literature do not depend on a linear plot in which character development takes place over time in an obvious way. Thus, for these reasons, film versions of short stories, especially full-length film versions, often flatten out the meaning of the story, add new material to supply more obvious character motivation, and fail to capture the often visionary and mythical significance of the original. The demands of the popular audience who view theatrical films, the economic necessities of those who make such films, and the intrinsic demands of the real time involved in a 90-to 120-minute film have resulted in some significant distortions when short stories have been made into full-length films.

A typical example of how full-length films use the original story as climax for which additional invented motivation and background must be supplied is the 1946 version of Hemingway’s compact and cryptic little story “The Killers.” The story of Nick Adams' initiation into inevitability becomes a detective tale in which Edmond O’Brien digs up the reasons for Burt Lancaster’s murder. True to Hollywood fashion, the reasons involve a woman, in this case, Ava Gardner.

One of the most basic characteristics of the short story is its lyrical quality, a subjectivism and impressionism that place it closer to the poem than to the novel. An adaptation that illustrates the difficulty of translating such quality to film is Gene Gearney’s 1966 short film based on Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” The point of view of the story suggests that the story is not a simple case history of schizophrenia, but rather a metaphoric story about the beauty of the imagination and the philosophic implications of the human preference for the world of self-creation over the world of brute reality. The filmmaker, Gene Kearney, capitulates to the visual immediateness of film by making the presentation simply about a boy retreating from reality. The young Paul is played as a rather slack-jawed child distracted by visions.

It has been my experience that film adaptations of short stories, whether they be short films or full-length films, often “simplify” or “psychologize” or “socialize” central character motivation, which in the original short story is often left inchoate and mysterious. Filmmakers, for a variety of reasons, ignore Chekhov’s famous advice that in the short story it is better to say too little than too much.

I offer below two brief discussions to try to illustrate my point:

“Hills Like White Elephants”

One of my favorite film adaptations of a short story is the short film version of Hemingway’s “Hill’s Like White Elephants.” It originally appeared on the cable channel HBO in 1990. It was directed by the well-known director Tony Richardson; the screenplay was written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn, a husband and wife writing team of high renown; and it starred two of the most familiar and competent actors of the 1980s and 90s--Melanie Griffith and James Woods. The way the screenwriters and director dealt with some of the problems that we as readers may have had with the story is illustrative of the way that film often differs from written fiction.

First of all, the fact that the woman is pregnant (a fact that is left ambiguous in the story) is made clear in the film immediately in the following way: When she gets off the train, she says she is going to be sick and runs into the station to the restroom. The waitress smiles knowingly. When the woman comes out of the restroom, the waitress gives her something to drink to make her feel better and refuses to take payment for it, saying she has six children of her own.

The pregnancy as the source of the conflict (which is left vague in the story) is made emphatic when the man playfully talks about having several wives and children, and the woman responds bitterly, "You wouldn't have any children." Moreover, a bit later when he first mentions the operation as "letting the air in," she says: "Everything has another name. . . . It's not a baby, it's tissue."

However, the basic difference between the film and the story is that in the film the conflict between the couple is made explicit by dialogue in which she indicates she wants a home and he indicates that he is not domestic, that he is a writer and wants to remain on the move. For example, when she says that all we do is try new drinks and look at things, he insists that he does more than just look at things, that he writes it all down. In fact, his career as a writer becomes the most important cause of the conflict in the film.

He: As far as I know I only have one life to live, and by God, I'm going to live it where it interests me. I have no romantic feelings about home or family or any other baggage.

The fact that he is a writer, an invention for the film that does not exist in the original story, then becomes the basis for looking at the present event as the basis for a future story.

This brief description of the material created especially for the film should make clear that film often needs to make motivation more emphatic and conflict more explicit than it is in serious narrative fiction. The filmmakers make several changes to shift the conflict from the puzzling and ambiguous one suggested in the story to the more emphatic conflict of the writer's life versus the domestic life.

“Brokeback Mountain”

Conventional stories about sexual relations between men are either about men identified as homosexuals or men, such as prisoners, who have no other available partners. However, Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain” does not fit either one of these categories. Both Ennis and Jack insist that they are not homosexual, and neither of them have sex with other men. Moreover, although they first have sex while alone on the mountain, they continue to have sex over the years even though both get married. The two men seem to genuinely love each other, both craving that time on Brokeback Mountain when their embrace satisfied “some shared and sexless hunger.”

