Friday, May 28, 2010

Short Story Month 2010--Best American Short Stories: 2009 and O. Henry Award Stories: 2010

The Best American Short Stories 2009 came out in Oct. last year; The Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories: 2010 came out in April of this. With twenty stories in each volume and priced on Amazon at about ten bucks each for the paperback, they are the two best bargains out there for any lover of the short story form. You may not like every story in the collection, may even shake your head in wonder that a given story was chosen as one of the ”best” of the year, but you will find God’s plenty in these two books, and I guarantee it will be twenty dollars well spent.

While celebrating May as Short Story Month, doubling my blog efforts by reading the Atlantic Special Issue and commenting on stories for Dan Wickett’s Emerging Writers blog from Pinckney Benedict’s Miracle Boy and Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming, I have also been reading the new Best and the new O. Henry. I will only comment briefly on my favorites among these forty to whet your appetite, while trying to avoid spoilers.

Annie Proulx’s “Them Old Cowboy Songs” from her third (and final, she says) Wyoming Stories volume, Fine Just the Way It Is, was chosen for both volumes. Proulx bookends the stories in her book by citing its title in the first and last tale. In “Family Man,” Ray Forkenbrock, wasting away in a home for the elderly, tells his granddaughter about his past, which she records for posterity. Even though his life was marred by hardship and a secret betrayal by his father, he is adamant that “everything was fine the way it was.” In the heart-scalding final story, “Tits Up in a Ditch,” which focuses on Dakota Lister, who loses more than her arm while serving in Iraq, her grandmother’s husband Verl dismisses outsider criticism of the state by insisting that “Wyomin is fine just the way it is.” The way it was, and often still is, is vicious. Whether the story takes place in the late 19th century or the early 21st, one slip-up in the rugged outback of Wyoming can kill you. In “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” Archie and Rose, aged 16 and 14, try to make a go of it on a modest homestead. However, the winters are bitter and jobs are few, and Archie’s decision to leave pregnant Rose in their rough-hewn little house to find work results in disaster.

Ron Rash’s “Into the Gorge,” which originally appeared in The Southern Review, also makes it in both volumes. Rash says the story combines a family tale of his grandfather leading a search for an old woman who wandered away from her mountain farm in the 1930’s with an image of a man running from something, although he seemed too old to be running. Rash says he soon began to understand that the man was running from a world he no longer understood. “Into the Gorge” is a short, relatively simple story, told with just enough restraint to suggest legend, without laying on too strongly the social theme of the Appalachian Mountains being invaded by the restraints and regulations of the modern world.

One advantage the O. Henry collection has over the Best volume is that it contains a story each by the two very best short story writers still practicing that underrated art--Alice Munro’s “Some Women” and William Trevor’s “Woman in the House.”

Although Alice Munro has insisted in more than one place that she does not write as a novelist does, many critics and reviewers have tried to give her fiction the dignity they think belongs only to the novel by suggesting that her stories are “novelistic” and therefore more complex than short stories. In a story entitled “Fiction” in her new book, Too Much Happiness, Munro cannot not resist a wily jab at all those critics who have trivialized the short story as a genre and chided her for not writing something more serious, namely novels. Joyce, the central character, buys a book written by a woman she has met briefly at a party. When she opens it, she is disappointed to find out it is a collection of short stories, not a novel: “It seemed to diminish the book’s importance, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside it.” After climaxing a distinguished career of numerous awards with the Man Booker International Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2009, Munro must have had a sly smile on her face when she wrote those words.

“Some Women” begins with the narrator saying how amazed she is sometimes at how old she is, but focuses on her experiences when she was thirteen-years-old and hired to help care for a young man named Bruce, a veteran of the war, who is dying of Leukemia. He is staying in the house of his stepmother, Old Mrs. Crozier. His wife, Sylvia, a schoolteacher, seems to be living on the fringes of his life and his illness. Old Mrs. Crozier’s masseuse, Roxanne, bursts into the house like a dynamo and takes an interest in Bruce, who plays the role of a kind of ailing Fisher King, a sort of sacred prize in the center of the women. A usual with the short story, “Some Women” amasses its weight on its ending when Bruce turns the tables on Roxanne and Mrs. Crozier, finding the comfort he needs in his neglected wife.

Alice Munro’s short stories are complex and powerful not because they are “novelistic” and not so much because of what happens in them, but because of what cannot happen except in the mysterious human imagination. More polished and profound than she has ever been, Alice Munro is the preeminent practitioner of the short story--and one of the most brilliant writers in any genre—in the world today.

William Trevor, by universal critical agreement, is one of the best short-story writers practicing that underrated art form. The twelve stories in his most recent collection, Cheating at Canasta, reaffirm that he has a profound understanding of the complexity of what makes people do what they do and an unerring ability to use language to suggest that intimate intricacy.

As in all great short stories, from Chekhov to Carver, there is mystery and not a little menace in the stories of William Trevor—secrets so tangled and inexplicable that efforts to explain them with the language of psychology or sociology or history are either futile or absurd. This is not accidental, but part of the short story’s historical and generic tradition, for the form originated in primitive myth, which, by its very nature, was concerned with mystery, for which story was the only explanatory model available. Moreover, the short story is often concerned with the enigma of motivation. Part of the reason for this is the short story's close relationship to the romance form, which, allegorical in its nature, develops characters that, even as they seem to be like real people in the real world, act as if they are obsessed, propelled by some mysterious force.

“The Woman of the House” is about silence, about not saying, about the basic mystery of human personality, about Chekhov's famous comment that in the short story, it is better to say too little than too much, even though he admitted he was not sure why that was true. The story is a fine example of the short story form's focus on basic and universal human characteristics, even though I know that the word "universal" is not appreciated by postcolonial and other cultural critics, who seem more concerned with what separates us than what unifies us as human beings.

These are not cultural examinations of either the old Ireland of legend or the new Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, but rather profoundly wise explorations of individual, yet universal, secrets and mysteries of the heart. Luminous, restrained stories, every one of them deserves to be read and reread, their motivations marveled at, their sentences savored. They fill the reader with awe at the complexity of the human experience and the genius of William Trevor.

Daniel Alarcon has stories in both collections, “The Idiot President” in the Best and “The Bridge” in the O. Henry. I liked “The Bridge” best for its haunting exploration of the death of a blind man and his blind wife in Alarcon’s native city of Lima, Peru. Alarcon says that the story began with an anecdote of a fallen pedestrian bridge and the accidental death of a blind person, but that as he began the story he had no fixed sense of where it was going or where it might end, which, he says, he has found to be the most exciting way to write. It’s an interesting observation about the writing process that I wish others would comment on, for I have heard many writers say the same thing.

