Thursday, January 29, 2009

Antonya Nelson and the Figure in the Carpet

I have just been reading Antonya Nelson's new collection of stories, Nothing Right, due out in early February. If you have not read Nelson, you might want to take a look. I have been reading her since her first collection, The Expendables, won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction back in 1990. I reviewed her last collection Female Trouble (2002) and felt that, like such writers as Alice Munro and Bobbie Ann Mason, Nelson, gives me a privileged glimpse into what it must be like to think and feel as a woman does. Indeed, the revelations in Nelson’s fourth collection of short stories examine the subtle sexual secrets of women so candidly and acutely that they often make me feel like a privileged intruder.

The issue her fifth book raises for me is whether a writer's work has some central unity--some obsessive theme or style--that the reader can recognize. The stories in Nothing Right, like many other Nelson stories, seem to focus on a recurring theme. Many of Nelson's characters--mostly women--are lost, disengaged--looking for a mate, a child, a family--to give themselves a sense of identity, a sense of belonging. Some succeed in finding it; some do not.

Then, just as I was reading the book, the January 19 issue of The New Yorker arrived, with a new story by Nelson, entitled "Soldier's Joy," and there it was again. In this story, the central character, a young woman named Nana, is married to a much older man, her former professor. They have no children; he drinks, condescends to her, and is having an affair with her best friend. When her father (about her husband's age) has an accident and she must go home to help out, she meets her first boyfriend, married with children, who is out of work and who likes smoking hash better than anything else. She sleeps with him in her childhood bedroom where she first slept with him. She then finds out about her husband's longterm affair. The story ends with her sitting down to eat a childhood meal of meatloaf and soft white bread, thinking about how she must go home, where she will have to "revisit and amend, unstitch and patch back together, her husband and her friend." As she faces the simple childhood meal, "It was very difficult, as if she were starting all the way back to the beginning."

Summaries, of course, never do justice to a complex story, so I urge you to read it. The title seems to refer to an old fiddle song about Civil War soldiers spending a few cents on whiskey, beer, and morphine to numb their pain. In this story, the male characters drink and smoke dope for relief of the pain of growing old, being without work, etc.

But even the summary indicates that once again Nelson is concerned with a woman who is trying to escape her isolation--returning home to be a child again, having sex with the old boyfriend, trying to find a way to make another start--suggesting what I take to be the signature Nelson theme. As a side note, this may be a more universal short-story theme. At least Frank O'Connor thinks so in his classic study of the short story, The Lonely Voice. (A must-have book for any student of the short story. I made a presentation on O'Connor's thesis of the lonely voice at an International Short Story Conference in Cork, Ireland, this past June. I will come back to this theme in another blog.)

In reading the Nelson stories, I recalled a wonderful essay by Eudora Welty. It is entitled "Writing and Analyzing a Story," and can be found in her book The Eye of the Story, a great collection that should be in the library of any lover of the short story. (Please forgive all these recommendations; it is an old professor's occupational hazard.)

Welty suggests that although a writer's stories are not written in any typical, predictable, systematic way, still "a serious writer's stories are ultimately, to any reader, so clearly identifiable as his." She says that it all of a writer's stories seem to spring from the same source within him or her, that a writer's stories carry his or her "signature," because of one impulse characteristic of his or her gift.

Welty says that story writing and critical analysis are separate gifts, like "spelling and playing the flute, and the same writer proficient in both has been double endowed. But even he can't rise and do both at the same time."

Well, I may may some modest analytical skill, but I have no gift in story writing, so I would be interested in hearing from writers who are kind enough to read this blog. Do you think Welty is right that all of a writer's stories spring from the same source within?

The classic story about this is Henry James's "The Figure in the Carpet," a story which I include in my text Fiction's Many Worlds, but which few of my students, usually only those who want to be writers, care for. It is just too much a story about literary values to be of broad interest.

James says in his preface to the collection The Lesson of the Master that what he remembers about writing "The Figure in the Carpet" is that he was struck by the general mistrust of close analytical reading and that he wished to reinstate analytical appreciation."

Some readers are not sure if James means this or if the story is a long-winded tongue-in-cheek satire on readers, like myself, who are bound and determined to discover complex figures in the work of authors. I have met a number of writers whose stories are taught in university classrooms, and I must admit that few of them give a tinker's damn about what professors say about their work and scoff at the elaborate critical essays that professors write to climb up the tenure track.