Annie Proulx takes a creative risk here because many readers may try to simplify the story by classifying Jack and Ennis as homosexuals, or else latent homosexuals (a term that experts are more and more classifying as meaningless), or even bisexual, another meaningless term. But such an easy classification will not serve here. When Jack and Ennis deny their homosexuality, they mean it. The fact of the matter is: Jack and Ennis love each other--with tenderness, passion, and concern--and people who love each other in this way--regardless of their gender--desire to be physically close.

One of the most poignant and revealing moments in the story occurs in May, 1983, when, out on the range, the two men hold each other, talk about their children, and have sex. The sexuality is no more important than their domestic conversation; it merely seems a natural part of their love for each other.

This is not to say that the story ignores the social taboos against the relationship the men have. Both of them are frightened, for they know--especially in the male-dominated cowboy area in which they live--that if their sexual relationship is discovered they could be killed. Ennis recalls when he was a boy an old man being beaten to death with a tire iron for his homosexuality. He wonders if the feeling they have for each other happens to other people, and Jack says “It don’t happen in Wyoming.”

However, this social barrier to their being open about their relationship serves less as a social issue of homosexual intolerance than as a typical literary impediment that gives famous love stories their tragic inevitability, such as the feud between families of Romeo and Juliet. Moreover, at the end of the story when Jack is killed, there is no real evidence that he was murdered by homophobes. Ennis only suspects this when he learns from Jack’s father that he had made plans with another man to come up and build a place and help run the ranch. The story ends not with a message about the social intolerance of homosexuality, but rather with a poignant image of Ennis creating a simple memorial to Jack with a postcard picture of Brokeback Mountain and two old shirts the men wore when they spent their first summer together.

I like Ang Lee’s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s story, and I was pleased when I first saw it that he stayed so faithful to Proulx’s focus on this as a love story in the classic tradition, rather than a social tragedy of homophobia and gay bashing. However, the film ends with more of a suggestion than the story does that Jack has always been gay and that he is killed by homophobes.

Whereas the story is about a universal human issue, the film leans more toward being about a social issue that, thankfully, may not be an issue much longer. Even though Proposition 8, restricting marriage to males and females, passed in California, if the courts do not throw it out this week, the people will probably reject it the next time they are allowed to vote on the issue.

Annie Proulx’s story is not about social issues, for falling in love is, by its very nature, the most antisocial and irrational thing one can do, and when people fall in love they do not fall in love with a social category or a type, but rather with an individual. The significance of Annie Proulx’s story is that when people love each other, gender is irrelevant.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Making A Focused Professional and a Broadly Human Response to the Story

In a “Comment” on my last post, Sandy expresss the same lament I have expressed over the years—the uncertainty about whether as readers we have been true to the deeply human complexity of the story—whether as teachers we demonstrate to our students that we are both trained professional readers and wholeheartedly human readers responding with our whole being to deeply human writers.

Back when I first started teaching, I was twenty-five years old, just out of graduate school. Lord, only six years out of high school. I was teaching a short story one day to a class of freshmen and sophomores and had worked the story pretty hard, I thought, doing my best to get the students to interpret, explicate, analyze--to figure out what the story meant and how it meant what it meant rather than just to process plot. When I finished, I asked if anyone had any final questions. One older man in the back of the room, who had remained quiet through the whole proceedings, raised his hand and said, with the exasperation years of experience with the work-a-day world often brings: "Well, hell," he said, "if that's what he meant by the damned story, why didn't he say it that way in the first place?"

I took a deep breath and gave some version of answer all literature teachers have given in one way or another over the years. I stumbled and stuttered about how stories could never be reduced to explanation, that they were about stuff that couldn't really be talked about any other way, and so forth and so forth. He listened with pursed lips until I straggled to a halt, finishing hopefully, "Does that answer your question?" He shook his head indulgently--the older man putting up with the earnestness of the younger--and said, "It's a mystery, ain't it, son?"

Sandy is a dear friend of mine; we met in graduate school at Ohio University in the literary criticism class of the professor she mentions in her comment: Eric Thompson. He was my favorite teacher also—a model of the combination of the focused professional and the broadly human that I admired.

