Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Has George Saunders Caused a "Boom" in the Short Story in 2013?


Can one high profile collection of short stories actually spark a “Boom” in the short story?  Can one rapturous review spark a frenzy of publicity and sales for one collection of short stories?  I know I have talked a bit about this earlier, but since the “Boom” idea has gained some more traction in the last week, I thought it might be well to revisit and summarize the buzz created by George Saunders’ collection of stories, Tenth of December.

It’s always a pleasure for me when a writer I admire publishes a collection that gets the popular media to talking about short stories.  On January 8, 2013, George Saunders, who has been publishing intelligent and carefully controlled satiric short stories for almost twenty years, published his fourth collection, and became an overnight sensation.  The book has been on a number of bestseller lists for the past six weeks, and Saunders has been interviewed by just about everyone on television, newspapers, and the Internet. 

It’s hard to tell how much of this much-deserved ballyhoo is due to a story by Joel Lovell that appeared in The New York Times Magazine on January 3 entitled GEORGE SAUNDERS HAS WRITTEN THE BEST BOOK YOU’LL READ THIS YEAR.  Well, hell! How could you resist that daring challenge, coming on the third day of the New Year?  And if that was not enough, a review featuring Saunders’ new book appeared in the January 5 U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal with the headline, GIVING HOPE TO THE AMERICAN SHORT STORY.

In his long interview profile story, Joel Lovell calls Saunders “The writer for our time,” another irresistible sound bite picked up by journalists and bloggers.  Lovell then goes on to define “our time” as an historical moment in which we are dropping bombs on people we know little about, a time when we are desperate simply for a job, a time in which we are scared out of our wits for reasons we find hard even to name. 

It is this  “our time” that Lovell says Saunders is “the writer” for.  For George Saunders is, above all other things, a satirist.  When Saunders' first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline appeared in 1996, it received rave reviews, with well-known writers such as Garrison Keillor and Thomas Pynchon calling Saunders a "brilliant new satirist" with a voice "astoundingly tuned."  Based on that one book, Saunders was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award, and New Yorker magazine named him one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty. 

Lovell’s praise for Saunders was bound to get some reaction.  Adrian Chen, of Gawker blog, who does a lot of reacting, posted an essay on January 23 with the title, ‘WRITER OF OUR TIME’ GEORGE SAUNDERS NEEDS TO WRITE A GOODAMN NOVEL ALREADY.  Calling the novel the Super Bowl of fiction writing, Chen says that without a novel there’s no chance for Saunders to reach the sort of “era-defining” status that Lovell imagines for him.

It did not take long for the reaction to Chen’s childish remarks to get a response.  On January 25, Kevin McFarland of the AV Club blog posted a piece entitled WHY GEORGE SAUNDERS (OR ANYONE ELSE) CAN WRITE WHATEVER THEY DAMN WELL PLEASE, calling Chen’s tone “patronizing” and his remarks “heady with ignorance about Saunders career and what makes him notable in the first place.” 

Then Hector Tobar published a piece in The Los Angeles Times entitled PERFECTING THE SHORT-STORY FORM, in which he praised the short story form and suggested that Saunders hasn’t written a novel because he is too much of a prose perfectionist and likes the control the short story gives him.

The Saunders publicity is all good publicity for the much neglected and oft-ignored short story form, and probably gave impetus to a February 15 piece in The New York Times by Leslie Kaufman entitled GOOD FIT FOR TODAY’S LITTLE SCREENS: SHORT STORIES.  Kaufman opens by saying that short story collections, “an often underappreciated literary cousin of novels, are experiencing a resurgence,” but argues that the cause of this is the proliferation of digital options. 

Kaufman notes that 2013 has already yielded an unusually “rich crop” of short story collections,” including Saunders’ Tenth of December, which debuted “with a splash normally reserved for Hollywood movies.”  Kaufman also mentions Karen Russell’s new collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Amber Dermont’s Damage Control, and Jess Walter’s We Live in Water.  Kaufman also mentions last year’s collections by Nathan Englander and Junot Diaz.  Dermont is quoted as saying that “the single-serving of a short narrative is the perfect art form fro the digital age…. Stories are models of concision, can be read in one sitting, and are infinitely downloadable and easily consumed on screeens.”

