Monday, June 18, 2012

Frank O'Connor Award Shortlist: 2012--Fiona Kidman's The Trouble With Fire

Fiona Kidman, The Trouble with Fire, Vintage.

With all due respect to Dame Kidman, the honorable judges of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, and the book reviewers of New Zealand, I must confess that I simply do not understand how The Trouble with Fire was chosen for the shortlist of a prestigious award for excellence in the short story.

The Frank O’Connor Short Story website states that the aim of the yearly prize is to “reward an individual author’s commitment to this most exacting of forms and encourage the publication of collections of stories in book form as distinct from single stories in periodicals.” The winner receives 25,000 Euros, which is roughly equivalent to $31, 570 American dollars--“the single biggest prize for a short story collection in the world,” besting the US Story Prize, which awards $20,000 to a short story collection each ear. 
The award is given by the Munster Literature Centre at a yearly celebration in Cork honoring one of Ireland’s greatest short story writers and the author of one of the best-known books celebrating that form, The Lonely Voice.

To put The Trouble with Fire in short story perspective, here are a couple of quotes from The Lonely Voice about a literary form that O’Connor much admired:

“Basically, the difference between the short story and the novel is not one of length.  It is a difference between pure and applied storytelling, and in case someone has still failed to get the point I am not trying to decry applied storytelling.  Pure storytelling is more artistic, that is, and in storytelling I am not sure how much art is preferable to nature.”

“Turgenev and Chekhov give us is not so much the brevity of the short story as compared with the expansiveness of the novel as the purity of an art form that is motivated by its own necessities rather than by our convenience…. The storyteller differs from the novelist in this: he must be much more of a writer, much more of an artist….”
The Trouble With Fire was well received by some reviewers in New Zealand, at least in the six I found and that are listed on Kidman’s website. (I am not familiar with the book reviewing scene in that country and so do not know if this is a good showing or not.) A search of English-language newspapers worldwide revealed no other reviews of the book—in Australia, American, England, Canada.  As far as I can tell, the book sold well in New Zealand, remaining on the bestseller list there for several weeks.
More than one reviewer notes the “gentleness and wisdom” of Kidman’s storytelling, one commenting, “When you read her work, there’s a sense of being in safe hands” and another saying, “In Kidman, readers invariably find a very safe pair of hands.”  I am not sure what it means that a reader feels in “safe hands” with a certain author, other than that it suggests an experienced author who takes no real chances and makes no great demands on the reader.  More than one reviewer notes how “readable” Kidman’s stories are and how “her clear style makes for easy reading.”

Kidman has written novels, short stories, essays, and television shows, winning several awards over the years. She won the 1988 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction for Book of Secrets and in 1998 was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature. She is 71 and has had a street named after her in a New Zealand town.  In a YouTube video, she talks about how in the 1960s she was a middle class housewife who wanted to be a writer.  She has a website on which she posts recipes from her books, such as potato fritters and fish curry.  (I made the potato fritters, and they weren’t bad.) The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature describes her as one of New Zealand’s most popularly successful contemporary serious novelists—without really defining what the phrase “serious novelist” means.  Most recently, she has published two volumes of her memoirs

Three of the six New Zealand reviewers who have praised The Trouble with Fire annotated their remarks as follows:

The reviewer in The New Zealand Herald says:  “I suspect fiction-lovers tend to prefer reading novels to short stories as there’s more to get your teeth into.  But these are meaty tales that feel very complete—there isn’t that let-down of being made to abandon characters just as you’re getting interested in their lives.”

The reviewer in the Otago Daily Times acknowledges: “I read short stories infrequently, preferring a novel where I can get involved with the characters and plot development.  But this book hooked from the first story.”

In a National Radio Review, Gina Rogers admits she is not a big short story reader,” but adds that with Kidman’s stories she felt “satisfied,” not “robbed,” the way she often does when reading short stories.  She particularly liked the historical story about one of New Zealand’s Prime Ministers because it supplied information with which she was not familiar, and she liked the three linked stories in the second section, calling them “very readable.”

