Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Entertainment Stories vs. Literary Stories

David Means, “El Morro”

For the last few weeks, I have been meaning to get back to David Means’ story “El Morro,” which appeared in the August 29, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. David Means is one of my favorite short story writers, and I have written about his work several times before on this blog. Means is one of those I admire because of his determination to continue to write short stories in spite of the fact that his publishers no doubt have beseeched him to write something they consider more serious and more saleable, that is, a novel.

In an online Paris Review Daily interview last year (June 22, 2010), Means was asked if he was ever tempted to write a novel. He said that he was “tempted,” for all that “wide-open space would be enticing” after having written four short story collections. But, he hastened to say, “What’s not enticing to me is the idea of simply going big for the sake of giving into the possibility of going big.” Means says he likes novels and reads them, but that “stories cut in sharp and hard and are able to reveal things in a different way: they’re highly charged.” Means says that although novels can mean “comprehensive,” they can also mean “bloat.”

Means insists he is not at all interested in “simply reporting what’s here right now, or cranking out an entertainment device that’s going to touch the widest number of people.” He says he is interested in “digging and excavating” as deep as he can into “small eternal moments,” concluding that moving from stories to novels for him “would be partly a matter of not giving into the temptation to abuse the form.”

Means ends his statement this way: (If you love the short story, you gotta love the guy.)

When I'm down—and even Alice Munro admits that at times she feels guilty for not writing a novel—I just start a defensive mantra: Blake never wrote novels. Whitman never wrote novels. Carver's work is still around. Franz Wright hasn't written a novel. And it's not fear of bad reviews, or not making something that isn't coherent or good that holds me back, but rather a fear of wasting time—and in doing so not being able to tell the stories that want to be told. If a story wants to be told and you don't tell it, you'd better stand back because something's going to explode.

I greatly admire writers like Means and Munro who are not interested in “cranking out an entertainment device that’s going to touch the widest number of people.” However, I do understand those readers who like “entertainment devices.” It’s just that I don’t live in the same reading world that they do. During my forty years in the classroom, I encountered many students who resented stories that were not entertaining, that were hard to read, that were depressing. I tried with all my energy to get them to make the extra effort that great stories often required. Sometimes I think I succeeded; sometimes I reckon I did not.

After reading David Means’ “El Morro,” a couple of times, I decided to check the blogosphere to see what others thought about it. And here is what I found:

Trevor on the blog Mooksie and the Gripes started quite a stream of comments when he remarked that he had read the story on his way to work, but got lost in it. He said he would return to it to see if he liked it but concluded, “At this point, I don’t think I’ll end up liking this one, but I need to understand it better before I decide.”

Then the comments started to roll in.

Aaron said: “Oh good lord, I’m almost afraid to read the comments for this one: given how little I got out of this story, if anybody finds something of value here, I’m going to be disappointed in myself.”

After a detailed and very sensitive reading of the story, Betsy is dissatisfied because she feels as if David Means has used and abandoned the girl in the story in the same way the character Lenny has.

Jerry is much more succinct and to the point; he says: “I thought this was junk. But even TNY prints a bad one now and then. I keep waiting for something from T. C. Boyle.. it’s been too long.”

Betsy comes to the defense with another bit of reasoned analysis, telling Jerry, “I don’t actually agree with you about it being junk. Means took way too much care with it.”

Then Trevor comes back saying, “I don’t get much from it after a couple of readings. And while I’m with Betsy that it isn’t “junk,” and really like her reasoning in her dispute, I can’t quite accept that Means’ care in creating the story has any bearing on whether or not it is junk.”

In another blog named “Fail Better,” Aaron Riccio seems to sum up many of the readers of “El Morro.” He says: “Let’s play a game I like to call, “What the f**k is this story about?” After summarizing the story, he concludes, “There’s the illusion of a story, in that people say things, but talk, as they say, is cheap, and this is a cheap story that shirks the responsibility of making us care in the slightest. I’ll say it again: “What the f.**ck is this story about?”

My most recent encounter with this kind of debate between writers like David Means and writers like T. C. Boyle, (which Jerry, who thinks “El Morro” is junk, wants to see on the pages of the New Yorker) is a post I wrote for the blog Thresholds. In that essay, I argued that good short stories required a close and careful reading. The essay elicited a strongly worded response from Mike Smith, a regular contributor to Thresholds that opened with this remark:

There was something in Professor May’s article for Thresholds that I couldn’t let go of, something that, it seemed to me, was based on an assumption that needed questioning, or at least needed to be put into a broader context. That something was his statement that ‘short stories cannot be skimmed, read quickly or summarized’. It’s the sort of remark that makes my hackles rise, regardless of who makes it, because I know that short stories can be skimmed and read quickly, and that they are frequently summarized. They are read in buses, trains, and waiting rooms, between appointments and in snatches while the boss is away. They are recalled to friends in shaky patches and fragmented recollections. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most short stories are actually written to be approached in this manner.

Smith’s example of a writer who writes short stories one can read quickly is Stephen King, an example that elicited a huzzah of approval from several responders to the blog. Jerri, for example, did not find Alice Munro stories appealing because “for some reason I have never been able to establish a personal connection with either her characters or their emotions.”