It was in one of Professor Thompson’s classes that I developed an idea for the first article I ever published. We were talking about a story by Eudora Welty entitled “A Visit of Charity,” and my fellow students seemed quite satisfied with their trained academic reading of the story, but Professor Thompson was not satisfied. Nor was I. A couple of years later, I wrote an article, a portion of which I excerpt below, that I felt more fully expressed my human response to the story.

Last year, I made a presentation on Frank O’Connor’s theory of “the lonely voice” at an international short story conference in Cork, Ireland. I excerpt a brief section of that below also. As you can see, over forty years later, I am still struggling with developing a “focused professional” and “broadly human” response to literature that Eric Thompson might have approved of.

1969: “The Difficulty of Loving in a Visit of Charity” (Excerpt)

The most significant critical problem in Eudora Welty's short story "A Visit of Charity" is: What does Marian's frightening and crucial visit to the Old Ladies' Home have to do with charity? Past critics of the story have tried to account for the little girl's strange experience without considering the concept. In order to understand how the visit is actually a crisis in charity, it is first necessary to see that charity in the title means love. For Marian's visit is her first experience with the difficulty of loving. It is also an ultimate challenge of the biblical injunction, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

As Erich Fromm points out about this brotherly love the most fundamental kind of love, "In order to experience this identity it is necessary to penetrate from the periphery to the core. If I perceive in another person mainly the surface, I perceive the differences, that which separates us. If I penetrate to the core, I perceive our identity, the fact of our brotherhood." What most shocks Marian about the old ladies and throws her into an unfamiliar world is their basic difference from her. The experience is a strange one of her because she is a stranger in the most extreme sense. She has left the comfortable world of belonging and entered the nightmare world of separation and isolation. From the very beginning Marian does not think of the old ladies as people like herself.

Marian's final act--retrieving the apple she had hidden before she entered the Home and taking a big bite into it as she rides away on the bus is the final symbolic gesture that unifies all the complexities in the story of man's basic separation and his refusal to heal that breach by loving. Ruth M. Vande Kieft suggests that in Marian's biting into the apple, "there is a subtle hint that this little Eve has had her initiation to the knowledge of evil." If so, it is not the brutal evil of the Home itself that Marian has become aware of. Her very concrete bite into the apple shows that she has forgotten the misery of the Home is once more in her own familiar world of sunshine and indifference.

If indeed she is Eve, her awareness is of the most basic evil that resulted from the eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden. Here again Erich Fromm gives us the clue. He suggests that the knowledge that Adam and Eve gain when they eat the apple is the awareness of their own separateness. They become aware of themselves and of each other and thus know that they are different. This is the meaning of the Old Testament loss of Paradise. Man becomes aware of his separateness from all other men. Fromm goes on to explain Adam and Eve's response to this new knowledge by noting that "while recognizing their separateness they remain strangers, because they have not learned to love each other."

This, of course, is the other side of Marian's problem. If she reminds us of the Old Testament loss of man's oneness, she also illustrates the difficulty of following the New Testament message of how man might heal that division through love. Marian's bite into the apple ironically encompasses both these suggestions. In the Gospel of St. John, 21:15-17, Jesus three times asks Peter, "Simon son of Jonas, lovest thou me?" When three times Peter answers, "thou knowest I love thee," Christ replies, "Feed my sheep." When we recall that Addie, the old woman who asks Marian for love, is constantly referred to a s a sheep or a little lamb, the reverse implication of Marian's bite into the apple becomes clear. She has refused to feed the she--literally by refusing to give the apple to Addie, symbolically by refusing to give her love. Thus the irony of the story is more complex than hitherto recognized. At the same time it illustrates both the Old Testament loss of human oneness and the difficulty and perhaps impossibility of following the New Testament hope of recovering that lost state. Marian takes a bite into the apple and the story is over. Nothing is solved. Marian has learned nothing. Now that she is away from the home, she has forgotten her strange and terrible experience. She is once more in control of her limited little world, and the bus stops when she shouts for it "as though at an imperial command." But even as she takes that unconcerned bite into the apple, we still hear the piercing questions of the love starved old Addie: "Who are you? You're a stranger--a perfect stranger! Don't you know you're a stranger?"

