Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How-to-Read Books and New Book on Reading Short Stories

Today, Wednesday, November 16, 2011, is the third anniversary of this blog—“Reading the Short Story.” In that three-year period I have posted over 160 brief essays on various aspects of short story theory and criticism, and on many different short story writers, short story collections, and individual short stories. I hope to continue posting essays at least once a week. But now that I have completed editing work on the new Critical Insights: Alice Munro book, I am itching to begin a new publishing project. Although I am no believer in such things, a few days ago, a newspaper horoscope provided the following Aquarian encouragement:

“You’re not sure you have the energy to dive into a project, but dive you will. You have a feeling that your adrenaline reserves will kick in when you need them most—and you’re right!” Can the stars be wrong?

So, here’s what I have in mind. I have always believed that although the short story is a “natural” form, it is at the same time a form of high “artifice.” That is, although it probably began with the basic human urge to relate something some strange that happened or to illustrate some significant idea, it has a long tradition of developing certain literary conventions that make reading a short story a different experience than reading a novel. In my opinion, the form is not popular because often the general reader, not knowing its conventions of artifice, tries unsuccessfully to read it the same way he or she reads a novel. Furthermore, I have always believed that academic readers—students and teachers alike—have undervalued and largely ignored the form because in their focus on what they consider to be the more complex and comprehensive novel, they do not understand or appreciate how short stories uniquely capture ambiguous human reality.

So what I would like to write is a book that is accessible to the popular reader, acceptable to the professional reader, and meets the approval of the short story writer--a bridge between general readers and academic readers. Based on my forty years of reading, teaching, and writing about the short story, the book would offer suggestions I have found helpful for reading the short story with pleasure and understanding--in short, a “how to” book for readers that would stimulate their interest in the short story—a daunting task. Virginia Woolf opened her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” (Common Reader, Second Series) cautioning that the only advice one person can give another about reading is “to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” She says she aims to put forth a few suggestions about reading, confident that her readers will not allow such suggestions to “fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.” However, “to enjoy freedom,” Woolf wisely adds in a final reminder, “we have of course to control ourselves.”

I hope the book I begin to write this week embodies just the right blend of freedom and control to encourage both general and professional readers to read the short story with appreciation and understanding. The first aspect of the book on which I seek the advice of my own readers is what to name it, since titles can either attract or affront. “How to Read a Short Story” seems a bit pretentious and somewhat condescending. “Reading the Short Story,” which is the title of this blog, makes an assumption that there is such a genre as “the” short story, rather than merely lots of stories that happen to be short. “Reading Short Stories” sounds too casual on the one hand or too much like a text anthology on the other. How Does a Short Story Mean?—after John Ciardi’s famous How Does a Poem Mean? sounds a bit too academic. And I sure don’t want to call it, How To Read a Short Story Like a Professor. I would like to create a book for the educated general reader as well as the student and professional reader, which can serve as “A Guide for People Who Love Short Stories and For Those Who Want to Write Them”—to echo Francine Prose subtitle for her Reading Like a Writer.

Over the next several months as I work on this book, I plan to post on this blog my progress and my problems; I sincerely solicit your advice at all stages of its composition. Initially, I ask you to choose on the sidebar poll what you think is the best name for the book.

As a first step in writing such a book, I did a fairly thorough search of other books that suggest “how to read.” Tom Lutz did a helpful survey of such books back in 2007; you can find it at:

Lutz points out that whereas the “how-to-read” genre has been around since Noah Porter published “Books and Reading, or What Books Shall I Read and How Should I Read Them?” in 1871, there is something odd, though, about the latest slough of anti-academic books offering to teach us “how to read, since they are primarily written by academics “But perhaps it is because most of these books are only masquerading as guides to reading. What each really offers is a series of explications of famous passages, much like, well, academic criticism.”

