Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jim Shepard and Andrea Barrett: Information vs. Storytelling

I had just finished reading Jim Shepard’s new collection of stories, You Think That’s Bad when I received an email from Julia Terentyeva of FiveBooks at TheBrowser - Writing Worth Reading about an interview with Shepard, in which he lists his five favorite collections of short stories and talks about the art and history of the form. You might want to read it at

When Shepard was asked why short stories were not doing better than they are in our Twitter/Facebook era, here is what he said:

“It’s hard to understand why short stories don’t catch on given that they seemed to be suited to our frenetic modern lifestyle. I wonder whether that’s partially because readers feel that if they’re going to invest their imagination, they really want it to pay off in terms of time. They think: If I’m going to get invested in a world, I don’t want that world to go away so quickly. They want a trilogy or an 800-page novel or something.

Part of it also might be the mostly unfounded suspicion that short stories are like homework, that they’re closer to poetry than a novel. When you tell readers to read a poem, I think their impulse is often to think: Am I going to understand this? Nobody feels like picking up something for pleasure that will make them feel stupid. So maybe there is a little wariness about short stories, a little worry that they’ll be oblique and unsatisfying open-ended. But those are just theories. I don’t think anyone has an answer for why short stories aren’t doing better.”

Shepard may have found a way to make short stories more interesting to readers by appealing to the public preference for nonfiction. He has published four short story collections: Batting Against Castro, Love and Hydrogen, Like You’d Understand Anyway (shortlisted for the National Book Award)¸ and You Think That’s Bad. His stories have attracted some attention from reviewers because most of them are derived from Shepard’s reading in a wide range of subjects. A Shepard Acknowledgements page usually runs to two or three pages, with his introductory admission that most of his stories would not have existed “or would have existed in a much diminished form without critically important contributions” from…(and then he provides a long list of books.) I have read many of the reviews of Shepard’s collections, which are almost uniformly positive, but I have a suspicion that reviewers have responded so well to his stories because they are “different,” because they are so meticulously researched that the reviewer has a “handle” on the stories, i.e.—a great deal of factual information to talk about without actually talking about the stories as stories.

Although Jim Shepard gets the impetus and context for a story from his reading in nonfiction, he doesn’t get his story until he finds some personal involvement in the facts or when he invents some particular human engagement in the historical context he researches. Shepard says the title story of his collection Love and Hydrogen, which was picked for the 2002 Best American Short Stories, began when he was browsing with his four-year-old son in the children’s section of his local bookstore. When he ran across a children’s book about the Hindenburg airship, he was struck by the immensity and the hubris of the thing. He continued his research into zeppelins, looking for someway to elevate a story about them beyond a child’s fascination with big things that blow up, when, just after creating his two main characters, he wrote these two sentences: “Meinert and Gnuss are in love. This complicates just about everything.” Thus, only when he invented a love story between two men who were working on the Hindenburg on that fateful day it exploded did he have a story.

Similarly, his fascination with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror bore no fictional fruit until he ran across a book entitled The Remarkable Saga of the Sanson Family, Who Served as Executioners of France for Seven Generation. The result was the story “Sans Farine,” chosen for the 2007 Best American Short Stories volume, in which, buttressed by gobs of ghoulish information about the invention and uses of the guillotine, he invents a story about how one man and his wife try to cope with his inherited profession of executioner during the Reign of Terror.

Shepard says that like most of his fiction, the two stories in You Think That’s Bad chosen for the 2010 Best American Short Stories (“The Netherlands Lives With Water”) (and the 2011 Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories (“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You”) began from his browsing in bizarre subjects and finding his “imagination caught by a particular moment that resonates” with him emotionally. In the former, he was struck by the notion that a skier might cross a given area with no effect, while another might cross the same terrain and cause an avalanche. In the latter, what got his imagination going was the staggering engineering feats the Dutch developed to protect themselves from the implacable sea, even as global warming made their most ingenious efforts inadequate.

However, the avalanche story is really about one man’s guilt for inadvertently starting an avalanche that killed his brother. The Netherlands story is less particularized; although the conjugal conflicts of a couple of scientist/engineers are at the particularized center of the story, it is really a generalized account of the Netherland’s efforts to stave off the risking sea caused by global warning.
In answer to the FiveBooks interviewer’s question about whether “historical short stories” provide readers the pleasure of both fiction and nonfiction, Shepard replied:

They do feed the hunger that readers have for nonfiction in fiction. When I first started reading literary fiction, I was struck by how much I was learning – not only about the human heart, which is traditionally what literature is supposed to be about, but also about how the world worked and the way the world was. So when I read Ernest Hemingway’s [short story] “Big Two-Hearted River,” I felt I was learning not only about Nick Adams’s interior but also about fly fishing.”

