Sunday, May 27, 2012

PEN/O. Henry: 2012—Favorite Stories, Kindle Problems, and a Footnote on Where the Stories were Published

Yiyun Li, “Kindness”

In her essay on why Yiyun Li’s story “Kindness” is her favorite in this year’s PEN/O. Henry Stories, Mary Gaitskill says that interpretation of any kind seems “disrespectful” to the story.  After having read the story three times, I would say, rather, that “interpretation” is unnecessary.  The very fact that most of Gaitskill’s essay is simply a summary of the plot and a description of the central character of “Kindness” suggests that there is very little else to say about it.  It is a tale about one Chinese woman’s lonely life—fit stuff for a novel, but not a short story.  I have written about “Kindness” earlier on this blog in my discussion of Li’s collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl when it was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Prize.   I was not impressed by the story then; I am not impressed by it now.

 Li says in her author comments that she patterned “Kindness” after one of her favorite William Trevor novels, Nights at the Alexandra. She says as she wrote it, she imagined her narrator speaking to Trevor’s narrator, since both characters lead stoically solitary lives. Although the central character in “Kindness” seems an exemplum of Frank O’Connor’s famous characterization of the short story as the “Lonely Voice,” Yiyun Li’s story is not a short story at all—not even, as Daniyal Mueenuddin suggests in his discussion of what the story is his favorite, a “novella.”  It is just a novel that happens to be shorter than most novels, although it is indeed the longest piece in this year’s PEN/O. Henry.  

With all due respect, I suspect that Gaitskill and Mueenuddin’s choice of the story as their favorite this year primarily reflects their preference—and the preference of most readers—for the novel form over the short story, especially if the novel provides some information about a hitherto unfamiliar culture in a linear way.  Both Gaitskill and Mueenuddin emphasize that it is the voice of the character Moyen that holds the story together, with Gaitskill saying it is her “modesty that gives the story its quiet desolate beauty” and Mueenuddin arguing that it is Moyen’s subtlety, which he sees a form of “manners,” that draws us into sympathy with her.

I did not feel that in any of my readings of the story.  What Gaitskill and Mueenuddin admire as Moyen’s modesty and manners, I see only as the simplicity of a character who holds back from any engagement with others because of her timidity, naïveté, and fear.  More acted upon than acting, Moyen is a nonentity who goes through life passively, with little or no emotional reaction to those around her.  Gaitskill says “Kindness” is an “ordinary story.  It is terrible how ordinary it is.”  I agree that it is a very ordinary story, and that is why I do not care for it.  It may be the favorite story of these two writers, but that may be because they prefer novels to short stories. 

Alice Munro, “Corrie”

I have already posted previously on Alice Munro’s story “Corrie,” (Oct. 18, 2010—“Corrie”) and I have written about it in some detail in the introduction to my forthcoming book: Critical Insights: Alice Munro.  I quote two paragraphs from that blog post:

“The complexity of Munro’s short story is nothing like the complexity of a novel.  In a novel, we are interested in particular people in a particular situation at a particular time and place.  We make judgments on those people, as if they were like real people who live down the street or that we know from school or work.  If she were a character in a novel, we might say to Corrie, “Stupid woman, you are throwing your life away on that self-centered man, who will never leave his wife and come marry you.”  We might say to Ritchie, “You worthless bastard.  How could you ruin the life of this woman, while cheating on your wife?”

 But this short story does not lead us to make those kinds of judgments.  Instead, it allows us to contemplate not a particular affair, but rather the quintessential meaning of “affair.”  This is what Chekhov does so brilliantly in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” a story that Munro knows is the classic “affair” story.  And “affair” is about secrecy, sacrifice, selfishness, retribution, and stasis.  This story does not embody a novelistic complexity about the evolution of experience over time, but rather short story complexity about the revelation of a secret that has sustained an intolerable situation for which someone always has to make payment.  We don’t have to get inside the head of Ritchie to see him scheme, nor inside the head of Corrie to see her suffer.  We only have to stand back a bit and watch this static universal drama reveal its dusty secrets.”

I, like Ron Rash, single out “Corrie” as my favorite in this year’s PEN/O. Henry.  I agree with Rash that short stories are closer to poems than to novels and that “Corrie” is “constructed with the precision of a formal poem.”   Rash says that each time he reads the story he becomes more aware of how “integral each detail is to the whole” with everything from paragraph breaks to commas set down in its “essential place.”  In my opinion, that is how it should be in a great short story.  Rash is just right to quote Muriel Spark’s judgment, “The role of the artist is to deepen the mystery.” That is indeed what Alice Munro has always done so very well.

Other Stories in PEN/O. Henry

 I have only discussed half the stories in this year’s PEN/O. Henry.  I read all the stories, but some of them just did not teach me anything, and I would find it tedious to talk about them.  I do, however, recommend the following three stories:  John Berger’s “A Brush,” Mark Slouka’s “The Hare’s Mask,” and Anthony Doerr’s “The Deep”—all three which seem to me to be models of what the short story does best—create a universal complex human experience by the careful poetic use of language.

Reading Stories on the Kindle Fire

One final word about my experience reading these stories on my Kindle Fire:  I prefer the book to the pad for reading short stories.  In fact, now that I have read PEN/O. Henry 2012 on the Kindle, I will probably order a paperback copy of it for my library, for I just do not trust the existence of the stories on a hard drive or in the cloud.  I know that when I buy a book, I buy the words and ideas, not the paper pages and covers, but there is something very comforting to me to be able to look at my shelves and see those books lined up there.  I can trust that nothing short of flood or fire will destroy them, whereas a hard drive is volatile and vulnerable and a cloud is downright flighty and undependable.