2008: The Short Story and the Lonely Voice (Excerpt)

I believe that the central focus of the short story as a genre is the basic primordial story that constitutes human beings existentially--their basic sense of aloneness and their yearning for union. The question story proposes, according to Isak Dinesen, is “Who am I?” and, as Heidegger says, any answer to the question “who am I” that is based on a description of everyday existence is inadequate, inauthentic; the most revelatory state of mind, says Heidegger, is anxiety, which arises from one’s confrontation with nothingness.” Husserl says the problem is the enigma of the other, for I can only see from the other’s point of view what I would have seen if I were there in the same place. But the “as if I were over there” does not permit introducing the ‘here’ of the other into my sphere. My “here” and the other’s “over there” are mutually exclusive. Since there is no way of knowing what the other actually sees, feels, intends, as if I were he, we are born into solipsism.

The human yearning that this would be otherwise is best expressed by Martin Buber. "In the beginning," says Buber, "is relation as category of being, readiness, grasping form, mould for the soul; it is the ”a priori of relation, the inborn Thou." Studies in anthropology and child psychology support Buber's assertion that both phylogenetically and ontogenetically the “Thou” relation precedes the “It” perception, but only in a primal undifferentiated universe from which the adult civilized human is excluded except by means of an aesthetic or religious "As if”-- best expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for.”

According to Jean Piaget, the young baby itself constitutes its sole reality because the baby's universe contains no permanent object, no “It” and therefore no “I” except the total and unconscious egocentric self, that is not a self with which the adult can identify. Piaget tells us that the baby's objectless universe is made up of "shifting and unsubstantial `tableaux’ that appear and are then totally reabsorbed." However, during the first eighteen months of life, a kind of "Copernican revolution" takes place in the child, a general decentering process during which the child begins to perceive the self as an object in a universe made up of permanent objects, a universe in which causality is localized in space and objectified in things. Philosopher Ernst Cassirer locates this “Copernican revolution” in the history of the race as a realization of Pascal’s “The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

Buber also describes the event phylogenetically in terms that suggest its metaphysical and moral implications. "This actual event is the separation of the human body, as the bearer of its perceptions, from the world round about it...whenever the sentence `I see the tree' is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man and the tree, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. The primary word “I-It,” the word of separation, has been spoken." Thus arises, says Buber, the "melancholy of our fate" in the earliest history of the race and the individual.

The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish and the demands of our social self, which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation. The unconscious is where "reality" resides, says Eliade. The human search to know it is equivalent to the desire of the religious man to live in the sacred, which is, "equivalent to his desire to take up his abode in objective reality… to live in a real and effective world, and not in an illusion."

The problem for the critic is to determine how stories reveal the spiritual, how they escape the "naked worm of time" and embody the hierophanic principle. The most emphatic and succinct statement and illustration of this primal nature of story can be found in Isak Dinesen's "The First Cardinal's Tale." In telling his female penitent a story to answer her question "Who am I?" the Cardinal explains to her how the story has answered her question. "Stories," the Cardinal says, "have been told as long as speech has existed, and without stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished without water. The Cardinal then goes on to discuss the difference between the story and the new art of narration known as the novel. This "literature of the individual" is a noble art, says the Cardinal, but it is only a human product. "The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story…. We, who hold our high office as keepers and watchmen to the story, may tell you, verily, that to its human characters there is salvation in nothing else in the universe.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Short Fiction and Film--Smooth Talk

Tom Cole, who used to write short stories, and later became a successful playwright and screenwriter, died last week. He was 75. Probably his best-known work was the screenplay for the 1985 film "Smooth Talk, which won the grand jury prize at what is now the Sundance Film Festival and helped start Laura Dern's career.

The film is based on one of Joyce Carol Oates’ best-known stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” which was first published in 1966 and reprinted in The Wheel of Love and Other Stories in 1970.

Of all Joyce Carol Oates’ stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has been the most anthologized and has generated the most critical commentary. After it was originally published, Oates added the dedication to Bob Dylan, for his song “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” a song she called “very beautiful, very disturbing,” and which recalled to her the legend of Death and the Maiden. The story itself moves from intense psychological realism to surreal myth.

Oates has written about the background of this story and her reaction to the film treatment in an essay that can be found in her book, (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (1989). She says she based the story on a psychopath in the Southwest in the mid-sixties known as “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” who seduced, and sometimes murdered, teen-age girls, a man in his thirties, he often mimicked teenagers in talk, dress and behavior.