Although Hemingway always creates such particularized experiences that he does indeed make me want to go fly fishing, I think the fishing information in “River” is only as good as for what Hemingway uses it—a means by which Nick tries to deal with the implications of his war experience. Indeed, when one gets intrigued by mere “information” in a story, one runs the risk of neglecting the complex human experience the language of the story attempts to create.

In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” (English translation in Illuminations, 1968), Walter Benjamin says, “information” threatens storytelling in the modern world. The difference between the forms of storytelling and forms of information, argues Benjamin, is that whereas storytelling always had a validity that required no external verification, information must be accessible to immediate verification. Storytelling differs from information in that storytelling does not aim to convey the pure essence of the experience in some distilled way, but rather imbues the story with the life of the storyteller. Aspects of the storyteller cling to the story; this is the reason why many storytellers begin with the circumstances by which they have gained access to the story they are about to tell.

This distinction between storytelling and information points to one of the primary differences between the "truth" of story and the truth of other forms of explanation characteristic of discursive writing. Whereas, in such forms of discourse as history, sociology, psychology, etc, the aim of the work is to abstract from concrete experience so that a distilled discursive meaning remains, in story, the truth is somehow communicated by a recounting of the concrete experience itself in such a way that the truth is revealed by the details of the story, not by abstract explanation.

The first true storyteller, says Benjamin, is the teller of fairy tales, for the fairy tale provides good counsel. According to Benjamin, whereas realistic narrative forms such as the novel focus on the relatively limited areas of human experience that indeed can be encompassed by information, characters in fairy tales or stories encounter those most basic mysteries of human experience which cannot be explained by rational means, but which can only be embodied in myth. The wisest thing the fairy tale teaches is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and high spirits. What the fairy tale, and therefore the tale, does is to tell us how to deal with all that which we cannot understand.

In my opinion, another writer who does a more convincing job of integrating historical context into a complex human story is Shepard’s colleague at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., Andrea Barrett. Barrett understands some basic similarities between science, history, and storytelling. She knows that all three construct narratives—whether they are called scientific theories, historical accounts, or fiction--to reveal connections, relationships, the interdependence of all things; all are human efforts to understand, or perhaps construct, what makes life meaningful.

Barrett once told an interviewer that after doing graduate work, first in zoology in the late seventies and then in history in the early eighties, she began to see a way to weave science and history together with her love of fiction. The resulting elegant tapestry was her collection Ship Fever and Other Stories, a surprise winner of the National Book Award in 1996.

Although the stories in Ship Fever focus on characters caught up in pursuits in the natural sciences, Barrett’s real emphasis is on the vulnerable human element behind the scientific impulse. Many of the stories are historical fictions in the classic sense: They involve real people from the past, often very famous scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Carl Linnaeus, and they present the past as it impinges upon and informs the present. All of Barrett's stories use scientific fact and historical events to throw light on basic human impulses and conflicts.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds," which was selected for The Best American Short Stories in 1995, is typical of Barrett's short fiction. Told by the wife of a mediocre twentieth century science professor, who greatly admires the geneticist Gregor Mendel, it includes the historical account of how Mendel allowed himself to be misdirected from his valuable studies of the hybridization of the edible pea to a dead-end study of the hawkweed by the botanist Carl Nageli until he finally gave up in despair. "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds" also contains the more personal story of how the narrator's grandfather accidentally killed a man who he thought was trying to abuse her as a child. These stories from the past are paralleled by stories in the present in which the narrator finds herself leading a meaningless life at middle age and in which her husband, having achieved nothing of scientific value himself, spends his retirement continually retelling the Mendel stories his wife told him.

Barrett also explores connections between science, history, and storytelling in the six stories in her second collection Servants of the Map. Like the scientists and historians in her work, Barrett says she is highly obsessive; all of her stories and novels are the result of painstaking research and scrupulous writing and rewriting. However, for all her attention to detail and focus on fact and the mysteries of science, the real mystery in her stories is the mystery of human motivation, particularly the drive to “see” and to “know.”

The title story is a carefully constructed novella about Max Vigne, a nineteenth-century surveyor who is part of an exploration party to the Himalayas. In a series of letters to his wife Clara back in England, Vigne discovers writing’s power to construct reality by going beyond mapping and recording to a higher level of perception, thereby creating a map not only of the physical world but of the human mind. The story was selected for The Best American Short Stories: 2001 and Prize Stories 2001: The O. Henry Awards.