Another problem with reading these stories on the Kindle are the highlighting and note taking functions.  I did purchase a stylus and have found highlighting is much more accurate with it. Taking notes on the small touch screen is also easier with a stylus, though I still cannot take notes on the Kindle as easily as I do in the margins of my books.

The most troublesome problem I have had is that after highlighting and taking notes on several stories, I opened my Kindle one morning to find all the highlights and notes had disappeared.  And I cannot seem to get them back.  I checked several discussion groups and discovered this is a common problem with the Kindle Fire.  I do not know why Amazon has not dealt with it. My highlights and notes are all available on the Amazon website at, but they exist there simply in a list; they no longer exist where I want them—in the stories themselves on my Kindle hard drive or in the cloud. This is a serious problem for folks like me who read short stories interactively rather than passively.  I appeal to Amazon to fix this.  If anyone out there has a solution to this problem, I would love to hear it.

Footnote on Sources of the Stories in PEN/O. Henry Award and Best American Short Stories

The Cumulative Indexes volume of the ten-volume fourth edition set of Critical Survey of Short Fiction that I edited recently for Salem Press includes the tables of contents for all the volumes of the Best American Short Story Series and the O. Henry Award series (named the PEN/O. Henry Award since 2009). The Best American Short Story series began in 1915; the O. Henry Award series began in 1919. (Note:  If you are interested, the first BASS volume of 1915 is available as a free Kindle download from Amazon.  If you do not have a Kindle, you can download a Kindle player on your computer and then download and read the stories in that first volume.)

I did a casual survey of the BASS and O. Henry volumes for the past twelve years just to see where most of the chosen stories were originally published.  You might be interested to know that approximately 50% of all the stories in the last twelve years in both annual volumes come from just eight different sources:  Here they are, in approximate percentages:

The New Yorker—20%
Tin House—6%

No surprise that The New Yorker accounts for the most prize-winning stories: 
They publish over fifty a year compared to usually no more than twelve in the others.
And they pay better than any of the others; thus, well known writers submit there.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Special Short Story Issue of Narrative: Journal for the International Society for the Study of Narrative

Two years ago at the International Short Story Conference in Toronto, four of my valued colleagues and I delivered papers on a story by Alice Munro, “Passion” (from Runaway), for the opening Plenary Session of the Conference.  Due to the good offices of my longtime friend Susan Lohafer, arrangements were made with James Phelan, editor of the scholarly journal Narrative (not to be confused with the online literary journal of the same name) to publish expanded versions of the five papers, along with theoretical discussions of the short story and dialogues about the short story by the five presenters. The issue includes a long Introduction, which presents a theoretical/historical context for the study of short fiction by all five presenters.

A special issue of Narrative, devoted solely to these papers and discussions, has now been published and is available from the Ohio State University Press in Columbus, Ohio.  (  The contents of the issue are also available in PDF format from Project Muse, if you have access to this service.
In case you might be interestested, I am posting the table of contents of the special issue and bios of the participants below.  As a special, sad, note,  I call your attention to the fact that the issue is dedicated to my friend and colleague Per Winther, who died so suddenly and unexpectedly recently from cancer.

Volume 20, Number 2, May 2012

Part One
Preface --pp. 133-134--Susan Lohafer
Introduction --pp. 135-170

Part Two
Pockets of Nothingness: “Metaphysical Solitude” in Alice Munro’s “Passion” --pp. 183-197

Part Three
Dialogues --pp. 239-253

Bios of the Five Participants
Until his retirement in August 2010, Per Winther was for many years Professor of American and Canadian Literature at the University of Oslo, with the Anglo-American short story as a major critical and theoretical interest. His publications include The Art of John Gardner: Instruction and Exploration and, co-edited with Jakob Lothe and Hans H. Skei, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in Short Fiction Theory and Analysis and, with the same co-editors, Less Is More: Short Fiction Theory and Analysis. He is a Visiting Scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, researching leading Canadian short story writers: Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Rohinton Mistry.
Michael Trussler has published literary criticism, poetry and short fiction. Encounters (short fiction) won the City of Regina and Book of the Year Award from the Saskatchewan Book Awards in 2006. Accidental Animals (poetry) was short-listed for the same awards in 2007. A Homemade Life, an experimental Chapbook of text and photographs, was published by JackPine Press in 2009. He teaches English at the University of Regina.
Michael Toolan is Professor of English Language at the University of Birmingham, UK, where he convenes the MA programme in Literary Linguistics and is also editor of the Journal of Literary Semantics. His books include Language in Literature andNarrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction and most recently, Narrative Progression in the Short Story: A Corpus Stylistic Approach.
Charles E. May is professor emeritus of English at California State University, Long Beach. He is the author of Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction and The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice, and editor of Short Story Theories, New Short Story Theories, Fiction’s Many Words, The Twentieth Century European Short Story, and Flannery O’Connor: Critical Insights. His edited collection, Alice Munro: Critical Insights, will be released in 2012. He has published over 300 articles and reviews, mostly on the short story, in a variety of journals, books, newspapers, and reference works. He maintains a blog entitled Reading the Short Story at
Susan Lohafer has taught in both the American Literature area and the MFA Program in Nonfiction at The University of Iowa. She is the author of Coming to Terms with the Short Story and Reading for Storyness: Preclosure Theory, Empirical Poetics, and Culture in the Short Story, as well as the co-edited collection Short Story Theory at a Crossroads. Her essays on short fiction theory have appeared in various journals and collections, and she has published short stories in The Southern Review,The Antioch Review, and elsewhere.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

PEN/O.Henry Stories: 2012--Alternate Reality in the Short Story--Wilson, Millhauser, Groff

I have always argued that there are two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: one which involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenonal, sensate, and logical relation--a realm which the novel has always taken for its own--and the other, which involves an experiences that challenge the acceptance of the reality as simply sensate and reasonable--a realm which has dominated the short story since its beginnings.