The story starts innocently enough, with a description of the fifteen year-old Connie who, like many adolescent girls, sleepwalks through life listening to music only she seems to hear. Connie and her friends frequent the mall and she has begun some kind of sexual experimentation, “the way it was in movies and promised in songs.”

The central event of the story begins one hot Sunday afternoon when Connie is home alone—having refused to accompany her family to a barbecue—and two men in an open jalopy pull into her driveway. She recognizes one of them from the mall the night before, but she knows neither and, as she talks with the driver through her screen door, the scene becomes more and more dreamlike. The driver introduces himself as “Arnold Friend,” and his passenger as “Ellie,” but something is wrong about both of them. For one thing, Arnold’s language—the rambling patter with which he assaults her—is out-of-date. In addition, although he wears the standard 1950s dress of jeans and tight shirt, he has trouble walking in his boots, seems to be wearing a wig, and is older than he appears. He invites her to come riding with them, and Connie is mesmerized by his incantatory words. He knows intimate details of her life that no stranger could know and threatens her family, and she feels helpless to resist him. She opens the door to a “land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.”

As usual with a Joyce Carol Oates story, this one seems carefully planned and calculated. In my opinion, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty have done this “mysterious stranger” type story much better, and indeed, Oates owes them both a great debt here. However, it is a very “teachable” story, probably because it is so calculated. And the film, with Laura Dern as Connie and Treat Williams as Arnold Friend, is a particularly effective adaptation. Mary Kay Place plays the role of Connie’s mother, and Levon Helm plays her father.

Both the story and the film are divided into two parts: the establishment of Connie as a character, the typicality of her life as a young girl just getting ready for high school and just getting nervously but romantically ready for sex, and the dramatic, dreamy encounter with Arnold Friend. Laura Dern looks too old to play a 15-year-old, but Oates says she seems so perfect for the role that she may come to think that she modeled the fictitious girl on Dern.

Whereas the dramatic encounter occupies most of the story, the background story of Connie and her friends and her parents occupies most of the film. The film focuses more on the mother’s relationship with the daughter than the story does, for the mother knows what stage the daughter is now entering and both fears for her and is envious of her. The tension between fantasy and romance and reality occupies both mother and daughter.

The music of James Taylor, especially the song “Handy Man” serves as background. There is one particularly effective scene of Connie and her two girl friends at the Mall, with Taylor singing “Is That The Way You Look?” in the background. The girls engage in little play-acting games over the boys they see at the Mall. Cole and Chopra effectively dramatize the tension between childish playing and more serious sexual games here.

The arrival of Arnold Friend in his convertible with his little sidekick Ellie confronts Connie with an embodiment of what her mother calls her “trashy daydreams.” What Oates does in this scene is create a sense of supernatural invasion, even as we feel we are watching a realistic encounter. When Connie tells Friend “You’re not saying these tings. Nobody talks like that,” we feel she somehow seems aware that he does not occupy the same world that she does, but that somehow she has called him into existence by her own mixed desires. Oates calls the technique, one she uses often, “realistic allegory.”

Friend’s language, telling Connie “The place where you come from isn’t there anymore” and “This place is just a cardboard box,” draws attention to himself as a fictional character. What Oates calls “realistic allegory” was pioneered by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe, for in their stories we have characters who seem to be “as if real” encountering characters who seem purely fictional or allegorical. Melville’s Bartleby is such an allegorical figure in an “as if real” world, as is Poe’s Roderick Usher.

Oates ends her story with Connie being led out of her house into the “vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him,” an ending she says is impossible to transfigure into film.

And indeed, Cole and Chopra end the film more realistically, as Connie goes off with Friend in his convertible, which we see parked empty in an open field. He then brings her back home to her family. Her father seems oblivious as usual, while the mother, who senses Connie’s transition, hugs her. The film ends with Connie and her sister June. When June asks her what happened today, she says, “I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t go. Maybe I’m going out of my mind. It didn’t even happen.” Then she plays “Handy Man” on the phonograph and they dance, Connie asking June, “You still like that song?”

Short stories do not often translate well into full-length feature films, for film often has to provide more motivation than a story does. And indeed, the expanded expository first part of the film makes the story much more about Connie and her mother than the original story does. Moreover, the film makes it easier to discount this as a simple “date rape” seduction film. But, the screenwriter Cole and the director Chopra try very hard to maintain the ambiguity of reality/unreality that Oates, who has learned well from her betters O’Connor and Welty, constructs in the story.

