Monday, July 16, 2012

Robin Hemley's REPLY ALL and the Problems of Short Story Publishing

Among all the hard-working writers out there writing short stories, only a few ever place a story in one of the mags that actually pay real money, e.g. New Yorker, Harpers, Narrative, Granta, etc.  Most short stories appear in independent or university sponsored journals that have a small circulation list and are read, when read at all, in university library reading rooms.

 If any of these struggling short story writers are fortunate enough to get a collection of stories accepted for publication, few get published by the big presses with well funded publicity departments, e.g. Norton, Harcourt, Knopf, Scribner, Grove, etc., appearing instead under the imprint of an independent or a university press with little or no publicity money.

If the stories of these hard-working writers do not appear in the relatively large-circulation magazines and if they are not picked up by big publishers with money to promote them, then they are not apt to get reviewed by the big newspapers, or even the small newspapers, for that matter.  Now that many newspapers have cut back their book review sections and practically eliminated their tiny budget for free-lance reviews, many good collections of short stories go unnoticed and therefore largely unread.

Some publishers have expressed hope that literature-loving bloggers might take up the slack left by dwindling newspaper reviews and get the word out about their books.  Every once in a while, I get an email from a small independent or university press, asking if I would be interested in receiving a review copy of a new collection of short stories. 

A few weeks ago, I got an email from the good folks at Indiana University Press, asking if I would be interested in receiving a review copy of Reply All, a new collection of stories by Robin Hemley.  This is Hemley’s third collection of stories, although he is perhaps better known as the author of several books of essay.  He is a senior editor of the Iowa Review and directs the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Although I had never read any of Robin Hemley’s stories, for some reason his name sounded familiar to me. I was almost finished reading the eleven stories in the collection when I remembered.  Back in 1963, when I entered the fledgling Ph.D. in Literature program at Ohio University, the university hired a new editor of the also fledgling Ohio University Press.  His name was Cecil Hemley, who, thanks to the Internet, I have found out was Robin Hemley’s father.  Sometimes it takes considerably less than six degrees to close the space of separation.  Cecil Hemley, who died when Robin Hemley was seven, was a poet and novelist, the editor-translator of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and a cofounder of Noonday Press.

I did some searching on the databases Lexis Nexis and Newsstand for newspaper reviews of Hemley’s new book and found none—not even in the small newspapers.  I did some additional research on the Internet and found little there either.  Hemley is best known as the author of a memoir of his schizophrenic sister, Nola, and several books of nonfiction, including a manual on how to turn your life into fiction.

This is his biography on his Amazon Author page:

Robin Hemley, born May 28, 1958 in New York City, is a Jewish American nonfiction and fiction writer, author of eight books, most recently, Do-Over! In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments (Little, Brown, May, 2009). His other writing includes Turning Life Into Fiction (2006), Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists (anthology, with Michael Martone, 2004), Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday (2003), Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness (1998), The Big Ear, stories (1994), The Last Studebaker, a novel (1992), All You Can Eat, stories (1988), and The Mouse Town, stories (1987).

This is his biography from his web site:

Robin Hemley is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on DO-OVER!. He has published seven books, and his stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and many literary magazines and anthologies. He is the editor of Defunct magazine. Robin received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop; he currently directs the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and lives in Iowa City, IA.

The eleven stories in Reply All originally appeared in small magazines, the best known perhaps being Southern Review and Shenandoah.  A few have been reprinted: “Reply All” appeared in New Sudden Fiction; “The Warehouse of Saints” was reprinted in Best American Fantasy, and “The 19th Jew” won first place in the Nelson Algren Award and appeared in Jewish American Fiction:  A Century of Stories.

I read all eleven stories twice—enjoyed them the first time, but felt relatively indifferent the second time.  What interests me about the stories is why they did not interest me on that second reading.  Related to this question is the additional question of why Robin Hemley, relatively well known by other writers (The two sound bites inside the front cover by Robert Olen Butler and Melissa Pritchard are, as far as I can tell, “reviews” as Hemley’s web site identifies them, but rather requested prepublication blurbs), is not a short story writer well known by lovers of the short story—including me.

The stories are “fun” to read.  This is indeed a book small enough and light enough (in both weight and content) to take to the beach this summer. And indeed, maybe that is why I enjoyed them the first time but not so much when I read them more closely.  Maybe some short stories are not meant to be read so closely.  For example, the title story is a little “what if” piece about a guy who sends a passionate illicit love letter to a woman, but accidently sends it as a “reply all” to an entire listserv of a group called the Poetry Association of Western Suburbs.   “Dead Silence” is about a talk show that interviews dead people.  “The List” is a take on one of those deadly Holiday information letters that some folks send to all their friends about all the wonderful things their family has achieved during the year.

Not all the stories are just for fun. “The Warehouse of Saints” is about a father and son who collect and sell duplicate relics of Saints until Joan of Arc exposes the scam.  “The 19th Jew” is about the complications that take place when a university search committee tries to fulfill the school’s minority hiring requirement.  “Redemption” is about the ghost of a fundamentalist preacher haunting a couple in their new house.

Hemley’s stories are clever, well-written, and a pleasure to read. I recommend them for your light summer pleasure. Perhaps Hemley intended nothing more than that.  However, for serious short story admirers, they lack that sense of authorial engaged obsessiveness that demands serious reading.  And they also lack the kind of authorial confidence in the reader that makes for great short stories; perhaps because he is more of an essayist than a short story writer, Hemley just explains too much.

Ironically, this book will not be read by many serious readers of short stories (and is there any other kind?) because it is too “light.” But because it is published by a university press that has no funds to promote it as good summer reading by newspaper reviewers, it will probably languish in a kind of “no reader’s land.”  That’s unfortunate, but, given the current economy of publishing, probably inevitable.

No comments: