Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Short Story Trumps the Novel in National Book Award Anniversary Poll

The National Book Award is celebrating its 60th anniversary by conducting a poll to determine the “Best of the National Book Award in Fiction” since the award for fiction was first given in 1950. During that sixty-year period, seventy-one books won the award (Some years, an award was given for best fiction in paperback as well as hardback.) One hundred and forty writers from across the country then chose the six best of the best.

And the good news for lovers of the short story is that of those six, four, I repeat, four, were short story collections!

I am, of course, delighted with this result, although, since the choice was made by other writers, I am not surprised. Writers value, above all things, good writing, and, as I have always preached to my students and anyone else who would listen, the best writing is often to be found in the short story. It is no accident that the majority of passages selected for analysis in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer are from short stories.

Short story writers, I think, are just more focused on the word and the sentence than novelists, who are more apt to think in macrocosmic terms of plot and character and perhaps be a little careless about the microcosmic elements of diction and syntax. The short story depends on form, on language, on rhythm to create a shimmering shape that rewards the careful reader with revelations about the subtlety and complexity of human experience that the novel often neglects or ignores.

If you would like to vote on which of the six books is the best of the best, go to:

The six nominated books are:

The Collected Stories of William Faulkner, 1951

Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, 1953

Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, 1972

Thomas Pyncheon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 1974

Stories of John Cheever, 1981

Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, 1983

Over the sixty-year history of the award, twelve out of seventy-one awards for fiction have gone to short story collections. The remaining eight are:

Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel, 1959

Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus, 1960

The Collected Stories of Katherine Ann Porter, 1966

John Barth, Chimera, 1973

Isaac B. Singer, Crown of Feathers, 1974

Ellen Gilchrist, Victory Over Japan, 1984

Bob Shacochis, Easy in the Islands, 1985

Andrea Barret, Ship Fever, 1996

Since they announced this poll, The National Book Award has posted a blog each day, with comments by various writers, on the seventy-one books that have won for fiction. You can read the blogs at:

Visit the poll and vote for your favorite. Although I think Flannery O’Conner will win, my vote went to Eudora Welty, who is every bit as complex as O’Connor, just not obviously so.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Edwidge Danticat and Deborah Eisenberg Win MacArthur "Genuis" grants

Congratulations to Edwidge Danticat and Deborah Eisenberg for being awarded MacArthur Awards (so-called “Genius” grants) this week. They are the only two authors among the twenty-four winners. Each will receive $500,000 over the next five years, to, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, “do with as they please.”

I am pleased that both authors are well known for their short-story collections. Danticat’s first, Krik? Krak!” was very well reviewed, and Eisenberg’s several collections, including her most recent, Twilight of the Superheroes, place her among the top half dozen short story writers currently practicing that underrated art.

The short story’s lack of room to ruminate about so-called “big” socio-political issues is one reason the form is not popular with so-called “serious” critics who prefer genres that generalize. The kind of complexity that fascinates masters of the short story is not captured by using more and more words but by using just the right ones. Good stories, like good poems, don’t pontificate
The best stories of Deborah Eisenberg, who has been called a master of the form, reflect her continuing conscientious effort to provide a structure and a syntax for feelings unspeakable until just the right rhythm makes what was loose and lying around inside clench and cluster into a meaningful pattern.

In “Some Other, Better Otto,” in Twilight of the Superheroes, the central character is so self negating, so full of doubt and dubiousness that you just want to smack him. But you know he can’t help it, that of all his possible selves he cannot quite seem to find that other, better one that would make his life full and complete. However, what great short story writers like Eisenberg wisely know is that there is no unified self, only rare moments of recognition, evanescent contacts of communication.

South African writer Nadine Gordimer once said that the novel is often bound to a consistency that does not convey the true quality of human life, “where contact is more like the flash of fireflies.” Short-story writers, Gordimer says, “see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.”