Azure Rissetto, a graduate student working on her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Aukland makes much of the metaphoric significance of fire in the stories.  She says the passage—“That’s the trouble with fire, you never known which way it will turn”—suggests that the random, haphazard nature of fire “might stand for the nature of storytelling itself.”   (Pace, Miss. Rissetto, but although “haphazard” may indeed describe novels, it certainly does not characterize good short stories.)

All these remarks are clear evidence that what the reviewers like about Kidman’s fiction has nothing to do with the “excellence of the short story”—which the Frank O’Connor Award says it wishes to reward.  Admitting that they do not like short stories, the reviewers say they like Kidman’s stories anyway.  Why?  Well because they don’t seem like short stories; they seem more “safely” novelistic.

My experience this past week reading Dame Kidman’s The Trouble with Fire was a novelistic experience, aided and abetted by the fact that I read it on my Kindle Fire (no symbolic significance implied).  I ordered the book on Kindle because the hard cover version was listed at $24.99—pretty steep for a guy who must buy review copies out of pocket.  The Kindle version was $17.99—almost twice as much as a Kindle version of a book of fiction usually costs. 

However, since I had promised to comment on all the Frank O’Connor shortlisted books this year, I gulped and charged it to my credit card.  The book arrived immediately, of course, but since Kindle versions have no page numbers, I had no idea of the “heft” of the book.  I just began reading.  I would start a story and read and read and read and read—and it was just like reading a novel.  The stories were written as Frank O’Connor says novels are written, using “applied storytelling.”  That is, the prose is casual and wordy and redundant and ordinary—meant merely to steer characters through the plot.  I kept plodding through story after story, never quite sure when I was going to finish one.  Finally, I went back to and checked the number of pages in the book—gulp! 372 pages!  So that was why the cost was so high—sheer bulk.  (Although as a side note, I am not sure why the Kindle version should cost so much; since the reader is not paying for additional print and paper costs, length should not matter.)

There are eleven stories in the collection divided into three sections. The first section is a miscellany of five stories, mostly focusing on memories and experiences of mature women; the second section includes three linked stories about a family and the mystery of a missing woman; the final section is made up of two historical fictions—one involving a New Zealand Prime Minister from the 1920’s, Gordon Coates, and the other focusing on Lady Barker, a New Zealand writer of the nineteenth century.

I have no intention of writing detailed analyses of the meaning and significance of these stories—mainly because I don’t think they have any meaning or significance.  But, God help me, I did read them—every word.  They are just novelistic narratives, going on and on.  And because they go on and on in an “applied storytelling way,” the exposition, narration, and dialogue are all just ordinary language describing people and events and recording often tedious talk.  If you like novels, especially “readable” and “safe” novels, you will not mind all this “stuff,” but Frank O’Connor would not recognize any of these pieces as examples of his beloved short story.

Here are a few plot/character summaries and some sentences and phrases that struck me as just too novelistically “easy.”

“The Italian Boy” focuses on Hilary, a novelist; her friend Meryl; Nino, the Italian boy of the title; and siblings, Julius and Anthea.   It’s mostly a recollection of adolescence and initiation and friends and enemies, etc. with a revelation of a shocking incestuous relationship between a brother and sister.

“The History of It” centers on a couple, Geraldine and Duncan, and the death of a young man.  Think about the following two sentences for a few minutes and ask yourself how penetrating and meaningful they are:
“Their meetings were as necessary as eating and sleeping, as nourishing as red meat.” 
“Their messages were as clear as Post-it notes on a fridge door.”  .

“Preservation” is a typical “girlhood friends” story, in which Jan, the last one you would have expected to land up in prison, ends up in prison and gets her two adult friends to buy an expensive dress for her mother’s funeral and then take it back; later, someone buys the dress and gets poisoned from the formaldehyde. Shocking.  Ask yourself how clichéd the following two typical descriptions are:
“a tall rakish woman with tousled red curls”
“ample breasts”

In “Extremes,” a married woman named Rachel, who doesn’t want children, has to go to Australia for an abortion, since abortion is against the law in New Zealand at the time.  Much of the language is familiar romance/pulp stuff e.g.:
“Rachel had watched Mark with a fierce, urgent gaze full of longing.” 
“She wanted Mark’s length sliding inside her”

Much of the language is just careless and clichéd:
“Penelope had her work cut out for her.”
“The house where they all lived, Rachel and her parents and two sisters.” (Why not just, “The house where Rachel and her parents and two sisters lived”? It’s a sentence that begs to be revised.)