One story in the Best collection that I had read earlier is Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s “Yurt,” from her elegant little collection Ms. Hempel Chronicles. Caught between two worlds, Ms. Hempel is young enough to understand the lyrics of her students’ favorite songs, but old enough to feel she should be shocked by them. Although she loves her job and her young charges, she fears she may be doomed to always repeat the seventh grade.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum is another one of those precocious Iowa Workshop graduates, who, like her alter ego, served a brief term teaching seventh and eighth grade before moving on to graduate school. The publishers of this, her second book, know better than to use the label “short stories” on the cover or in the promotional material, hoping readers will assume this too is a novel. But make no mistake. Ms. Hempel Chronicles is a collection of very fine stories, tightly organized, lyrical in style, metaphoric and mysterious, linked by their focus on the pains and pleasures of the young schoolteacher who gives the book its name. Ms. Hempel’s relationships with her students, her fellow teachers, her brother, and her father are all delicately drawn. Her efforts to be a good teacher, although she is never quite sure this is what she is meant to do, are heartfelt and convincing. She will make readers remember fondly one of those teachers they loved.

I thought the O. Henry volume was stronger this year than the Best volume, or maybe I just liked more of the stories in the O. Henry volume. “The Headstrong Historian” by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is wonderfully told tale in the accents of the traditional storyteller, and “A Spoiled Man” by Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin, is a powerful story about a favorite subject of short fiction-the little man—told with such consummate control that what is classically causal sounds everyday casual. I posted a couple of blogs about Mueenuddin last year when his debut collection Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which has won or been short-listed for several awards, came out.

Being the old Kentucky boy that I am, I can never resist a story by Wendell Berry, and, his Atlantic story “Stand By Me” is, as always, a pleasure. It’s also a pleasure to discover a new writer, who has been around a while. James Lasdun has published several books, but for some reason I never had read him before. His story “Oh, Death,” from his most recent collection It’s Beginning to Hurt, may not have the same elegiac power as the Ralph Stanley song from which it gets its title, but it makes the heart tighten a bit for all that. That opening stanza of the Stanley song never fails to make me fear that inevitable “good night,” against which I fully intend to rage.
O, Death
O, Death
Won't you spare me over til another year
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa, death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day
The children prayed, the preacher preached
Time and mercy is out of your reach
I'll fix your feet til you cant walk
I'll lock your jaw til you cant talk
I'll close your eyes so you can't see
This very air, come and go with me
I'm death I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold
To draw up the flesh off of the frame
Dirt and worm both have a claim

Lasdun, born in England, but living now in upstate New York, says that one element he brought to the story to give expression to the powerful emotions the event on which it is based aroused in him was the “mountain music” the narrator has become infatuated with, concluding, “I hope something of the wild energy and pathos, the joy and melancholy, of that music has found its way into the story.” I think it has. I just ordered a copy of It’s Beginning to Hurt and look forward to reading all the stories in it. That’s another wonderful thing about reading the stories in Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Award Stories—the discovery of great writers you somehow missed, an error that you want to correct right away.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Short Story Month 2010: Pinckney Benedict's "Zog-19" and Alyson Hagy's "The Sin Eaters"

Alyson Hagy, “The Sin Eaters”

I enjoyed “The Sin Eaters” but not in the way I enjoy short stories, rather in the way I enjoy a chapter in a novel. Short stories generally are more often structured around theme, rather than around plot or character. I know this is a generalization for which everyone can find exceptions; however, I still suggest it is “generally” true. I enjoyed the journey Revered Porterfield makes, the characters he meets along the way, the country he discovers, the plot in which he becomes involved. I would like to know more about his adventures in Wyoming. However, this is the kind of loose narrative verisimilitude I enjoy in a novel, not the tight thematic structure I enjoy primarily in a short story.

I would like to suggest two common characteristics of the short story as a form that Hagy does not seem to be concerned with here. That is certainly her prerogative; one can write a piece of fiction in any way he or she can get successfully get away with. I’m just saying that this piece of fiction is more like the chapter in a novel than a short story

First, there is the possible thematic significance of the title. Margaret Atwood has a story entitled “The Sin Eater” in her book Bluebird’s Egg that seems more typical of the short story. Here is part of the second paragraph:

“In Wales, mostly in the rural areas, there was a personage known as the Sin Eater. When someone was dying the Sin Eater would be sent for. The people of the house would prepare a meal and place it on the coffin…. According to other versions, the meal would be placed on the dead person’s body, which must have made for some sloppy eating one would have though. In any case the Sin Eater would devour this meal and would also be given a sum of money. It was believed that all the sins the dying person had accumulated during his lifetime would be removed from him and transmitted to the Sin Eater. The Sin Eater thus became absolutely bloated with other people’s sins. She’d accumulate such a heavy load of them that nobody wanted to have anything to do with her; a kind of syphilitic of the soul, you might say. They’d even avoided speaking to her, except of course when it was time to summon her to another meal.”

Atwood’s story centers on the thematic interrelations between sin, guilt, and psychological transference revolving around the psychiatrist who provides the above background on sin eating and the narrator of the story. Atwood’s “The Sin Eater” is not a very good story, but it does try to work the way a short story generally works. Hagy may be interested in social scapegoating in her story, but most of the detail of the story does not cohere around that theme the way it does in the Atwood story. Hagy uses a lot of detail that is perceptive and interesting, but it is more verisimilitude than it is thematic.

Second, there is the importance of the ending. The Russian critic B. M. Ejxenbaum suggests, “By its very essence, the story, just as the anecdote, amasses its whole weight toward the ending.” Whereas Atwood’s story concludes with an extended dream that suddenly pulls its various thematic threads together, Hagy’s ending deals with a plot issue involving rustlers and ranchers and the Rev. Porterfield’s future missionary work with the Shoshone.

Hagy’s “The Sin Eaters” reads like a chapter from a highly stylized late nineteenth-century novel told by an all-knowing Victorian novelist (albeit from the perspective of the Rev. Porterfield) who speaks as follows:

“His duty was to the north, with the downtrodden Red Man.”
“He asked a young street arab for directions, and the scamp agreed to guide him to the parsonage.”
“Langston was all surety on the surface.”
“He was well forged for solitude”
“It took that ministration to clarify the fact that he was actually perched upright in a wooden chair.”

Even the characters talk in this formal, highly stylized, way:

“They are stimulating individuals and eager to converse with learned travelers,” Langston noted.
“We are honored, sir. You will forgive our crude frontier ways.”
“The thing is afoot. Laws must be obeyed.”
“One month on the Popo Agie River with those wretches will gut you or temper your steel forever.”
“I’m under advisement to avoid all politics,” he said.

I like this kind of talk. I grew up reading novels in which the novelist and his or her characters talked this way. However, I am not sure anyone ever really talked this way except if he or she lived only in a Victorian novel.

Pinckney Benedict, “Zog-19: A Scientific Romance”

In his “Contributor’s Note” to the 2001 O. Henry Awards Prize Stories, Pinckney Benedict says this is the “first love story” he has ever written, as well as his most “autobiographical story.” He says he feels like McGinty/Zog—that he is out of place and out of time, “that I’m intended for some task that I don’t clearly understand and that probably has little importance—pretty much constantly. I loved writing this story. I often wish that I could just go on writing it for all time….”