Below is my own list of “how to read” books, most of which you can find also in Lutz’s article. I would like to weave my way through this thicket, making use of the best of them and avoiding, of course, the worse. I am no famous author and thus cannot arouse interest by luxuriating in personal anecdotes and autobiography. I am no high-powered critic who writes for The New Yorker, The New York Times, or The Times Literary Supplement, who can wander with scholarly ease through a wide range of worldly reading. I would like to write a book that aspiring writers and aspiring teachers would find useful, but at the same time, I have no authority to write a “guide for writers” and no desire to put together a standard college textbook.

I do not plan to submit a formal proposal to publishers until I have the book outlined and at least one chapter completed I have no illusions about how difficult it will be to find a publisher who thinks a book on how to read short stories will sell well enough to justify its publication. After all, few publishers think the form generates enough interest to publish books of short stories, unless the author promises a novel. But I plan to write the book anyway. Wish me luck!

How-To-Read Books

Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, 1940. This is a classic book on reading in general. Clifton Fadiman, writing in The New Yorker, said it was the only “self-improvement book” he has ever read that did not make him “want to go out and start improving things by assassinating the author.” That, of course is often the problem with “how-to” books: People are put off by someone daring to suggest that they need to be taught something they already know.

I. A. Richards. How to Read a Page, 1942. Subtitled “a course in efficient reading with an introduction to 100 great works,” the word “efficient” certainly does not suggest speed reading, skimming, or summarizing, but rather what is often discredited now as “close reading” by the great British literary critic and semanticist.

Harold Bloom. How to Read and Why, 2000. One of Bloom’s major arguments about contemporary criticism is that ideology, “particularly in its shallower versions, is peculiarly destructive of the capacity to apprehend and appreciate irony. And yet the loss of irony is the death of reading.” Irony, says Bloom, “demands a certain attention span, and the ability to sustain antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another. Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise…. Irony will clear your mind of the cant of the ideologues, and help you to blaze forth as the scholar of one candle.”

Thomas C. Foster. How to Read Literature Like a Professor, 2003. Foster argues that the professor of literature has acquired over the years a “language of reading,” a “grammar of literature, a set of conventions, patterns, codes and rules” he or she uses when reading literature. He says that memory, symbol, pattern are the three items that separate the professional reader from the “rest of the crowd” and that what he hopes to do in the book is to “give readers a view of what goes on when professional students of literature do their thing, a broad introduction to the codes and patterns that inform our reading.” Foster is a little too chatty and informal for my tastes. I cringe when he says, “By now I’ve beaten you severely about the head and shoulders with the notion that literature grows out of other literature” or uses the word “natch” as short for naturally.

Caroline Gordon, How to Read a Novel, 1957. Gordon says that since the novel is “different from any other form of art, if we are to become good readers of fiction, we must learn to recognize and in our own minds define this essential difference.” Gordon says up front that her concern is with the “general reader” and that her book is an attempt to answer two questions: “What is a novel?” and “How Should It Be Read?” Gordon includes fairly conventional chapters on setting, point of view, etc.

John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel, 2006. Sutherland complains about information overload, suggesting that there is so much out there that we cannot know what we should read. “How can we identify the 10 percent, or less, of fiction available that is not crap”? Sutherland spends a lot of time talking about modern market techniques and longing for the Victorian good old days. He is genial in a British scholar sort of way, but doesn’t really talk very cogently about what his title promises.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, 2005. Smiley says the most obvious hallmark of novels is length and that the form was invented to be long because “what early novelists wanted to communicate could not be communicated in a shorter or more direct form, and also because length itself is enjoyable.” The characters or the narrator’s voice or the author’s way of thinking becomes something the reader wants to continue to experience. “In a novel, length is always a promise, never a threat.” Smiley also says that the “most important essential characteristic of the novel that arises out of its structure, out of the combination of narrative ad length, is that it is inherently political.” By this, she means that since the reader knows it is highly implausible that a single human mind has no social context, inevitably the subject of any novel “comes to be the coexistence of the protagonist and his group.” Smiley includes chapters on the history of the novel, the psychology of the novel, a case history of her own novel Good Faith, and a brief synopsis and commentary of 100 novels. This is a big book—almost 600 pages—with lots of personal anecdotes.

