Friday, February 27, 2009

What Draws Some Writers to the Short Story?--Barthelme and O'Connor

The pressure on writers by agents, editors, and critics to abandon the short story as soon as possible and do something serious with their lives--such as write a novel--is unrelenting. This narrative bias that bigger is better persists in spite of the fact that the faithful few who have largely ignored it are among the most critically acclaimed writers of the twentieth century: Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O'Connor, Peter Taylor, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver.

Two new biographies released in the last couple of weeks remind us of this fact and raise a central issue about the short story that I would like to discuss briefly, as usual, hoping to create some conversation among my readers.

Both Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme, by Tracy Daugherty (St. Martin’s Press) and Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch (Little, Brown) have been reviewed in many of the “high places”: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, etc., reminding us of two writers who, although they wrote the occasional novel, specialized in the short story.

So what does it mean to specialize in the short story? Is there something about the craft or technique of the short story that attracts certain writers? Or is there something about the thematic focus of the short story that seems special to the form and irresistible to certain writers?

The short story's dependence on a tightly controlled structure rather than a linear plot and mimetic methods has been one of its central aesthetic characteristic since Poe adapted from Augustus William Schlegel a new meaning of the term plot as being "that from which no part can be displaced without ruin to the whole." By this one stroke, Poe shifted the reader's narrative focus from mimetic events to aesthetic pattern. However, the short story’s dependence on formal unity is not simply a product of Edgar Allan Poe's obsessive imagination, but rather a conventional characteristic deriving from the genre’s ancestry in myth and folklore.

As Frederic Jameson has reminded us, short tales have a kind of "atemporal and object-like unity in the way they convert existence into a sudden coincidence between two systems: a resolution of multiplicity into unity, or a fulfillment of a single wish.” It is a basic human wish that the short story perhaps fulfills better than the novel. According to Hayden White, we desire to have real events “display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams, reveries.”

Many years ago I argued that the short story “way of seeing” was like that which Ernst Cassirer says characterizes perceiving the world in a mythic way, for it means not distinguishing objective characters, but rather “physiognomic characters.” In this realm, says Cassirer, we cannot speak of things as dead or indifferent stuff, but all “objects are benign or malignant, friendly or inimical, familiar or uncanny, alluring and fascinating or repellent and threatening.” As Cassirer has suggested, the basis for the “short-story way of seeing” is not a substratum of thought but of feeling. This is also what John Dewey means by the difference between “experience” and “an experience.” An emotionally charged experience phenomenologically encountered, rather than "experience" discursively understood, is the primary focus of the modern short story, and, as Dewey makes clear, "an experience" is recognized as such precisely because it has a unity, "a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts.”

Rather than plot or ideology, what unifies the short story is an atmosphere, a certain tone of significance. As Alberto Moravia has noted, when Chekhov tried his hand at a novel he was less gifted and convincing than he was with the short story. If you look at Chekhov’s long stories, says Moravia, you feel a lack of something that makes a novel, even a bad novel, a novel, for in them Chekhov dilutes his “concentrated lyrical feeling with superfluous plots lacking intrinsic necessity.” The very qualities that makes him a great short story writer become defects when Chekhov tackles a novel.

In his biography, Gooch says that O’Connor’s two novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away do not hold up as well as do her stories because O’Connor was not a novelist, but rather, as David Ulin echoes in his Los Angeles Times review, “perhaps the greatest 20th century American practitioner of the short story.”

So what made O’Connor stick to, and succeed in, the short story? Was it the formal control of the short story that appealed to her, or did her particular vision seem most appropriate to the short story?

Tracy Daugherty reminds us that although Donald Barthelme wrote novels and plays, he is still best known for his short stories.” The short story’s appeal to Barthleme is perhaps suggested by Menand, who reminds us in his New Yorker review that Barthelme thought the goal of writing was “access to the ineffable,” saying in a fiction seminar in 1975, “I believe that’s the place artists are trying to get to, and I further believe that when they are successful they reach it…an area somewhere probably between mathematics and religion, in which what may fairly be called truth exists.”