The novel involves an active quest for reality, a search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone. The short story often takes a character who has reached, or is in the process of reaching, such a conceptual identity through reason, experience, or a combination of both, and confronts him or her with the world of spirit, which then challenges his conceptual framework of reason and experience. Short fiction is a fundamental form because human beings’ earliest stories were stories of an encounter (given Mircea Eliade’s division of primal reality into the Sacred and the Profane) with the sacred.  Narrative in its primal origins is of "an experience" concretely felt, not "experience" generally conceived, and the short story still retains that primal aspect.

Kevin Wilson, “A Birth in the Woods”

When Kevin Wilson was asked once how he balances the real and the strange in his stories and keeps them believable, he suggested that when you present something strange and perhaps impossible, you simply incorporate it into the story without making a big deal about it, thus making it more readily accepted by the reader. 

“A Birth in the Woods” begins and ends with blood.  The father cuts his finger to help Caleb, age 6, become accustomed with blood as normal and ordinary.  But blood, as Wilson’s story explores, is not ordinary; it has magical powers beginning in birth, as imaged in the mother’s “bloody show,” and ending in death, when the mother’s blood will not stop flowing. The framework of the story is that of two young parents who have decided they will “make a world apart from the world” by living unaccommodated out in the woods.  The immediate focus is on their decision to allow Caleb to assist in the birth of the new baby.

The story establishes a primal scene:  The house in the woods, the snow “filling up the space around the house until they were the only people left on earth, three of them crowded together, the fourth still to come.”  Then comes the “labor,” the work of childbirth, and the omnipresent blood.  All this is intense enough, but then Wilson does a strange thing; he makes the baby a freakish creature, “covered all over in dark black hair…slicked with blood and mucus,” with a long bearlike snout and useless claws for fingers.  When the baby growls, Caleb knows that it is not his brother, not a baby, “but an animal, a creature, something wild.”

While the reader is still puzzling over this seemingly superfluous birth of the horrifying and the grotesque, Wilson then does another strange thing.  The father leaves to get help and Caleb hears the brakes squealing and a crash, “the sound of metal twisting, the world giving up its shape.” We expect the mother to die, but why the father? If we are not to think of this story as a tale of supernatural horror, in the mode of Ambrose Bierce, then how do we understand the seemingly meaningless death of the father and the grotesque birth of an animal-like baby?

Caleb feels hatred toward the thing that has killed his mother, leaving her hollowed out and empty. However, when he begins to smother the infant, he knows he must obey his mother’s request to protect his brother; he suckles the child with honey on a stick and gives it its first toy--the blood spattered wooden duck his father made for him earlier.  He begins teaching the child, saying, “Duck…though the word sounded as if it were from a language that had died out hundreds of years ago.”

I don’t agree with Laura Furman’s view that the story is about how every child is a victim of his parents’ choices, in this case, a joyful arrogant belief that they can make a new Eden and raise the child in a utopia.  This all seems to me to be merely the real-world social context for a story about blood, birth, horror, death, and responsibility.  And I don’t believe that Wilson is merely trying to give the reader a little shot of horror, although he does succeed in doing that.  The story, in my opinion, is about primal reality, unassisted by social support systems of doctors, nurses, and hospitals.  We like to think that these can protect us, but ultimately, it is just birth and death.  To Caleb the infant is what seems the inevitable result of the blood soaked horror he has witnessed—something alien and strange—an intruder, ugly and unwanted. The mother and the father both die, leaving Caleb alone to suckle and teach his little brother, as a reminder that we are all ultimately alone--except, that is, for our brother, which we must love as ourself, for it is all we have.

Steven Millhauser, “Phantoms”

While most short-story writers in the last two decades joined the realist rebellion against the fabulism of the seventies--e.g. Barth, Barthelme, Coover--Steven Millhauser has stayed true to the fantastic tradition that extends from Scherazade to Poe and from Kafka to Borges, playfully exploring the freedom of the imagination to reject the ordinary world of the mundane and explore the incredible world of purely aesthetic creation. Whether his stories focus on magic carpets, men who marry frogs, automatons, balloon flights, or labyrinths that lie beneath everyday reality, Millhauser embodies one of the most powerful traditions of short fiction--the magical story of the reality of artifice. 

Karen Carlson wrote in a comment to this blog that she was perplexed by the acclaim “Phantoms” has received—having won a Pushcart Prize, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, and selected for Best American Short Stories.  I have read the story several times and would like to suggest that what Millhauser, one of our greatest short-story writers, has captured in “Phantoms” is an exploration of humankind’s most perplexing existential and social problem—our sense that we live in a world inhabited by “The Other.”  In one section of the story—divided into separate sections describing case studies of encounters with the phantoms, theories about what they are, refutations of the theories, and history of their manifestation—Millhauser describes “The Look,” which the phantoms cast in people’s direction before turning away.