Nancy C. Millett and Helen J. Throckmorton, How to Read a Short Story, 1969. This is a small textbook in which Millett and Throckmorton, two professors at Wichita State University discuss the basic elements of fiction—theme, character, plot, symbolism, and irony—including stories to illustrate them—Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” Chekhov’s “The Wager,” Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Portable Phonograph,” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” For each “element” and each story, they point out what they call “clues” to discovering theme, character, plot, etc.

John Ciardi and Miller Williams, How Does a Poem Mean, 1975. This is a classic textbook anthology that includes a number of poems along with Ciardi’s commentary on them.

Hirsch, Edward. How to Read a Poem, 1999. Hirsch makes generalizations about poetry, explicates specific poems, and quotes critiques and writers. He says an exemplary poem teaches you how to read it. However, he laments that so many people have become estranged from the devices and techniques of poetry and poetic thinking that reading poetry is an endangered activity, maybe, he says, because reading itself is endangered in our culture. The book includes a glossary and a list of suggested reading.

James Wood, How Fiction Works, 2008. By fiction, Wood primarily means the novel. However, he redeems himself in my mind by pointing out that two of his favorite twentieth-century critics are the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky and the French formalist-cum-structuralist Roland Barthes. Wood likes these critics because, being formalists, “they thought like writers: they attended to style, to words, to form, to metaphor and imagery.” However, Wood says, unlike Shklovsky and Barthes, he does not wish to present himself as a specialist writing for other specialists. Although he says he hopes to ask theoretical questions he wants to answer them practically.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, 2006. Prose’s central point is that to be a good reader, one must be knowledgeable of, and sensitive to, those elements of writing that constitute the craft: words, sentences, character, dialogue, and details. Prose reminds us of something that students of literature often find it hard to accept—that subject matter is not all that important, that what the writer most often wants to do is write really great sentences. Over and over, Prose urges the reader to focus on words, rhythm, and pattern; it is thus not surprising that she more often cites short stories rather than novels to illustrate stylistic excellence and to explain formal strategies.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Steven Millhauser and The Reality of Artifice

I had just finished reading Steven Millhauser’s new book, We Others: New and Selected Stories, when I received my copy of Best American Short Stories, 2011, which reprinted his story “Phantoms,” from McSweeneys. And then, son-of-a-gun, in came the Nov. 14 issue of The New Yorker with his story “Miracle Polish.” As was said of the ubiquitous Mr. Browne in Joyce’s “The Dead,” Millhauser has of late been “laid on like the gas.” That’s all right by me. Steven Millhauser is always a welcome guest in my mind.

We Others includes fourteen stories from Millhauser’s previous four collections (In the Penny Arcade, 1986; The Barnum Museum, 1990; The Knife Thrower, 1998; and Dangerous Laughter, 2008. It also includes seven “new” stories: “The Slap,” “The White Glove,” “Getting Closer,” The Invasion from Outer Space,” “People of the Book,” “The Next Thing,” and the novella-length title story “We Others.”

The Millhauser story chosen for the 2011 Best American Short Stories, “Phantoms,” is also a ghost story, in which Millhauser explores one his favorite “romantic” concepts—that there is another dimension of reality surrounding us, a dimension of spirits of those who have died. “Phantoms” is made up of various “case studies” in which these spirits appear to people, interspersed with various hypotheses or explanations of what they are. For example, one explanation is that the phantoms are “the unwanted or unacknowledged portions of ourselves, which we try to evade but continually encounter; they make us uneasy because we know them; they are ourselves.” Given Millhauser’s “romantic” view of reality, perhaps his favorite hypothesis is that we are all phantoms, that our bodies are artificial constructs of our brains and we are dream creations. “The world itself is a great seeming.”