To understand what Barthelme attempted in his fiction; we should remember the pervasive postmodernist view that underlies it. For Barthelme, as well as for Robert Coover, John Barth, and William H. Gass, what is considered everyday reality is the result of a fiction-making process; reality is not so much ‘out there’ as it is created out of language and language like structures of various communication media. Thus literary fictions constitute an analogue of the means by which people create what they call reality. To write fiction is to engage self-consciously in the process by which reality is constructed, for the fiction writer makes the tacit explicit.

The primary effect of this mode of thought on contemporary fiction is that the story tends to loosen its illusion of reality to explore instead the reality of its own illusion. Rather than presenting itself as if it were real—a mimetic mirroring of external realty—postmodernist fiction often made its own artistic conventions and devices the subject of the story as well as its theme. The basic problem with such fiction is that it is often called “unreadable,” for readers are unaccustomed to having those fictional conventions which are usually invisible suddenly laid bare, foregrounded, and manipulated by the author.

The short story seems a more appropriate form for Barthelme’s vision than the novel, for historically the short form has been less bound to the conventions of realism than the long form. The short story has also always been more aligned with the spatial techniques of poetry than the novel.

The basic issue overshadowing the work of Barthelme seems to me to be this: If reality is itself a process of fictional creation by metaphor-making man, then the modern writer who wishes to write about “reality” can truthfully only write about that very process. However, to write about this process is to run the risk of dealing with language on a level that leaves the reader gasping for something intangible and real, even if that reality is only an illusion.

So, what do you think? Is there a style or vision characteristic of the short story that draws certain writers to the form, in spite of the fact that their agents and publishers beg them to write novels?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Twenty-five Random Facts about the Short Story

Recently Facebook Members received "tags" listing twenty-five random facts about the sender. They were then supposed to post twenty-five random facts about themselves and send it to twenty-five others. Thousands of these tags were sent out. I received a couple. I realized I did not have twenty-five interesting facts about myself--a sobering thought. So I thought I would post twenty-five random facts about the short story (actually, not facts, but opinions about the form by various short-story writers and critics). I encourage my readers to post any opinions about the form with which they are familiar as a comment to this post. Of course, opinion about the authorial opinions would be welcome also.

Twenty-Five Random Opinions about the Short Story


1. "The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible...The type of mind that can understand [the short story] is the kind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery."
--Flannery O'Connor

2. "A tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know the operation has been performed, but everyone feels the effect."
--Rudyard Kipling

3. "In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because, because--I don't know why."
--Anton Chekhov

4. "The short story is a dream verbalized, arranged in space and presented to the world...the dream is said to be some kind of manifestation of desire, so the short story must also represent a desire, perhaps only partly expressed, but the most interesting thing about it is its mystery."
--Joyce Carol Oates

5. "Story is very close to liturgy, which is why one's children like to have the story repeated exactly as they heard it the night before. The script ought not to deviate from the prescribed form."
--Hugh Hood

6. "The novel...creates a bemusing effect. The short story, on the other hand wakes the reader up. Not only that, it answers the primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience."
--V. S. Pritchett

7. "A short story is the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry...A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has."
--William Faulkner

8. "The short story, compared with the novel, is a lonely, personal art; the lyric cry in face of human destiny, it does not deal as the novel does with types or with problems of moment, but with what Synge calls 'the profound and common interests of life'."
--Frank O'Connor

9. "Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society.... As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel--an intense awareness of human loneliness."
--Frank O'Connor

10. "The first necessity for the short story...is necessariness. The story, that is to say, must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough to have made the writer write.
--Elizabeth Bowen

11. "The first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own. It is wrapped in an atmosphere. This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initially obscures its plain, real shape.
--Eudora Welty