The problem with Kaufman’s piece is that it does not really make any connection between the so-called digital age and the popularity of such collections as those by Saunders, Diaz, and Englander—all of which have been published in the traditional hardcover, soft-cover editions. 

This was pointed out by Laura Miller in a Feb. 21 story on Salon.com entitled SORRY, THE SHORT STORY BOOM IS BOGUS, who summed up the current situation of the short story this way:

A short story can be anything from an exquisite specimen of the literary art to a diverting pastime. In its mid-20th-century heyday, when even magazines like Mademoiselle published short fiction by writers like William Faulkner, stories offered readers an hour or two of satisfying narrative entertainment at the end of the day. Television has largely replaced that function, and the literary short story itself became a more rarefied thing, a form in which writers exhibit the perfection of their technique, rather like lyric poetry. With the exception of certain communities of genre writer and readers — most notable in science fiction — these writers aren’t reaching a wider audience because they aren’t especially trying to. 

It should be noted that the best-selling short story collections of the past several months-- Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About when we Talk About Anne Frank, Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her, and George Saunders’ Tenth of December--all have “special interest”: Englander’s “O. Henryish” well-made stories on Jewish culture, Diaz’s potty-mouthed sexcapades with women he dropped, and Saunder’s sharp satires on modern culture.  The only other collection of the year that stayed a time on the best-seller list is Alice Munro’s Dear Life, but then Munro writes so well that she does not have to have a “special interest.”

I plan to write a short essay on the “magic” of George Saunder’s stories, for I don’t think it is the satiric pieces that are the most representative of the genre or his best stories, even though they indeed may be the most readable and the most popular.  Junot Diaz (whose stories I do not care for and who I think has been highly overrated this past year), does, however, put his finger on the key to Saunder’s excellence that I hope to explore further.  He told Joel Lovell that although there is no one who has “a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital” than Saunders, on the other side is “how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion.  Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or as deep as Saunders does.”

I agree.  It is Saunders’ moral vision, combined with his respect for the word and the sentence, that makes him a great short story writer. In one of his many recent interviews, he said the litmus test for him is always the language.

I will come back to Saunders in March.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Carys Bray and Carol Shields: Whimsy and Artifice


Carys Bray, whose first collection of stories, Sweet Home, was published in November 2012 by Salt Publishing, received her M.A. in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University, where she is now a Ph.D. student and associate tutor.  Although Salt is a growing Independent publisher in England, its promotional budget is probably relatively small, especially for debut collections of short stories; consequently, Ms. Bray’s book has not been reviewed in the British press, although she has received several glowing notices from bloggers, to whom she or Salt has probably sent copies.  

Since I have been retired, I only check my campus mailbox once a year.  Recently, when I made my annual visit to my old workplace, I found a packaged copy of Sweet Home, inside of which there was a hand-written greeting from Ms. Bray. I hope it had not been languishing in that cobwebby mail cubby for a long time. I read the book with pleasure and suggest that you may also enjoy it—that is, if you like the particular kind of story that Ms. Bray writes.  I offer the following comments on that kind of story for your possible interest.

When Carys Bray was asked in an online interview who was most important to her in developing her writing life, she replied that when she was working on her BA, one of her tutors introduced her to the short stories of Canadian writer Carol Shields, and that within a couple of weeks she had read all the stories in Shield’s three collections, adding: “I found her writing funny, dark and intriguing. Shields deliberately included items like, ‘wallpaper… cereal bowls, cupboards, cousins, buses, local elections, head colds, cramps, newspapers,’ in her fiction and as I read her work, I knew that I wanted my stories to be similarly bursting with real life.”  Bray also said in the interview that after discovering how versatile the short story was, she allowed herself to experiment. “I had tremendous fun as I stocked the shelves of a surreal supermarket, invented fictional parenting books and imagined an alternative to IVF that was steeped in Nordic mythology.”