Millhauser’s most recent story in the new issue of The New Yorker, “Miracle Polish,” is a “concept” stories that draws on nineteenth-century German romantic notions, which Millhauser has used before. For example, in his story “August Eschenburg,” he explores Heinrich von Kleist’s paradoxical notion that, from the perspective of art, the automaton is preferable to the human--a concept most fully developed in Kleist's dialogue, "On the Puppet Theatre," in which a famous dancer tells Kleist that puppets are better able to express grace and beauty in their motions than human beings because they have no choice but to obey mechanical principles; the more that the human element of the puppeteer can be removed, the more perfect the dance the puppets perform.

The purest form of grace exists, says the dancer, only in those who either have no consciousness or those who have infinite consciousness--either the puppet or God. When Kleist responds that this theory suggests that we must eat from the tree of knowledge once again and then fall back into a state of innocence, the dancer replies, "by all means...that is the last chapter in the history of the world." Critic Robert Langbaum has suggested that this is the central myth of romantic literature: the psychologized and secular version of the myth of the Fall, for the Fall to the romantics is indeed a fall into consciousness. For Kleist, says Langbaum, art becomes the back door to Eden, in that art delivers us from self-consciousness through ritual. And indeed it is ritual rather than self-consciousness that characterizes Kleist's fiction.

Nineteenth-century German Romantic, E.T.A. Hoffman’s “A New Year’s Eve Adventure” is a story within a story which is sometimes published only with the insert story and entitled "The Story of the Lost Reflection." Erasmus Spikher is a man who has lost his reflection; another character in the story, Peter Schlemihl, who lost his shadow, is from Adalbert Chamisso's novel of that name published in 1814. These stories belongs within a romantic tradition in German nineteenth-century Romanticism-- a tradition of the novelle that begins with Goethe and develops in more detail with the works of Ludwig Tieck, Adalbert Chamisso, and Hoffman himself.

American readers are most familiar with the tradition in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both of whom make use of the familiar convention of the double figure which is based on the notion of the split in the self between the body and the soul. The stories of Hoffmann mark the beginning of the Romantic insistence that reality is of the imagination only. Moreover, Hoffmann's combination of psychological realism and fairytale conventions is a key factor in the development of the short story genre in America with the works of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe. Such a transition is part of that major shift in the nineteenth century that critic M. H. Abrams says characterizes the basic concepts and patterns of romantic philosophy and art, that is, as displaced and reconstituted theology or as a secularized form of devotional experience. The resulting basic tendency of the romantic revolution is to naturalize the supernatural and humanize the divine.

Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” begins in traditional folklore fashion: A stranger comes to the door with something for sale called “Miracle Polish.” When the protagonist buys a bottle of the polish and shines his mirror with it, he seems to see himself differently: “There was a freshness to my body, a kind of mild glow that I had never seen before… What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, man who expected things of life.” This transformation becomes an obsession with him, and he polishes all the mirrors in his house and buys many more mirrors to polish and hang so that everywhere he turns he sees his transformed self. However, when he tries to involve the woman with whom he has a relationship in his mirror obsession, she accuses him of preferring the woman in the mirror to her actual physical self.

As in many other Millhauser stories, “Miracle Polish” is a metaphorical exploration of the Platonic notion that underlies all romanticism—the reality of artifice. The narrator’s sense of growing obsession is typical of the romantic short story that gave birth to the form in the early nineteenth century. Edgar Allan Poe has always been accused of being indifferent to living, flesh and blood subjects. W. H. Auden has said there is no place in any of his stories for "the human individual as he actually exists in space and time," that is, as a natural creature and an historical person. Richard Wilbur in his famous Library of Congress Lecture in 1959 concluded that Poe's aesthetic that "art should repudiate everything human and earthly," was insane. However, the repudiation of "reality" as being only everyday human experience is precisely what myth and folklore--the primal forerunners of the short story--are based on. Poe's aesthetic, and thus the dominant aesthetic of the short story, has always been based on this same assumption that the artistic objectification of desire is true reality.

