I have held Valerie Trueblood’s collection, Marry or Burn, until last because it is my least favorite of the six books shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. In February, 2011, I received an email from a publicist asking me if I would like to review Marry or Burn on this blog.Always willing to read new short story writers, I agreed and soon received a copy of the collection, Trueblood’s first collection of short stories (Her novel Seven Loves was published in 2006).I read all twelve stories, but did not think they were well done, so I wrote the publicist, expressing my regrets, saying that since I could not write a good review, I chose not to write one at all.When you are getting paid by a newspaper to write a review, you have promised to give your honest opinion, for better or worse, and over the years I have written what I thought were stinging reviews of many collections of short stories that I thought were weak, even though I have been called the world’s most passionate cheerleader for the short story.But when I have the freedom to follow my mother’s advice—“If you can’t saying something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all”--I usually do.
So when I learned that Marry or Burn was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, I was not just surprised; I was shocked.How could that be?Could I have been so wrong about Trueblood’s stories? Is there a back-story about the collection’s shortlist of which I am unaware? Am I being a fair judge, making a judgment on the stories based on my years of experience reading short stories, or is it just that Trueblood writes the kind of story that I personally do not like? Now that I have promised to comment on all six of the collections shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, I have no choice but to try to examine these questions, even if it means saying something not “nice” about Valerie Trueblood’s short stories.
First, let me summarize my reading experience with these stories.This past week, I picked up the book and slowly read all twelve stories over again.With the exception of a couple of memorable and dramatic events—a woman shooting her abusive husband, and a woman attacking a bear with an axe—I could not remember any of these stories, although I only read them six months ago.Why is that, I wondered?
I did a search of various newspaper and magazine databases to see what other readers might have said about the stories and could find no reviews in any of the hard copy prepublication or newspaper sources, except one notice in the Seattle Times, which is Trueblood’s home turf.However, perhaps Ms. Trueblood’s publicist did have some success when he sent the book out to on-line reviewers, for several bloggers commented on the book and/or interviewed Trueblood.Most of these were vague and general, indicating merely that the blogger enjoyed the stories, because the characters were “alive, intense, and real, or because the writing was “light and deft,” making the world of the characters “fully real to our imagination.”
Perhaps Pauline Masurel in the online Short Review isolates what it is about Trueblood’s stories that I do not like, for she seemed to like them for exactly the same reason I did not.Masurel says the stories “display the sort of expansiveness that you’d expect to find in a novel rather than a short story having a wide cast of characters and a lengthy timeline.”I realize this is the same sort of comment that is often made about the stories of Alice Munro, who is my very favorite short story writer. However, reading the stories of Valerie Trueblood this second time, even though I purposely slowed down and tried to focus on them fairly, I found them too diffuse, with too many characters, too much time covered--in short, much too much like the seeming expansiveness found in novels without the sly, tight thematic patterning and psychological insight I find in the masterful stories of Alice Munro.
Too often in a Trueblood story, I got lost a few pages in and had to go back to the beginning to identify characters, visualize locale, and try to grasp the dramatic situation.I know I often have to do this in an Alice Munro story also, but the effort pays off by making me more aware of the emotional, psychological, thematic core of her stories.With Trueblood’s stories, I just found myself getting lost again when another set of characters at another space/time locale was introduced.Trueblood’s stories just go on and on without any sense of purpose or significance.Characters are introduced, their problems explored, and their actions and thoughts recorded, but the stories do not cohere in any meaningful thematic way. That may be fine in the leisurely world of the novel, but it just won’t do in the brief compact compass of the short story.
Trueblood’s prose is often too loose and wordy, without any significant reason.For example:“Her mother went into the hospital.She went by ambulance to the county hospital, the same one where they had taken Sharla’s little girl, and there she too died.” Why not, “Her mother was taken to the county hospital where, like Sharla’s little girl, she died.”And often, Trueblood takes time to pose general questions in quite ordinary ways:“What is love?What is it?How can it be what it seems to be, nothing? A vacancy, an invisibility, a configuration of the mind.” And too often the dialogue has no significance-- just people talking without that talk bearing any real weight or revealing anything important about the characters.
As I have been writing this, I have gone back through the collection and find to my amazement that although I have now read it twice, the last time in the past week, and I still cannot remember any of the stories.And damn it, I am not that old.The stories are just that diffuse.
I confess that Valerie Trueblood’s stories have suffered from the fact that I have also been reading Edith Pearlman’s magnificent collection of stories, Binocular Vision, this week.Pearlman’s stories are so brilliant, so well written, so remarkable in their precision and perception that Marry or Burn just pales in comparison.When she was writing the introduction to Pearlman’s book, fellow writer Ann Patchett says she sat down and read Binocular Vision with a pen in her hand, intending to underline some of the best sentences so she could quote them along the way, but quickly saw that she was underlining the entire book.I read Valerie Trueblood’s book this second time also with a pen in hand, hoping to accent sentences that I admired as I did so often while reading Pearlman’s book.I fear the pages remain clean.
Although I have tried very hard to understand, I cannot guess why Marry or Burn was shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.Perhaps you may think that I personally just didn’t like Trueblood’s stories, but having read thousands of short stories in my life, I feel confident that when I do not like short stories I read, it is usually because they are not very good short stories.
The winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award will be announced in Cork in a few days.The folks at the Munster Literature Center will probably never ask me to be a judge in the contest, but because one of the pleasures of such contests is trying to out-judge the judges, I may be so bold as to pick my own winner.