In “Like It or Not,” also in Superheroes, a divorced Midwestern high school biology teacher visits a sophisticated friend in Italy and is expertly guided about by a polished and knowledgeable European man. Like a delicate Jamesian romance, nothing much happens but much is immanent. Its not just that the man feels he is getting older or that the woman feels insecurely empty, but, rather, as the man tells a young woman they encounter in a hotel, “It’s quite mysterious, what attracts one human being to another.” This is the kind of mystery that great short-story writers, such as Chekhov, have always struggled with. As the central character of his brilliant story “Lady with the Pet Dog” inchoately understands, people have two lives, one open and known by all who cared to know, and another life, running its course in secret.

Eisenberg is indeed a master of the short story. She succeeds much more often than she fails because she brilliantly exploits what the form does best. It’s only when she seems to be seduced by the public demand for the novelistic that she breaks faith with the great masters who have preceded her.

After earning enough money by driving cab and working as a laborer, Edwidge Danticat’s parents brought her to the U.S when she was twelve. Her first book Breath, Eyes, Memory, a novel about four generations of Haitian women, was published in 1994, when she was twenty five, after earning an undergraduate degree at Barnard College and a Master of Fine Arts degree at Brown University. Widely praised, it was picked by Oprah Winfrey’s book club and stayed on the bestseller lists for a short time. Krik? Krak! was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995.

The title of Edwidge Danticat’s first collection of nine stories, mostly about young women growing up under an oppressive regime in Haiti and trying to create a new home in America, comes from an African storytelling call-and-response tradition recounted in the first story, “Children of the Sea.” Someone asks Krik? which inquires if the audience wishes to hear a story, and the listeners emphatically answer Krak!, which means, “yes.”

A central theme in Krik? Krak! focuses on storytelling as a way to heal past psychic injuries and to create a sense of community. The refugees on the boat in “Children of the Sea” tell stories to help them cope with the possibility of imminent death, and the townspeople in “Wall of Fire Rising” sit around a blank television screen after the authorities have turned off the state-sponsored newscasts and tell stories. The mother tells her son stories in “Night Women” to help him deal with his fear and her prostitution.

Danticat has said that she hopes that the female storytellers she grew up with will tell their stories through her. “Epilogue: Women Like Us” is a meditation about women and writing. In the world she came from, the narrator says, women who write are called lying whores, and then raped and killed. Writers are politicians who are sent to prison, covered in hot tar and forced to eat their own waste. She concludes that her book is a testament to the way that these women lived and died and lived again.

If you have not discovered Danticat and Eisenberg, I recommend both very highly. They are quite different writers, in style and focus, but they are both very fine short-story writers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Carver's Collected Stories and the Gordon Lish Controversy

The recent release by Library of America of Raymond Carver’s Collected Stories has once more raised the issue of just how much of Carver’s first two collections, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, (1981) were Carver’s and how much were the result of the editing of Gordon Lish.

This is old news. Eleven years ago, D. T. Max did a long piece for the New York Times magazine entitled “The Carver Chronicles,” for which he examined the manuscripts of stories edited by Lish in the Lily Library at Indiana University. You can read the piece at:

The accepted mythos about the difference between Carver’s bleak first two collections and “his more generous” last two, Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From, is that he stopped drinking and met Tess Gallagher. It is a story that Gallagher herself has defended.

However, as D. T. Max’s study of the manuscripts at the Lilly Library attest, the real difference between early Carver and late Carver has to do with Gordon Lish, who published Carver’s first story in Esquire and his first book at Knopf. As one example, Max describes how Lish took Carver’s simple anecdote about a waitress reflecting on her encounter with a fat man in her restaurant and transformed it into the haunting story, “Fat” that opens Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

I have not seen the original “Fat,” but have taught the Lish edited version that appeared in Carver’s first book many times. Here are some of my notes for teaching that story:

The challenge in reading “Fat” is trying to determine what the narrator actually sees in the fat man and trying to determine why he is so strange--his fatness, his puffing, his use of the royal “we.”