Millhauser is motivated by the same obsessions that drove William Blake--to see a world in a grain of sand, to affirm that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Best American Short Stories 2011

In her Introduction to The Best American Short Stories: 2011, Geraldine Brooks admits that when she read the 120 stories preselected and sent to her by series editor Heidi Pitlor, she was more than a little overwhelmed by her task of picking the top twenty, asking, “And who was I, anyway, to be making this call? I who had never written a short story.”

And readers who have followed this series faithfully for many years might well ask why the series has been picking writers who know little or nothing about short stories to be guest editor, for example, Richard Russo in 2010 and Alice Sebold in 2009.

It does not appear that such big-name novelists on the cover have done much to attract reviews for the series. I searched all the standard newspaper and periodical databases and could only find three or four, e.g. short notes in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews, and a notice in the Chicago Tribune, primarily because the book features a story by Rebecca Makkai, a Chicago native (her fourth straight appearance in the series!). I reckon the book is selling fairly decently though; it was recently listed at about #1,000 on Amazon. That’s not bad, considering that Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is running at around #3,000 on the Amazon list.

I do not intend to offer extended comments on the twenty stories this year, but will simply indicate why I liked some of the stories and did not like others. One of the things I like best about this series (and the PEN/O. Henry Award series also) is that they often introduce me to writers I might have otherwise missed, since I simply cannot subscribe to all the journals that originally published their stories. Seven of the twenty stories in this year’s BASS originally appeared in The New Yorker and one appeared in Harper’s, both to which I do subscribe. However, without the BASS, I might have missed Megan Mayhew Bergman’s story “Housewifely Arts,” which appeared in One Story and Ehud Havazelet’s “Gurov in Manhattan,” which appeared in Triquarterly.

I was hooked by Bergman’s story when the narrator said she was driving to a small roadside zoo outside of Myrtle Beach “so that I can hear my mother’s voice ring through the beak of a thirty-six-year old African gray parrot, a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me.” Bergman is a witty writer who makes me laugh, but who sneaks up on me with a serious story about the complexity of a woman’s relationship to her mother, joking her way to a final admission of a discovered truth about “what maniacs we are—sick with love, all of us.”

Havazelet’s “Gurov in Manhattan” is a perfect example of my conviction that short stories have to be read slowly and attentively or not at all. I started this story three times, determined to read it because it was based on my of my favorite stories of all times, Chekhov’s “Lady with a Pet Dog,” but it kept fading away from me. I am glad I did not give up, for it is a very delicate story about a man who has reached that age when he must painfully realize that he is not what he once thought he was. The central male character, Sokolov, is the one with the dog in this story, an old dog having a helluva time with his bowels. The Chekhov allusion is to the crucial moment in “Pet Dog” when, after seducing Anna, Gurov pauses to eat a slice of melon. It is a moment that Havazelet rightly points out that Chekov does so well---“a moment where nothing seems to happen but yet everything has changed.” Yes, indeed.

The 100 stories that Brooks did not pick from the 120 that Pitlor selected from approximately 4,000 she somehow managed to read are listed at the back of the book. So the twenty presumably “Best American Short Stories” we have in this year’s book have been “chosen” three times—once by the editor who originally published them, then by Pitlor, and finally by Brooks. Of course, the finally twenty reflect each editor’s notion of what “best” means.

Brooks admits up front that she looks “sideways at short stories, like a nervy horse at an unknown rider. I wasn’t quite sure how they worked.” Then she relates a little anecdote of being at a literary event at which a group of writers took turns telling jokes; the best jokester, she said, turned out to be Richard Bausch, a master of the short story—no coincidence Brooks suggests, since “The best short stories and the most successful jokes have a lot in common…in the joke and the short story, the beginning and end are precisely anchored tent poles, and what lies between must pull so taut it twangs.”