I created and used to teach a course entitled “Short Fiction/Short Film” and a course entitled “Theory of Fiction and Film.” I will talk more about the problem of adaptation of short fiction to film in subsequent posts as the occasion arises. I am sorry that the occasion for this post was the death of the screenwriter Tom Cole.

In pace requiescat

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Brief Bibliography of Short Story Criticism and Theory

Lee has asked if I would post some suggestions for reading more theory and criticism of the short story. Here are some annotated entries, followed by a brief discussion of more recent books and essays. I am not listing my own books and essays, except for Short Story Theories and The New Short Story Theories, which include many essays by other short-story writers and critics.

Bowen, Elizabeth. "The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories." The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories. London: Faber and Faber, 1936. Bowen suggests that the short story, because it is exempt from the novel's often forced conclusiveness, more often approaches aesthetic and moral truth. She also suggests that the short story, more than the novel, is able to place man alone on that "stage which, inwardly, every man is conscious of occupying alone."

Brown, Suzanne Hunter. "Discourse Analysis and the Short Story," In Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, eds. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989, pp. 217-248. A helpful analytical survey of the research currently being carried on by psychologists into the nature of discourse, storyness, and cognitive response to narrative

Cortázar, Julio, "Some Aspects of the Short Story," The Arizona Quarterly, Spring, 1982, pp. 5-17. A discussion of the invariable elements that give a good short story its particular atmosphere. Says the novel and the short story can be compared to the film and the photograph. Says the short story's most significant element is its subject, the act of choosing a real or imaginary happening that has the mysterious property of illuminating something beyond itself.

Ferguson, Suzanne C. "Defining the Short story: Impressionism and Form," Modern Fiction Studies, 28 (Spring 1982), 13-24. Argues that there is no single characteristic or cluster of characteristics that distinguish the short story from the novel; suggests that what we call the modern short story is a manifestation of impressionism rather than a discrete genre.

Gordimer, Nadine. "South Africa." Kenyon Review, 30 (1968), 457-61. The strongest convention of the novel, its prolonged coherence of tone, is false to the nature of what can be grasped as reality in the modern world. Short-story writers deal with the only thing one can be sure of--the present moment.

Hanson, Clare, "Things out of Words: Towards a Poetics of Short Fiction," In Re-reading the Short Story, ed. Clare Hanson. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989, pp. 22--33. Argues that the short story is a more literary form than the novel; also claims that short stories are framed, an aesthetic device which gives the sense of completeness that allows gaps and absences to remain in the story; thus we accept a degree of mystery or elision in the short story which we would not accept in the novel.

Jarrell, Randall. "Stories." The Anchor Book of Stories. New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1958. Jarrell's introduction to this collection focuses on stories as being closer to dream reality than the waking world of everyday. There are two kinds of stories: stories-in-which-everything-is-a-happening (in which each event is so charged that the narrative threatens to disintegrate into energy) and stories-in-which-nothing-happens (in which even the climax may lose its charge and become one more portion of a lyric continuum).

Kenyon Review International Symposium on the short Story. Contributions from short story writers from all over the world on the nature of the form, its current economic status, its history, and its significance. Part I, 30 Issue 4, pp. 443-90. Part II, 31, Issue I, pp. 58-94. Part III, 31, Issue 4, 1969, pp. 450-502. Part IV, 32, Issue I, pp. 78-108.

Lewis, C.S. "On Stories." Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed. C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1966, pp. 90-105. Although stories are series of events, this series, or what we call plot, is only a necessary means to capture something that has no sequence, something more like a state or quality. Thus, the means of "story" is always at war with its "end." However, this very tension constitutes story's chief resemblance to life. "We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied."

Luscher, Robert M. "The Short story Sequence: An Open Book," In Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, eds. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989, pp. 148-67. Discusses the need for readers of story cycles such as Winesburg, Ohio to extend their drive to find pattern to cover a number of individual sequences. Compares story cycles with mere aggregates of stories as well as with novelistic sequences.