The other characters try to use terms such as “a fatty” to reduce him, simplify him, stereotype him. The narrator cannot do this. Is there something special about her? The thing about a storyteller is: Some things seem to them to be significant, meaningful things that seem just weird or ordinary to non-storytellers. “Fat” is a story about a storyteller trying to tell a story in such a way that the teller and the listener understands that significance. The narrator says, “I know I was after something. But I don’t know what.”

She says, “Rudy, he is fat, I saw, but that is not the whole story.”
The problem is:
What is the whole story?

When the fat man says Thank you, she says, “’You are very welcome,’ and a feeling comes over me,” we ask: What is the feeling?

Rita says, “This story’s getting interesting now,” just after the narrator quotes the fat man as saying, “No, if we had our choice, but there is no choice.” But the narrator says this is when the story is over. It sounds as if we are going to get the background, the motivation, the reason he is so fat. But the storyteller is not interested in where he is from or why he is what he is. Cause is not the issue here.

Why does she say, “waiting for what?” Why does she feel her life is going to change? Is this a genuine feeling or a bogus one? What does one have to do to make a change in one’s life? Why would the fat man stimulate the change? She doesn’t want to be fat. She doesn’t want to say, “There is no choice.” What kind of change does she face? She sees the fat man as one who is trapped in his own flesh. We are all caught within our flesh. But just to be the physical presence that we are--does that mean we are so limited within ourselves?

The fat man’s fatness is just a reminder of that trap of the flesh. The storyteller knows he is trapped. Why does she feel terrifically fat when Rudy is on top of her? Why is he so small? Is it good that she feels fat? Is it a negative that Rudy seems so small?

"Fat” explores both the positive and negative sides of the flesh and the body. If we lived in a world of sacred reality, the fat man would be a god. But living in the world of the physical and the real, he is trapped in his flesh.

Rita says it is a funny story; the storyteller says, “I can see she doesn’t know what to make of it.”

I do not know what Carver’s original version meant, if anything, but Lish’s edited version is a haunting story about the mysterious universal reality of flesh and the spirit.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was very well received by critics and nominated for the National Book Award. Carver won a Guggenheim and was hired to teach at Syracuse University. There is little doubt that this reception was due in no small part to the editing of Lish.

It was when Carver began putting together his second book, which he wanted to call Beginners, that he started to object to Lish’s editing. Carver wrote to Lish and asked to be let out of his contract with Knopf because of the way that Lish had transformed Beginners into What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Carver wrote to Lish:

Maybe if I were alone, by myself, and no one had ever seen these stories, maybe then, knowing that your versions are better than some of the ones I sent, maybe I could get into this and go with it…. Tess has seen all of these and gone over them closely. Donald Hall has seen many of the new ones…and Richard Ford, Toby Wolff, Geoffrey Wolff, too, some of them… How can I explain to these fellows when I see them, as I will see them, what happened…Please, Gordon, for God’s sake help me in this and try to understand…I’ve got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I’ve been up all night thinking on this…I’ll say it again, if I have any standing or reputation or credibility in the world, I owe it to you. I owe you this more-or-less pretty interesting life I have [but] I can’t take the risk as to what might happen to me…. My very sanity is on the line here. I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another book.”

Well, Lish had his way with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. However, ironically, the book so solidified Carver’s reputation that when he begged Lish not to make any severe changes in his third book Cathedral, Lish had to give in, although he was not happy about it and wanted to make his contribution to Carver’s work public. He was advised by friends, such as Don DeLillo, to keep quiet—that Carver was already too much loved, that it would make reading his work too ambiguous, that readers would resent Lish for complicating the reading of his work.

All this can be read in D. T. Max’s piece, so the revelations in the new Library of America volume are not really new. However, because of recent reviews in The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, which focus almost entirely on the fact that the book contains both the Lish-edited versions of Carver’s stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love alongside the stories as Carver originally wrote them in the collection Beginners, the debate has been raised again more publicly.

The review in the Wall Street Journal by David Propson and the review in The Los Angeles Times by David Ulin sum up rather nicely the different opinions about which of Carver’s stories are the best—Lish or non-Lish.