I taught this story several years ago when I used the 2001 O. Henry Awards Prize Stories in my American Short Story class. I checked my teaching notes and found this: “Some funny sophomoric stuff here about belching and farting. I like this story; it is fun and works because Benedict is having so much fun with it.”

George Brosi, editor of Appalachian Heritage, where Benedict has published a couple of stories, did a profile on Benedict a few years ago which opened with: “Pinckney Benedict is a gleeful writer. He digs writing and takes a kind of boyish pride in the work he has created. His writing is deep and complex, yet the delight that goes into it is obvious to most readers.” He quotes Benedict as saying: “It fundamentally makes my day when something I’ve written gets up the nose of some stodgy academic or critic. That’s when I know I’m in the ballpark.”

Well, I sure as hell don’t want to be thought of as a “stodgy academic or critic” by Benedict or anyone else. I think “Zog-19” is the most fun I have ever had reading a postcolonial story, even more fun than watching Avatar in 3-D. It is what George Brosi called the one story I have ever published—“a hoot.” And I can see how Benedict would think it autobiographical, since as a kid his favorite reading matter, according to Brosi, was a comic book series called Weird War. Benedict claims he has been influenced by comic books, science fiction, horror writing, movies, tv, video games and computer simulations.

If there is any thematic significance to Benedict’s sophomoric satire on colonialism (and God forbid that there may be), then it has to do with storytelling being primarily a lot of gas, like a fart in a crowed room.

A stodgy academic who nevertheless likes a good laugh as much as the next man, I published a scholarly essay several years ago entitle “Literary Masters and Masturbators: Sexuality, Fantasy and Reality in Huckleberry Finn.” I was trying to settle an academic debate about the common critical opinion that the last quarter of Twain’s great novel, when Tom Sawyer comes back on the scene, undermines with fantasy the so-called reality of Huck’s journey down the river with Jim. I thought that was nonsense.

In trying to prove my point, I got involved with Twain’s sophomoric satire entitled “1601,” a conversation at the social fireside in Tudor England that focuses on witty sexual repartee and stories about the sexual behavior of various individuals. The bulk of the narrative is concerned with Sir Walter Raleigh's powers of breaking wind and the Pepysian narrator's disgust with the "wyndy ruffian" and the whole "brede" of all those that "write playes, bookes & such like." The other members of the conversation include Bacon, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, and Shakespeare. That Twain identifies with the narrator's scorn for the storytelling windiness of these writers might be further suggested by the fact that he once said that Sir Walter Scott was full of "windy humbuggeries" and that James Fenimore Cooper's characters talk like "windy melodramatic actors."

It is not necessary to go into the Freudian relationship between what is produced by the anus and what is produced by the artist; Twain makes the connection quite clear in "1601" itself. For example, in the beginning of the piece when "it befel that one did breake wynde, yielding an exceeding mightie and distressful stinke," Queen Elizabeth demands that the "author" of the fart confess it; Bacon refers to it as a "great performance"; Shakespeare compares the flatus with the divine afflatus by noting that the angels had foretold the coming of "this most disolating breath, proclaiming it a work of uninspired man"; and finally, when Raleigh confesses, he dismisses it as a mere clearing of his "nether throat." Moreover, that storytelling is just so much flatulence is suggested at the conclusion of the piece. After Lady Alice delivers a long grandiose and windy speech, the Queen concludes it by commenting, as much in the imperative as in the exclamatory, "Oh Shitte."

If ever the Internet acronym lol is worth using, then it is worth applying to Twain’s “1601” and Benedict’s “Zog-19.” Toot toot, Mark Twain. Toot toot, Pinckney Benedict.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Short Story Month 2010: Pinckney Benedict's "Mercy" and Alyson Hagy's "Oil and Gas"

Pinckney Benedict, “Mercy” (Miracle Boy and Other Stories)

Sure, this is a simple story. But it is a hard story for me to resist. I tried, but after three readings I gave up and gave it to it.

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, who tended a stony farm on the slope of a steep hill in Eastern Kentucky. He was a tough old feller and, like the father in Benedict’s story, never spoke directly to me. I have been thinking about him this spring as I plant tomatoes, Kentucky Pole Beans, potatoes, onions, and squash in whatever plots of soil I can carve out of our narrow Southern California backyard. I hear him say: “If you can’t eat it, no use growing it, no matter how purty you think it is.” Like the father in Benedict’s story, the worst thing my grandfather could say about any thing was that it was “useless.” I cringed when he aimed that epithet at me, spitting tobacco juice at my feet, especially when the accusation was “useless as tits on a boar hog,” the closest thing to poetry he seemed capable of.

I never really understood my grandfather, never really thought he had any inner life, never knew what he loved, or if he loved anything. I never saw any break in his stony approach to reality, never heard him laugh except derisively at somebody. So I liked Benedict’s story, knew from the beginning that it was going to be one of those rare moments when a boy secretly sees a breakthrough in the hard veneer of his father.

I have spent my life teaching short stories to university students, and practically every semester, some of them would whine about how short stories were always such downers, never ending happily. And every semester, I would haul out my old canards about the sloppiness of sentimentality, the toughness of complexity, the slyness of subtlety, etc. etc. The smartest students would nod sagely; the average ones shake their heads sadly.

And while it is true that “feel good” stories that end happily often lapse into the simplistic and the sentimental, the artistic question is whether the happy ending is earned or given away. Sure, “Mercy” illustrates the cliché, “All work and no play….” But I don’t find it a simple illustration. When a man makes a living off the lives of animals, he can’t give them names. When they are Angus cattle, they cannot be seen as more than huge slabs of flesh—potential steaks, roasts, and Big Macs. But that doesn’t mean that when they are all loaded on the trucks and on their way to the abattoir, the man who raised them has no feelings about it. The boy sees the father’s face go slack and his shoulders slump. “And for a brief instant he stood still, motionless as I had never seen him.”

And those miniature horses! If you have never seen one, take a look at some of the videos on Face Book. Yeah, the comments are all: omg, lol, cute, adorable, etc. But the miniatures seem to exist for no other reason than to play, to gambol, to roll over, to scamper. Less 34 inches high, between 55 and 100 pounds, they are not ponies; they are horses. But horses no bigger than a good-sized dog. You gotta love em. Especially in this story, you do, since their owners neglect them, pen them in, let them go hungry, leave them out in the cold. They want out, want to play. So I like that scene when under the weight of the bunched-up horses, the fence gives way and the posts go over one after another like gunshots. (Harmless gunshots are my favorite kind) And the horses shake off the snow and bound out like great dogs through the gap in the fence and head for the bales of hay. “The scene had the feel of a holiday.”

When the father shows up with the .30-06, the boy knows what is coming; after all the father has said if the horses came over into his land he would shoot them. So for a few moments, the reader is not completely sure if the boy knows what is going to happen. The mare dares to play with the father, just doesn’t know any better, dragging him gently forward until, in the cliché classic comic slapstick bit, “He fell right on his ass in the snow, my old man, the Remington held high above his head.”