As a result if Brooks’ notion of the relationship between the joke and the short story—not a bad comparison actually, that is, for a certain kind of short story—results in this year’s volume focusing more than usual on, well, a certain kind of short story that Brooks likes: stories with clever, witty, funny writing, e.g. the stories by Bergman, Egan, Goodman, Horrocks, Lipsyte, Nuila, Saunders; and stories with snappy endings, like a punch line, e.g. Englander, Johnston, Row.

The result is that this is an entertaining, very accessible, readable collection, with only a few stories that are complexly and humanly challenging. You really don’t have to read these stories twice; they are funny, clever, witty, transparent, conceptual, satiric, etc. That’s all well and good and may be just the thing to get folks back to reading short stories. I hope so.

Writers in this collection whose work I know well include the following, some of which I enjoyed, some of which I found passing fair, some of which I thought ordinary, but passed the time of day.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Ceiling” failed to interest me much. Too much dependent on social change in Nigerian society, with a relatively weak “lost love” story stringing the social issues together.

Jennifer Egan’s “Out of Body” is a chapter from her best-selling A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I have read and enjoyed, but this is not my favorite story from that collection of stories parading as a novel. I liked it better in the book because it provided a context for these characters that the stand-alone story does not provide.

Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is a fable/folkloric story about what is capable of in order to survive in brutal situations. Like the stories in Englander’s well-received collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges several years ago, this story is an effective combination of the rough-edged and the smoothed-out. I feel about this one the same way I did about Englander’s earlier tales: I liked them, but felt sheepishly as if I had allowed myself to be manipulated by a slick storyteller.

Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova” is another slick, smooth, “a-little-to-clever-for-my tastes” tale that seems to exist primarily as an opportunity for Goodman to just “fool around” a bit while not writing a novel.

I wrote about Claire Keegan’s story “Foster” when it appeared in The New Yorker. I like this story very much, not only because it makes me long to be back in Ireland, but because it captures so delicately and authentically the mystery of family secrets and childhood vulnerability.

I am a great fan of Steven Millhauser. I just recently read and reviewed his We Others: New and Selected Stories, and he has a new story in the Nov. 14 issue of The New Yorker. I will discuss the story in BASS, “Phantoms,” his new story, and some of the stories in WE Others in a separated blog entry next week.

As anyone who knows me at all knows, I am not a great fan of Joyce Carol Oates. I have written about why I am not a fan on this blog before. This story, “”ID,” inspired by her having to id her husband’s body, is too routinely “Joyce Carol Oates transforming every thing in her life into a story” for me. I read it when it came out in the New Yorker and have remarked on it in an earlier blog.

I like the stories of George Saunders and have read all of them, although the satiric short story is not my favorite type. In this story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” as usual, Saunders has an interesting intellectual/social concept in mind, and he certainly knows how to transform a concept into a story. He is always fun to read; I never miss an opportunity to read a new Saunders story.

I have only recently discovered the stories of Mark Souka and have commented him on this blog recently. In “The Hare’s Mask,” he creates a tight little story about a father’s childhood when he discovered violence and learned compassion. This is a classic, well-made story with a stinger in its tale—not a trick ending, but a discovery ending that creates a nice little surprise for the reader.

Similarly, Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Soldier of Fortune,” whose stories in his collection Corpus Christi I have read and liked, is a story with an ending that, while not totally unexpected, is satisfying because of the way Johnston paces the story so carefully to lead up to it.