12. "The strongest convention of the novel, prolonged coherence of tone...is false to the nature of whatever can be grasped of human reality.... where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, not there, in darkness. Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of--the present moment." --Nadine Gordimer

13. A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents--he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect... In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one preestablished design."
--Edgar Allan Poe

14. "The real challenge is to pull as much of life as a story can bear into the fewest possible pages: to produce, if possible, that hallucinatory point in which time past and time future seems to co-exist with time present, that hallucinatory point which to me defines the good or great short story..."
--Maurice Shadbolt

15. "It's possible in a...short story to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power."
--Raymond Carver

16. "[The short story] is as if it were torn away from its cultural background." --A. W. Schlegel

17. "The short-story writer knows that he can't proceed cumulatively, that time is not his ally. His only solution is to work vertically, heading up or down in literary space."
--Julio Cortazar

18. "[The short story is] a form in which the writer makes alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe everyday, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.... Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected."
--Flannery O'Connor

19. "The belief that life is a dream and we the dreamers only dreams, which comes to us at strange, romantic, and tragic moments, what is it but a desire for the great legend, the powerful story rooted in all things which explains life to us and, understanding which, the meaning of things can be threaded through all that happens."
--Christina Stead


20. "In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied.... All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted.... In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something which is not successive."
-C. S. Lewis

21. "[The short story creates] a vivid realization for the reader of that which moved the author to write, be it incident, be it emotion, be it situation.... thus the art of the short story becomes as much an art of tone as of incident."
-H. S. Canby

22. "The essence of the short story is to isolate, to portray the individual person, or moment, or scene in isolation‑‑detached from the great continuum‑‑at once social and historical.... the short story is a natural form for the presentation of a moment whose intensity makes it seem outside the ordinary stream of time, or the significance is outside the ordinary range of experience." ---Wendell Harris



23. "In the short story, the narrative form which pin‑points the strangeness and ambiguity of life, lyricism must entirely conceal itself behind the hard outlines of the event...The short story is the most purely artistic form; it expresses the ultimate meaning of all artistic creation as mood."
--George Lukacs

24. "I see today a new art of narration, a novel literature and category of belles-lettres, dawning upon the world. And this new art and literature--for the sake of the individual characters in the story, and in order to keep close to them and not be afraid--will be ready to sacrifice story itself.... The literature of individuals is a noble art, a great earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story.... Within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer the cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: 'Who am I?'"
--Isak Dinesen


25. "The short story, free from the longuers of the novel is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness--too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth."
-Edith Wharton

Monday, February 16, 2009

Alice Munro, "Wenlock Edge" and Metafiction

In a “comment” on the post “Do You Have to Learn to Read a Short Story,” Sandy posts a query about Alice Munro’s story “Wenlock Edge,” which appeared in The New Yorker, Dec. 5, 2005. You can find it at:
http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/05/051205fi_fiction

As far as I can tell, the story has not appeared in any of Munro’s books yet and will probably be in the new collection scheduled to come out later this year. I remember “Wenlock Edge,” for it is one of those stories we have talked about before that seem to haunt us—especially that strangely unsettling scene when the narrator calmly sits in the nude and has dinner with an elderly man.

Sandy asks if anyone can comment on the narrator’s emotion when she says she is on a course discovering her own wickedness. I think Sandy is right that an important element of the story is the narrator’s concern with what is real in life. For me, the issue has to do with a common theme in the short story as a genre—the blurring of the edge between reality and unreality—and a common short story technique of exploring this question in terms of the reality of unreality.

The narrator is a student of literature. In fact, I suspect that only an English major would have willingly taken her clothes off for dinner with a strange old man primarily as a challenge to the charge, “So you’re just a bookworm. That’s all you are.”

And indeed, she is a bookworm, that is, she primarily lives in books and makes adverse judgments on those, such as the two English majors who live downstairs, whose conversations and preoccupations seem hardly different from those who work in banks or offices. The narrator believes that one who studies literature should see reality differently than others.

