Monday, September 12, 2011

Valerie Trueblood, MARRY OR BURN: Shortlisted for 2011 Frank O'Connor Short Story Award

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.


Anonymous said...

This reviewer, who quickly admits to intially reacting negatively to Marry or Burn because it is not her type of story, repeats the same prejudice at the end, and adds:

To admit to having a limited taste for short stories should have been enough-- I note no one else has commented on the consequent slam-- but I would like to suggest that a person who expects stories to jave a plot she can remember and not many characters is like someone who complains that after seeing many Cezanne paintings of Mt St-Victoire she still cannot say what is its shape or color or even where it is... PS my review of Marry or Burn which apparently this reviewer missed in the April reviews at Necessary Fiction tries to help n open minded reader deal with the challenges the book raises:


Anonymous said...

In responding to this biased pan of MuB, I shd have just quoted Valerie from her APR essay same years back, "What's the Story?" as I did at the very end of my Necessary Fiction review last April: Valerie wrote:

Many a reader of short stories has passionate favorites but trouble saying what happened in them. If somebody comes up with a summary, that doesn’t seem to be it, exactly. And of course that is not it. The short story is like those Flemish paintings that go back from a vivid center, blur the middle ground, and stop at a far mountain range unmatched to the rest of the landscape, dim, rocky and formidable. There’s a subject all right, but behind it, way out there—the high rocks.
I add to end my review:
The “subject” of a great short story is not what we gather from even a careful reading. In Trueblood’s stories it is an underlying, obscure intuition—here of something in space; but in Jane’s painterly understanding also mysteriously in time, as occurs to her when her new sympathetic rabbi friend explores what may be a new possibility, a new connection:
“So. You like him maybe a little. Mayhew. This guy who gives up everything. And for what does he do this? For a woman.”
“A woman!” she said. But she didn’t argue. There was more to it than an explanation, however long, could cover. Often it seemed to her the explanation of anything that came to pass would have no beginning and no end. If you painted a thing, that was the shortened explanation of it.

Charles E. May said...

I thank Professor John Oliver Perry for his vigorous disagreement with my remarks on Valerie Trueblood's MARRY OR BURN.I have since read his own very perceptive and articulate review on the blog Necessary Fiction, and have gained in insight by doing so. I have also read Ms. Trueblood's essay on the short story in The American Poetry Review and find myself agreeing with her about the short story as a form. I apologize for having missed both of these excellent essays when I was preparing my own remarks on MARRY OR BURN.

However, I must say that as persuasive as professor Perry is and as much as I admire Ms. Trueblood's analysis of the qualities of the short story, I am not tempted to read MARRY OR BURN a third time.

With all due respect to Professor Perry and Ms. Trueblood, I do not think my comments constitute, as he says, a "biased pan." I would like to think that my only bias is for good short stories.

I am wiling to accept, however, that we may disagree on what constitutes a "good short story." In the forty years I taught the short story, I met lots of disagreement on that score.

I have always felt that the style and structure of short stories differ from the style and structure typical of the novel. In my opinion, Ms. Trueblood's stories are too novelistic to be effective short stories.

Thank you, Professor Perry,for your remarks. Thank you, Ms Trueblood for your good work. I did not wish to publicly express my failure to appreciate your stories; I just felt I had to explain why your book was not my favorite among the six collections shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor Award.

Jennifer Matthews said...

Anatomy of a Hatchet Job:

Charles E. May said...

Sorry you think so, Jennifer. I simply expressed my own opinion. I reserve that right, don't you?

Jennifer Matthews said...

This is quite a different response to your deferential comments made to an earlier poster. Everyone has a right to their opinions, and I think pointing out flaws in reviews is actually essential to healthy growth in the arts. My qualms were with the quality of your writing in this review, as compared to your earlier, more measured reviews. Fair enough, you didn't enjoy it. There's a difference between a review expressing constructive criticism and a review that is full of vitriolic overgeneralisations and lacks specific examples. It's simply poor reviewing. More would be expected considering the better quality of your previous reviews. Writing with clarity and a modicum of compassion about books you didn't enjoy is indeed difficult, but to do anything less is lazy reviewing. Just my opinion.

Charles E. May said...

Well, Jennifer. I responded more fully to John Perry because his disagreement was more complete than yours. I read Ms. Trueblood's collection of stories three times, trying to understand why I did not like them. My blog on Marry or Burn was not intended to be a full-scale review. I had already declined reviewing the book when her publicist sent it to me because I did not want to post a negative review. However, when I decided to discuss all six shortlisted books for the Frank O'Connor Award I felt I had no choice but to explain why I liked it least of the group. Ad I have yet to meet a writer who wants compassion from reviewers; what the writer wants, I think, is carefuly, engaged reading and honesty in response. I read your post and congratulate you for being the first person to accuse me of resting on my reputation or being lazy in my work in the forty-five years of my career. And, by the way, I never use capital letters for emphasis. For some reason the blogspot software converted my whole discussion of Marry or Burn into capital letters. Thanks for reading my comments on the short story. I hope you continue and continue to respond.