There may seem to be something of a contradiction between Bray’s wish to make her stories “bursting with life” and the “tremendous fun” she had experimenting with surreal supermarkets and Nordic mythology. Not really. There has long been a tradition in the short story of combining the stuff of everyday life with the artifice of surreal fable.  Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver did it brilliantly. So does Alice Munro, David Means, and William Trevor.  The short story, by its generic nature and literary tradition, is a form that is as much artifice as it is reality (whatever that is).  The question that Cary’s Bray’s stories raises for me is how “reality” gets embodied in the artifice of her stories and how the kind of story she writes is similar to the writer who she says has influenced her the most: Carol Shields.

Shields is better known and more respected as a novelist than she is as a short-story writer, having established her reputation with her 1995 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Stone Diaries.  “Light and breezy” is a phrase often used to describe her short stories.  Whereas Shields seems most interested in the realistic exploration of character in her novels, she seems primarily intent on examining ideas in most of her stories, which are frequently little “what if” concept pieces or considerations of common objects and phenomena.  To call Shields’ stories “experimental,” as many reviewers have done, may be to dignify them with more weight than she intended them to have. After all, the word “experimental” perhaps should not be confused with having fun with little narrative essays on the metaphoric significance of such things as keys, or windows, or the weather.

Typical of Shields’ kind of story is the title piece of her first collection Various Miracles, for it signals both her delight in coincidences as well as her interest in the connection between fiction and reality.  After listing several anecdotal coincidences, such as the fact that on a certain date three strangers on the same bus were reading the same novel, she narrates the longer anecdote of a writer taking her manuscript to a publisher who had earlier expressed some reservations that the novel depended too heavily on coincidences.  A gust of wind blows it out of her hands and she has to retrieve the separate sheets all over the street, only to discover that one page is missing.  Later a woman in a red coat finds the missing page while buying zucchini in a grocery store. The first lines of the page describe a woman in a red coat buying zucchini in a grocery store. 

Some of Shields’ stories are about little events of everyday reality that achieve some sort of transcendent meaning.  For example “Taking the Train” is about one woman’s experience of separate moments of un-sharable significance, such as listening to a special song or finding a rare manuscript in a museum, while “The Journal” is about a woman who keeps a notebook of the travels she and her husband make, finally describing a rare moment of intimacy that she knows occurs only two or three times in one’s life.
 
Shields has said that she has always been compelled by the idea of transcendental moments in which we are occasionally able to glimpse a kind of pattern in the universe.  She also has said that she used the Emily Dickinson quote “Tell the truth but tell it slant” as an epigraph to her first collection of short stories because she likes to use various angles of perspective.  What she says she likes best is to set up a story conventionally and then turn it upside down. There is always a technical problem in writing, says Shields, and often the problem gives her something to hang the fiction on. Sometimes a word or a phrase, a problem or a puzzle starts a story off, something odd or surreal--something that does not quite fit in.  She then begins with some point that interests her and starts to piece the story together, writing it over and over until it gets longer and thicker.

The title story of Dressing Up for the Carnival (2000), Shields’ final collection, is a little parable about people in a town putting on costumes each day, all to illustrate that we cannot live without our illusions. “Weather” is a satirical parable about the weather ceasing to exist when the weathermen go on strike.  “Ilk” is an academic satire of postmodern jargonistic literary theory.  Shields is more effective when her little “what if” stories examine individual characters rather than abstract ideas.  For example, there is a certain poignancy and truth in “Mirrors,” about an aging couple that do not permit any mirrors or other reflective surfaces in their vacation home, thus enforcing a sort of vacation from focusing on the self.

Shields’ playful experiments sometime become mere tours de force of cleverness and ingenuity.  For example in “Absence,” a writer discovers that a certain vowel, the very letter that signifies the “hungry self,” no longer works on her typewriter.  The dilemma she faces is how to write her story without a first person pronoun, a problem she tackles as being similar to the limitations of the sonnet form.  As we follow the struggles of the fictional writer, we only gradually become aware that Carol Shields has written her entire three-and-a half-page story without a single “I”--a feat that may make one smile with admiration, but which, after all, is merely a highly-skilled jeu d’esprit.

As I said at the beginning of this little discussion, I enjoyed Carol Bray’s stories, but I must also say that the enjoyment was relatively “light and breezy,” as critics often designated the stories of Carol Shields.  Bray, a mother of four, obviously follows the common creative writing advice to “write about what you know,” for many of her stories focus on being a wife and mother.  However, her approach to these domestic topics is often, like the stories of Carol Shields, that of the jeu d’esprit. 