However, the narrator admits at one point that, except in examinations, she gets many things wrong. And the main thing she thinks she may have gotten wrong is, as Sandy points out, her notion that what she is doing—reading literature—is what is real, or at least teaches us how to see the real. The other characters in the story, she comes to realize, see reading literature as only a game.

The narrator gets many of her ideas and expectations from reading. Her own experience with reality other than what she reads is sparse. For example, Nina’s story of her children, the death of one child, her life with Mr. Purvis, makes her feel like a simpleton. Still, the narrator thinks that Nina has no pegs on which to hang anything because she has not read about Victorian, Romantic, Pre-Columbian, that she could not find on the map the many countries she has visited, and that she wouldn't know whether or not the French Revolution came before the First World War. When Mrs. Winner comes to pick her up for dinner with Mr. Purvis, the woman’s platinum hair certifies to the narrator a hard heart, immoral dealings, and a long bumpy ride through the sordid back alleys of life. When Mr. Purvis takes her to his library, she has a notion of the sort of story, that few people ever get a chance to read, about a room called a library turning out to be a bedroom with soft lights, puffy cushions, and downy pillows. Obviously, the narrator’s knowledge includes not only high literature, but also pulpy, soft-core porn. When she is asked to read Housman’s “Wenlock Edge,” she feels comfortable, at peace with the familiar rhythms of the poem. She lives in fiction more easily than in phenomenal reality.

So why does she willing take her clothes off? Because, as she says, it is a challenge, a sort of Bohemian dare, a gesture to show that she is not just a bookworm, but as daring as the women in the books with which she is familiar. She tries to assume the liberal, well-read, view that we are all naked under our clothes. For the moment, she sees herself as a liberated fictional figure, and does not worry that anything will happen to her.

The fact that Plato is her favorite philosopher and that she likes his allegory of the cave is significant, for “Wenlock Edge” is filled with issues about what is real and what are misunderstandings, mere shadows, of reality.

The fact that the narrator sends Mr. Purvis Ernie’s address, knowing that he will go round and fetch her away from Ernie, is less a wicked act than it is a tampering with the lives of others as if they were not real, but rather characters in a story that she feels free to manipulate around, as if they were puppets, shadows cast on the wall of Plato’s cave.

The narrator, that is, the creator of the story we are reading, is wicked in the way that all writers of fiction are wicked—creating fictional characters, pretending they are real and then manipulating them mercilessly as merely fictional characters.

At the end of the story, the narrator says she keeps learning things, such as the Uricon, the Roman camp, is now Wroxeter, a town on the Severn River. But such knowledge, although historically accurate, and what some new historicist critics nowadays would called “context,” is not as important as the more subtle, inchoate knowledge that the short story in general and Alice Munro in particular make their own.

I have always been concerned with the basic issue of the relationship between fantasy and reality in fiction and have written about it several times. Although I think that the short story, because of its self-conscious, carefully constructed form, is more often apt to focus on its own processes than the novel is, I believe that all writers, always conscious of their craft, at times writes stories or novels that quite intentionally make the fantasy/reality mix the central subject of their work. I once wrote a paper on howTwain did this in Huckleberry Finn. I wanted to argue against those social critics who felt that the novel’s ending, in which we return to the fantasy world of Tom Sawyer, was a weakness in the work. I quote some of that piece below to provide some context for my reading of Alice Munro’s “Wenlock Edge.”


“In considering the reality-fantasy question in Huckleberry Finn, perhaps we should take a relative, that is to say, a phenomenological view and instead of asking, "What is real?" ask, as William James does in Principles of Psychology, "Under what circumstances do we think things real?" Phenomenologist Alfred Schutz has taken this approach to the
question of reality in Don Quixote, and since it is Tom Sawyer's Don Quixote world that is often objected to in Huckleberry Finn, perhaps the approach will be valuable here also.