So is it a well-earned pleasure when we see that the gun is not loaded and that the father is laughing, or is it a sentimental give away? The thing is, a boy may think he knows his father, but does he really? Sometimes the old man may just feel like playing. Unlikely. But possible. And although in the next minute, life may go back to the way it has always been, it may never quite be the same again. I like a story that ends with an “I’ll be damned” moment. But then, maybe I’m just getting old and soft.

Alyson Hagy, “Oil and Gas” (Ghosts of Wyoming)

This story wears me out, for Hagy absolutely refuses to give me any help by identifying the characters and specifying their connections. I know all the events take place in Campbell County, Wyoming, in and around the town of Gillette. I know the latitude/longitude coordinates of all the characters, except for those in specific buildings, like the emergency room in Gillette and the Red Dawg Bar off route 16 in Clearmont. Hell, I can even locate every one of them on online maps.

But the point of the story seems to be that they are all lost; no matter how close together they are, they miss making connections. The theme is announced emphatically at the end of part 1: “Found and Lost. I’d like to write that up as the damn Wyoming state motto.”

Then there’s the story of the day at the hospital that they lost a patient. Not that he died, but got lost, like misplaced. Lora Van Tassell found the old feller up on Fortification Creek, and while he was being treated for dehydration, he just wandered away.

And then there’s Andy Josling who took a wrong turn in his blue Toyoto 4x4. Phil Triplet saw him turn around, “just another fool that got hisself lost on these roads.”

And Prentiss just wandered away from his crew when their rig broke down, and no one has seen him since.

It’s all just another day in “Wild, Wonderful Wyoming—the last place in America to get ahead, except the getting don’t last.”

But then in the last section of the story, two people actually find each other: Lora and Andy are having a five-hour lunch at Debbie’s Restaurant. Neither is young, but Phil Triplet is full of admiration for the “sheer balls” it took Andy to stop looking over his shoulder and to move ahead. “I’d pay a lot to be able to see a good road into the future…. make sure it’s not another backbreaking mirage. A real future. Goddamn.”

I kinda liked this story after I got over being aggravated by it. On the one hand, it seems too much like a show-off indie film in which we are given several separate episodes that finally come together at the end if we work at it hard enough—a Hagy tour-de-force of monologue and dialogue capturing voices that ring true. On the other hand, it seems like a significant effort to capture something about being lost in the changing world of Wyoming, even while you are at home there, because no matter how big the sky is, the earth seems to be altering.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Short Story Month, May 2010: Pinckney Benedict's "Bridge of Sighs" and Alyson Hagy's Brief Lives of the Trainmen""

More Comments from my discussion of stories from Pinckney Benedict's Miracle Boy and Other Stories and Alyson Hagy's Ghosts of Wyoming, including a comment from Pinckney Benedict. The full discussion, involving several others, can be found on the Emerging Writers Network blog.

Pinckney Benedict, “Bridge of Sighs”

I agree with John that in “Bridge of Sighs” Benedict uses the vehicle of a cattle epidemic to explore a universal human reality. However, I am not so sure it is a “sickness in humankind,” except that ultimate “sickness unto death” that befalls us all. And as I read it, the boy does not hallucinate a flame-throwing nightmare of war. He tells Scurry, “I made a mistake. I thought it was a cartoon on, but it was the war.” What he took for a kind of Tom and Jerry bit of stylized violence was actually the news showing a scene probably from Viet Nam. So, it seems to me, war is not the problem, just another symptom of the universal human reality of facing death. And it is always brutal.

I remember the first time I saw the Bridge of Sighs spanning one of the canals in Venice. I think it was Lord Byron who gave it this name because when the prisoners were taken across it, they looked out one of the small windows and sighed at their last view of the world before being placed in a dungeon. Benedict does not make a big deal out of this allusion, but the fact that the name is given to the walkway over which animals and workers cross in an abattoir or slaughterhouse, combined with a suit named “The Exterminator” and an instrument named Humane Cattle Killer, all urge a universal reading, especially when the boy makes the mistake of thinking it is a Human Cattle Killer.

I looked up Greener’s .445 Humane Cattle Killer on line and found pictures of it and full instructions on how to use it. Cold and grisly stuff! But all perfectly natural. During hog-killing season back in Eastern Kentucky, as a child I watched my grandfather take a short-handled sledge to forehead of a hog and stun it to its knees, before deftly slicing its throat with a razor-sharp knife. All perfectly natural and perfectly inevitable.

The story makes me think of James Agee’s fable “A Mother’s Tale”—a more obvious parable about facing death, in which a mother cow tells her child about the story passed down through generations of The One Who Came Back, having escaped the mysterious Man with a Hammer. Being frightened by the father in the Exterminator suit, but seeing his loving friendly eyes inside the eyeholes is an effective image of the kind of make-believe monster that Bruno Bettleheim says frighten children in fairy tales and haunt our unconscious. The two-headed monster that turns out to be two spring calves is similar at the end of the story. The real problem the boy says, is telling the difference between what’s happening and what we think is happening. His father helps him with that.

The boy hears the sound of running water and thirsts for it, has a hard time imagining a world without dogs, hopes to find mudpuppies in the stream, and all the while the sound of the shots remind him of the inevitable. At the end of the story, it comes down to Scurry’s powerful desire to deny death, to insist that nothing is wrong, “Nothing wrong at all.” The boy knows that Scurry needs someone to bear witness to that, to testify to that. So do we all. If it were not so, we would not have religions.

I can’t help remembering the movie, The Love Bug, when Michelle Lee is trapped inside the Volkswagen, Herbie and cries, "Help! I'm a prisoner! I can't get out.” A hippie in a van looks over and says: We all prisoners, chickie baby. We all locked in.”

Yeah, I know that is like leaping from the sublime to the ridiculous. But I reckon that's the way stories make my mind work.

Comment by Pinckney Benedict

Dude, I adore that detail about THE LOVE BUG and the hippie. It's exactly the kind of comedown that's needed, the exact right way to undercut melodrama. And I love that it came up in connection with my work, and particularly "Bridge of Sighs" (which verges pretty heavily on the melodramatic, if it doesn't outright plunge into it - not the worst, maybe, but one of the most frequent of my sins as a writer).
I actually didn't know about the bridge in Venice (what an ignoramus!) until I was working on the story. I ran across a reference, in looking up some stuff about slaughterhouses, to the walkway into one of the big Chicago packing houses, which they called The Bridge of Sighs, and I thought it was perfect. Imagine my chagrin when Richard Russo publishes a book by this same name right around the same time the story came out!

"A Mother's Tale" sounds like something my parents would have read to us when we were kids. They used to tell us, when we didn't drink all our milk at a meal (and we drank a LOT of milk) that our refusal "made the cows cry." They were sneaky that way, as all good parents are. We drank our milk. I'll have to find this one and read it for myself. Thanks for the steer (no pun intended).