The first story in the collection, entitled “Everything a Parents Needs to Know,” begins with the line, “Helen’s daughter hates her,” a realistic assertion that Bray explores by juxtaposing Helen’s parental trials and tribulations with quotations from self-help books (which Bray says she invented) with titles such as Parenting for Idiots by JoAnn Humble, and A Happy Childhood, a Happy Life!, by Brenda Jolly. It’s an entertaining concoction with which parents can identify, containing a dash of whimsy and a pinch of sentiment.

Beginning sentences and closing epiphanies have always been important for the short story form, and Bray has learned her lesson well.  “Just in Case” opens with: “I’ve been looking for a baby to borrow for a number of weeks.”  It’s a chilling story about a woman’s sorrow at the loss of a child and involves, ultimately and ominously, a Samsonite suitcase.  I don’t want to summarize the plots of Bray’s stories, for that might spoil the potential reader’s fun.  However, my reluctance to say too much is also an indication how much many of Bray’s stories depend on the twist of plot.

The title story is a modern fairy tale based on the story of Hansel and Gretel, but it is somewhat less scary than the treatment of fairy tale motifs by Bray’s British predecessors, A.S. Byatt and Angela Carter. “The Ice Baby,” also a fairytale treatment, is a more universally human evocation of one of Bray’s signature themes—the poignant relationship between a mother and a child.

“The Baby Aisle” is a futuristic fable about shopping for babies in the supermarket—the kind of story that George Saunders does so well, but which once again is much lighter than the biting satire of that suddenly very famous short story writer (More about Saunders in a week or so).

“The Countdown” is a clever treatment of the fears of a soon-to-be-first-father that pushes the terror of dropping the kid on his or her head to the ultimate fantasy extremes.  “Under Covers,” which also opens with one of Bray’s clever first sentences (“Carol’s bra is spread-eagled in the hedge like a monstrous, albino bat”) is a delicately restrained treatment of the universal female fear of breast cancer.

I thank Ms. Bray for sending me a copy of her collection of short stories.  She explores serious human issues with narrative control and whimsical style.  I wish her well.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Antisocial Nature of the Short Story: William Trevor's "An Idyll in Winter"


I wish to thank my fellow blogger Trevor Berrett at http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews
for calling my attention to a William Trevor story, “An Idyll in Winter,” published last Nov. in The Guardian, that I missed.  You can find by clicking here

After reading the story, I read Trevor and Betsy’s responses on mookse and gripes and wrote a brief response of my own.  However, the story and the responses reminded me of several issues about reading the short story as a form that I often discussed with my students when I was teaching.  It has always been my studied opinion that the short story does not usually present characters as if they were real people in the phenomenal world, and that the short story, when it is most successful, does not deal with social issues, but with universal human experiences.  I offer a couple of examples of this below before discussing William Trevor’s “An Idyll in Winter.”

Monica Wood, “Disappearing”

My textbook collection, Fiction’s Many Worlds, includes a first person point of view story by Monica Wood entitled “Disappearing” that focuses on a young woman who diets and swims to lose weight. When my students and I discussed this story, my students wanted to talk about the social issues of obesity vs. compulsive dieting to achieve a runway-model type image.  However, reading the story as being about a particular young woman suffering from an eating disorder, was, I tried to convince them, reading it in too limited a way. Although anorexia might indeed be the diagnosis of the protagonist if she were a real person in the real world, or even a realistic character in a novel, short stories, I argued, urge the reader to understand the protagonist's situation as universally human.

The basic motivation of the woman in the story is suggested by the title; she wishes to disappear.  Since such an action is physically impossible, the reader might want to consider the story as the depiction of either a symbolic action or an hallucinatory one.  The vehicle that embodies the protagonist's desire or hallucination to lose the body, or disappear, is water, for floating in the water is an appropriate metaphor means of escaping gravity.  For one hour a day the young woman is thin as water, transparent, invisible.