Huckleberry Finn, like Don Quixote, directly deals with the problem of multiple realities discussed by James. Don Quixote sustains his world by appealing to the "authorities" of books of chivalry; Tom sustains his world by appealing to the "authority" of Don Quixote. Tom's hypothesis of the enchanters which make Huck see Sunday-school children instead of A-rabs is similar to Don Quixote's hypothesis of them to explain why Sancho Panza sees windmills instead of giants. However, as Alfred Schutz points out, to Don Quixote the existence of the enchanters is not a mere hypothesis, but an historical fact verified by all the source books reporting on matters of chivalry. Furthermore, Schutz reminds us, "If we examine why, within the reality of our natural attitude, we believe in historical events we can only refer to arguments similar to those of Don Quixote: to documents, monuments, authenticated accounts of witnesses, and
uninterrupted tradition." The "authorities" of Don Quixote, The Arabian Nights, and other books of fantasy that Tom appeals to at the beginning and ending of Huckleberry Finn, are, within his sub-universe of fable, no less "real" than these are in the sub-universe of everyday reality. The problem critics have with Huckleberry Finn arises when they try to judge it from the perspective of the sub-universe of everyday reality, somehow forgetting that as a novel the entire book exists within Twain's sub-universe of deliberate fable.

Perhaps all literary fictions are also meta-literary, in that every artist is caught in the
conflict between seeing the activity he is engaged in as idle play and productive work at the same time. Art is a form of play that by being pushed to hallucinatory extremes masters the conflict inherent in the activity between its play nature and its work nature. Thus, although Huckleberry Finn is a serious work of art, the Tom Sawyer fantasy frame reminds us that it is also a form of play that masters its own sub-universe of fable. Mark Twain's creation of the fantasy Huckleberry Finn is similar to Tom Sawyer's fantasies, and as a fantasy the novel quite legitimately is resolved in the conclusion by a final reminder that fictional conflict can only be resolved fictionally. If the function of literature is, as Norman Holland suggests, to transform our "primitive wishes and fears into significance and coherence," its metaliterary function is to aesthetically resolve the conflict between play and work, pleasure principle and reality principle, that arises in any artistic activity. The art work manifests a compromise between the pleasure principle and the reality principle by creating out of the play of fantasy a work of literature. The compromise is laid bare in Huckleberry Finn in the relationship between Tom's fantasy play and Huck's realistic work.

The usual critical view of Tom Sawyer as a prototype of civilized hypocritical man as romantic dreamer may be simply the result of our cultural bias against fantasy, our assumption that the everyday world is the only mature reality. If we shift our focus and remember that Huckleberry Finn is an art work, a deliberate fable, instead of a social document, isn't it more likely that from this perspective Huck Finn is in some ways the prototype of modern economic man as unimaginative realist? Mark Twain may admire Huck for his realism, but as an artist twain is in the position of Tom Sawyer. Moreover, as readers, we are also in the position of Tom, fantasying that we are Huck, but desiring to maintain our freedom to play. The Tom Sawyer frame of the book provides us with a reminder of this freedom. Huck Finn may escape civilization, but Tom Sawyer, like Mark Twain, like every artist, subverts it with his play.”


Forgive me once again for referring to stuff I have done before, but I thought this little excerpt from a longer article I wrote years ago would make clearer my reading of Alice Munro’s story.

I thank Sandy for reminding me of this story. I hope she will respond with her own reading. Iwould love to hear what others think.

Please watch for Munro’s new collection scheduled to come out later this year. I will remind you of it when I get word of its publication date.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"Nawabdin Electrician," "Slumdog Millionaire," Genre

In August, 2007, when “Nawabdin Electrician” was first published in The New Yorker, at least two bloggers singled it out for discussion. Andrew Colom in his blog http://everythingbutthefiction.blotspot.com/ talks about the cultural signs in the story, how it reflects our global world consisting of both first-world digital modernity and third-world indigence, with Nawab acting as a median between the two extremes. He says Nawab represents a segment of Pakistani society that wants to clog the wheels of progress: “What happens to an individual like Nawabdin in the post-industrial, digitalized world? His stature would slip away like his motorcycle almost does.”