Alyson Hagy, “Brief Lives of the Trainmen”

This is one of those stories that the more I read it the better I like it. That’s a good thing, don’t you think? —Certainly better than the opposite. Like Dan and John, I am drawn to the multiple metaphors and similes. But I think Hagy has more going on with this kind of language than local color and picturesque poetry. I think she creates a kind of stylized folktale, a cartoon-like world and cleverly leads us into it.

In my opinion, this is a story about how stories come into being. All the “brief lives” in the separate sections accumulate and create an alternate reality until that wonderful folktale episode of Captain Hallock’s horse being spooked by Joe Hanna’s shooting the cook’s rooster and throwing him into the laundry pot. Hagy says that this will not be the last word about the misadventure: “The tale will have ten verses and a chorus once the rail gangs slaver into it.” Why else would one of the characters in the story be named "Ode”?

Bret Harte once said of this kind of story (his kind of story): "It was Humour--of a quality as distinct and original as the country and civilization in which it was developed. It was at first noticeable in the anecdote or "story," and after the fashion of such beginnings, was orally transmitted. It was common in the barrooms, the gatherings in the "country story," and finally at public meetings in the mouths of "stump orators." Such characteristic American humor, says Harte, was the parent of the American short story.”

I don’t know if Hagy had Harte in mind when she wrote this story, but she sure creates a wonderfully Western comic image of “Liberty’s living fuse” as those folks on the work train lay down another mile of track. God knows how the Transcontinental Railroad, that Diviner’s line, ever got laid by the “miscreant hands” of these trainmen. But by God, it did! Even the journalist who tries to record it all, following the line’s progress with a wagon full of lead type, has to cope with a scrofula swelling of the testicles. The trainsitman on the surveying team remembers his former professor who quoted Seneca: “It is better to know useless things than to know nothing at all.” He thinks those words “convey the sad blare of an anthem” and he believes he knows less than he did when he left Chicago. “About himself. About ambition and America.”

This is a story about how great things grow out of little bits. That applies to the Transcontinental Railroad as well as it does to Hagy’s story.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Short Story Month 2010: "Miracle Boy" by Pinckney Benedict and "Border" by Alyson Hagy

To celebrate May as Short Story month, Dan Wickett, editor of Dzanc Books, has arranged for several writers, reviewers, bloggers, critics, and editors to discuss selected stories from two new books: Pinckney Benedict’s The Miracle Boy and Other Stories and Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming. I am posting my own comments from that discussion here and urging you to check Dan’s blog “Emerging Writers Network” at for comments by several others. Following are my discussions on one story by Benedict and one story by Hagy, along with a remark by Hagy. I will post my discussions on two other stories with remarks by Benedict in a couple of days.

Pinckney Benedict, “Miracle Boy”

When three boys want to see the scars of someone named Miracle Boy, it seems pretty obvious that we are in for a story about sin and redemption. Jesus, after all, is the number one “miracle boy” in Western culture, and if you are a doubting Thomas, you want to see the stigmata. The problem, it seems to me, with writing a story about this central Christian mystery, is how to bring it off without being too obvious, or lacking that, how to bring it off daringly in such a different way that the reader doesn’t mind.

I like the fact that Benedict makes his Miracle Boy a soft and jiggly kid who, when beaten down, says “It’s miracles around us every day…Jesus made the lame to walk…and Jesus, he made me to walk too.”

I can’t resist the scene of the father scrambling up the silage wagon like a monkey and rummaging around in the silage to find those feet while the boy lies there knowing what his old man was looking for. “He knew exactly.” That’s a good short line, it seems to me, to make me frighteningly filled with admiration for both the father and the boy.

And that silent scene when Miracle Boy’s father brings him over to Lizard’s house and sits out on the porch while Lizard’s mother brings iced tea and Coca-Colas to them works well, for, when such a “mean” thing happens, what is there to say? The difference between a house with a woman in charge and one with a man is the difference between Geronimo and Eskimo’s “I don’t give a damn” attitude and Lizard’s nagging guilt. I like those shoes dangling up there on the high-powered wire; they evoke just the right touch of iconic mystery.

Lizard’s climbing up that pole while driving nails just below his body to step up on creates a powerful image of the cross, as Lizard, trying to atone, pulls himself up higher and higher by his own bootstraps, as it were, to try to reach the holy grail of those grimy shoes. Those flat-faced, indifferent cows grazing just below Lizard seems just the right audience. As the nails tear at his flesh and wobble under his feet, the reader grunts and groans with him. When he reaches the top and frees the shoes, he can see his whole world around him, and it is not as big as he thought it was. He knows he is in the palm of the hand of something; he just doesn’t know what.

In the final scene, Miracle Boy’s father tells Lizard, “Your Mommy may not know what you are…But I do.” And we do too—for Lizard is suffering man, trying to atone for his sins. It is inevitable that he looks at Miracle Boy with “curious eyes, seeing him small, like a bird or a butterfly.” And even though we are not surprised that Lizard would hold out the shoes like a gift, and even though this risks lapsing into the banal, Benedict brings it off, it seems to me, ending the story with echoes of the Southern masters of this kind of story—Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor.

Alyson Hagy, “Border”

It seems to me that the key to the effectiveness of this story is Hagy’s ability to withhold crucial information until the very end without causing the story to collapse into an O’Henry surprise trick ending. I think she does this by exploiting the reader’s tendency to read short stories too fast and thus miss the little clues that something bad has happened that the boy, whose thoughts we are privy too, is just not thinking about. The only indication we have of this secret from the past is when, early in the story, the boy wishes he could stop at a café, but knows he cannot “because of the deputies and what had happened with his father.”

Like most short stories that depend on an ending that pulls us up short, this one has to be read a second time, once we have the ending imprinted on out minds. We get subtle clues—e.g. the reference to the bottled water his father made fun of--that the boy’s relationship with his father has not been a good one and that the mother has “never been part of anything.” But it is not until we know how extreme that schism between the boy and his father has been that we understand his relationship with the Border collie.

He treats the dog as if he were a good father and the dog is his child, echoing the baby sounds the dog makes, being nipped by the dog’s sharp baby teeth, telling her she is smart to make him proud on her first day, apologizing for not feeding her right away and leaving her for a short time in a trash barrel.

His fatherly need to protect the dog is embodied in the scene with the “good cop/bad cop” cowboys who pick him up. The one named Ray is just petty and “mean,” chaffing over his failure to prove himself a man by being thrown off the back of “the crippledest mare on the Western slope.” The boy knows from his father that because Ray is a loser, he has to make someone else the loser. After Ray throws the dog out the truck window, the boy is again proud of her for being so tough and for how readily she learned things, especially the lesson that he has obviously learned and doesn’t want to teach her right away—“the black lesson of fear.”

