Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Short Story Month--May 2011--Puzzle the Prof Contest

A couple of years ago, Larry Dark, of The Story Prize suggested it might be a good idea to promote the month of May as National Short Story Month. Last year, Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network tried to further this idea by posting responses by various writers, reviewers, and bloggers to two new books of short stories. This year, Erika Dreifus, a contributing editor at Fiction Writers Review has taken up the banner to promote May as Short Story Month by making it part of FWR’s Collection Giveaway Project, urging bloggers interested in the short story to participate.

Erika has suggested that bloggers post an entry on our blog recommending a recently published short story collection. The post can be long or short, a review or merely a rave. The one requirement is that the blogger, has read and loved the book in question. Then the idea is to offer a copy of the book as a giveaway to one lucky person. Bloggers would announce their winner on May 31, 2011, and arrange to send out copies of any books they are giving away. Bloggers can choose the winner through a drawing, or by the wittiness of his/her remarks, or by whatever criteria they choose.

Several bloggers have already pledged to participate in the Short Story Month Collection Giveaway, including Dan Powell at Dan Powell-Fiction and the good folks over at The Short Review.

Always happy to promote reading the short story in any way available, I plan to participate in Short Story Month 2011 as follows:

I have a nice new extra hardback copy of Antonya Nelson’s collection Nothing Right, which came out last year. I am posting below my review of the collection. I am also including, as part of the prize, a hardback copy of my own critical book, The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice.

Here is what I propose on the Reading the Short Story Blog as a competition for the two books:

Readers frequently complain that whereas novels are usually satisfying, complete narrative experiences, short stories are often hard-to-understand, inconclusive, or just plain puzzling. If you have read a short story that you feel is mystifying or hard to understand—a story that still nags at you because you can’t figure what’s it all about, I invite you to submit the story to me, along with a one-paragraph query about what puzzles you about the story. I will select the most challenging and interesting queries and try to pose reading suggestions or interpretative solutions to the problem. At the end of May, I will award the two books to the reader who has submitted the most challenging puzzle for me to solve. If the story is a fairly well-known one, I probably have a copy, so you just need to provide the title in your one-paragraph query. If it is online somewhere, tell me where I can find it. If it is a relatively unknown story, you will have to scan it and send it to me at my email address:

Below, I try to suggest what I liked about Antonya Nelson’s collection Nothing Right, which I hope to award to some quizzical reader at the end of Short Story Month, May 2011.

Nothing Right. By Antonya Nelson. Bloomsbury. 296 pages, 2010. $25.00.

Eudora Welty, a great reader and writer of the short story, once said that all of an artist’s stories tend to spring from the same source within him or her, that however one’s stories differ in theme or approach, they all carry a “signature” characteristic of the writer’s gift. The signature of Antonya Nelson’s stories in her fifth collection, Nothing Right, can best be determined by the answer to the question, “What is wrong?”

All of Nelson’s characters, mostly women, are lost, disengaged--looking for a mate, a child, or a family to give themselves an identity, a sense of belonging. Some succeed in finding themselves; some do not. In the title story, Hannah feels lost and alone after her divorce, especially since her favorite son went with his father and she is stuck with fifteen-year-old Leo, who is always getting into trouble, and whose ugly transformation to manhood disgusts her. However, his latest shenanigan, getting an older girl pregnant, gives Hannah an unsuspected source of identification.

Perhaps the most isolated character in the collection is Abby in “OBO,” (a classified ad acronym for “or best offer,”) who weasels her way into her professor’s home for the holidays to try to seduce his wife. In a similar story, “Or Else,” David, and a woman he has met, break into a Telluride vacation home of a family that once welcomed him but with whom he is now alienated. Both David and Abbey are “liars by nature,” but even as you disapprove of their behavior, you cannot help sympathizing with their desperation.