However, Colom’s misunderstanding of the kind of story this is is reflected by his suggestion that the story’s most glaring flaw is that it does not have a clear thread of connection between the first and second half when abruptly the real conflict of the story is introduced with the encounter with the man who tries to steal the motorcycle. Colom says here we see Nawab’s divided loyalties—between poor men like himself and superior man as he has become. Colom says the first part of the story—the back-story—is not really relevant to this—the actual story.

Robert Lennon’s discussion in his blog, http://wardsix.blogspot.com/ is, perhaps because Lennon is a very fine writer himself, more perceptive. Lennon notes that it is a common problem for writers to be condescending when they write about working-class characters, especially colorful ones; the result is often a “patronizing cuteness that mars the authority of the narrative.” He says that Mueenuddin, however, creates a tone that is both serious and funny, creating a character that might have come off as ridiculous in less skillful hands. “As written, Nawab is a fascinating figure, a goofy person whom Mueenuddin entrusts, at the story’s conclusion, with a difficult decision. Nawab makes the decision swiftly and mercilessly, revealing a deep hardness to his character only hinted at before.”

In the 2008 Best American Short Stories, edited by Salman Rushdie, Mueenuddin provides in the “Contributors’ Notes” the background for his story, saying he first heard it from the “incomparably salty mouth of—Nawabdin Electrician, now aged, but during my childhood the most colorful though certainly not the most crooked employee on my father’s farm in South Punjab. Yes, a robber put six bullets in him, and yes, he survived.”

So if the second part of the story is based on an actual event told to Mueenuddin by the person to whom it happened, then what is the first part based on? Is it the invention of the writer, and if so, how does it relate to the second part? Why does Colom think it has nothing to do with the “actual story”?

Well, as is often the case, a misunderstanding about genre, at least in my opinion, is the reason for Colom’s finding fault with the story. A better understanding of genre underlies Lennon’s more perceptive appreciation of the tone of the story as both serious and funny, and the central character as a fascinating figure who is goofy, but who is given a serious decision.

Genre misunderstandings are often the cause of controversy about a work. The film that is being touted as a highly likely candidate for Best Picture at the Oscars this year, Slumdog Millionaire” has been the center of a genre confusion/controversy recently. Many bloggers have called the film “poverty porn.” In the February 4 edition of the Los Angeles Times, the Indian author Chitra Divakaruni says this accusation reveals a misunderstanding about the nature of art. Challenging the claim that the film is filled with clich├ęs and exaggerations about India’s poor while ignoring the real modern India of economic success—that the film reinforces stereotypes about India, Divakaruni says those who make these accusations forget that the film is fiction, not a documentary.

Divakaruni says the film follows the convention of the picaresque, a genre that depicts with energetic abandon the many misadventures of a hero, usually of low social class, who ultimately triumphs over a corrupt society by using his wits.” Yes, indeed, Divakaruni is right. Those who ignore the genre conventions used by the director of Slumdog Millionaire are bound to misunderstand it. And sure enough, on February 10, someone wrote to the LA Times taking issue with Divakaruni, insisting that the film does not deal with the subject of rags-to-riches in an artful way. “It offers a fantasy solution to the horrors of children’s exploitation—a poor boy winning millions by being a TV contestant. Art should offer new ways of seeing, not just present graphic images of an old vision of poverty. Too often Hollywood movies offer us sensation instead of moving and insightful material.” --Peggy Aylsworth Levine, Santa Monica.

Levine’s argument suggests that only realistic depictions constitute art--that fantasy, by definition, is not art. She also seems to think that it is the purpose of art to offer a “solution” to such social issues as child exploitation. Both of these assumptions suggest misunderstandings of the nature of art and the importance of genre.