As she becomes thinner and thinner, she drops all things away that might keep her out of the water and the water out of her.  The psycho-logic of the story is that if it is good to lose physical weight, then it is best to lose all weight, to give up all things associated with the body. To become one with the water is to lose the physical self completely. This is a metaphysical goal, not a physical or a social one.

Events in this first-person story lose their hard edges as scenes in the external world and take on the subjectivity of the teller. This highly charged subjectivity is further emphasized by the relative inarticulateness of the speaker. Instead of trying to probe and rationalize her behavior and motivation, the woman describes her actions in simple sentences or fragments.  However, she does know, at least intuitively, what drives her, even though she cannot explain it, for she tells her friend and her husband that she is not just interested in losing weight, and she knows they cannot "imagine" what she is doing or why. 

Although it is easier to use this story as an “excuse” to talk about the social issue of female body image or the clinical problem of anorexia, my students were only able to do this by ignoring the tone, language, and voice of the story, in short, by forgetting about the story itself in order to talk instead about some real-life social “issues” which pre-existing terminology made them more comfortable to categorize and discuss.  Needless to say, I fought such evasion and oversimplification—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain”

One of the most difficult stories I taught in the last few years before I retired was Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” because my students wanted to avoid discussing the story itself and talk instead about the social issue of homosexuality. However, both Ennis and Jack, the two young men in the story, insist that they are not homosexual, and neither of them have sex with other men in the story.  The two men seem crave that time on Brokeback Mountain when their embrace satisfied “some shared and sexless hunger.”

Annie Proulx takes a creative chance here because she knew that many readers would try to simplify the story by classifying Jack and Ennis as homosexuals, or else latent homosexuals (a term that experts are more and more classifying as meaningless), or even bisexual, another meaningless term.  But such easy classifications will not serve here. When Jack and Ennis deny their homosexuality, they mean it.  Ennis wonders if the feeling they have for each other happens to other people, and Jack says “It don’t happen in Wyoming.”

However, this prejudice against homosexuality is less a social issue of homosexual intolerance in Proulx’s story than it is a typical literary impediment that gives famous love stories their tragic inevitability, such as the feud between families of Romeo and Juliet. The story ends not with a message about the social intolerance of homosexuality, but rather with a poignant image of Ennis creating a simple memorial to Jack with a postcard picture of Brokeback Mountain and two old shirts the men wore when they spent their first summer together.

The technical challenge Annie Proulx faces in “Brokeback Mountain” is how to write a love story between two men without falling into the clich├ęs and conventions of a homosexual story, in short without social baggage and easy stereotyping.  Proulx achieves this by creating a fable-like style for the story, with little or no attention paid to a realistic social context.  Instead, the story focuses on the passionate love affair between Jack and Ennis against a stark landscape, much like that of the heath in Wuthering Heights.  Proulx focuses almost entirely on the encounters between the two men as mysterious passionate couplings and tender concerned sharing. By refusing to make judgments and by treating the relationship of the two men with dignity and respect, Proulx succeeds in making the reader believe in this love affair between two men without classifying it narrowly as a homosexual story.

William Trevor, “An Idyll in Winter”

William Trevor’s “An Idyll in Winter” is an idyll in two senses of the word; it describes a brief romantic interlude, and it is also a traditional literary form with a romantic theme, much like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous Idylls of the King.  We know that Trevor has Tennyson and other Victorian writers in mind in this story, for when Anthony stops at a village inn on the way home from seeing Mary Bella, he dreams of her as a child reciting for him: “Willows whiten, aspens quiver/Little breezes dusk and shiver,” which are lines from Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.”  Anthony wrote the word “idyll” for Mary Bella when she was a child; she loved the word then and loves it even more now when he returns. Like Cathy and Heathcliff, they both know that the moors and the house called Old Grange are where together they belong.

“An Idyll in Winter” is an exemplary love story, following all the traditional conventions of this genre.  The fact that Anthony and Mary Bella meet when she is twelve and he is twenty-two has nothing to do with pedophilia, either explicitly or implicitly; it is a metaphor for one of the most essential elements of a love story—the forbidden.  As  Denis de Rougemont says on the first page of his book, Love in the Western World:

“Happy love has no history. Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself.  What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love, but its passion.  And passion means suffering.  And there we have the fundamental fact.”