In Being and Nothingness, Jean Paul Sartre uses the terms “The Other” and “The Look” to refer to the phenomenological problem of human interactions and perception. When one recognizes that someone is a subjective being, then one becomes an object to that person.  Thus, to maintain our illusion of our own subjectivity, it behooves us to make objects out of the Other; or else our world is “haunted” by the values of the Other.
The phenomenological terms “the Other” and “the Look,” as further interpreted by Simone de Beauvoir, have been adopted by feminist criticism to refer to the way men have objectified women by their stare, denying them subjectivity, transforming them into objects.  More recently, the same terms have been adopted by cultural critics to refer to the way that a dominant culture objectifies another culture, making them into the Other.
What Millhauser has captured here is a quintessential narrative about all human apprehensions of something or someone else outside the self—ranging from the basic impetus for all religion-i.e. that there is another life outside ordinary everyday life—to the basis of human discrimination based on race, gender, sexual preference, etc. 
With this perspective in mind, one can understand the purpose of the various sections of the story. For example, one section deals with “crossing over,” which usually refers to intermingling between the phantoms and the nonphantoms.  Often phantoms are made scapegoats for fears and weaknesses, and are referred to as “one of them.” Anyone familiar with the history of racism in America will recall that it was not that long ago that the majority of Americans were sternly against white people marrying black people, just as many today are sternly against people of the same gender marrying each other.  And, please forgive the reference to an old slur, but many may remember that African Americans were once referred to by whites as “spooks.”
Anytime one individual or one group classifies another person or another group as an object in the world, an “Other,” the pathway is open for scapegoating and placing blame of one’s fears and insecurities on the Other.  For example, the fact that when a child goes missing in the story, people say the phantoms have lured him or her into their fold, is an echo of the common irrational belief that homosexuals should not be teachers or scout leaders because they will try to seduce others into the gay lifestyle.
The two theories most central to a social reading of the story are Explanation # 3, which asserts that humans and the phantoms were once a single race, which at some point divided into two societies, and Explanation # 4, which asserts that the phantoms have always been here and that we are intruders who seized their land and drove them into hiding.  However, the most basic and encompassing theory is Explanation #6, which, drawing from modern studies in cognitive psychology, claim that our bodies, and thus all objects, are nothing but artificial constructs of our brains.  “The world is a great seeming.” Everyone, therefore, is a phantom; there is nothing out there but projections of our imagination.

Lauren Groff, “Eyewall”
In her author comments, Groff says this story came to her in terms of its structure.  When she thought of the word “hurricane,” she saw a despairing character at the centre of a harsh circular wind, “whipping enormously urgent leitmotifs around and around her at blinding speed.”  I like this description, because it reminds me that whatever the reader thinks about what is happening in a story, the author is always thinking in terms of how the language and structure of the story create an aesthetic  experience.  If you come to “Eyewall” expecting Hurricane Katrina social commentary, you will be disappointed.  Groff uses a the eyewall of a hurricane—located just outside the “eye” of the storm where the most destructive rain and wind exist--as a real-world vehicle for a story about the disruption of everyday reality, a disruption that intertwines stuff of the imagination with stuff of the world—stuff of the past with stuff of the present.
Groff has great fun using language the way all poets use language--to defamiliarize the world.  “I felt, rather than saw, the power out. Time erased itself from the appliances and the lights winked shut.”  The world is turned terrifyingly, and yet somehow comically grotesque, upside down, inside out:  “My best laying hen was scraped from under the house and slid in a horrifying diagonal across the window.”  The apparitions of both her husband and her old college boyfriend come bearing literary allusions, as if to remind us that what we are involved in her is not a natural or a social phenomenon, but a poetic phenomenon, a thing of language, in which, not stuff, but leitmotifs, swirl about in a highly controlled way. (N.B.: When the narrator tells her husband that she is letting his literary career languish, he says, “La belle dame sans merci” (Keats); her old college boyfriend says to her, “You’re old! You’re old!  You should wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled” (T. S. Eliot)
Although folks who have experienced hurricanes or witnessed the effects of tornados know that the storm can create strange juxtapositions, such as bathroom fixtures in the tops of trees, and cars pushed into houses, Groff extends these to surrealistic extremes: “On my way downstairs, I passed a congregation of exhausted armadillos on the landing.  Birds had filled the Florida room, cardinals and whip-poor-wills and owls.”  The story is structurally and rhythmically a language delight, combining, as the short story always does when done well, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Note:  I apologize for an earlier glitch in this post which made the right margins bleed off in sections.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

PEN/O. Henry 2012: Short Story Themes in Mattison, Ruddick, and Sneed

During the forty years I have been studying the short story, I have suggested that the form often explores certain themes repeatedly.  This is a risky business, of course, for once the critic isolates themes in a form, he or she is apt to see those themes everywhere.  For all that, I cannot ignore the fact that the shortness of the form and its heritage in the romance, seems to insist that certain themes are indeed often emphasized in the short story.  Frank O’Connor’s discussion in The Lonely Voice of the short story’s emphasis on isolation and loneliness is the most famous argument about the relationship between the short story’s formal qualities and themes most compatible with those qualities.

I want to discuss briefly how three stories from the 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories seem to illustrate three themes often found in the short story: secrets of the private vs. public life, the mystery of character motivation, and the tension between the ordinary world and the extraordinary world.

Alice Mattison, “The Vandercook”: The Secret Life

Alice Mattison says the people in her story “The Vandercook” cannot solve their problem, although she wishes they could.  Editor Laura Furman says the story is about a shift in the marriage’s balance of power in which the wife becomes the dominating force.  I am not sure exactly what the “problem” is in the story, for I do not believe that it is only about a limited, personal problem between a man and his wife.

It is often true that the narrative line of a short story is merely a vehicle for a more universal, general theme.  I think readers are more apt to understand, and thus be challenged by, a story when they are alert to its thematic repeated motifs rather than merely “what happens” in a story.  “What happens next” may govern the initial temporal reading, but “what it means” emerges from subsequent spatial readings.