I have no way of knowing what Mueenuddin had in mind when he wrote the story, other than what he tells us about the “real” Nawabdin in his Best American Short Stories notes. Would it help me read the story more pleasurably and profitably if I did know what he had in mind? As Mueenuddin suggests in the previous entry, my reading of “The Singers” may not represent what Turgenev had in mind when he wrote the story. Is that important? If an author does not have any particular meaning in mind when he writes, then how does meaning get into the story?

Well as usual for me, my reading of “Nawabdin Electrician” is guided by my reading of previous stories, by my understanding of the short story genre, and by my expectation that a reader should have some knowledge of genre conventions in order not to “misread” a story and therefore judge it unfairly.

What intrigues me about the first part of the story—the part that Colom finds irrelevant to the “actual” story—are as follows:

Nawab “cunningly” performs his magic to slow down the electric meters.

His discovery eclipses the philosopher’s stone (which supposedly turned base metals to gold).

His tools are relatively simple, primarily a ball peen hammer, which dangles like a savage’s axe, and with which he delivers a “crafty blow.”

His twelve girls, whose demand for dowry might have defeated other men, act as a spur to his “genius.”

By his “superhuman” efforts, he maintains the comfort of the landowner he works for.

The motorcycle increases his status and when he hits a bump, he seems to flap small “vestigial wings.”

All of these characteristics suggest that Nawab belongs to the convention, so common in North American Indian folk tales, of the “trickster.” He succeeds by cunning, craft, and supernatural abilities. The second part of the story, which begins “One evening, a few weeks after his family’s festival of sugar,” is a trickster tale in which the hero refuses to die. A potent man, his sexuality even survives the fact that the bullets hit him low, but, as the pharmacist says, “Not even that, thank God.”

When the robber pleads for Nawab to tell the pharmacist to fix him, or at least not to let him die unforgiven, Nawab smells the good strong smell of disinfectant. “The floor seemed to shine. The world around him expanded.”

When the robber dies, crying, “It’s not true,” Nawab’s mind catches at the man’s words and death, “like a bird hopping around some bright object, meaning to peck at it.” But instead, he thinks of the motorcycle saved, and the glory of saving it. “Six shots, six coins thrown down, six chances, and not one of them had killed him, not Nawabdin Electrician.”

A wonderful little story about the triumph of life over death, the triumph of the right way over the wrong way, the triumph of cunning over crassness. Let the dying man beg, for all the good it will do him. Let the living exult in life. It’s a universal fable, not a political statement.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Daniyal Mueenuddin--Social vs. Formal Issues

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a brief email from Daniyal Mueenuddin last week (See previous entry.) Here is what he said.

Thanks for your thoughts regarding the ending of the story. I agree that the ending might be read this way, but would suggest that Turgenev would not consciously have had this program in mind as he wrote the story. My feeling is, all interpretations are fair, if
plausible.

All best wishes

It was very kind of Mr. Mueenuddin to take the time to respond. I agree with him that all interpretations are fair, if plausible. And as a reader, I am not overly concerned with what Turgenev might have had in mind when he wrote the story. But what constitutes the plausibility of an interpretation of a story? And if an author does not “consciously” have a meaning in mind, how does meaning get into a story? I have said before that an author may discover meaning in the process of writing because of associations and writing techniques he or she has internalized in previous reading. But that discovery may be inchoate in the writer’s mind, and, not being overly concerned with how readers may interpret his story, he or she may not be bothered with articulating the results of his or her discovery in the writing process.

I don’t want to take up space here with this issue, but will return to it when I talk more about Eudora Welty’s reading of one of her own stories that I mentioned in a previous post. I know I keep saying I will come back to certain things, and I will, I will. I just like to let things gel a bit, and there is so much to say.

The issue I wish to talk about here is raised by the buzz surrounding Mr. Mueenuddin’s new collection of stories that came out this week, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.’ In the first review I read of the book, in the January 31 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg says that what distinguishes this book is its focus on class struggles within Pakistan. He says the book “offers readers a look inside a culture that is in the headlines. It is the voice of Pakistan from within Pakistan.”