One final thing: Welty spends much of her essay mentioned above on her own analysis of one of her most complex stories, "No Place for You, My Love." It is one of my favorites. In my next post, I will try to talk about "Reading like a Writer." I will come back to the Welty essay and the story she discusses, as well as talk a bit about Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer," which I also recommend. It is a powerful validation of that much maligned old "New Critical" tactic called "close reading," something in the last few years of teaching I had trouble getting my graduate students to do since many of their professors had told them close reading was socially irresponsible.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike and the Short Story

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of John Updike, a writer whose short stories I have been teaching since my first year as a college instructor. I am appending below a review I did of his The Early Stories: 1953-1975.

One of the marks of the complete professional writer is that he or she tries not to waste anything. John Updike is a complete professional writer. As he says in the amiable opening to these 103 pieces composed in the first two decades of his career, any story that manages to make it into print has a certain “valor,” so his “instinct,” is not to “ditch” it but to “mount it anew.”

Updike has mounted many of these stories several times in the past. This omnibus collection opens with the Olinger Stories, (1964), consisting of autobiographical pieces based on Updike’s childhood in Shillington, Pennsylvania, which in turn is made up mostly of stories that originally appeared in his first two collections, The Same Door (1959) and Pigeon Feathers (1962).

This hefty tome (the first in a series?) also contains most of the stories about Richard and Joan Maples in Too Far to Go (1979), many of which appeared earlier in The Same Door, Pigeon Feathers, The Music School (1966) and Museums and Women (1972). Packaging is an important part of being a professional writer.

Another aspect of Updike’s professional parsimony is that everything he does, sees, reads, or thinks about seems to get transformed into language. As you enjoy these pieces, you not only get all the usual themes of fiction—coming of age, falling in love, having sex, getting married, getting divorced, etc.—you also get a little archeology, biology, astronomy, religion, philosophy, etc.

And because of this compulsion to fashion language out of everyone and everything, Updike’s stories blithely blur generic lines. Most of these pieces are indeed short stories, but some are meditations, sketches, memoirs, descriptions, experiments, etc., various “odd jobs,” (the name of a 900-page collection of Updike essays and reviews); one of the pieces here, “The Tarbox Police,” was actually previously included in still another 900-page collection of essays and criticism entitled Hugging the Shore.

You can’t read too many short stories at one sitting. They need to be savored after each separate serving. To make it possible for readers to tackle larger helpings and satisfy the soap opera desire for continuity, Updike has organized the stories into linked sections—“Out in the World,” “Married Life,” “Family Life,” “The Single Life.” It is curious, therefore, that his most closely related stories—about the marriage and breakup of the Maples—are scattered throughout the book.

A number of Updike’s early stories have appeared in so many textbooks that they have become canonical clichés. You don’t even have to be an English major to know “A&P,” that clever, adolescent take on chivalric romance. And “Pigeon Feathers” is probably the classic case of adolescent religious conviction, while “The Christian Roommates” is the prototypical mysterious stranger rite-of-passage story.

Updike, of course, has been so closely associated with The New Yorker for so many years that the old cliché of The New Yorker story—replete with smooth, slick, surface sophistication--has usually evoked his name as the star specimen. Thus it is a perverse pleasure to note that Updike’s first published story, “Friends from Philadelphia” (in The New Yorker, of course), had as its final revelatory punch line the name of a very rare and expensive vintage that only sophisticated New Yorker readers would know.

However, as with most masters of their craft, Updike cannot easily be pigeonholed. He may often be the predictable professional, but he has never been blasé about trying to construct perfect sentences and pleasing parables about subtle human mysteries.

In pace requiscat

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Elitism and Reading

A few weeks ago, the National Endowment for the Arts in America released a study entitled "Reading on The Rise." The last reading survey, released in 2002 was entitled "Reading at Risk."

Some of the results of the survey, with a sample size roughly 20 times that of the average media poll and balanced by the Census Bureau to represent current U.S. population, are as follows:

1. Literary reading among adults rose 3.5 percent in the last six years.
2. More than half of the U.S. population did literary reading in 2008.