Two stories focus on sisters, one of whom needs the help of the other. In the most poignant, “Party of One,” Emily, suffering from cancer, goes to a cocktail lounge to appeal to a married man who is breaking her sister’s heart. In “People People,” Elaine provides a refuge for her brilliant, antisocial, obese sister when her attempts to have an affair with a married colleague fail. In “Shauntrelle,” Constance, recently divorced, looks for a home and finds it temporarily with a roommate named Fanny Mann, who is in Houston for plastic surgery procedures. They constantly receive phone calls and visits from strangers looking for previous lost residents, such as Shauntrelle, a name that Fanny Mann gives to Constance.

Although one may worry that Nelson is following a formula of her own making in these stories, as Eudora Welty has wisely said, a pattern in a writer’s stories is subjective, lying too deep to be consciously recognized, a pattern of which a new story is not another copy “but a fresh attempt made in its own full-bodied right …with its own pressure, and its own needs of fulfillment.”

Bearing her own unique “signature,” Nothing Right powerfully reaffirms Antonya Nelson’s mastery of the short story, which has been widely recognized since her first collection, The Expendables, won the Flannery O’Connor Award in 1990.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Toby Litt and the Freudian Fort-Da

For me, one of the pleasures of attending literary conferences on the short story is being introduced to a writer whose work is, for whatever reason, unknown to me. Toby Litt, who shared with me the charming title “Guest of Honour” at the recent International Symposium on “The Figure of the Author in the Short Story in English” at Universite de’Angers, is the author of several books—both novels and short stories—but with whom I was unfamiliar because his work has been largely limited to publication and promotion in the UK.

His short story collections include Adventures in Capitalism (1996), Exhibitionism (2002), and a “novel in stories” entitled I Played the Drum in a Band Called Okay (2008). He studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia under Malcolm Bradbury and was nominated by Granta magazine as one of the 20 'Best of Young British Novelists in 2003.

Toby and I had lunch together on the second day of the conference and enjoyed a long, leisurely talk about writing in general and the short story in particular. Like many writers I have met, Toby is a complete professional, devoted to, even obsessed by, his work. He is a highly versatile writer, trying his hand at several different genres. If you take a look at his titles on his website in order of publication, you might notice that they are in alphabetical order, e.g. Adventures in Capitalism, Beatniks, Corpses, etc. I think he is up to the letter “L” now. He has plans to go through to “Z” and then… I don’t know.

Toby read a story at the conclusion of the conference that I would like to comment on briefly because I think it illustrates two different ways to read short stories. The story was written “to order,” as it were, for reading on UK radio to commemorate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here is the basic plot situation: A young man’s entire record collection is destroyed by party-going vandals, with each lp record broken neatly into two pieces and replaced in its sleeve. However, one record has seemingly escaped the debacle—a prized Bob Dylan recording, for the broken record in the Bob Dylan sleeve—an exercise recording--was placed in it by mistake. The action of the story follows the young man’s efforts to recover the Dylan lp that has been loaned to someone. The story is feverishly paced, and the voice of the narrator is ideally suited to a radio presentation, as the listener sympathizes with the young man’s efforts to find his prized recording, the only one left after experiencing the worst thing that could possibly happen to him.

Finally, at the end of the story, the young man does succeed in retrieving the lost Dylan recording. He takes it home but before placing it in its original sleeve, he neatly breaks it into two pieces to match the other records in his destroyed collection. It is the best thing he has ever done.

When Toby finished reading the story, I immediately put a question to him. I told him that as he finished reading the story, I imagined myself listening to it on the radio with my father, an uneducated truck driver from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. I imagined that as my father listened to the story, he too became caught up in the young man’s efforts to get back the lost Dylan record. However, when the boy broke the record, my father was outraged, puzzled—looking at me, the English professor, and asking, “Now why in the hell did he do that for?”
And I, the know-it-all English professor could only smile my knowing smile, certain that it was inevitable the boy broke the record, but not knowing how to explain my reaction. So I asked Toby, “What do I tell my father?”

As the members of the audience laughed and talked about the ending of the story and the difference between wanting the boy to rescue the record and being somehow happy that he broke it, I suddenly came up with a possible answer, and, being the old professor that I am, it was an academic answer. I raised my hand to get Toby’s attention and shouted, “I got it! I got it!”