But the final lesson, of course, is the lesson that the teacher teaches him--the lesson of betrayal. If Ray is a loser who wants someone else to lose, then the teacher, because she cannot get answers to her questions, leaves the boy with a question he cannot answer—why would she not want the dog? Although we cannot really blame the woman for calling the deputies, for she has obviously read about the boy in the papers and knows he has killed his father, at the same time, we have grown to like the boy so much that we cannot feel kindly toward her. When she refuses to take care of the dog, the boy cannot understand, for he knows the dog would be good for her. “How could anybody not want the thing that would keep them from being sent backward one last time? With this line, we understand the basic human need felt by all the characters in the story—the need to nurture and be nurtured, to love and be loved, without which one becomes hard and “mean.” As the teacher says, “It’s the kind of person I am. What I’ve turned into.”

Followup Post

Hello, my colleagues. I am enjoying reading all the remarks about “Miracle Boy” and “Border.” I always love talking with readers who love to read and read closely. It’s what I miss about not teaching any more.

I would like your opinion on an issue our discussion raises for me. In answer to John, I read “Miracle Boy” first, but actually I read it when it first came out, in Harper’s, I think. I liked it then, but I didn’t even think about the Christian symbolism at that time. I read it just once and put the magazine aside, feeling pretty good about the experience. I did not read it again because I wasn’t teaching it, wasn’t reviewing the book it was in, wasn’t writing a critical article on it, wasn’t delivering a lecture at a professional conference—all those things I have done throughout my career. That first reading was very much like the kind of reading that many subscribers to Harpers and the New Yorker engage in, just a “good read.” Not the kind of reading we have been engaged in this week, which is from the perspectives of professional writers and professional readers—the kind of reading that often made my students ask, “Where did you get all that stuff? Did the writer really put all that in there or did you just make it up?”

The question I want to put to you is this: Do you think that nonwriters and nonprofessional readers profit by being taught to read like professional writers and readers? Is there value in teaching them to read these two stories the way we have been reading them? Francine Prose wrote what I thought was a very fine book on this subject a few years ago called “Reading Like a Writer.” I reviewed the book for a couple of newspapers and raised the issue as follows:

Prose’s insistence on paying close attention to language is not a politically correct definition of reading nowadays for many academics, who have in fact argued that once you give priority to close reading, you engage in the following socially irresponsible acts: You favor indirect expression over direction expression. You favor deep meaning over surface meaning. You favor form over content. And—most unforgivably—you favor the elite over the popular.

At an international conference on the short story in Lisbon, Portugal, four years ago, I shared the platform with Francine Prose at one of the plenary panel sessions. Prose and I were in complete agreement about the importance of close reading of literary texts. However, during my presentation, Amiri Baraka stood up in the audience, and with a dramatic thumbs-down toward the stage, left the room. In his own presentation later that day, he condemned my remarks and called me a “reactionary.” Later, in her blog, Latina writer Ana Castillo, who was also in the audience, aligned herself with Baraka, dismissing Prose’s comments and calling me “a stupid white guy” for mine.

Some writers and many teachers nowadays have nothing but scorn for what they term "the so-called aesthetic," insisting that the proper aim of literary education is righting old wrongs. For them, literature is not the mysterious exploration of the complexity that makes us human; it is sociology; it is limited by history; it is Eurocentric, phallocentric, and logocentric. Originality is mere self-indulgence. Exploration of the self is narcissism.

And about that issue raised this week of writers “exploring the complexity that makes us human”: I think there is more such mystery in “Border” than there is in “Miracle Boy.” I think the mystery of “Miracle Boy” is external to the story, lying in the Christian mystery of redemption, much the way some of Flannery O’Connor’s stories owe their complexity to the dogma of Catholicism rather than to the complexity inherent in the characters and the action of the stories. I finish “Border” more puzzled about the mystery of what makes us human than I do when I finish “Miracle Boy,” because what motivates the teacher to give the boy up in the end is indeed a mystery. Lizard’s motivation for doing what he does is part of the Christian mystery of redemption. I remember once when I was in high school asking an elderly female missionary who was our next-door neighbor, “You know, what I really don’t understand is, what does it mean that Jesus died for my sins?” Funny, I don’t remember the answer; I only remember the question.

Flannery O’Connor once said she lent some stories to a country lady who lived down the road from her, and when she returned them the woman said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.” O’Connor agreed: Good stories have to show how “some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.” The peculiar problem of the short-story writer, O’Connor has said, is to reveal as much of the mystery of personality as possible.

John is right, of course, Flannery O’Connor detested “sentimentality.” But, as John says, “sentimentality” does not seem to be the right word for the suspicion we feel about stories that end happily, or at least, in some sort of fulfillment. Just because Lizard brings the shoes to Miracle Boy does not mean he has erased anything or solved anything. Redemption is not that easy. What one really wants is to “take it back.” One wants to go back and erase it, make it not happen, but there you are and where are you? The teacher in “Border” wants what is happening at the very moment not to be happening, but there you are and where are you? As the old lady down the road from O’Connor says, “some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.” It’s a mystery.

Comment by Alyson Hagy

All a writer ever wishes for is readers. We sometimes find them. I am humbled by the seriousness and intelligence of these readers.

I also think the writer is sometimes the last person who should be asked to comment upon his or her work. We work from the "inside." In "Border," I was trying to map the physical and emotional journey of a runaway teen. Charles and Jane and Anna and Stacy and John and Pei-Ling and Steven and Dan are far wiser about the nuances and echoes of the story than I am. Truly. They see the story's flaws and successes more clearly than I can even now.

But I will say that I am a fan of Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer. Charles's thoughts about the tension between those who read literature while "paying close attention to language" and those who read with a different kind of agenda are familiar to me. What can I say? I make stories from language. Every syllable matters to me. The older I get the more I think of myself as connected to a long, long tradition of storytellers, folks who chronicle their human cultures with language. The politics tend to slip away from me beyond that point.

I don't know if there is "mystery" in "Border." I hope there is. I sometimes want a story to ask questions that cannot be answered within the boundaries of the time/space/activity framed in the narrative. There is some attempt on my part of "flood" those boundaries in the last few paragraphs of "Border." Should all stories do such a thing? No. Was I successful in this case? I leave that to others.

Thank you all for the kind of attentive engagement with my characters and setting that all writers hope for. You've been remarkable and generous.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Short Story Month 2010: Atlantic Monthly Stories

When I was in high school in a little town in the mountains of Kentucky in the late 1950’s, I worked afternoons and holidays at East Kentucky News, a wholesaler who distributed magazines, comic books, and paperbacks to newsstands, drugstores, and small grocery stores in the Eastern Kentucky area—Pikeville, Paintsville, Louisa, Prestonsburg, etc. My life as a serious reader had already begun when I started work there, so it was a pleasure to browse the shelves for Mentor books and Signet Classics.