What is the cause of this increase? Some suggestions that have been made are:

The Harry Potter effect inflates the number
Retired Baby Boomers have more time to read
National Endowment of the Arts Chair Dana Gioia wanted to go out with a bang

The critical response I want to comment on is the one made by David L. Ulin, Book editor of the Los Angeles Times in an op ed piece two weeks ago. Ulin argued that the Endowment's definition of "literary reading" as "novels, short stories, plays, and poems" was "elitist" because it assumed that literary reading was better than any other kind of reading. Ulin cites a recent essay in Nation by William Deresiewicz, which claims that this definition plays into the tendency of critics and scholars to see themselves as an embattled cultural elite.

Ulin also points out how reading rates go up according to level of education, with 68.1% of college graduates identifying themselves as readers, while only 39.1% of high school graduates and 18.5% of those who never went to high school identify themselves as readers. The fact that 55.7% of whites meet NEA's criteria as literary readers, while 42.6% of African Americans and 31.9% of Latinos meet the criteria suggests to Ulin a "disturbing subtext--that a certain kind of reader makes a better grade of citizen--literary eugenics, in other words."

That seems to me to be going too far, but I would like to hear what my readers think of this argument.

How does the short story play into this? The Endowment survey made no distinction between readers of novels and readers of short stories, but did note that reading of poetry and drama fell; thus the total increase is due to the reading of prose fiction.

Once in American literary and cultural history, the short story was a very popular form, so popular in fact that many critics lamented the fact that too many people were reading easy O. Henry type short stories. From the twenties up through the fifties, stories appeared in numerous American popular magazines and were widely read. Now only a few "elite" magazines publish short stories; you can count them on one hand.

So, to use Ulin's terms, if it is elitist to be a reader of prose fiction, it may be more elitist to be a reader of the short story. We know that many, many more novels are published than collections of short stories.

Literary Critics may now feel that with the election of Obama, a writer himself, the culture wars in America will shift. Several critics in last Sunday's special issue of the Book Review section of the Los Angeles Times were delighted that an honest-to-God writer would be in the White House. One noted that Obama had liked the novel Gilead and had called the prose "shimmering," pleased that an American President would even use the word "shimmering" to describe language.

Throughout my teaching career, I have been tarred with both the red and the blue brush in the cultural wars. Many of my students used to drop my class after the first meeting when they heard my southern accent and assumed I must be an ignorant red neck. Some dropped it later, calling me elitist, when I insisted on literary quality rather than political content in the stories we read.

My most infamous encounter with this janus-faced accusation was two summers ago at an International Short Story Conference in Lisbon. I was on a panel with Francine Prose, Bharati Mukherjee, and others and made a short presentation about the importance of literary quality rather than political correctness in the short story, when Amira Baraka (aka Leroi Jones) stood up and stalked out. When he made his presentation later, he accused me of being a right-wing reactionary.

Ana Castillo, who was in the audience, later in her blog called me "a stupid white guy [who] sat arrogantly in the front of a hall and single handedly dismissed so-called 'minority' perspectives."

She also said:

"I was at first surprised and soon offended by Charles May's off-handed dismissal of the attempt at literary diversity in univ. curriculums. "Can't we just move on?" He said at one point. Unfortunately, May himself was lost in the Reaganite years when white men felt they were under attack because young professors were bringing in new voices to the sacred canon."

Well, I did not "dismiss minority perspectives," but I do not wish to defend myself here. If anyone wants a copy of the presentation, I can send it via email. I just want to raise the issue of reading as an elitist activity.

Is it possible to be both a right wing reactionary and a left wing elitist at the same time to want literary quality rather than political rhetoric in prose fiction?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Fancy and Imagination

I really appreciate the comments of Becky, Lee, and Rolf to the "Memoir vs. Fiction" and "Haunting & Obsession" entries.

Becky's distinction between stories that seem "shrewd" vs those that are "imaginative" sent me back to Coleridge, which I quote below. Preferring T.C. Boyle as a whipping boy over Joyce Carol Oates, Becky calls him "themey," and I agree. Both Boyle and Oates come up with an idea, perhaps gleaned from a newspaper story, and then string together, quite cleverly, a story that illustrates the the idea. As Becky says, such stories are very teachable, easy to move through intellectually. However, a Munro story seems to "wash over us," not so easy to articulate what the themes are and what makes the story work.

Rolf is suggesting the same thing when he talks about some Munro stories "haunting" him and says that his own stories seem to come out of some haunted place. Such stories, which Sherwood Anderson once said start like a "seed" that seems inexplicably to grow, are surely more complex than the "themey" stories wired cold-bloodedly together the way Oates and Boyle do so very professionally.