The story is about a young man experiencing something he sees as the worst thing that has ever happened to him—the loss of his prized record collection in a meaningless attack. There is no explanation for the attack. It’s just that “shit happens.” There’s meaningless evil in the world. You can’t protect yourself from it. The only thing you can do is find a way to make it seem that you are in control of what you are never really in control of.

Think of a small infant in a crib. The child wants the mother to stay with it. But the mother has to leave. The child is helpless to make the mother stay. However, when the mother leaves, the child develops a game in which it throws a toy at the departing mother, saying, “gone.” The child repeats the game over and over, and by this play convinces itself that it is responsible for the mother’s leaving, thus creating the illusion of control. Sigmund Freud developed this theory, which in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle he called the “Fort-Da,” by observing his grandson throwing a toy after his departing mother, saying, “gone” and retrieving it, saying “here.”

Here is the quote from Beyond the Pleasure Principle:
This good little boy, however, had an occasional disturbing habit of taking any small objects he could get hold of and throwing them away from him into a corner, under the bed, and so on, so that hunting for his toys and picking them up was often quite a business. As he did this he gave vent to a loud, long-drawn-out "o-o-o-o," accompanied by an expression of interest and satisfaction. His mother and the writer of the present account were agreed in thinking that this was not a mere interjection but represented the German word "fort'" [gone]. I eventually realized that it was a game and that the only use he made of any of his toys was to play "gone" with them. One day I made an observation which confirmed my view. The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied around it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skillfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive "o-o-o-o." He then pulled the reel again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful "da" [there]. This, then, was the complete game�disappearance and return. As a rule one only witnessed its first act, which was repeated untiringly as a game in itself, though there is no doubt that the greater pleasure was attached to the second act. The interpretation of the game then became obvious. It was related to the child's great cultural achievement -- the instinctual renunciation (that is, the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction) which he had made in allowing his mother to go away without protesting.

The young man in Toby Litt’s story does something similar at the end. By breaking the record the way the other records had been broken, he in effect says to the mysterious evil culprit, “You screwed up; you missed one. You did not succeed. Here is the way you do it. I am in control of what happens. I can play this game better than you ever can.”

Now, I am not sure I could ever convince my father of this explanation of why the young man’s destruction of the Bob Dylan record is so satisfying to me, but it does, I think, account in some way the difference between a puzzled reaction to a short story’s ending and a satisfied reaction.

Check Toby’s web site at

Saturday, April 23, 2011

“The Figure of the Author in the Short Story in English”: Angers, France, April 8&9, 2011

“The Figure of the Author in the Short Story in English” Conference last week at the University of Angers in France was a real pleasure for me. I was honored to be the keynote speaker, opening the conference on Friday morning with a presentation entitled, “Why Many Authors Like Short Stories and Many Readers Do Not.” The Journal of the Short Story in English, published by Presses de l’Universite Angers plans to publish the essay, so I cannot post it on this blog. However, the citations from which I developed the essay have all been posted in the past month. I will let you know when the issue of the journal featuring presentations at the conference is available.

Sponsored jointly by the University of Angers and Edge Hill University in England, the conference also featured British writer Toby Litt, who read one of his most recent stories to end the conference on Saturday afternoon. A number of scholars from England, America, Canada, Belgium, Iran, Poland, Ireland, Romania, and elsewhere gave presentations on the relationship between the author and the work, focusing on stories by Ali Smith, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, John Fowles, Katherine Mansfield, George Saunders, and others.

I usually have at least one confrontation at these conferences, for my own approach to studying the short story differs from the trendy cultural/social approach nowadays. It was the following comment that kicked off some negative reaction from one academic: “Many current literature students have been taught to read for social themes, political issues, and cultural contexts. My hope is that my colleagues, especially those just now entering the profession, will move past the jargon of their graduate seminars, rediscover their love of literature, and teach with passion how artists create human interactions that no other speech acts can, especially in that most beautiful, but most underrated literary genre—the short story.”