In an interview on the website Ultrabrown.com, Mueenuddin is asked if he sees himself as a political writer, concerned with showing the dynamic heterogeneous side of Pakistan. He replies that this is not what he was thinking when he wrote the stories. He says he objects to the idea of writers being too political, for while it gets them a readymade audience, it takes something away from the writing. When the interviewer says that with all the attention being given to the book, he is going to become a spokesperson for his country, Mueenuddin says he does not want to be a spokesman for Pakistan. He says that writing is “play” for him, something he has enormous fun doing.

Even though writers are most always more concerned with their craft than political or social issues, interviewers and reporters are most always determined to get them to talk about politics and social issues.

One of the most famous stories that has raised this issue in the history of short story criticism is Gogol’s wonderful story, “The Overcoat.” I remember when I was an undergraduate in a short story class taught by the great Kentucky writer, James Still, I first read “The Overcoat.” Mr. Still thought it was brilliant and of course read it like a writer. It has been a favorite of mine ever since. The story of the poverty-stricken little copyist with the absurd name of Akaky Akakievich is so well-known that it has been said that most modernist Russian fiction springs from under Gogol's "Overcoat." Gogol combines what seems to be social realism of everyday Petersburg life with the fantastic style of folklore. Indeed, most of the commentary that has been written on the story focuses either on its realistic nature or its fantastic style. Irish short-story writer Frank O'Connor has said that what makes the story so magnificent is Gogol's focus on the little man and his emphasis on Akaky's implicit call for human brotherhood. (See O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice) On the other hand, in what is perhaps the best-known discussion of the story, Russian formalist critic Boris Ejxenbaum claims that the genius of the story depends on the role played by the author's personal tone and the story's use of Russian folktale oral conventions. Ejxenbaum suggests that the so-called humane passage in which Akaky cries out, “Leave me alone. Why do you insult me?” is a play with the language in which Gogol links a declamatory style with a comic folktale style for the sake of creating a contrapuntal tension. (This essay, under the title “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ is Made” can be found in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, ed. Robert Maguire. Princeton UP, 1974).

Ejxenbaum’s suggestion that Gogol is more interested in playing with the two declamatory styles than he is in the social situation of poor Akakey is often cited as an example of the problem with formalist readings—they seem to suck the life blood out of the story.

However, Ejxenbaum’s method of focusing on the style of the story is the very kind of reading that Francine Prose argues for in her book Reading Like a Writer. Prose’s central point is that to be a good reader, one must be knowledgeable of, and sensitive to, those elements of writing that constitute the craft: words, sentences, character, dialogue, and details. Prose reminds us of something that students of literature often find it hard to accept—that subject matter is not all that important, that what the writer most often wants to do is write really great sentences. Many current literature students, who have been taught to read for social themes, political issues, and cultural contexts, might therefore assume that Prose’s book was written for creative writing majors. That is just not the case.


Over and over, Prose urges the reader to focus on words, rhythm, and pattern–not subject matter. By relentlessly insisting on the importance of language and form, Prose reinforces what William H. Gass has argued in Finding a Form: that the artist's "fundamental loyalty must be to form.” Every other diddly desire," insists Gass, "can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day."

Prose’s insistence on the importance of language and literary form seems so obvious it is difficult to see how anyone could deny it. But of course that the excellence of writing depends not on its content but its language and form is denied in classrooms around the world every day. In fact, the very idea of artistic form and excellence is often challenged in many of those classrooms.

In my next blog, I will talk about Mueenuddin’s best-known story, “Nawabdin Electrician,” which is in his new book and which was chosen by Salman Rushdie for the 2008 Best American Short Stories. It originally appeared in The New Yorker on August 27, 2007. You can find it by googling “Nawabdin Electrician New Yorker.” If you get a chance, read it; it is very brief. Perhaps we can have a little discussion about the topic of political issues versus formal issues in relationship to this story.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Do You Have to Learn to Read a Short Story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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