Lee gives me another wonderful quote, with which I was unfamiliar (Thanks, Lee), this one from Hilary Mantel, about ghosts as "family secrets, buried impulses, unsolved mysteries, anything that lingers and clings..a sense of loss for something we can't name..a nostalgia for something we can't name...we carry all the past inside us; we are walking repositories of the lost."

A wonderful little story that seems a paradigm of this is Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover," but then most all of William Trevor and Alice Munro's stories are about a secret life. The key text about this secret, however, I think is the great master of the short story, Chekhov's "Lady with the Pet Dog."

"He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life, running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest, and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night."

Exploring those mysterious secrets, taking the risk of trying to give them some sort of emotional structure--surely that has something to do with the difference between a story of the Imagination, like Munro's, and a story of Fancy, like Oates and Boyle's

The reader's task is to let that wash over him or her; the student's task is then to carefully examine how the story created that ineffable sense of significance. It takes some work and understanding of language, literary conventions, and human emotion to grasp, however inadequately, the secrets writers know we store up in our ghostly hearts.

Just so you won't have to look it up again, here is the Coleridge quote:

“The imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word Choice. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.” Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

The great formalist theorist Murray Krieger once said that what the artist tries to do is "I-amize" the world. I like that. It echoes Moses' mystification when he asked who the voice in the burning bush was, and the voice said to tell the Egyptians that "I AM" sent you." To say "I AM WHO I AM" is to suggest the ultimate creator. Is the writer's Imagination then the echo of this primal creative act?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obsession and Haunting

One of the wonderful things about a blog is that I get reading suggestions and ideas from those of you kind enough to comment on my entries. I got a comment from Lee, who was interested in my suggestion that short stories are more often mythical mysteries than novels are, which tend toward the realistic. He then asked if I had ever read the stories of Kelly Link.

I went back to the 2005 edition of Best American Short Stories and reread her story "Stone Animals," which originally appeared in Conjunctions. It is a comic suburban ghost story of sorts with a highly stylized tone. I like it. A family moves out of an apartment in the city to a house in the suburbs. The wife is pregnant. The husband occasionally must go into the city. His boss, who they call the Crocodile, is creating a huge ball made of rubber bands. The two children are finding it difficult to adjust.

But the most interesting and predominant motif in the story is the set of stone rabbits at the entrance to the house. As the story progresses, real rabbits (or maybe fantasy rabbits) begin to take over the lawn of the house. All their possessions become haunted.

I t's a funny and original take on the effect of wrenching oneself away from one life and trying to adjust to another one. It's worth reading.

In fact, that 2005 edition of Best American Short Stories, edited by Michael Chabon, includes stories by several writers that I admire: J. Robert Lennon, Charles D'Ambrosio, Joy Williams, Edward P. Jones, George Saunders, David Means, and Alice Munro. If you ever see it, you might want to pick it up.

In the Contributors' notes, Link makes a comment that I found particularly compelling and provocative. After noting that her story owes a special debt to the stories of Joan Aiken, she says:

"I've always loved ghost stories, weird tales, true (and untrue) stories of haunted houses. Sometimes I think all good short stories function as ghost stories, in which the people, themes, events that grip an individual writer occur again and again like a haunting. Readers, too, can be haunted by stories."

I am interested in this notion of stories haunting a writer. Elizabeth Bowen said a good short story had to have a sense of "necessariness" about it, suggesting that a story "must" be told, that there is something obsessive about it. I wrote an essay about this several years ago and include a quote below (Please forgive me for quoting myself, but these issues haunt me.) I am currently reading the new book by Lennard J. Davis, entitled Obsession: A History" and will talk more about the notion of obsession, haunting, and necessariness in the short story in a future entry. I would be interested in hearing from writers who share Link's sense of being haunted by a story and feeling compelled to tell it.

"Ritual is one of the most characteristic obsessional means by which one defends against anxiety, for the ritual act is a symbolic enactment to simulate command of that for which the personality feels it has no control. Freud's famous "fort-da, described" in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which a baby repetitively throws a toy out of its crib to simulate its sense of control over the mother's departure is perhaps the most famous example. If, as Georg Lukács has said, the short story is the most artistic form, it may be because, as Frederic Jameson has suggested, it is the most formal and ritualistic narrative form, for it recapitulates the most basic motivation of the artistic impulse--the "for-da"--the need to create the similitude of control. Randal Jarrell describes the same compulsion when he claims that our stories show that we take pleasure in "repeating over and over, until we can bear it, all that we found unbearable: the child whose mother left her so often that she invented a game of throwing her doll out of her crib, exclaiming as it vanished 'Gone! gone!' was a true poet."