The hosts of the conference, Michelle Ryan-Sautour, of University of Angers, and Ailsa Cox, of Edge Hill University, made all the participants most welcome. It was one of the most cordial and intimate conferences I have ever attended. The wonderful French food and wine contributed not a little to the pleasure, as you might imagine. The banquet on Friday night as a special treat, held at a unique restaurant called LES CAVES DE LA GENEVERAIE, which is actually in a series of interrelated caves in a farming area outside of Angers. You can read about it at http://genevraie.troglodyte.infor

It was a pleasure to have my eldest daughter on the trip with me. We spent four days in Paris after the three days in Angers, seeing the usual sights. I am posting a few pictures, one of me in front of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, which is only a few blocks from our hotel on the Left Bank in the Latin Quarter, near the Sorbonne and Notre Dame. Pardon the inevitable postings of a tourist.

I will post an entry next week on the guest short story writer at the conference, Toby Litt.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Authors on the Short Story--Part V--Best American Short Stories Introductions

The Best American Short Story collection has been around now for almost 100 years. It was started in 1915 by Edward J. O’Brien, who also wrote two pretty good history/discussions of the form: The Dance of the Machines: The American Short Story and the Industrial Age (1929) rants against machine-like standardization of the industrial age and argues that the short story of his time shares with the machine the characteristics of being impersonal, standardized, speeded-up and cheap. The Advance of the American Short Story (1931) surveys the development of the American short story from Washington Irving to Sherwood Anderson. O’Brien edited what was then called Best Short Stories of, and the Yearbook of the American Short Story for a quarter of a century.

Volume 7 of Critical Survey of Short Fiction, which I edited for Salem Press in 2001, includes the table of contents of all the Best American Short Stories volumes from 1915 up through 1999. It is interesting to note how few writers in the early volumes are still remembered, or are remembered as popular rather than literary writers, e.g. in the 1915 volume, Ben Hecht, Fannie Hurst, Wilbur Daniel Steele. But who today remembers Walter Muilenburg or Will Livingston Comfort?

Martha Foley took over the editorship in 1941 and continued in that position until 1977, sometimes co-editing with Joyce F. Hartman or David Burnett. In 1978, Shannon Ravenel took over, but that year also started the tradition of having someone else, most often a fiction writer, making the final choice. Usually, Ravenel would choose 120 stories and then send them to the guest editor who chose the final twenty. The titles of the remaining 100 were listed in the back.

Over the years, guest editors have included Joyce Carol Oates, John Gardner, Anne Tyler, John Updike, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Anne Beattie, Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx, and Amy Tan. However, in the last few years, Houghton Mifflin has chosen guest editors who are not short-story writers and do not seem to appreciate the form, for example, Alice Sebold in 2009, who does not write short stories at all, and Richard Russo in 2010 who does not write them well. Their introductions are rambling generalities and personal anecdotes that add nothing to our understanding and appreciation of the short story. However, many of the other authors who have guest edited over the years have made interesting and helpful comments on the short story, the best of which I include below with the dates of the volume.

I hope these five sets of authorial comments have been helpful to you. Over 100 different authors are represented. I have organized many of the comments in what I think are significant categories and tried to show their relationship to each other for my presentation in Angers, France later this month entitled “Why Many Authors Like Short Stories and Many Readers Do Not.”

I have raided my own copies of Best American Short Stories for the following authorial comments on the form to complete this series. Any comments or additions are appreciated. Not all volumes are represented because not all authors commented on the short story as a form.

1981, Hortense Calisher: “If poetry has the direct line to the highest laurel—or the noblest life—and the novel is sometimes cock-of-the-walk conversationally, then the short story, somehow frozen or immured between them, is everybody’s prize orphan, of whom one speaks tenderly, if not for long. It’s the chamber music of literature and has the same kind of devotee. Besides, it doesn’t sell well. There’s often that confusion between the commercial fact and the Parnassian one.”

1984, John Updike: “The suspicion persists that short fiction, like poetry since Kipling and Bridges, has gone from being a popular to a fine art, an art preserved in a kind of floating museum made up of many little superfluous magazines.”

1985, Gail Godwin: “The paradox I have discovered, in writing and in reading the writing of others, is that the more you respect and focus on the singular and strange, the more you become aware of the universal and the infinite.”