William Trevor’s story has all the elements of the classic Victorian love story: a beautiful, romantic, young girl; a handsome, romantic tutor from outside; a lonely Grange on the moors; a father who is killed out riding because of a broken heart; the rustic men over which the young woman presides. The context for their love is all the stories that the young tutor teaches her in the schoolroom—the conventional place where one learns—the romantic histories of Jeanne d’Arc, the Tudor Queen Elizabeth, Charlemagne, Marie Antoinette; and the fiction of the Victorian era: the world of the Marshalsea prison from Dickens, Dorlcote Mill of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Wildfell Hall of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Haworth Rectory, which was the home of the Bronte sisters, and finally, the most magnificent romance of all—Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  Indeed, what Anthony experiences on the moors he finds very “Heathcliffian.”

(A personal sidebar here:  When I was in graduate school, my major field of study was Victorian Literature.  I spent three years studying Browning, Tennyson, Arnold, Hardy, Dickens, Eliot, the Brontes.  I taught the Victorians for several years.  The tone and style of Trevor’s story sounds very familiar to me, as does his fabulistic plot and characterization.)

In the classic love story, one does not make a conscious choice about anything; one is rather caught up, swept away, overcome, driven to madness.  There is nothing ordinarily human about Heathcliff’s passion for Cathy.  For that matter, there is nothing ordinarily human about Gatsby’s love for Daisy or Tristan’s love for Iseult.  By ordinary human standards of good sense and everyday reality, all such love stories are stupid and destructive.  They detach themselves from the everyday world and create a secret world of their own.  Read Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” again.

The fact that the romance in William Trevor’s story begins when Mary Bella is only twelve emphasizes that romance begins in the imagination, not in any act; it also emphasizes what Trevor calls “a child’s unspoilt charm.”  The summer they are first together is one in which both are immersed in the romance stories of history and fiction.  But since a love affair between a twenty-two-year-old man and a twelve-year-old child would be distasteful, they must be separated until they are adults and “what had been impossible…now was not.”

But now that what was impossible is possible, another forbidden element must be added, for love stories always demand the impediment to fulfillment—the classic one of adultery, as in Tristan and Iseult. To which is added the additional element of the child Amelia, who refuses to eat after her father leaves. The hospital says there is nothing particularly unusual about a child responding this way to distress, and Anthony, a practical man of maps, says there is nothing “mysterious to be discovered” about it.  But for Mary Bella, the knowledge of the deserted wife and the waning child infuses a sense of reality into the romance that she finds difficult to bear.  She thinks that as in the schoolroom, whereas “once Jeanne d’Arc had ridden into battle, as precious stones had glittered on the great high collar of Elizabeth Tudor, so shadows now were more than shadows.  The knife that so cruelly and so often fell, the heads that rolled into a mire of blood, the treachery of plots, through their own drama became reality.”  Romance cannot tolerate reality.

Truly a man of maps in all their accuracy and precision, Anthony says, “We are here, we are together…. We live with consequences.  We have to, and we can.” And this is indeed the difference between living in romance and living in reality.  When Nick tells Gatsby he can’t repeat the past, he says, of course you can.  When Starbuck tells Ahab to give up his hunt for the white whale, Ahab says he would smite the sun if it offended him.  Although Mary Bella tells herself that Anthony is right, that people live with what happens to them, she feels pity for the damaged woman and a child that had been damaged.  Even when the child begins to return to normality and Anthony says the awfulness of that time is over, Mary Bella knows it isn’t, “since memory would not allow it to be over…the damaged do not politely go away.”  While Anthony says all this is foolishness, Mary Bella knows that when his patience has worn itself out, there would be indifference, then disdain, and then contempt. She tells him, “How blurred the edges are: what we can do, what in the end we can’t.” 

And then one morning, he is gone—back to his wife to whom he will tell lies of mercy to convince her that love was only a “wild infatuation that did not last and now is over.”  Mary Bella knows he will not come back, that there will be no “tawdry attempt at revival.”  She only wishes that the men who work for her—a sort of tragic chorus--will know that her love for Anthony is still there “among her shadows…She wishes they could know it will not wither, that there’ll be no long slow dying, or love made ordinary.”