The narrative line of “The Vandercook” charts Lorenzo and Molly’s move from California to New Haven to take over Lorenzo’s father’s printing business after the father broke his hip. Molly wants to run the business, while Lorenzo returns to his love of letterpress printing, which is the kind of typeset printing originated by Guttenberg—not the photocopy or offset printing, or even digital printing, that has taken the place of the old methodical setting of type.  Lorenzo, the narrator, begins to discover that Gil, the man who has been working for his father for many years, may have a secret that the father does not wish to know about.  This narrative ends with an act of vandalism on the print shop, which Molly discovers has been committed by a man with whom Gil has been having an affair for many years. Molly, who has always been blunt and unwaveringly determined in her opinions, decides she must fire Gil for bringing on this disruption of what is now her business.

As this narrative develops in time, Mattison sets up several motifs in space.  First, of course, there is the old vs. the new, for example, the Vandercook typesetting printing press vs. photocopy and offset.  One interesting image of the old and the new is when the flower lady wraps flowers in discarded printed pages, such as a fragment of someone’s dissertation on the Holy Roman Empire.

A parallel story, which seems to have nothing to do with the primary narrative, but may indeed have something to do with the theme of the story, focuses on Julian, Molly and Lorenzo’s youngest son, being hired to play a bit part in a movie being made in the neighborhood.  The film company replaces the Conte’s Printing sign with a sign from the thirties to reflect the time of the film story.  Thus, the theme of the old and the new is ironically embodied by a pretense of the old being overlaid on the new. Also embodied in this seemingly irrelevant filmmaking story is the theme of pretence, or acting, which is reflected in the story of Gil’s secret affair.

Another suggestive motif is the vandal’s having scattered the pages of a book Lorenzo has been working on, spilling type from the old wooden cases:  “hundreds of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks for each font.”  This scattering of meaningful letter combinations into meaningless chaos reflects the disruption Molly causes in the life of the printing company. When Lorenzo suggests that the vandalism looks like the result of anger, Molly says that it looks “intended, sane.”  Lorenzo replies in a highly suggestive thematic line:“I don’t know how chaos could look sane.”

The central thematic motif of the story focuses on the issue of one’s secret personal life. The father says that Gil has problems he does not mention, whereas Molly has no secrets: “Molly held the secret of her unpredictable self, but did she have no secrets of the conventional sort?” Lorenzo says,  “Some of my secrets had to do with Molly.  I had not kept secret from her how I felt about the incidents in which I felt she’d been unfair in the past—far from it—but I’d kept secret how I counted and reconsidered them.” The father says he does not pretend to understand Gil’s life.

In my experience, a reader should always pay careful attention when there is a suggestion of a secret in a short story, for short stories are often concerned with hidden life, rather than public life.  When Molly discovers the secret that Gil is gay or bisexual, that he has been in a relationship with a man who committed the vandalism as revenge, the father thinks he and Lorenzo have made a mistake letting Molly run the business, that they should have sold it.

Molly says she cannot afford to keep on someone whose personal life would lead to something like this, that she will not put the business at risk by retaining Gil. When Lorenzo says she cannot do this, she says, in typical Molly fashion, “You may not tell me what I may not do.”

The story ends with the aftermath of what we assume is Molly’s drastic act of firing Gil, of her frightened face and Lorenzo’s futile desire for love to be simple, wanting to tell her how nimbly Julian had darted across the street in the scene he played in the movie, “how scared he seemed, how hard it was not run toward him, stretching my arms out wide.” However, Lorenzo is helpless to rescue anyone.  People have secrets, and the secrets have consequences; people act without discernible motivation that others can only observed and fail to understand.

Sam Ruddick, “Leak”:  The Mystery of Motivation

“Leak” starts with an idle conversation after lovemaking between Peyton and the narrator Oscar, in which he wonders about what made a friend quit his job and go to Alaska after he had seen a documentary about bears. His lover Peyton says you cannot pin down why people do things.  This is a very typical short story theme because if short stories are often about people’s secret life rather than their public life, we have to accept the fact that there is no way to know why people do the things they do. Many short story writers, Flannery O’Connor being the most prominent, have always known this about the short story as a form.  O’Connor once said she lent some stories to a country lady who lived down the road from her, and when she returned them the woman said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.” O’Connor agreed:  Good stories have to show how “some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.” The peculiar problem of the short-story writer, O’Connor has said, is to reveal as much of the mystery of personality as possible. 

“Leak” explores O’Connor’s perception about the mystery of personality in this short story by creating a comic dance involving four characters. The first step in the dance occurs when Oscar’s old girlfriend Stacy comes in on Oscar and Peyton and wants to fix herself something to eat.

The title is announced when Stacy says, “You know your faucet’s leaking?”  Stacy’s description of the leak as Chinese water torture is a thematic allusion to the comic encounters that begin when Peyton, suspecting that Oscar still has something going on with Stacy, shifts her allegiance from Oscar to Stacy.  However, when Peyton tries to leave, she backs up her car without looking and gets hits by another car.  More complicated maneuvers occur when Peyton says she will call her husband, George, surprising Oscar with the knowledge that George knows about his affair with Peyton. Peyton did not tell him George knows and does not seem to care because she says Oscar “was getting such a kick out of being the bad boy,” to which Stacy chimes in, “He loves that shit.” 

George, a short, fifty year old man with a big gut, who is jovial, like a regular Santa Claus, arrives and says, “You know you got a leaky faucet?”  He sticks his head under the sink, calling it “an easy fix.” Oscar gets him the toolbox his mother gave him twenty years before, which he has only opened once.

Furman calls ”Leak” a well-choreographed story in which George is the befuddled innocent in a farce complete with clowns piling out one by one from a car.  In his author comments, Ruddick says that Frederick Barthelme helped him with this story by suggesting that it needed to be exploded out of its initial seriousness, making him realize that he did not have to be so concerned about plausibility: “People don’t work that way.  I don’t know why I thought fictional characters would.” 