Bruno Bettleheim has suggested that fairy stories, one of the primary progenitors of the short story, are such ritualized defenses or outlets for childhood anxiety. Bettleheim argues that the child is subject to fears of loneliness, isolation and mortal anxiety--existential anxieties that fairy tales take seriously and deal with by objectifying in a highly formal structure, much the way that Sufi healing stories do.

As Leon Salzman reminds us, the obsessional impulse is not a defense against anxiety about everyday problems, but rather anxiety about the most basic problems that arise from our fundamental humanness. Salzman says that realization of one's "humanness--with its inherent limitations--is often the basis for considerable anxiety and obsessive attempts at great control over one's living." Freud noted that obsessed neurotics turn their thoughts "to those subjects upon which all mankind are uncertain and upon which our knowledge and judgments remain open to doubt. The chief subjects of this kind are paternity, length of life, life after death, and memory....”

The entire line of development of the short story--from fairy tale to Poe, from Chekhov to Raymond Carver--has focused on such basic human anxieties and has dealt with them by the creation of a highly formalized, unified, and ritualized aesthetic object. "

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

More on Munro and Memoir

Charlene and Rolf have some very helpful things to say about memoir in general and Munro's "Some Women" in particular.

I especially like Charlene's suggestion about the contrast between the stillness of the house, its damping down of life, and Mr Crozier's desire for a breeze, brought to him by the fan. The story's conclusion with Sylvia's comment about feeling the breeze, which the girl dismisses as caused by the car's movement is also important. I agree that one thing that marks a difference between memoir and short story is that in this story the old woman nows knows something she did not know when she was thirteen. A memoir may only recall an event, but a story seeks to explore the meaning of the event.

Of course, what the girl knows is the ineffable mystery that Rolf talks about. As Rolf says, the fiction writer reaches some "greater truth or illumination out of design rather than happenstance." Rolf notes that the details of the story--the naked old woman, the coy moments in the sick room, the checkers game, the banishment of the old woman and Roxanne--all this is the intentional "shell game," to use Rolf's term, not the unintentional revelation of memoir.

Not being a fiction writer myself, I often wonder how much of a story is planned and how much is "discovered" by the writer as he or she writes. I am sure that Munro is up to something in "Some Women," but I am not sure she planned it that way. I wonder if she is as puzzled as we are about what is going on in the story. I don't know. This is a mystery of the creative process, perhaps.

To go back to my old whipping girl, Joyce Carol Oates--I think she plans her stories meticulously and thus whatever mystery is in the story is embedded there consciously. (See her story in the recent New Yorker). As a result, the mystery seems fairly easy (as some of my colleagues jargonize) to "unpack."

However, Munro is the better writer because the mystery in her story is, to use Rolf's term, somehow "ineffable."

So what is going on here? A young girl takes a summer job in a house of the dying--not the usual summer job at a camp or hotel. As the girl says, she is aware of an atmosphere of death in the house and that Mr. Crozier was at the center of it, like the Host kept in the tabernacle. He is the sacred heart of the house, the carrier of the ultimate reality of death. He just wants a breath of fresh air. And then Roxanne comes blowing in like a whirlwind. And she is, indeed a breath of fresh air for a time, suggesting body with her bawdy jokes. Old Mrs. Crozier, with her ominous cane, also welcomes her for the same reason.

But Mr. Crozier, the sacred center, the prize that all the women vie for, knows what the women, especially Roxanne, do not know. And he condescends to Roxanne; as the girl says, he likes her not knowing. "Her ignorance was a pleasure that melted on his tongue, like a lick of toffee." Her ignorance is what makes her inferior to him.

But Mr. Crozier can only tolerate this life and liveliness so long, since he is well aware of the inevitability of death. So he locks life out, allowing in nly the one he has promised "till death do us part" (This notion of "betrothed" is perhaps why Munro chooses the Italian novel I Promessi. Sposi).

The narrator emphasizes her age at the beginning and end of the story (a fact we forget for as long as the story lasts; indeed a fact we all strive to forget) because the summer reminds her of the inevitability of her own impending reality.