The other stories in this year’s Best American Short Stories did not, for various reasons, capture my attention, compel me into thought, or otherwise make me want to read more of the same. I will probably soon forget Tom Bissell’s self-absorbed “A Bridge Under Water,” Caitlin Horrocks’s clever satire “The Sleep,” Sam Lipsyte’s boys-playing-games “The Dungeon Master,” Elizabeth McCracken’s “Property,” Ricardo Nuila’s “Dog Bites,” Richard Powers “To the Measures Fall,” and Jess Row’s “The Call of Blood.” As for Rebecca Makkai’s “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart,” I think I will go back to the last three BASS collections and read her other stories before commenting on her work. To have four stories in a row in the series is, if not a record, at least worthy of note.

All in all, this year’s Best American Short Stories is a collection that I read with mostly “pop” pleasure. It introduced me to at least three writers that I intend to seek out and read again and it gave me an opportunity to return to several writers that I have enjoyed in the past. For the $10 to $15 price tag (depending on where you buy it), it is a real fiction-reading bargain. I always recommend it highly, even when I don’t agree with the choices of the guest editor.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams" and the Importance of Genre

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, published in a whopping 128-page hardcover (with lots of white space) by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux two months ago, originally appeared, according to the book’s copyright page “in a slightly different form” in the Paris Review in 2002. The story only took up about 50 pages in the O. Henry Prize Stories: 2003 (where I first read it). It was chosen by O. Henry jurors Jennifer Egan and David Gutterson as their “favorite” of the 20 stories in the volume (Juror Diane Johnson chose A. S. Byatt’s “The Thing in the Forest” as her favorite.”)

The Library Journal review said that Johnson “has skillfully packed an epic tale into novella length” and Publishers’ Weekly praised Johnson’s “epic sensibilities rendered in miniature.” So, one might ask, what is a “miniature epic?” Aren’t those two terms contradictory? And why is Train Dreams a novella rather than a short story or a novel? Often these generic terms are a matter of marketing. For example, Jennifer Egan’s very successful book A Visit from the Goon Squad is marketed on its cover very prominently as a “novel.” However, I read it as a collection of short stories. Any time a writer puts together a collection of stories with some links--ala Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, e.g., a shared place or shared characters--publishers are eager to label it a novel and critics are eager to discuss it as a short story-cycle.

It will come as no surprise to those of you who have read my blog even occasionally over the past three years that I have little patience with attempts by the publishing industry to try to make the short story more appealing or the academic industry to make it more worthy of discussion by calling individual stories (like those of Alice Munro) “novelistic, or by calling a collection of stories a “composite novel.” As for what Henry James called the “blest nouvelle,” the kind of fictional narrative that lies in length somewhere in between the “world in a grain of sand” that is the short story and the “bulky monster” that is the novel, I think it is a closer relative to the short story than to the novel. I posted a blog on that form in January 2010, in which I tried to lay out the characteristics that distinguished it both from the short story and the novel.

Many readers and critic may very well argue that such generic terminology matters little or not at all, noting that “a rose by any other name” blah, blah, blah. Whereas publishers will probably say that terminology matters a great deal to how they market their books of fiction, I would argue that it matters a great deal in terms of what kind of experience readers are in for when they pick up a book called “short stories,” “a novella,” or “a novel.” On this point, I would quote again what I cited in my earlier blog on the novella: I agree with C. S. Lewis, who once said, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do, and how it is meant to be used!” If one does not formulate some means of knowing this, then one can say nothing to the purpose about it, and indeed may run the risk of misunderstanding, or misjudging, it entirely.

Genre is, for me, an important issue because knowing the “kind” of story we read establishes a certain “horizon of expectations” that guides our reading. Certainly, a great writer will not merely follow the conventions of a genre, for then we would call him or her a “genre” writer, the way, for example, Stephen King is a genre writer. Certainly, a great writer will often defeat our expectations, thus extending our previous understanding of what kind of story we are reading. On the other hand, a great writer will seldom completely ignore the tradition from which he or she draws.