So there we have it: In one camp are those who like the stories of T. C. Boyle and Stephen King. In the other camp are those that like the stories of David Means and Alice Munro. Is there any possibility of mediation between these two camps? Are they meant to always live in two separate worlds? Is this difference of opinion a reflection of the old low brow/high brow distinction? Is it another aspect of the so-called culture wars between right and left wing politics? If so, since the only interest it holds for me on this blog involves the issue of how one reads short stories, it is not something about which very many will get their knickers in a twist. I don’t think anyone has gotten very upset about the short story since Shirley Jackson had people furious to find out where they actually stoned someone to death for winning the lottery.

The most recent response to this debate on Thresholds is from my friend Alysa Cox, who argues that the dichotomy suggested by this disagreement is a false one, for she reads both Alice Munro stories and Stephen King stories while waiting for the bus quite easily, thank you very much. But is this because Alysa is an academic who has learned how to read Alice Munro?

This is an issue that interests me, for it seems to me that one reads stories of the Means/Munro type quite differently than one reads stories of the Boyle/King type. In my teaching experience, students who had no difficulty reading Boyle and King struggled greatly with Munro and Means. And pace Alysa Cox, I don’t think that Munro and Means write stories specifically for academic readers. I just think that Munro and Means try to explore more complex issues in a more complex narrative way than writers like Boyle and King.

Next week, I will post my own discussion of David Means’ “El Morro.” But somehow, I don’t think I will convince the Boyle/King folks that it is a story worth the effort.


Anonymous said...

Charles: Did you see the piece in a recent New Yorker about Eliot and the end of modernism. I wonder if the literary short story is the last vestage of modernism, providing work for the critic ala Mathew Arnold's old dictum. It seems as if your bloggers comments could be divided into the new fact hounds and antiques like us whose mentors were the last serious disciples of modernism. I was also wondering if you have any ideas about how many of your readers write short fiction.
Take care. Dex

Philip said...

I find these discussions fascinating, not least because I'm firmly in the Means (and May, for that matter) camp, while at the same time enjoying stories that provide a more obvious kick (the 'obvious' here should not be interpreted as derogatory). When I have discussions of this nature , which I sometimes do, I tend to quote Virginia Woolf, who, a long time ago, reviewing Chekhov, described the effect of reading his stories as producing 'at first a queer feeling that the solid ground upon which we expected to make a safe landing has been twitched from under us and there we hang asking questions in mid air. It is giddy, uncomfortable, inconclusive.' The 'at first' is crucial, of course. Frank Kermode used to say that the purpose of fiction is 'to make sense, give comfort' and when we are confronted by things that don't make apparent sense it can be, as Woolf says, giddy, uncomfortable and disturbing. Personally, I don't mind being disturbed or made uncomfortable by fiction (and I certainly don't mind being made giddy), but I can see the other side of the argument. Of course, it's to do with what we want from our fictions. Woolf provides another good example with her story 'The Mark on the Wall'. When the mark is unidentified it becomes an open space into which the character (and the reader) can pour her own take, her own thoughts and fantasies. When the mark is identified by the husband, those fantasies are closed down and the story shuts abruptly with no room left for interpretation. I want the space; in fact, I see stories that leave that space as being fundamentally generous, as if they're being handed to the reader as a gift. I haven't read the new Means story, but will endeavour to track it down so I can follow the next stage of the debate more usefully. I think he's a really wonderful writer.

Beverly Akerman MSc said...

there is a false dichotomy operating here: i think stories can be both entertaining AND literary. my work is a case in point, but you don't have to take my word for it: read it yourself online--"Tumbalalaika" came second for the Sheldon Currie Prize for Fiction (The Antigonish Review), and "Pie" won Gemini Magazine's first Flash Fiction Prize. please find them here: and

both stories appear in my favourably reviewed, award winning collection, The Meaning Of Children:

Sandra said...

Congrats on your anniversary of this blog. Your insights and recommendations have contributed greatly to my appreciation of the short story form and to my reading enjoyment. I look forward to another great year of reading this blog. Francine Prose has an engaging voice in her Reading Like a Writer. She compels one to read or retread many if not all the stories and books she covers. Her enthusiasm for particular stories is infectious and I think you should go for that approach to your potential readers. Also
including a bibliography like she does at the back of the book is a wonderful recommendations list. Perhaps you could give us something like a basics classic and contemporary reader for the short story. My vote for title of your book is the same as your blog. I like that the blog is related to the book, The verb, Reading, for me captures your focus which is about pleasure while at the same time
you no doubt cover the form. Enough of my opinions! I love your blog. It's a gem.

Aaron Riccio said...

I'd add, too, that while I disliked "El Morro," I thought "The Junction" was well written. And I still think that Alice Munro is excellent, even though I think stories like "Axis" and "Gravel" are leagues beyond stuff like "Corrie" and "Leaving Maverly." T. C. Boyle has his share of misses, as does Stephen King, whose short stories I generally hate.

What it boils down to, for me, is having *something* to grab onto, and authors like Means seem to go to an overly literary place, to the extent such that they obfuscate rather than reveal. Personally, I also tend not to like stories that slow time down to millisecond, nor stories that skip through whole generations -- give me something in the middle, something that develops a character then and there. (Not that there aren't exceptions; Millhauser can get away with just about anything, in my book.)

I probably shouldn't have distilled my faults with Morro's piece down to something as shocking as an explication (instead of an explanation), but part of the fun of blogging is that I'm sending out a gut reaction. Perhaps I'll revisit some of these stories down the road, particularly if they're later anthologized or if I read something I love by the author and want to understand how I could so totally hate their earlier work, but if I'm not making a connection, I'm simply not making a connection, and that's as likely to happen in something written as pure fluff "entertainment" as it is in a "literary" story.