Propson says: “One measure of Mr. Carver’s achievement is that, before his career was lamentably cut short, he found a more mature sensibility than the minimalist posturing that Mr. Lish had imposed on his work.” After breaking with Lish, Propson says, in Cathedral, Carver’s work loses its chilly edge, an “appealing development,” with a “newfound sense of generosity and even humor on display.”

David Ulin believes that the pared-down Lish versions of many of the stories are better than the original stories, although he believes that the restored version of “A Small Good Thing,” which appeared in Cathedral is a much better story than the Lish-edited version,“ The Bath,” which appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

In my opinion, anyone who calls Carver's stories in his first two collections "posturing" or suggests that his later stories are more "mature" just wants short stories to read more like novels, with lots of rumination, explanation, exposition, sentimentality, and mere detail.

The issue gets complicated by non-literary matters. Not many people seem to like Gordon Lish, especially for his high-handed attempt to hijack Carver’s work, work—work that he obviously recognized as very promising, work he perhaps could not write himself. However, everyone seems to love Carver. He just comes across as a big huggable, bear like sort of guy.

I like Carver’s stories very much. I remember in 1981 when I first discovered him. Someone asked me to review What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I had never read Carver before, but was so amazed and delighted with his stories that I later read everything he wrote. I taught upper division seminars on Carver’s work several times, covering all of his fiction—from his amateurish undergraduate stories written at Sacramento State and Humboldt State in California up to his very fine tribute to Chekhov, “The Errand.”

As I have written before in this blog, I think many of Carver’s Lish-edited stories are better than many of the longer, “more generous” stories in Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From. However, I also like the later Carver stories. I am just not sure that Carver could have written them without the earlier editing by Lish. The fact that Lish helped Carver hone his craft by editing it does not take away Carver’s art for me. I think Carver is one of the best short-story writers of the twentieth century. But I am not sure he would have made it without the initial help of Gordon Lish.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Word from Tamar Yellin, and a Word about Spatial vs. Temporal Form in the Short Story

After posting my last blog on Tamar Yellin’s Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, I had some reservations about my supposition that she had written the stories as separate entities and then was convinced by her publisher to find a connecting thread that would make the book marketable as a novel.

So, I did something I seldom do; I wrote to her directly and asked her about the organization of the book. She was very kind to respond to my query. I reprint below her response:

Thank you for getting in touch and for your review. I appreciate it. The book was conceived as written - as a hybrid form between the novel and the short story collection, a form my friend the writer Zoran Zivkovic (who has written many of them) terms a 'mosaic novel.' In this form the stories can stand alone and have the necessary weight to do so, but are bound together (often by the final story) into a whole intended to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The theme of the ten lost tribes informed all the stories and they were written in sequence, with their epigraphs, as a complete work. Quite careful attention needs to be paid to the epigraphs in order to pick up on the thematic narratives that run through them and illuminate both the stories and the book as a whole. However, with a few exceptions, there is no deliberate connection between each story and its epigraphs; I wished to be as subtle as possible.
I t never occurred to me that readers would not realise that the narrator is the same throughout.
I agree that the short story form places greater demands upon the reader and that this is one of the main reasons short story collections don't sell as well as novels.”

I must say, I like the metaphor of a “mosaic” more than I do the usual metaphor of linked stories as a “short story cycle” or as a “composite novel.” For the word, suggesting as it does parts interlinking spatially rather than temporally, is more hospitable to the short story as a form. The short story as an individual artistic unit is more apt to depend on spatial organization than temporal organization, it seems to me.

However, I have trouble thinking of a group of related short stories as a "novel." I am still convinced that short stories are very different than chapters, and that if read as chapters, they will not be appreciated or understood as they should be.

Alice Munro once said that when she reads a story she does not take it up at the beginning and follow it like a road “with views and neat diversions along the way.” Rather, for her, reading a story is like moving through a house, making connections between one enclosed space and another. Consequently, Munro declares, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.” At another time, she said, “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well. There has to be a feeling in the story.”

