In her introduction to the 2010 Best American Short Stories, which came out recently, Heidi Pitlor has some bad news and some good news about the short story. She laments, as do we all, the demise over the past decade of such venues for the form as Story, Double Take, and Ontario Review, and the budget slashings that have threatened such journals as Southern Review and the New England Review. But then, she suggests, hopefully, perhaps the length of short stories is better suited to new technologies than other literary forms, citing the shift of Triquarterly and Ascent from print to online, and Atlantic’s decision to sell stories through Kindle.
Concluding that there is cause for concern as well as cause for rejoicing, she advises readers how they can help insure the continuing life of the short story: subscribe to a literary journal, buy a short story collection by a young author. However, readers are not going to do either if they do not like to read short stories, and they will never like to read short stories if they do not know how to read them well, or having learned how to read them, still do not enjoy the experience.
Richard Russo’s Introduction to the volume will not do much to encourage readers to embrace short stories. I know authors are chosen as editors for the Best American Short Stories series because their names on the cover may help to sell copies, and I am all right with that. But surely, the folks at Mariner books could have found someone who knows more about short stories, or cares more about them, than Richard Russo.
Richard Russo is a wry, funny, self-effacing writer who carefully constructs big multigenerational sagas about the great American dream—old-fashioned, multilayered, full-canvas epics with vivid descriptions of classic American places populated by colorful blue-collar characters. He has said that he revels in the discursive, the digressive, and the episodic. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course--that is, unless you try to write short stories.
So what does an old-fashioned Dickensian novelist do when he sits down to write short stories? He writes stories like the ones in Russo’s one collection, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories-- a textbook example of what often results when an interesting and entertaining novelist writes short stories: pleasurable, but perfectly ordinary, plot-based tales with a concluding twist, featuring likeable but relatively simple characters whose problems the plots resolve rather neatly. Those who like novels will find his stories completely satisfying. Those who like short stories will like them well enough, but they won’t be haunted by them, and they won’t feel the need to read them again.
Perhaps because he doesn’t know much about short stories, in his introduction, Russo doesn’t tell us anything about the stories in the present collection, which is all right, I guess, if he had only told us something, anything, about short stories at all. Instead, he regales (I always wanted to use that word) us with a little anecdotal recollection (not a story) about a time in the late 1980s when he as an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University when a real short story writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer visited the campus. The anecdote centers on Singer’s answer to a student’s question about the purpose of literature, to which Singer, elderly and frail, responded, “The purpose of literature is to entertain and to instruct.”
Russo then spends a bit of time defending the notion of “entertainment” as opposed to “instruction” (as if those were the only two possibilities for the purpose of literature). The rest of the Introduction describes Singer at a public reading, which turns comically disastrous over his trying to manage his manuscript, which has been stapled together. When he tears off a page, having nothing else to do with it, he lets it drop, and a gust of wind catches it and blow it into the audience. He finally gives up, reaches into his pocket for another manuscript, and reads it instead.
Yeah, that is all very interesting about Singer's difficulty, and how he handled it, etc. etc. Gee, I wish I had been there. In the last paragraph of the introduction, Russo tells us that he read two hundred and fifty stories in order to choose the twenty in the collection, which, he says, felt like some “sort of literary waterboarding.” God help us! If reading short stories is that much like torture for Russo, then why in hell did Mariner Houghton Mifflin not choose an editor who loved short stories? Yeah, I know, I know. Because of the value of the Russo name on the cover.
I have only read half the stories so far, choosing them because of the appeal of the first paragraph, the familiarity of the author, the etc. Here are some impressions, recommendations, impressions, etc. I may get around to the other ten some day.
James Lasdun’s story, “The Hollow,” is the same story as “Oh Death,” which was in the 2010 O. Henry collection. One was published in the U.S. version of his most recent book; the other was published in the British version. I have already commented on Lasdun and this story in previous blog entries. I like Lasdun, and I like this story, no matter what its name is.
Wells Tower, “Raw Water.” I have commented on Wells Tower in a previous blog entry also. He got a lot of buzz last year with his first collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I was not impressed with that collection. I think Tower is a clever writer with a lot of surface appeal, but with little or no depth. This story about a couple going to live in Triton Estates, a real estate development gone bad on the shores of a sixty square mile manmade lake in the desert, is more of Tower’s inventive cleverness. Futuristic sci-fi satire with snappy dialogue and funny bits, it will while away some time, but not leave you with anything.