In my opinion, the story is pure style with little significant content.  Sure it is about the mystery of motivation--what makes people do the strange things they do--but mainly what Ruddick wants is for us to enjoy this slapstick comic routine in which an extramarital affair is no more worthy of human interest than a leaking faucet, for both are an “easy fix.”

The First Wife” by Christine Sneed

“The First Wife” begins with a direct statement of the story’s theme: the difference between the famous and the unfamous. “The famous have mutated, amassed characteristics--refinements or corporeal variations—that allow their projected images, if not their bodies themselves, to dominate the rest of us.” The narrator says the story is about how difficult and unromantic it is to be the wife of a very famous, memorably handsome, man.

Immediately, the narrator establishes herself as a writer, which allows her to focus attention on the construction of the story itself. “It soon became clear to me that I liked making up the characters more than playing them.”  As a writer, she says she wants to begin her story with the ending, since in movies the collapse of a marriage usually only is given a few “sodden minutes at the end of the film.”

She feels that he was extraordinary and being with him had made her feel as if she has little to do with ordinary disappointments and sorrows.  In another direct statement of the story’s theme, the narrator says, “That is what celebrity signifies more than anything else—it is the apparent refutation of the banal.”

The story ends with the narrator’s recollection of her meeting with her handsome husband and her reaction to his desire to have sex with her for the first time. “This isn’t real, I kept thinking all that night and the next morning.  This is a joke’ isn’t it?”
The story thus explores in a rather straightforward way the relationship between two worlds, or what appear to be two worlds—the everyday world and the fantasy world created for and by movie stars and other celebrities, who do not seem to live in the same world ordinary folk do.  We cannot really imagine such people doing the same things we do—that is until some paparazzi snaps a photo of them shopping in a grocery store.  Although we are drawn to such revelations of the ordinary, we do not want to think about that; we want to believe that celebrities live in a world that is a “refutation of the banal.”

An Apology and a Few Comments on Reading These Stories on a Kindle Fire

I want to apologize to my readers for not fulfilling my promise to load up my blog during the month of May—Short Story Month—with lots of discussions about the stories in the PEN/O.Henry collection and recent stories in the New Yorker.  Personal obligations came first.  I spent a week in my hometown in Eastern Kentucky visiting with family, for my younger sister is very ill.  Then when I returned home last week, I had contracted some bug on the overcrowded American Airlines flights from Lexington to Los Angeles.  I will try to catch up.

Reading the stories in this year’s PEN/O.Henry Award Stories on my new Kindle Fire has reaffirmed my initial judgment that, at least as far as I am concerned, e-readers are just fine for casual reading of disposable fiction--usually novels--but not so fine for serious reading of permanent fiction--usually short stories.

I took my Kindle with me to Kentucky and read several stories on the plane and during waits and layovers at airports.  I also took with me hard copies of eight stories from recent New Yorker issues.  Contrasting the difference between reading the hard copy stories and the Kindle stories, I have to admit that I prefer reading short stories the old-fashioned way—print on paper and me with a pen in my hand.

A first reading on the e-reader seemed facile enough—something about the relatively small “pages,” or rather “screens,” as opposed to magazine triple columns or larger book pages.  However, when it came to highlighting and annotating what I was reading, I much prefer the old pencil annotations.  For one thing, the highlighting function of the Kindle is hard to control. My fingertips are not particularly large, but they are certainly less precise than the point of a pencil/pen or even a crayon-sized highlighter.  And there is no comparison between taking marginal notes with a pencil/pen and entering them on the small touch screen keyboard of the Kindle.  Once again, my fingertips are so large that I often make typing mistakes, and it is too damned slow.  Maybe if I did a lot of texting—which I do not—it would be easier. I have ordered a stylus and will let you know what I think about using it on the Kindle.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

PEN/O. Henry 2012: Dagoberto Gilb and Wendell Berry: Conscious and Unconscious Intention

Dagoberto Gilb, “Uncle Rock”

In his comments on his story “Uncle Rock,” Dagoberto Gilb says that his fiction always comes from something observed or experienced that then “gets loaded onto and chipped away at and artistically distorted” by his “various obsessions.” He says that “Uncle Rock” is based on an experience when he went to a baseball game at Dodger Stadium with his mother and a date and got autographs from a busload of NY Yankees, as well as a note soliciting his mother something like the one Erick gets in the story.  He says he made Erick verging on mute, for “Mexican Americans are both not heard and trained to feel.”  With that he said, “the story’s on.” 
Although I enjoy reading the author comments in the PEN/O. Henry collection, I am not sure an author is always the best person to explain the intention or the meaning of his or her story. An author may indeed recall the origin of the story, but when he or she writes the story, other forces take over. The conventions of storytelling, for example, force the story into well-travelled paths, in which certain actions take on symbolic or universal significance whether the author intends this or not. When you ask an author the origin of the story or what really happened that instigated the story, the author may be able to tell you, but this may have little to do with the story itself.  When you ask an author what a story means, he or she may be able to tell you that he or she had certain intentions, but these also may have little to do with the story.
            If Gilb says that he makes the boy’s silence a metaphor for the plight of the Mexican American who is not allowed to have a voice, who am I to disagree with him?  Well, as a reader, I think I have a right to let the story speak for itself.  It may be that a reader is a better interpreter of a story than the author, for authorial skills and critical skills are quite different—as any MFA student will be happy to tell you.
Gilb emphasizes several times in “Uncle Rock” that the reason Erick does not often speak has nothing to do with the fact his English is not good, but nothing in the story suggests that the boy’s silence is due to a cultural muteness imposed on Mexican Americans.  The details of the story suggest that the boy, who is eleven, does not speak when the men are around, not because his race silences him, but because the mother’s secret power over the men silences him.  He probably knows what the men want from his mother, but because she is his mother, he cannot articulate it—cannot allow himself to imagine it. If the boy’s reluctance to speak were a metaphor for cultural silencing, as Gilb suggests, the silence would only occur when the boy is around white society. The boy knows he cannot talk around the men; he just does not know why.
  The boy believes in magic, hoping that God’s magic will bring good to him and his mother without the help of wealthy men. When he and his mother and Uncle Roque go to the ball game, the green of the field is a “magic light.”  When he catches the ball, it is like magic, with no bobble, and he feels every set of eyes and every voice in the stadium. It is like magic when someone in the bus tells him that he will get everyone to sign the ball.  But Erick’s magic is undercut by the mysterious magic of his mother when he reads the note, in which a ballplayer asks his mother to come to the hotel for a drink.
The boy’s decision to keep the ball and to throw away the note is his own heroic act of rescuing his mother and protecting his “uncle Rock,” whom he has transformed into a member of the family, whom he knows respects his mother, and with whom he knows his mother does not keep company only for what money can bring them. 
Gilb may indeed believe that he made the boy silent because the white culture has made the Mexican American silent, but nothing in the story itself suggests this, while everything in the story suggests that the boy’s silence is because of the taboo nature of what the boy feels about his mother’s secret sexuality and the lust of the men who pursue her.