Now that I am trying to write fiction on a more regular basis, I am finding that I am less concerned with telling a story in a linear fashion than I am with constructing a significant spatial entity out of various parts that seems to “go together.” The real problem is how to find/create feeling out of the spatial relationship between the various parts of the story.

I would be happy to hear from writers who read this blog about their own experience with the spatial versus the temporal construction of the short story.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tamar Yellin's "Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes": Organizing Short Story Collections

Tamar Yellin’s second collection of stories, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, was published earlier this year by The Toby Press and has recently come out in paperback. I just had a chance to read it. I have not read her first collection Kafka in Bronteland and Other Stories, so her work is new to me.

I like her stories. They are tightly, thematically organized, as is typical of the well-made Chekhovian short story. They seem perfect paradigms of Frank O’Connor’s thesis in his book The Lonely Voice that the short story often focuses on a “submerged population group,” by which he means a character who is cut off from the mainstream of society and thus who must define himself or herself existentially in crisis moments.

I recommend this collection of stories for their individual emphases on characters who search for something intangible that always lies just beyond their reach—a special language, a special book, a perfect narrative, a homeland, etc.

However, the issue I would like to raise in this blog entry is the author’s effort to organize a collection of stories into a book. What Yellin does is give the names of one of the lost tribes of Israel to each one of her stories and to preface each story with quotes from various historians and theologians about the lost tribes.

I don’t think that Yellin wrote the stories specifically to fit this overall structure. I think she wrote the stories as individual stand-alone stories and then, finding she had enough for a book, faced the usual publisher’s demand that collections of stories have an organizing structure so that it can be marketed as if it were a novel, or at least that the publisher can leave off the subhead “And Other Stories” from the cover.

Most all the stories have a first-person narrator, and the progress of the stories move from a young child through a young student to a teacher to an older person—as if the narrator were the same for each story, thus making the book simulate the coming-of-age novel. However, curiously, the narrator is never named, and, even more curious, the gender of the narrator is never made clear, although some stories strongly suggest a female narrator.

One could make the case that the lack of name and gender of the narrator universalizes the voice and throws the most emphasis on the character with whom she/he comes in contact, for most all the stories focus on an obsessed character that the narrator encounters. But I am not sure about this.

The striking exception is the last story, which seems very obviously a version of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, with the narrator playing the Marlowe role, going up river to try to find a mysterious, somewhat magical, figure who is possibly the quintessential Wandering Jew. Since the narrator never finds the figure, the focus here is solely on the narrator.

Yellin’s short story collections have not, as far as I can tell, sold widely, nor have they been widely reviewed, especially in the United States. They may have been reviewed more widely in the United Kingdom, for she lives in Yorkshire. If you are interested, she has a website at

If you have not run across Yellin, I recommend her to you. In an interview that is available online, she has said she is more comfortable with the short story than the novel, for she likes every word and sentence to have weight. “When I write stories I can be as brief as I like. And yet a short story can embrace an entire life, an entire universe.”

She also says a story is not worth telling unless it has some deeper meaning. I agree completely. Any writer who thinks this highly of the short story and continues to write them even though her publisher may strongly encourage her to write novels, or at least to make her story collections promotable as novels, is usually worth reading, as far as I am concerned.

The general issue Yellin’s book raises, an issue I have talked about before, is the difference between a chapter in a novel and a story in an organized collection. In my opinion, short stories differ from chapters in novels in that each short story demands a more careful attention and a closer reading than chapters in novels usually do, since the chapter is merely a part of a whole, whereas a short story must stand completely alone as an individually organized narrative entity.

One reason that short stories do not sell as well as novels is this individual demand that each story makes on the reader. If the stories are good stories, linking them together under some overarching rubric will not eliminate this demand; you still will not be able to read them as if they were chapters. And if you can read them as if they were chapters, they are either not very good short stories or else you are not reading them carefully. As usual, I would appreciate any reaction to my polemics. I have been at this long enough to be hardheaded about it, but not so long that I cannot learn from others.