Joshua Ferris, “The Valetudinarian.” Ferris was one of the New Yorker’s Twenty-under-Forty crowd this past summer, so it bothers me a bit that he is writing about a man living alone on his sixty-fourth birthday, as if he knows anything at all about that. Ferris is also a funny, clever guy, and this story made me laugh out loud just for the sheer facility with which Ferris moves merrily along almost extemporaneously through it. The central character Arty Groys bitches a lot about his age, his loneliness, his weight, his gallbladder. When an old friend sends a prostitute to visit him, complete with Viagra, problems arise, if nothing else does. It’s funny; it’s rigged; it’s facile.
Lauren Groff, “Delicate Edible Birds.” I was never sure whether this story was meant to be taken seriously, or whether it was a parody of very bad “lost generation” writing of the twenties. It’s part of a collection of stories about famous women; this one is Martha Gellhorn, best known for being Hemingway’s third wife. It’s about a small group of war correspondents held prisoner by a French Nazi sympathizer unless the Martha Gellhorn type character agrees to have sex with him. As Groff tells us in the Contributor’s Notes, the plot is based on a much better story by Guy de Maupassant, “Boule de Suif.” There’s some quite terrible writing in this story, which is so filled with verbal clichés that you begin to predict them. But I think it is a joke. I hope it’s a joke. By the way, for some totally strange reason known only to himself, John Updike chose a not-so-great story by Martha Gellhorn for The Best American Short Stories of the Century. In its badness, it sounds a bit like Lauren Groff’s story.
Ron Rash, “The Ascent.” This one was also chosen for New Stories from the South: 2010. It’s the shortest story in the collection, one of those tight, clipped little stories that says little, but make you constantly uneasy. A boy finds a downed airplane in the wilderness near his home. He takes a diamond ring off the body of a woman in the plane and shows it to his parents, saying he found it in the woods. The father says he is taking it to the sheriff, but instead sells it and blows the money. The boy goes back to get a man’s watch, knowing the parents will squander that too. He makes one final trip to the plane. I liked this story. It is the first Ron Rash story I have read. But based on it, I am sending for his collection Chemistry and Other Stories. One of the best things about Best American Short Stories is that it has always been a good way to discover new writers.
Lori Ostlund’s “All Boy,” which I also liked, is, like the Ron Rash story, also about a young boy who seems closed out, alone. In this case, the story moves almost inevitably to the conclusion when the boy learns that his father is moving out to live with a man. I just received a copy of Ostlund’s recent debut collection The Bigness of the World, which won this year’s Flannery O’Connor Prize. I will post a blog on it soon.
Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” is a story about a young man who tries to write fiction, not very successfully, while teaching remedial writing at a community college. When his retired father begins writing also, quite successfully, the narrator has a hard time dealing with this, especially when he recognizes in his father’s stories many of the events from his past that he has also plans to write about. It’s another funny story that made me laugh. Although it violates a common admonition in MFA writing classes never to write about writing, I liked it.
Jill McCorkle’s “PS” is another comic story, this time a bit too gimmicky for me, written in the form of a long letter from a woman to her marriage counselor. Clever and inventive, but nothing much more than that for me.
Jennifer Eagan, “Safari.” This is still another story about adolescent children trying to come to terms with their father. In this case, the father had taken up with a much younger woman who is working on a Ph.D. program in anthropology at Berkeley. The adolescent daughter tries to break up the relationship. Oh, and by the way, they are on safari in Africa with some other people, one of which is a young man the young woman is inevitably drawn to. Oh, it’s all complicated. What holds it together is the anthropology student’s use of a structural schema to organize the needs of each of the characters and the structural relationships they create. For example, the daughter’s situation is described as “structural resentment,” while the father’s relationship with his younger bedmate is described as “structural incompatibility—all suggesting the way anthropologists study relationships among primitive peoples—which I guess basically everyone is.
Maggie Shipstead, “The Cowboy Tango.” Nothing pretentious about this story. Just a well told love story about a man named Glen Otterbausch, who hires a young woman named Sammy to work on his ranch and falls in love with her. But, alas, you know how love stories must be; she does not love him. She falls in love with his nephew who has recently got a divorce and comes to work on the ranch. But then the nephew leaves, for that’s how love stories are. Otterbausch tries to get revenge on Sammy, but ultimately loves her too much to do so. I am a sucker for a love story, so this one sucked me right in with its uncluttered style and heart-scalded cowboys and cowgirls. It ain’t Annie Proulx, but it will do.
I have been buying my annual copy of Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Award Stories for many years now. Their multicolored paperback spines line up neatly on my bookshelves. I have most of the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South collections as well. I don’t always agree with the choices in these books, but they do help me keep up with the short story and introduce me to writers I am happy to discover.