Monday, June 28, 2010

Personal Pleasures of the 11th International Conference on the Short Story in English

The 11th International Conference on the Short Story in English was held at York University, in Toronto, Canada, June 16-19, 2010. Of the 11 Short Story conferences over the past 22 years, I have attended nine. Now that I am retired and no longer eligible for the modest travel funds my university once provided when I presented a paper or participated on a panel, this is the only conference I am willing to scrape up personal funds to attend. Here are some of the values I received from the conference.

1. Getting together for good conversation with old friends. I always look forward to talking with my colleague of many years, Susan Lohafer, from the University of Iowa, who works tirelessly to set up the academic side of the program, reading proposals for papers, communicating with academics from around the world, arranging the papers in numerous panels. Other friends I only get a chance to see every couple of years when the conference meets include Morris Grubbs, from the University of Kentucky; Per Winther from the University of Oslo, Michael Trussler, from the University of Regina, Canada; Rob Luscher from the University of Nebraska, Kearney; Philip Coleman from Trinity College, Dublin; Ailsa Cox from Edge Hill University, England; Alan Weiss; Mercedes Penalba, University of Salamanca; Farhat Ifekharuddin, University of Texas, Brownsville, Bill New, one of the best-known critics of Canadian literature. All of these folks and many others who attend the conference regularly have made substantial contributions to the study of the short story around the world. I am happy to call them my friends.

2. Meeting, talking with, and listening to readings by favorite authors. One of the most valuable distinctions of this conference is that it not only provides academics the opportunity to share ideas about the short story, it also creates a forum for short story writers to get together with some of their most dedicated and engaged readers—the academics who teach their stories in classrooms and publish articles and books about their work. My favorite author at the conference was Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, who read a story entitled “The Boat,” from his Collection Island. If you have not read MacLeod, who I have talked about in an earlier blog, you have a rare pleasure awaiting you. Don’t hesitate. Order Island today. McLeod’s stories are, in my opinion, mysterious miracles.

Also at the conference was Margaret Atwood, who, along with that other mysterious miracle, Alice Munro, is one of the top three Canadian writers still writing. I was very sorry that Munro did not attend. She was invited, you can be sure of that. Once before, she was scheduled to attend this conference, in New Orleans. I was eager to meet her, but she cancelled at the last minute. I don’t blame her. I understand she is somewhat shy. But Atwood, whose writing I do not admire as much as I do Munro’s, was a rare treat. Lively and funny and full of energy, she participated in an interview with Canadian writer Clark Blaise and read some light and entertaining short pieces at an evening reading at the Toronto Public Library.

Also in attendance was Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler, who has attended several Short Story Conferences in the past. Butler is a whirlwind of energy and activity, a true professional writer who experiments with prose style and narrative structure without fear. I particularly like Butler’s willingness to participate in all the activities of the conference, sitting in on small panels, talking with young academics, encouraging new writers. Also reading at the conference and participating in several activities were old favorites: Bharati Mukherjee, and her husband Clark Blaise. I have never appreciated those writers who come to the conference like privileged celebrities, do their reading, collect their fees, and take off. I remember several years ago when Joyce Carol Oates floated in like a diva, read a piece she had published earlier, and jumped in a cab for the airport immediately afterward. This year, it was Sandra Cisneros who never showed up at any conference sessions except the one where she gave a reading. Somehow, I missed her reading. Never did like her work much anyway.

3. Discovering new writers. A number of relatively new writers always have an opportunity to read their stories at the conference. Two that I had not read before but plan to read now that I have heard them are: Christine Sneed, who had a story entitled “Quality of Life” in the 2008 Best American Short Stories and has a collection of stories coming out in a few months, and Mark Anthony Jarman, a Canadian writer who is not well known in the states, but has published a couple of collections of stories in Canada. Although I reserve judgment until I have read more of their stories, I was impressed by the stories they read at the conference.

4. Meeting and talking with young academics who plan to join the profession I have loved these many years: Lloren Foster, from Western Kentucky University, who is working on a study of the poetics of Black short fiction during the Black Power movement. Katy Leedy, who presented a paper on the Irish short story and who has been accepted into a Ph.D. program for the fall; Patrick Prominski, who presented a paper on Irish identity and the short story and who is also entering a Ph.D. program in the fall. I know how difficult and stressful graduate programs can be. So I try to encourage young folks entering the profession, especially those who are dedicated students of the short story.

5. Getting “warm fuzzy” ego boosts. Because I have spent my academic life teaching and writing about the short story, this is the one conference where I am relatively well known. Why deny the pleasure of being thanked for my work? When a young assistant professor tells me he or she was encouraged to enter this field because of a book or an article I published years ago, it assures me that I have made a difference. When someone comes up and shakes my hand, saying how much my work means to them, it is a delight. To have my name in the title of a panel, along with the names of Edgar Allan Poe and Erich Auerbach—what could be a greater ego boost? On that panel, a young woman, Michelle Hardy, from University of Regina, used an article I published years ago entitled “The Nature of Knowledge in Short Fiction” as an approach to Canadian writer Mavis Gallant’s story “Remission.” Although Michelle made me sound a helluva lot smarter than I am, I am happy that my approach to the short story seemed meaningful to her. It is the kind of thing that keeps me reading and writing about short stories for this blog.

Next week I plan to write about the New Yorker’s summer fiction issue: 20 under 40.

1 comment:

Lee said...

I've noted the names of the Canadian short story writers who are also new to me and will seek them out. And I'm looking forward to your New Yorker post, since I've been slowly reading my way through the stories available online. I will say this, however: I find Nicole Krauss, both as novelist and short story writer, too young to handle the material she takes on. And there is a lack of humility in her writing, a sense of self-acknowledged smartness which she can't conceal - nor perhaps does she mean to.