Many reviewers have already noted the importance of the genre issue when reading Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. For example, in his comments on why he chose the story as his favorite in the O. Henry volume, David Gutterson reminds us that the short story does indeed have a tradition, from Poe and Gogol to Borges and George Saunders; he places “Train Dreams in a line of descent that includes tall tales, supernatural yarns, and magical realism—a homage to Bret Harte. He says he admires Johnson’s “skilful blending of forms and traditions.” “Is it a short story?” Gutterson asks. “That’s difficult to say. Perhaps there’s no longer such a category.” Gutterson admires Johnson’s attention to detail in the story, but says its greater power lies in “its visitations, its haunted moments of sadness and yearning in which the world appears otherworldly and aggrieved even while infused with comedy.”

Jennifer Egan also calls attention to the “density of historical detail in the story,” but adds that the story’s “real power lies in its mystery, its reluctance to reveal itself. What is this about?” she says she kept asking herself as she read. David Ulin’s review in The Los Angeles Times also focuses on the key generic issue of the book, calling it a “stoic miniature,” a “portrait of containment, of compression and restraint.” Ulin says that although Johnson evokes the stuff of novels--“the slow passage of time from rural to commercial, the commodification of our collective soul,” he thinks Johnson has something more “elusive in mind, something more fundamental and intense.” What the books evokes, says Ulin, is “the fluid divide between spirit and substance, his sense that the metaphysical is always with us, even if we can’t decipher what it means.” And this, as I have suggested many times in this blog, is the sense of the spiritual that has always been the special realm of the short story and the novella.

Anthony Doerr’s review in The New York Times isolates the generic source of the story’s power most incisively. Doerr says he read the story almost ten years ago when it first appeared in The Paris Review and has read it several times sense. Like Jennifer Egan and others, he has said that the story seems to haunt one long after it is read. He attributes this haunting power to the story’s brevity, citing Poe’s famous statement that, second only to poetry, the form most advantageous for the manifestation of the highest genius was the “short prose narrative” that one could read in one sitting. Novels, Poe felt were objectionable because they necessitated taking breaks in the reading, with “worldly interests” intervening that “modify, annul or counteract” the impressions of the work. Doerr emphasizes that short stories and novellas “offer a chance to affect readers more deeply” than novels because the reader “can be held in thrall for the entirety of the experience,” giving them, in Poe’s words, “the immense force derivable from totality.”

James Wood’s reading of the story in The New Yorker is less incisive that those of Ulin and Doerr, but he also finds himself caught in two different realm of reality in “Train Dreams.” First there is what he calls a kind of “clean American simplicity in prose” reminiscent of Hemingway, but he complains that sometimes one longs to “bathe in impurities” of a more abundant style. In other words, he thinks “Train Dreams” is a bit too short, “as if the protagonist’s lack of inwardness were itself a literary virtue.” Doerr, on the other hand, while praising the story’s brevity, complains that occasionally “tufts of seemingly irrelevant material stick out here and there.” But Doerr suggests that the story’s “imperfections somehow make the experience better, more real, more absorbing.” James Wood is able to forgive the clipped style reflective of the protagonist’s unreflective view of the world by noting that his spiritual visions “seem fit compensation for the unreflective, bounded, wordless, and bookless solitude of his existence.”

So what makes Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” work and what makes recognizing its genre as a “blessed nouvelle” important for the reading experience? Just this blend of Poe-like spiritual visions and Chekhov-like precise detail and language. Just this combination of the realistic and the supernatural, the sacred and the profane. Just this seamless linking (and blurring of that line) of the stuff of everyday reality and the stuff of that mysterious world that always exists in our dreams. In short, just the permutation that the short story and its close generic relative, the novella, have always made their own. Go back and re-read Gogol and Turgenev, Poe and Borges. Reread what has been called the “nightmares at noonday” in the stories of Ernest Hemingway. Read Steven Millhauser and Alice Munro. Read Joy Williams, Edith Pearlman, William Trevor, and many more great short story writers. They will all remind you of the importance of the generic tradition of the “short prose narrative” and how Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” both confirms and expands that tradition.