Although I have to admit that I was fascinated by Jim Shepard’s account of how a Japanese special-effects expert created the film creature Godzilla (“Gojira, King of the Monsters”) and how an American infantryman coped with the hardships of an attack on the Japanese in New Guinea (“Happy with Crocodiles”). I was even riveted by the horrors of fifteenth-century inhuman pedophiliac monster Gilles de Rais who killed so many children. However, the absorption I felt when reading these stories was due largely to the specificity of the interesting information. Although Shepard writes well, it was still the “stuff,” not the “style” that appealed to me. The particular human experience he explores in his stories too often seems to me mainly an excuse for the array of the interesting information, whereas in Andrea Barrett’s stories, the informative background is secondary to the human conflict at the heart of her stories.


Sandra said...

I found this distinction between stories of the human heart and stories of fascinating details of physical/historical world enlightening as I recently tried to come to terms with Ron Hansen's Nebraska stories and "Wickedness." He falls closer to the style of Jim Shepard rather than Barrett who I have long admired.
THanks again for your clear insights. -Sandra Rouse

Anonymous said...

"The Netherlands Lives With Water" was one of my favorite stories from BASS 2010. I thought Jim Shepard used setting and "factual information" very effectively to comment on the disintegration of a marriage. I don't have a preference for nonfiction, but when I do read it I like natural history best; and if there's factual detail in a story I'm reading, it had darn well better be particular and accurate or the author has lost me. Shepard's story scratched my natural history itch on all counts - enough to make me stay with a "disintegrating relationship" story (not my favorite theme unless I have a pint of Ben & Jerry's handy).

Do you really think he's just "appealing to the public preference for nonfiction" in his stories? That sounds so...cold and commercial. I don't know anything about Shepard except what you've written about his research and reading habits - but isn't it dangerous for a reader to make a possibly fallacious connection between a writer's life (and habits) and his fiction? When is it fair to look at a writer's life in search of the reasons he has written a story in a particular way, and when is it more important to look at the stories themselves?

Perhaps Shepard just does a better job of writing about setting and factual information than about human emotions. Do you have any examples from any of his stories where this is true?

Your post reminded me that I bought a copy of Ship Fever in the mid-1990s. I don't know if I'd read & liked something that Andrea Barrett had written - I was taking a couple of undergraduate creative writing classes on a whim, and one of the instructors might have assigned something she'd written - or if I bought the book because it got a good review in the local newspaper. I do remember trying to read the first couple of stories, taking no particular pleasure in them, and giving up on the book. To my surprise, the copy survived 15 years of bookshelf purges and military moves - I just found it up on one of my "keepers" shelves. There must be some reason I never took it down to a used bookstore for a trade-in, even though I didn't like it enough to finish it at the time.

Now Ship Fever is sitting on my desk, where it will stare at me when I have my coffee tomorrow morning. It will demand that I try again to read it, that I compare its stories to "The Netherlands Lives With Water" instead of reading the stories I've earmarked for the coming week. I think it wants to prove that it was worth the cost of schlepping it around for 15 years or so.

Or maybe it's just getting late.

Charles E. May said...

I thank Sandra and readersquest for reading my post on Jim Shepard and Andrea Barrett and for taking the time to respond to it.

I have not read Hansen's "Nebraska" and "Wickedness" in a few years, but as I recall them, what most impressed me about those stories was the rhythm of the language--a sort of hypnotic music that affected me more than the detail.

And I never meant to suggest that Shepard cold-bloodedly decided that he could exploit reader preference for nonfiction. I just think his fiction might appeal to many readers who prefer nonfiction to fiction. I have read all the stories in Shepard's last two collections and think he places more emphasis on physical detail and historical event than individual human involvement. My review of his last book ended thus: These are fascinating stories of men and women obsessed with the mysteries of experience by a writer obsessed with capturing those mysteries with his prose. I like Shepard's stories; I just like Andrea Barrett's stories more, and if my post has got readersquest to take down a forgotten Barrett volume, all the better. Let us know what you think about her stories.

Anonymous said...

Trying to be disciplined, I took my assigned reading for the day and my coffee out onto the shady front porch. That copy of Ship Fever kept nagging at the edges of my consciousness, though. Finally, after lunch, I retrieved it from my desk and headed back out to the porch to read "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds."

Oh. My. Goodness. It was superb. Delicious. I am so glad you mentioned that book. I'm even gladder that I kept it all those years. Must've bought it because of the attraction of a combination of history, science and fiction - and I can't even begin to imagine why I put it down.

Now I don't want to finish the laundry or the repacking. I want to stay out on the porch with the book and the scent of the butterfly bushes in the sunshine.

I'll probably work on a blog post about "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds" and "The Netherlands Lives With Water" later today. You were right - Barrett wins - I just need to think more about why that is. For me it's probably something to do with relative complexity and metafiction, rather than information vs. storytelling, but I need to take some time to digest both stories more fully before writing about them.