Our biggest selling magazine was TV Guide, which we bound in bundles by the hundreds. However, for the whole of the Eastern Kentucky area, we distributed only five copies of each issue of The Atlantic Monthly. I realize that those serious readers in the mountain communities who read The Atlantic Monthly probably received their copies by U.S. Post, but still the gap between those five Atlantic copies and those hundreds of TV Guides was not lost on me. I knew that The Atlantic was directed to an audience smart enough to appreciate the articles and stories it published. When I went to college at Morehead State University, “Where the Mountains Meet the Bluegrass,” and took a short story class with that most excellent of all Eastern Kentucky writers, James Still, I was not surprised that many of his stories had appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

This past week, as I read the seven stories in the Atlantic Fiction 2010 Supplement, I was more than a little disappointed to discover that the magazine that had been publishing quality fiction for so many years had now given in to the demands of marketing and was publishing the kind of stories that used to be relegated to the big circulation slicks. They are all easy reads, even pleasurable reads--just not challenging literary experiences. It is hard for me to believe that if The Atlantic receives approximately 5,000 stories a year, they could only come up with these seven quite ordinary ones.

One of the problems of publishing all the year’s fiction in one supplement issue instead of monthly is the demand to make the stories in that one issue diverse and appealing to a large audience. Facing this demand, what are editors to do?

Well, they have to provide a mix of established writers (to give some class), new writers (to encourage new talent), and at least one third-world writer (for political correctness).

Jerome Charyn has published enough books to hold up a wall, and T. C. Boyle, although younger, is stacking his books up fast and furiously. Stuart Nadler is a recent graduate of (you guessed it), the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, while Amanda Briggs is at work on a collection of short stories, Ryan Mecklenburg is at work on a novel, and Katie Williams’ first novel will be out in June. E. C. Osondu is a Nigerian who got his MFA from Syracuse and is currently teaching in Rhode Island.

Here are a few comments on the seven stories. Caution! These are spoiler comments. If you want the experience of reading the stories the first time in a pristine linear fashion, stop now and come back later. For me, the significant reading of a short story is always the second reading, when I know everything that has happened and can focus on what is more important—what it means and how it works.

Jerome Charyn, “Lorelei”—An experienced writer who knows the conventions of fiction well, Charyn builds this predictable little story around the myth of the Lorelei, those beautiful Rhine maidens who, like the sirens of Greek legend, lured sailors to their death. The protagonist, somewhat of a shape shifter with several different names, is a middle-aged Don Juan grifter who preys, albeit somewhat honorably, on aging widows. When he tires of this life and returns to an apartment building of his youth near Yankee Stadium, he discovers that Naomi, a woman he was smitten by when they were both very young, still lives there, although in a wheelchair, with her too solicitous father. Charyn liberally makes use of allusions to fairy tales and comic books, describing the father as Smiling Jack, the protagonist’s favorite character in the funny papers, and Naomi as a little duchess sitting on an aluminum throne. As expected from the title, Naomi is the Lorelei who threatens to lure him back to her and her father’s lair, where “They would swallow him alive.” So, of course, he runs for his life. It’s an ordinary, conventional, well-made story that only seems exotic and interesting on the surface.

E. C. Osondu, “A Simple Case”—The protagonist Paiko is arrested on a raid on a brothel while he is waiting for his girlfriend Sweet to finish having sex with her last client. When the police Sergeant gets a call about a robbery, he throws Paiko in with a bunch of misc. miscreants and “arrests” them as the robbers. The story focuses on Paiko’s encounter with the other prisoners in the cell, primarily the President of the cell, known as the Jungle Republic. To determine whether he should be admitted into this community of thieves, he tells a story about a dispute with a woman over a handbag he tried to sell her at his market stall. The President who says Paiko is a good storyteller, uses his influence to get him released. When he returns to the brothel, he finds his girlfriend has gone to Italy. So he gets a new girl. That’s it! That’s the story. A competently, but flatly-told tale of local color in a Lagos jail, complete with third world corrupt officials, powerful criminals, and cheating prostitutes.

Ryan Mecklenburg’s “Hopefulness” centers on a man whose wife has left him for a neighbor. The first-person protagonist is a block captain of the Neighborhood Watch, a job he can devote all his time to since, conveniently, a couple of years ago he won five million dollars in a lottery pool at work. The heart of the story is the central metaphor of the house where the “other man” lived, which is now in foreclosure. Piece by piece, the neighbors steal the furniture and vandals wreck the house, all of which the protagonist fails to report because of his anger at the man who ran off with his wife. It’s a readable story with an obvious thematic linkage around a central metaphor—a technique often found in short stories since Bartleby’s wall and Roderick Usher’s House.

Stuart Nadler's “Visiting” is about a divorced man who takes his son to meet his dying father in another state. Most of the story is typical tense dialogue between the father and son during the car ride, but the thematic payoff comes when the father refuses to go to the door to see his father and sends his son instead. The father has never forgiven the old man for dragging a fork across his arm when he was eighteen, leaving a scar. In the final scene as the father and son sit in a restaurant, the son says he saw numbers on his grandfather’s arm in the same place as the father’s fork scars. The whole story depends on this final recognition, such as it is, reinforcing the protagonist’s knowledge that “he was still not as tall as his father. He never had been.” As father and son stories go, this one lacks thematic significance, for it is not clear how we are to understand meaningful differences between the three generations; moreover, the final recognition, such as it is, does not seem earned by the narrative.

Katie Williams, “Bone Hinge”—O.K., you gotta have at least one kind of outré story for spice. This one is about two Siamese twins joined at the back, which makes for exploring lots of metaphors of duality and schisms. However, let’s not fool ourselves, the central ploy here is the sexual suggestiveness of the fact that one of the girls is in love with a young man that she wishes to run away with and marry—which of course means that she must drag her sister along to unwilling participate in her every encounter. The story is told by the unattached sister, that is, the one without a boyfriend, and it is her “meanness” and cynicism that energizes this bit of exploitation.

And finally, there’s T. C. Boyle, (There is always T.C. Boyle, it seems, who is surely trying, hopelessly, to rack up more publishing credits than Joyce Carol Oates, who also has a piece in this Atlantic Supplement). “The Silence” is a stretch, as is often the case with Boyle. It’s about this guy on a silence retreat in the Arizona desert with his emaciated young wife and several other pooh-bahs and pundits, living in a yurt, avoiding scorpions, living on hummus and pita bread. The story opens and ends with a dragonfly, a water bug that is not supposed to be out here in the desert, in between which the wife is bitten by a rattlesnake and must die because, well, hell, you know, they are on a retreat and they can’t talk and the car is on blocks and there’s nobody else around and well, hell, you know, that’s karma, or something. Boyle is a sleight-of-hand artist, with lots of stuff up his sleeve, whose hand at the end of it is quicker than the eye. You either shake your head in disgust and walk out of the theatre or else you just say, ah, shit, and give in to him.

Tell me, Atlantic, and tell me true. Out of some 5,000 stories you received this year, are these the best you could come up with?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Short Story Month 2010: Atlantic Monthly Fiction Supplement

The concept of The Atlantic Monthly began in April, 1857, when Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes and a few others met at the Parker House Hotel in Boston to create a “journal of literature, politics, science, and the arts.” The first issue, with James Russell Lowell as editor, came out in November, 1857.