Some sentences are just ambiguous and awkward.  For example, in “Heaven Freezes”:
“She plays Monopoly and Scrabble with them, though they are not very secretly bored by these attempts to distract them from computer games.” (Are they not bored? Are they secretly bored?)
“They know the story of the rolling surf carrying her away is a big fat lie.” (What author calls something a big fat lie?)
“I think he’s tied up,’ she says, as if Phil is a prisoner somewhere.”  (It is as though realizing the phrase “He’s tied up” is a cliché, the author adds the “prisoner” simile to justify it or to rescue it with supposed cleverness.)

“Silks” is a story about a woman whose husband gets rotavirus, which comes from dirty food contaminated with excrement while they are visiting Hanoi.  What is it about? Well, the endless inconveniences and distresses she must face while her husband is cared for in hospital. 

As usual, sentences are often careless.  For example: “We crossed a river and a bridge that seemed to stretch into infinity; I sensed the water beneath us.”  (Which stretches to infinity—the river or the bridge?  Both?  How?)

Occasionally, there is a striking sentence, which excites the reader with expectation, for example this one from “Silks”:
 “The lights had gone out except for the tiny flickers of fires peppering the pavements, illuminating the shadows of late workers bending over their pots.”
 And the final sentence from “Silks” is not bad either: “I took his hand, our two skins crumpled together.  Old silks.”

But too often, we do not find what Frank O’Connor calls the “artistic writing” of the short story, just the “applied writing” of the novel.

One reviewer called Part Two “a bonus for novel lovers, as stories which at first appear to be unconnected are not.” But it is all novelistic Catherine Cookson stuff—good enough to while away a cold winter night, but not good enough to be nominated for “excellence in the short story.”  The three stories--“The Man from Tooley Street,” “Some Other Man,” and “Under Water”-- deal with the history of a family and the character Joy disappearing at a railway station at age 25.  Maybe the reviewer is right—that it is a bonus for novel lovers—but for short story lovers, it is “let the buyer beware.”

The two final stories are typical historical fictions: “Fragrance Rising” about Gordon Coates, who was New Zealand Prime Minister from 1925-28, and “The Trouble with Fire” about Lady Barker, a famous colonial writer, author of the 1870 memoir, Station Life in New Zealand (1870).

The most frequent descriptive word the reviewers use for these historical fictions is “fascinating,” because they provide information that Kidman gleaned from a biography about Coates and the memoir by Barker, which the reviewers are obviously not familiar with.  One may indeed go to historical novels for such stuff, but, as Frank O’Connor would be quick to say, one does not go to short stories for historical information.

I know the only judgments that count concerning The Trouble with Fire are those of New Zealand readers and the honorable judges of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.  And I hope my readers will not think I am engaging in a hatchet job on the much respected Dame Fiona Kidman. But in the name of Frank O’Connor in particular and the short story in general, I just do not understand why this book was shortlisted for a prize that promises to “reward an individual author’s commitment to this most exacting of forms.”


Katy L. said...

Thanks for the reminder about O'Connor's "applied storytelling." I've been reading short stories from Southern writers of the 1930s and 40s, and I couldn't figure out why I didn't like Jesse Stuart's stories. This is it - he uses applied storytelling, using his words to merely guide the characters through the plot, as you say about Kidman's writing.

rozz lewis said...

Wow, thank you, great analysis. I am reading the lnely voice at present and trying to understand the applied and pure storytelling. So, what is pure storytelling? Is the development that O Connor speaks of not the same as a plot? Help!!!!

Charles E. May said...

Sorry I have not got back to you on this sooner, Rozz. I think what O'Connor means by "applied storytelling is what Katy L. says in the comment just before yours--just using language to move the plot forward. The best short story writers, it seems to me, are those that use language the way it is used in poetry--to explore the complexities of human emotion and motivation in ways that plot only cannot do. In pure storytelling the writer/reader relationship is dependent not only on plot but on rhythm, sound, metaphor, structure, pattern to get at the mystery of human experience.