Wendell Berry, “Nothing Living Lives Alone.”
            There are stories, however, in which we can accept the stated intentions of the author, that is, when the story itself is so explicit about the ideas it embodies that it seems more like an essay than a story. Wendell Berry wisely admits that “Nothing Living Lives Alone” imposes “some strain on the term story,” for it is part of a longer work, he says, in which he tries to “deal directly and explicitly” with what he sees as the “paramount change” in his time and place from the “creaturely” to the “mechanical.” The story announces what it intends to illustrate in the first sentence: “Andy Catlett was a child of two worlds”—which Berry describes as the “town-world” and the “home place.”
            Although there is some narrative in this prose piece, it is primarily an essay in which Berry is very explicit about the values of the creaturely life of the farm and an idyllic past.  I like the piece, but being an old Kentucky boy myself, I also recall and treasure the values that Berry waxes eloquently about here.  I also like the piece because Berry’s prose is, like the farm work he values, carefully crafted, artistically controlled, and thus beautiful in its purity. 
There is, of course, a bucolic romanticism about this world in which farmers are praised as artists of perfection--doing what they do precisely with pride and skill.  The story affirms the familiar theme of Kentucky writers that the soil has been ruined by modern technology and the need for fuel—“the loss of topsoil, the toxicity of air and water, the destruction by mining of whole mountains, the destruction of land and water ecosystems.”
            If you read this piece as a romanticized recollection and a paean to a idealized world, then you can enjoy it for the prose and the peace it evokes, even though you may know that behind the beautiful perfection of the tobacco fields lies the horrible truth of the deaths that tobacco has cause and that behind the freedom the boy feels lies the drudgery of farm life.  But you cannot question the “meaning” of this piece, for Berry is very explicit about what he means here, as well he should in an essay. The success of an essay depends on how well the author achieves his or her intention; the success of a story depends more on narrative exceeding mere intention or didactic purpose.
            The story does end with a narrative coda, beginning “One warm spring Saturday afternoon” when the boy goes fishing and sees a young grey squirrel.  “The thought of catching and having something so beautiful, so small, so cunningly made, possessed him entirely. He wanted it as much as he had ever wanted anything in his life.”  What follows is a little chase for the creaturely in which the squirrel evades Andy’s grasp just as he reaches it.  The image of Andy in the trees reaching out for a squirrel that leaps away from him limb to limb is a relatively simply metaphor:  “Andy and the squirrel must have been at about the same stage of their respective lives: undoubting, ignorant, fearless, curious, happy in the secret attitudes of the treetops and the little branches, neither at all intimated by the blank blue sky above the highest branches, the outer boundary of both their lives.” The story ends with Andy’s return home to find that his grandmother has done the work he was supposed to do; his evasion of his responsibilities to try to capture ineffable beauty results in a sense of joy and guilt at once.
            As is typical of this kind of story of the young man at home in the natural world, Andy will not forget this afternoon for the rest of his life:  “What would stay with him would not be his frustration, his failure to catch the squirrel, but the beauty of it and his aerial life while he tried to catch it among the small supple branches that sprang with his weight as if almost but not quite he might have leapt from one to another like the squirrel, almost but not quite flying.”   It is only later that he wonders how, if he had caught the squirrel, he could have got down out of the tree with only one hand and knows he would have had to turn the creature loose.  As Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, and all the Romantics, well knew, you might be able momentarily to catch the creaturely, but you can never take it back to reality with you.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

2012 PEN/O. Henry Award Stories: Preliminary Remarks

Of the twenty stories in the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Award stories, I have already read the following six, either because of my subscriptions to The New Yorker and Harper’s, or because I purchased the books in which they appeared. Although I have discussed these stories in previous blogs, I will reread them and make some brief  additional comments:
Dagoberto Gilb, “Uncle Rock, “ The New Yorker & Before the End, After the Beginning
Yiyun Li. “Kindness” A Public Space” and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Steven Millhauser, “Phantoms,” McSweeney’s and Best American Short Stories, 2012
Alice Munro, “Corrie” The New Yorker
Jim Shepard, “Boys Town,” You Think That’s Bad
Mark Slouka, “The Hare’s Mask,” Harper’s

Editor Laura Furman prefaces the book, as usual, with a brief discussion of “How the Stories Are Chosen.”  Furman chooses the twenty stories from stories that have been written in English and published in a U.S. or Canadian periodical; unlike the Pushcart Prize stories, individual stories may not be nominated by editors.  