James Lewis Pattee in his still useful 1923 history The Development of the American Short Story says, “The new magazine from the first was able to select the best that America could produce, and from the first it kept its pages free from the sentimental and the conventional. It was the type of periodical which Poe all his life had dreamed of founding and which every other American man of letters had dreamed of from the days of Bryant and Irving and Dana.” Pattee argues that Lowell, although not a fiction writer himself, “did more than any other person to raise the new short-story form to a place of dignity and to give it reality and substance.” During the three and a half years of his editorship, he accepted over eighty short stories by some fifty different writers.

He must have rolled cantankerously over in his grave when in the May 2004 issue, the current editors of The Atlantic announced, “We will no longer offer a short story in every issue of the magazine,” adding, doubtfully, “but we remain committed to the form.” That commitment was a curiously conceived “extra annual Atlantic fiction issue,” which was available on newsstands and to subscribers only online.

That’s when I sent Atlantic the following letter:

"I just wanted to express my sadness at The Atlantic’s decision to no longer publish a short story in each issue. I have been teaching and writing about short fiction for the past forty years, always recommending to my students that they subscribe to The Atlantic if they wanted to read quality short stories.

"I know there is no need to remind you that the short story is an important literary form, that The Atlantic has always had a great tradition in making stories available, that your decision is one more step in the decline of reader interest in quality fiction in America. I know that The Atlantic’s recent win of the American Society of Magazine Editors Award for fiction makes no difference to an editorial board that obviously prefers politics to literature.

"I will not be renewing my subscription. I will watch for your special issue available only on newsstands and on the Internet, but we know that lame effort will not last, and we know that eventually you will publish no more short stories. And that will be the end of one the last great sources of literature in a world already bombarded by political opinion and mere information."

And, as it turns out, that special newsstand- and online-only fiction issue was a bad idea. I could never find the damned thing at Barnes and Noble and reading it online was a pain in the arse. I ordered it once directly from Atlantic, and it took two months to get it. Definitely a bad idea. I wonder how many others suspended their subscription.

James Bennet began his Editor’s Note in the April, 2010 issue as follows: “I have some good news. Next month, The Atlantic will once again send fiction home to our subscribers, in a supplement that will accompany our May issue. On the newsstand, the supplement will be bound into the May magazine.”

Whereas the May, 2004 Editor’s note was filled with talk about the “challenge of real estate—space in the magazine—at a time when in-depth narrative reporting from around the country and the world has become more important than ever,” the April 2010 Editor’s Note assured that the short story has always been ”integral” to The Atlantic since that first 1857 issue

Claiming that no one was happy with the previous five-year compromise, Bennett further suggested, “We think—we hope!—we are seeing renewed interest in the short story.”

Well, Mr. Bennet, we think---we hope—the same. I have renewed my subscription to The Atlantic and was happy to receive the Fiction 2010 supplement tucked in with the May issue, although I did get it several weeks late. What’s up with that?

In a May 2009 Editor’s Note entitled “Fiction Matters,” The Atlantic praised the work of editor C. Michael Curtis who came to the job in the early 1960s, crediting him with the excellence of the fiction published in the journal, noting (“by conservative estimate”) that half a million stories were submitted to the magazine since that time.

The Atlantic considered some 5,000 stories for publication in 2009, (a humbling bit of data) as Curtis “looked for stories with narrative ambition, complex characters, and imaginative use of language, the familiar staples of good storytelling.” “I prefer,” Curtis is quoted as saying, on the whole, stories that present readers with situations requiring resolution, inviting moral choices, finding ambiguity in life experiences we are tempted to simplify.”

The Fiction 2010 supplement includes seven short stories, three essays, and a handful of poems, all of which I have read with interest.

The three essays are perfunctory, ordinary, and obligatory. Richard Bausch’s “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons” argues, with absolutely no demur from me, that aspiring fiction writers should spend their time reading good fiction writers rather than “How to” writing manuals. Well, sure, yes, indeed, of course, you betcha, etc. etc. Here is Bausch’s advice: “Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write.” Well, sure, yes, indeed, of course, you betcha, etc., etc.” He ends with a paraphrase of the famous William Carlos Williams line: “Literature has no practical function, but ever day people die for lack of what is found there.” Well, sure, yes indeed, of course, you betcha. [The Williams line is: "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there." From "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"]

The interview with Paul Theroux entitled “Fiction in the Age of Books” has even less substance, included mainly, it would seem, for the value of Theroux’s name. One of the probing questions put to Theroux: “Does the migration to e-readers increase access to good stories or diminish it?” His astounding reply: “Greatly increases access.”

Joyce Carol Oates’ piece, “I Am Sorry to Inform You,” probably an excerpt from her forthcoming book The Siege: A Widow’s Story, recalls her “early days of widowhood” after the death in 2008 of her husband Raymond Smith, to whom she’d been married for 48 years.

I plan to discuss the fiction in the special Atlantic supplement later this week. If you are a subscriber, you should have yours by now. If you are near a newsstand, you should find a copy with the May issue. Let me know what you think about it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Short Story Month, May 2010

The idea of a Short Story Month has been floating around for several years. In 2003, Larry Dark, director of The Story Prize, urged in an interview that the short story was a very American form and should be celebrated in a National Short Story Month. In 2007, Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network and executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books, took up the banner and declared May to be “Short Story Month,” initiating several online activities to promote that idea and publishing a collection of essays and reviews. On May 1, 2009, I polled my readers about the idea and got a 99% approval vote.

However, the short story does not have a broad based nonprofit organization willing to promote Short Story Month in the way that the Academy of American Poets did when they designated April as National Poetry Month in 1996, encouraging a number of artists, publishers, educational leaders, and arts organizations to sponsor activities across the country. As Larry Dark argued on his blog last year, for a national Short Story Month to become a reality, “It will need to have a strong organization behind it, a real concerted and nationally coordinated effort, and buy-in from bookstores, schools, and libraries, not to mention authors and publishers.”

I queried The Society for the Study of the Short Story last year about their interest in promoting a National Short Story Month but got no reply. The Society will be holding its 11th International Short Story Conference in Toronto June 16-19. I will be participating on a panel at the conference, and at that time, I will once again urge them to help promote a month-long yearly celebration of the short story.

This year Dan Wickett has enlisted the help of a number of short-story bloggers, reviewers, writers, editors, and publishers to participate in a joint discussion of stories from two new collections: Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming (Graywolf Press, Feb. 2010) and Pinckney Benedict’s Miracle Boy and Other Stories (Press 53, May 2010).

I intend to increase my efforts on this Reading the Short Story blog during May 2010, with two or three posts per week, as follows:

1. I will discuss the work appearing in the Fiction 2010 special supplement to The Atlantic, which accompanied the May 2010 issue.

2. I will discuss some of the stories appearing in the 2010 Pen/O. Henry Prize volume which just came out.

3. I will discuss some of the stories appearing in the 2009 The Best American Short Stories, which came out last October.

4. I will post blog entries on Pinckey Benedict’s Miracle Boy and Other Stories and Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming from the joint online discussion organized by Dan Wickett, to which I am contributing.

I hope you will join in discussions and help promote May as Short Story Month.