The carnal liveliness of Roxanne and the vain hope of Mrs. Crozier, lying naked on the massage table, are displaced ultimately, as the narrator says at the end: "The carnality at death's door--or the true love, for that matter--was something I wanted to shake off back then, just as I would shake catepillars off my sleeve."

I have no way of knowing if my "reading" of Munro's story is a "correct" reading. I don't really care about correctness. However, I do believe that good short stories demand this kind of attention.

So what is the point of paying this much attention to a short story. Few readers do.

Is it possible that many readers sense or feel these implications of the story without the need to articulate them as I have tried to do?

I agree with Rolf and Charlene--that the difference between fiction and memoir has to do with some notion of "intentionality." However, I think that term is a very complex one.

The ability to transform something that "happened" into something "meaningful," without showing one's hand is the mystery of Munro to me.

Perhaps it might be well to talk about the difference between craft and art, or, to use Coleridge's terms, "Fancy" and "Imagination."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Memoir vs. Fiction

The special winter fiction issue of The New Yorker includes a new story by Alice Munro. That is always cause for gladness. The Contributors section informs us that she has a new collection, Too Much Happiness, coming out in late 2009. That is cause for even more celebration.

It is not just my opinion, but the opinion of practically every reviewer and critic I have read, that Alice Munro is our greatest living short-story writer--the Chekhov of the twentieth and twentieth-first century. Some might vote for William Trevor, but these two greats seem to have no rival.

It seems to me that if one could get at what makes these two writers such masters of the short story, one could formulate some tentative understanding of just what unique characteristics the short story as a genre has.

Perhaps not. Maybe if one could formulate the basic characteristics of Joyce Carol Oates' stories (And Lord knows she has written a lot of them), one could formulate such an understanding of the genre.

However, one basic difference between the stories of Oates and the stories of Munro, it seems to me, is that whereas one could learn how to write stories like Oates, one could not learn how to write stories like Alice Munro. Why is that?

Perhaps more on this at another time. What I want to discuss vis a vis the new Munro story in The New Yorker, entitled "Some Women," is the relationship between memoir and fiction, particularly a memoir anecdote and a short story.

Although the Munro piece is labeled "fiction," it begins like a memoir: "I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am. I can remember when the streets of the town I lived in were sprinkled with water to lay the dust in summer...."

The narrator is an old woman (we don't know how old) who recalls a summer when she was thirteen and got her first job. We don't see her, so we do not know what she looks like; we only hear a voice and imagine a thirteen-year-old girl having the experience of assisting an old woman care for her stepson, who has come back from the war, gone to college, studied history, got married, and then got leukemia. He and his wife, Sylvia, who teaches summer school at a nearby college, now live with the stepmother, "Old Mrs. Crozier." He is referred to as "Young Mr. Crozier." He is in an upstairs bedroom. The girl has few responsibilities--bringing him water, pulling the shades up and down, adjusting the position of the fan.

Into the household comes a young masseuse named Roxanne, who gives Old Mrs. Crozier massages. She is loud and boisterous and not a little vulgar--telling dirty jokes, spending more and more time with Mr. Crozier, teasing, and flirting.

On the narrator's last day of work, Mr. Crozier asks her to lock him in his room and give the key to his wife when she comes home. Roxanne tries to get in the room, but cannot. She wants to call the police, fearing he may try to kill himself. Old Mrs. Crozier tells her to mind her own business. Roxanne leaves; Sylvia comes home and goes into the room and talks to her husband, although this happens offstage, so we do not know what they say. She then takes the narrator home, and the story ends. The brief postlude informs us that Sylvia takes her husband to a rented cottage on the lake and that he dies before winter. Roxanne and her husband and children move away. The narrator's mother contracts a crippling disease. Old Mrs. Crozier has a stroke, recovers, and buys Halloween candy for children whose older brothers and sisters she had ordered from her door. The last line of the story is: "I grew up and old."

Those are the characters and the events of the story. So what makes it a short story rather than a memoir? Is it merely the question: Did it really happen or did Alice Munro make it up? Or is there something else about a short story that sets it apart from a recollection?

I have some suggestions about this, but would prefer to hear from some of my readers before I contaminate the discussion with my ideas. I hope you read the story. But even if you do not, perhaps you would venture some notions about the general issue of memoir vs. fiction. I will wait a week and then rejoin the discussion of this issue.