Marler, Robert F. "From Tale to Short Story: The Emergence of a New Genre in the 1850's." American Literature, 46 (1974), 153-69. Using Northrop Frye's distinction between the tale (embodies "stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes") and the short story (deals with characters who wear their "personae or social masks"), Marler surveys the critical condemnation of the tale form and the increasing emphasis on realism in the 1850's. The broad shift is from Poe's overt romance to Melville's mimetic portrayals, especially in "Bartleby, the Scrivener."

Moravia, Alberto. "The Short Story and the Novel." Man as End: A Defense of Humanism. Trans. Bernard Wall. New York; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1969. The basic difference between the novel and the short story is that the novel has a bone structure of ideological themes whereas the short story is made up of intuitions of feelings.

O'Connor, Flannery. "Writing Short Stories." Mystery and Manners, eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969, pp. 87-106. In this lecture at a Southern Writers Conference, O'Connor discusses the two qualities necessary for the short story: "sense of manners," which one gets from the texture of his immediate surroundings; and "sense of mystery," which is always the mystery of personality--"showing how some specific folks will do, in spite of everything."

O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1963. The introductory chapter is extremely valuable "intuitive" criticism by an accomplished master of the short story. The basic difference between the novel and the short story is that in the latter we always find an intense awareness of human loneliness. O'Connor feels that the protagonist of the short story is less an individual with whom the reader can identify than a "submerged population group"; that is, someone outside the social mainstream. The remaining chapters of the book treat this theme in Turgenev, Chekhov, Maupassant, Kipling, Joyce, Mansfield, Lawrence, Coppard, Babel, and Mary Lavin.

Pratt, Mary Louise. "The Short Story: The Long and the Short of It," Poetics, 10 (1981), 175-94. A theoretical discussion of the form; presents eight ways that the short story is better understood if its dependence on the novel is understood.

Prichett, V.S. "Short Stories." Harper's Bazaar, 87 (July 1953), 31, 113. The short story is a hybrid, owing much to the quickness and objectivity of the cinema, much to the poet and the newspaper reporter, and everything to the "restlessness, the alert nerve, the scientific eye and the short breath of contemporary life." Makes an interesting point about the collapse of standards, conventions and values that has so bewildered the impersonal novelist but has been the making of the story-writer.

Trask, Georgianne, and Charles Burkhart, ed. Storytellers and Their Art. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1963. A valuable collection of comments on the short story form by practitioners from Chekhov to Capote. See especially Part I: "Definitions of the Short Story" and "Short Story vs. Novel," pp. 3-30.

Welty, Eudora. "The Reading and Writing of Short Stories." The Atlantic Monthly, February 1949, pp. 54-58; March 1949, pp. 46-49. An impressionistic, but suggestive, essay in two installments that focuses on the mystery of story, on the fact that we cannot always see the solid outlines of story because of the atmosphere it generates.

Austen Wright. "Recalcitrance in the Short Story," In Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, eds. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989, pp. 115-129. A discussion of stories with endings that resist the reader's efforts to assimilate them and to make sense of them as a whole. Such final recalcitrance, Wright claims, is the extreme kind of resistance that the short story has developed to thwart final closure and reduce the complexity of the story to a conceptual understanding.

Some Additional Comments and More Recent Entries:

The most important book on the short story published in the 1980s is Susan Lohafer's Coming to Terms with the Short Story, a sophisticated and engaging discussion of how the narrative rhythm of the short story uniquely engaged the reader's attention. In this book, Lohafer introduced her concept of "preclosure," which she has further explored and developed in her most recent book, Reading for Storyness, published in 2003.

Collections of essays on the short story published during the 1980s include The Teller and the Tale, edited by Wendell Aycock, and Re-Reading the Short Story, edited by Clare Hanson, both of which include original essays on a number of aspects of the form. The most important collections of theoretical essays on the form in the 1980s are the special issue of Modern Fiction Studies published in 1982 and Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, edited by Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellen Clarey in 1989. The Modern Fiction Studies special issue is especially notable for two suggestive essays: Suzanne Hunter Brown's discussion of two readings of a section from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles, which argues that we read identical texts differently depending on what genre frame of expectations we bring to them, and Suzanne Ferguson's argument that the modern short story is not a discrete genre, different from the sketch and tale that went before it, but rather a manifestation of the techniques and assumptions of literary impressionism.