1990, Richard Ford: “Short stories, like lyrics, are invented new each time they’re tried, becoming attached to the name-made-form only as a convenience for would-be-students and syllabus makers.”
“Unarguably, writing short stories is something most people can’t do very well. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s harder than it looks, and wonderful stories do seem like little miracles.”
“Abstractable standards of form will not very reliably predict or often inspire a first-rate short story…a good short story is not good because it conforms to or rejects doggishly some pre-existing conceit.”
“Good stories perform what wonders they do using wise standards all their own, discovered often in the private vicissitudes of being written.”

1993, Louise Erdrich: “The best short stories contain novels. Either they are densely plotted, with each line an insight, or they distill emotions that could easily spread on for pages, chapters.”

1995, Jane Smiley: “The short story is an elusive, paradoxical form, not easily mastered, yet some of the best are written by beginning writers.”

1996, John Edgar Wideman: “Stories that don’t acknowledge the mystery at the center of things, don’t challenge the vision f reality most consenting adults rely upon day by day, are stories that disappear swiftly into the ever-present buzz of entertainment.”

1997, Annie Proulx: “The short story is a difficult literary form, demanding more attention to control and balance than the novel.”
“In the short story there lingers a faint sense of example, a trimmed, useful tautness implying a function for the reader beyond entertainment… The reader comes to the short story subliminally expecting enlightenment, that is, we accept the idea that there is some nugget of embedded truth in a short story, and this acceptance partially sponges off the label of fiction in a way that does not occur with the novel in its detailed examination of character.”

1999, Amy Tan: “For me the rhythm is in the beats of the first sentence, in the way the story’s pulse quickens or evens, lulls, or leaps. And by the end the story breaches and exhales with a certain tempo and force…. Disruptions can cause me to lose the story’s focus or its essence, and at the very least its momentum. For that reason, I feel the short story is more akin to a poem than a novel in how it should be read.”

2000, E. L Doctorow:”The story as a particular kind of fiction may not be definable by its construction or its length, but what is critical is its scale. Smaller in its overall dimensions than the novel, it is a fiction in which society is surmised as the darkness around the narrative circle of light. In other words, the scale of the short story predisposes it to the isolation of the self.”
“Here in the year 2000 we lack a proprietary critic of the short story as, for example, Professor Helen Vendler is a proprietary critic of the lyric poem.”

2001, Barbara Kingsolver: “I have often wondered why short stories are not more popular in this country. We Americans are such busy people you’d think we’d jump at the chance to have our literary wisdom served in doses that fit handily between taking the trash to the curb and waiting for the carpool…. Most Americans would sooner read a five-hundred-page book about a boy attending wizard school or how to make home d├ęcor from roadside trash or anything than pick up a book offering them a dozen tales of the world complete in twenty pages apiece…. It may be that most Americans don’t read short stories because…a good short story cannot be Lit Lite; it is the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces.”

2004, Lorrie Moore: “There is no thoroughly convincing theory of the short story—it is technically a genre, not a form, but resists the definitions that usually cluster around both…in lieu of a truly winning overriding theory, we should rely perhaps on simple descriptions, in which case the more the merrier.”
“As for their oft stated affinity with poetry, short stories do have in common with poems an interest in how language completes one’s understanding of the world.”
“Unlike novels or poems, but more akin to a play, the short story is also an end-oriented form, and in the best ones the endings shine a light back upon the story illumining its meaning with both surprise and inevitability.”

2006, Anne Patchett: “The first thing the short story needs to think about is casting off the role of The Novel’s Little Sidekick, the practice run, the warm-up act.”
“Short stories are often better written and make fewer demands on our time than novels. Why haven’t we made a deeper commitment to them? I am afraid it has something to do with the story’s inability to cause a stir…. It doesn’t really matter what the short story chooses to do, but it needs to do something. Fast. The story needs hype. It needs a publicist. Fast

2007, Stephen King: “The American short story is alive and well. Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were actually true. The art form is still alive…. But well? That’s a different story.”