The three guest writers-this year Mary Gaitskill, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Ron Rash—are sent the twenty stories with no author or publication identification and asked to write a brief essay on their favorite.  Gaitskill and Mueenuddin both chose Yiyun Li’s “Kindness,” a novella-length story from her book Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, while Ron Rash chose Alice Munro’s story “Corrie,” which appeared in The New Yorker.  It would be naïve to think that Mueenuddin and Gaitskill did not recognize “Kindness,” since Li’s book got quite a bit of attention and was nominated for more than one award this past year.  And I seriously doubt that Ron Rash, who has published in The New Yorker, would not have recognized the work of Alice Munro. But it would be cynical to think that these writers chose these stories because they recognized and admired who wrote them.

Four of the stories are from The New Yorker, three from Zoetrope, two from Ecotone, two from Threepenny Review, two from Harper’s, and two from the less-well-known  A Public Space. The other five are from New England Review, Santa Monica Review, Orion, McSweeney’s, and Subtropic. I have no idea if Furman read all the several hundred stories in the periodicals sent to her or whether she had a couple of editorial assistants; she thanks Mimi Chubb and Kate Finlinson, as well as the staff of Anchor books, but she does not say what role they played in the selection of the twenty stories. Nor does Furman say what criteria she, or her first readers, use to make the selections or what role Anchor Books had in the selection.  For example, she does she indicate if Anchor requests that she choose stories or authors that might  sell more books.  Nor does she indicate if she chooses stories with some variety for reader interest.  Does she choose solely those stories she “likes” best or those stories she thinks are the “best” stories?

It is not insignificant to have one of your stories chosen for the PEN/O. Henry collection, for publishers like to say on the back cover that an author of a collection is a “PEN/O. Henry Award winner,” not simply that a story was “included in” the collection.  And it goes without saying that if a writer has several stories chosen for the PEN/O. Henry collection, he or she has a better chance of landing a book contract for a collection of stories.

In her introduction to the 2012 PEN/O. Henry, Furman focuses on the predictable question that folks always pose at author readings: What is the origin of this story?  It is only natural that Furman would discuss this, for in the section of the book entitled “The Writers on Their Work,” the authors are obviously asked to talk about the origin of their stories.  This too is only natural when you think of it, since what else would authors talk about?  They cannot talk about what a story means, for authors do not like writing a story to illustrate a meaning.  In fact, they are often fond of saying they do not know what a story means.  Furman says there can be no definitive answer to a question about a story’s origin, “because the best stories are manifold and open to multiple understandings…. Not even the writer really knows where the story came from.  If that were known, why bother to write.”

As I read these twenty stories and comment on them during Short Story Month, I will also comment on the relationship between the stories and the author’s statements about their origins.

One other preliminary note about my reading these stories:  Last year, I said that although I used a tablet reader to read “disposable” fiction, i.e. novels and biographies, I always bought actual honest-to-god books for short stories, which are never disposable because I read them again and again and often write about them.  However, my wife bought me a Kindle Fire for my birthday in February, and I am enjoying using it—to watch an occasional film on Netflix, to listen to modern jazz on Pandora, to check the weather in a place I plan to visit, etc. 

When Amazon listed the publication of PEN/O. Henry 2012, last month, I started to order the book, but then suddenly decided to get it in a Kindle edition.  The price difference between the paperback and the Kindle edition was not that different—about a buck.  Unless I bought another book to bring the total up to $25.00, I would have to pay a few dollars shipping.  Moreover, I wanted the book immediately rather than having to wait for three days because I was going out of town for a week.  So I ordered it as a Kindle edition.  And sure enough, I had it immediately.

So this is my first experience in reading short stories in a tablet format.  As I am reading these stories I will comment on this experience for those of you who are firmly committed to books, as I am, or who are contemplating shifting from beloved books to technological tablets.

I have just started reading the stories, but have notice a few aggravations and a few pleasures already.
I like being able to read in bed without bothering my wife with the light on, for the Kindle Fire has a lighted screen.  However, I do not like it that I cannot read while sitting in the backyard, for the Kindle screen reflects sunlight. I like being able to listen to modern jazz or classical music on Pandora while I read. 

I have found that I have no reluctance to pick up the Kindle and read a story, whereas sometimes I don’t really feel like reading a book.  I don’t know what that means.  

I like being able to highlight text on the Kindle, but I despise trying to write notes on the on-screen mini keyboard.  Maybe if I was used to texting, it would be easier; I don’t know. 

I don’t like the fact that the Kindle does not provide page numbers, either the original book page numbers or Kindle page numbers (which change if you change the font size).  I will probably have to order a copy of the book if I plan to write about the stories in an article or book, for I cannot document page numbers otherwise.  I also like to flip ahead when I am reading a story to see how many pages are left; it is not as easy to do that with the Kindle, for I have to rub my finger or tap each page to get to the end, and since no page numbers are listed on the table of contents, I cannot check there either.

As I write about these stories this month, I will make more comments about reading stories on the Kindle Fire.  If you have your own experiences with using a table reader, please comment. In case you want to read along with me, I plan to discuss the stories in order as they appear in the book, writing about three or four in each post. I would appreciate hearing your comments on the stories also.  The PEN/O. Henry collection is only about ten bucks in either paperback or Kindle edition—a real bargain regardless of which you choose.