Both Brown and Ferguson also have essays in Lohafer and Clarey's Short Story Theory At a Crossroads--Ferguson showing how social factors influenced the rise and fall of the prestige of the short story, and Brown providing a helpful analytical survey of research being done by psychologists of discourse on the nature of storyness and cognitive responses to literature. Also included in this volume are essays by: Norman Friedman, who reviews and critiques a number of contemporary theorists; Mary Rohrberger, who disagrees with Friedman's strictly scientific approach to a definition of the form; and Austin Wright who argues for a formalist view of genre as a cluster of conventions.

In 1993, a special issue of the journal Style was devoted to the modern short story, featuring essays on oral narratives, the epiphany, and the nature of reality in the modern short story. In 1997 and 1998, two collections of essays by various critics were devoted to the short story: Creative and Critical Approaches to the Short Story, edited by Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr., and Tales We Tell: Perspectives on the Short Story, edited by Barbara Lounsberry, Susan Lohafer, Mary Rohrberger, Stephen Pett, and R. C. Feddersen. In these books, the best-known short-story critics and theorists, such as Lohafer, Suzanne Ferguson, Austin Wright, and Mary Rohrberger were joined by new critics of the short story such as John Gerlach, Ian Reid, Susan Rochette-Crawley, Hilary Siebert, and Suzanne Hunter Brown. The journal Studies in Short Fiction published a special issue on the theory of the short story in 1996, with essays on the theory of the short story, as well as essays on temporality and short story and the nature of minimalism.

The form has also enjoyed considerable attention in Canada and Europe in the last few years. The Wascana Review, at the University of Regina, published a special issue devoted to the contemporary short story in 2003, while the British Yearbook of English Studies issued a special issue in 2001 on North American Short Stories and Short Fictions. In 2004, a collection of essays on short fiction theory and analysis entitled The Art of Brevity featured papers presented at an international conference on the form in Oslo. More recently, a volume entitled Contemporary Debates on the Short Story, containing essays collected by Spanish editors on the short story appeared in 2007, while Canadian scholars released a collection of essays on Postcolonial short fiction in 2007 entitled Tropes and Territories.

A number of significant book-length studies of the short story appeared in the 1990s. Domenic Head's book The Modernist Short Story (1992) discusses the modern short story from a Bakhtinian approach, arguing that the form's stress on literary artifice makes it most amenable to modernist experimentation. However, Head complains that short story theory has largely been determined by an oversimplified perception of modernist practice and urges critics to go beyond what he calls the "visual artifact aesthetic" or the "unity aesthetic" that has dominated criticism of the form since Poe. Although Head makes valuable contributions to short story theory, his insistence on some nebulous connection between literary form and social context and his consequent effort to apply currently fashionable sociological theories to the short story prevent him from developing an approach consistent with the short story's unique generic characteristics. It is not helpful to dismiss all previous commentary on the short story by authors and critics as wrong simply because the commentary is not currently fashionable

Andrew Levy in The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (1993) explains how the short story reflected American values throughout its historical development. Kirk Curnutt's Wise Economies: Brevity and Storytelling in American Short Stories (1997) is an extended study of the issue of brevity in the short story, with chapters on a number of important American writers, discussing how stylistic economy is an important evolving aesthetic tactic in the short story that continually redefined how readers had to form interpretations of the short story.

My own collection, Short Story Theories, was reissued in a new, extensively revised, edition in 1994, entitled The New Short Story Theories. The collection included important essays on the theory of short fiction by Mary Louise Pratt, Wendell V. Harris, Robert F. Marler, Susan Lohafer, and Suzanne Ferguson, as well as discussions of the form by such writers as Julio Cortázar, Nadine Gordimer, Elizabeth Bowen, and Raymond Carver.

As an indication of the continuing interest in the short story both by practicing writers and by classroom teachers, two books of interviews and practical essays appeared in the late 1990s. Speaking of the Short Story, edited by Farhat Iftekharuddin, Mary Rohrberger, and Maurice Lee (1997), featured interviews with Isabel Allende, Bharati Murkerjee, Leslie Marmon Silko, Richard Ford, and Rudolfo A. Anaya. Short Stories in the Classroom, edited by Carole L. Hamilton and Peter Kratzke (1999), includes brief essays by a number of teachers and critics, providing practical suggestions about teaching the short story from a wide variety of critical and pedagogical perspectives.

I may have forfotten some important pieces, but will add them in subsequent posts as I recollect them.