And this indeed is the aim of romantic love, for it is never ordinary.  It either ends in death or in a retreat from reality back into the imagination--the only place where it has a chance to survive.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Why Some Short Story Writers Don't Want to Write Novels


Well, this is interesting.  Last week I opened the LA Times and was caught by this headline:  PERFECTING THE SHORT-STORY FORM. It’s not a line I often see in the LA Times or any other newspaper, for that matter.  The piece, one of a regular feature called “Jacket Copy,” was by LA novelist and journalist, Hector Tobar, who reviews books regularly for the Times now.

Tobar referred to a recent piece on the “Gawker” blog by Adrian Chen, urging writer George Saunders to get off his butt and write a novel.  When I checked “Gawker,” I saw that Chen was chastising Saunders in response to a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Joel Lovell who rhapsodizes that “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.”

To which, Adrian Chen retorts, if Saunders is so damned great, why hasn’t he written a novel?  Chen asserts, “the novel is the Super Bowl of fiction writing, and any fiction writer who hasn’t written one is going to be relegated to runner-up in the annals of literary history.”   (One wonders if Chen has ever read Jorge Borges or Anton Chekhov.)  He says that those poor writers who have never written a novel may be fan favorites and heroes to MFA students and “connoisseurs of literature,” like Raymond Carver or Alice Munro, for example, but, Chen insists, “without a novel there’s no chance a fiction-writer can reach the story of Pop, era-defining status Lovell imagines for Saunders.”

Chen rants on that “literary types” have a “peculiar fetish for the short story writer: “Short fiction is the Hard Stuff--pure uncut stories prized by real literature heads,” snorts Chen, concluding with added scorn, that the excessive praise heaped on short-story writers seems patronizing: “like an out of town guest struggling to compliment a New Yorker’s cramped and overpriced apartment: ‘look how much you’ve done with so little space.’”

Hector Tobar scolds Chen for the childishness of his remarks, arguing that Saunders has not written a novel because he is a “prose perfectionist...because he’s unwilling to write a mediocre page. Because he likes the control the short-story form gives him.” Tobar say that to write a novel, every once in a while “your prose, for lack of a better word, is going to be more prosaic than it would be otherwise.”  He says the reason for this is that to get a reader to make it through a novel, you have to have that “chunky, unattractive but very utilitarian thing called a plot,” the creation of which often hides your weaknesses as a writer. 

Tobar concludes that a successfully short story writer “can’t get away with crafting two or three mediocre paragraphs.”  He argues that George Saunders is “building perfect, if smaller constructions, with nary a wasted word.”

I agree with what Tobar suggests is a real distinction between the short story and the novel.  The important question for me is what other important generic/thematic/stylistic distinctions are there between the two forms that give rise to (or result from) this authorial attention to style on the microcosmic level of sentence rather than the macrocosmic level of plot. 

I have read Saunders first three collections of stories--CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and Persuasion Nation—and agree with Joel Lovell that Saunders is a “writer’s writer”—a kiss-of-death term often loaded on short-story writers. 

I have just received a copy of Saunder’s new collection, The Tenth of December and will comment on it in the next couple of weeks.  I also picked up a copy of Saunder’s collection of essays, The Braindead Megaphone and will comment on some of his essays that focus on fiction.

Chen may be right that the only folks who really love short stories are other writers of short stories and those “literary types” who appreciate the writer’s attention to language rather than just plot.  But that attention to language may result in something more universally important than what “nonliterary types” like Chen might scorn as mere aestheticism.  Lovell says in his New York Times piece that Saunders once told him his aim in his fiction was to “soften the borders between you and me, between me and me, between the reader and the writer.” Lovell believes that Saunders’ writing “makes you wiser, better, more disciplined in your openness to the experience of other people.”

Chen retorts, “if Saunders can literally make the world a better place then he needs to write a novel and get Oprah to talk about it on TV and put it into the hands of as many of the sad but nobly struggling people who are the subjects of so many of his stories as possible.”

In my own opinion, a better solution would not be to urge George Saunders and other short-story writers to write novels, but rather to urge more readers to read short stories.    And God help us if we have to wait for Oprah, in her wisdom, to tell us what to read.