Thanks. That was fun.

Sandra said...

Hawkweed is one of my favorites -- right up there with my love of Alice Munro. Also love the stories that include the Marberg sisters Blanche is one if their names.

And I began to rethink my comments on Ron Hansen's Wickedness. The episodic nature of the story and omniscience I believe works because the reader must in effect create a narrative out of the trajectory of wickedness that is portrayed. Human dramas are always portrayed from a distant omniscient voice. But in the end it's not my preference even though Hansen is very adept with particular details and information.

Enjoy the Andrea Barrett stories which I have enjoyed over repeat readings!

Randy said...

This is a superb commentary.

One of my all-time favorite stories is Jim Shepard's "Batting Against Castro", a rare example of a brilliant humorous story and a striking example of the use and importance of voice in a story.

However, I've been somewhat disappointed in subsequent stories by Shepard. I like his stories' set-ups and the imagination behind them, but they tend to leave me a little cold and uninvolved.

On the other hand, Barrett's stories are always masterful pieces of historical fiction. She's easily among my top 5 living short stort story writers (and she doesn't publish nearly enough!) I'm always involved in her stories and simply marvel at them. One Barrett story that I never hear anyone mention is "Archangel", which appeared in One Story a couple of years back. It is breathtaking, but then Barrett's stories nearly always are.

Barrett and Shepard are good writers to compare with each other. It seems to me that one is a skilled craftsman -- an artisan -- while the other is an artist.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to Randy for responding to my Shepard/Barrett post. I liked Shepard's "Castro" story also--made me laugh a lot--just was not sure that it was more than a clever tour de force. Have you ever read T. C. Boyle's baseball story about the game that went on forever--"The Hector Quesadilla Story"? Again, clever and funny. Nothing wrong with that, I reckon.

Randy said...

I will check out "The Hector Quesadilla Story". I often like Boyle's stories and I happen to have this particular story in an anthology of baseball short stories. Thanks for the recommendation.

Anonymous said...

I finally finished a post on my reading of "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds" and "The Netherlands Lives with Water": It was one of the most fun and challenging reading projects I've taken on since I started my blog - thanks for the inspiration!

My bottom line is that while I loved Barrett's elegant and complex structure and her ability to layer complicated images and ideas, I found Shepard's story more compelling because it seemed more dynamic.

Probably one is supposed to read the story as a kind of suicide note - but I couldn't help mentally writing an ending in which the narrator survives to reconcile with Cato. It seemed that Shepard left at least the possibility of change open. And the story is therefore ultimately about what we WANT (possibility and redemption) rather than what we KNOW (that life is irrational, that time alters our stories, etc.).

I'm looking forward to finishing Ship Fever in the coming weeks. Barrett is an amazing writer.

Charles E. May said...

I have just read readersquest extended blog post on "Netherlands" and "Hawkweeds," and I recommend it. readersquest makes a case for the relationship between information and human story in "Netherlands" that is compelling and has made me go back to take another look. I like the story better now, but I still hold to my original conviction that there is more mere information in the story than there is individual human complexity. Indeed,I would wager that readersquest has spent more time searching out the information on which the story is based than on examining the individual human complexity which Shepard tries to parallel with that information. Thanks to readersquest for making blogging the kind of collegial sharing of experiences and ideas that is so valuable. I look forward to her response to reading more Andrea Barrett.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for recommending the post!

You've got me on where I spent my time on "Netherlands." Either I'm just not good at sussing out complex human emotions, or Shepard's narrator and Cato weren't complex enough to be that interesting. Perhaps if it hadn't been for the interesting water management structures and the parallels between the environmental and personal disasters, I wouldn't have been able to stay with them very long.

The narrator seems to have been kind of dense and uncommunicative right up to the moment that he realized Cato had left for Berlin without him. I looked - but could find no reason in the story (or any pattern of images therein) for him to have withheld something as important as the Rainy Day Fund from Cato, especially when the rain had started to fall. He seemed to be blaming it all on his Dutch-ness, which was a sorry cop-out. As for Cato: she doesn't seem to have stayed in the marriage for any reasons but good sex and her own stupidity (the Adam and Eve story, right?) - or maybe the narrator never figured it out himself and so couldn't communicate it to his audience.

Honestly, if you don't want a more complex description of a dysfunctional relationship than that, Carolyn Hax's column is at least entertaining.

I still liked the convergence of two parallel disasters and the possibility of redemption. But if the characters were real people, I'd rather spend time with Barrett's narrator. I might even listen to Richard's cocktail-party ramblings.

Thanks for reading mine!