Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Notable Short Story Collections for 2012

Unfortunately, 2012 had no outstanding collections of short stories to match the two very fine collections of 2011:  Steven Millhauser’s We Others and Edith Pearlman´s Binocular Vision—that is, except, of course, Alice Munro’s Dear Life.

The New York Times selection of 100 Notable Books of 2012 (echoed by other such "Best of" lists) included the following six collections:

Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie
The Book of Mischief by Steve Stern
Dear Life by Alice Munro
Married Love by Tess Hadley
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
What We Talk About when We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

I have not yet read Tess Hadley’s collection, although I have read several of her stories that have appeared in The New Yorker in the past few years.  I have not yet read Steve Stern’s collection and, sorry to say, am not familiar with his work. However, I have ordered both books and will read them in the next month and make some comments on them.

Of the four remaining books, it seems to me that only one is outstanding.  I am sure my readers will not be surprised to hear that my favorite is Alice Munro’s Dear Life.  I have commented on most of these stories over the past few years as they have appeared in The New Yorker and ask interested readers to check my previous blogs on Munro, easily found using the “search” line at the top right of this page.  I do plan to make some comments on three pieces in the “memoir” section of the book next month, as well as some additional comments on the story “Corrie,” about which there was quite a bit of discussion on this blog.  I will especially focus on how Munro changed the ending of the story as it appears in Dear Life.

I also refer my readers to my previous blogs on the Sherman Alexie, Nathan Englander, and Junot Diaz collections—none of which I think adds anything to the reputation of these writers.  The Alexie collection is a “new and selected” batch, valuable for his best older stories, but not very interesting for the “new” ones.  Alexie may have grown a bit too smug as a showman these days to devote himself to writing fine short stories.  The Englander collection, which won some important awards (although I really don’t’ know why), is just more clever O. Henryish tales that Englander has done before, and (sigh) will probably do again.  The Diaz is just one more set of tedious crude exploits of Yunior-- this time focusing primarily on his ineffective experiences with women and his snappy street chatter.

All four books—Munro, Alexie, Englander, and Diaz—seem to have sold rather well—even spending some time on the best seller lists.  And that’s a good thing for the short story.  The Munro stories are about as good as they get; the stories in the other four collections are lightweight—amusing, self-indulgent, just not very challenging or revealing about the complexities of human experience and emotion.

Oh, just to assure readers who also love the novel form that I do have some familiarity with that “baggy monster,” I have read at least three novels on The New York Times 2012 notable list: Zadie Smith’s NW, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and Colm Tobin’s The Testament of Mary. The Kingsolver is a rambling popular fiction with a social message that goes on and on and on about global warming.  The Smith is a “postmodern” (whatever that is) experiment about fiction, culture, and individual identity—challenging but sometimes too self-consciously so. The Tobin is a novella about the adult life and death of Jesus told by his mother—the focus more on mother-stuff than on Jesus-stuff.  If you want be feel socially conscious, read the Kingsolver; if you want to feel intellectually experimental, read the Smith; if you want to feel cynical about the origins of the Church, read the Tobin.

I wish all my readers a most happy new year and thank them for visiting this blog, reading my remarks, and sometimes even taking the time to respond to those remarks.  I apologize for making that process a little more difficult recently by establishing a login, but I was getting bombarded daily by junk mail that I had to delete, often accidently deleting valuable comments by my readers. 

Happy New Year! See you in 2013, my friends!


Friday, December 14, 2012

Steven Millhauser’s “A Voice in the Night” and Flannery O’Connor’s Romance Short Fiction

As I have mentioned before, I much admire the stories of Steven Millhauser.  If you have not read his “new and selected stories,” We Others, published last year, you owe it to yourself to buy it for you and your best friend for Christmas, or whatever end-of-the year holiday you favor.

I like Millhauser’s new story, “A Voice in the Night,” in the Dec. 10 issue of The New Yorker. Every author has been asked the question at a reading a lecture, or an interview: “Where do you get your ideas?”  Steven Millhauser’s answer is: “a voice in the night.”  I think it is a good metaphor for the compulsion one must have to be a writer. I firmly believe that to be a writer, you must feel an irresistible, inescapable compulsion to write.  I think of Raymond Carver, feeling frustrated because he is stuck in a Laundromat in Iowa City when he wants to be home writing, or when Alice Munro had to rent a little apartment to get away from her domestic chores long enough to write.  Both describe the need to write as something that calls them. Sherwood Anderson described his “voice in the night” in this way:

Having, from a conversation overheard […] got the tone of a tale, I was like a woman who has just become impregnated. Something was growing inside me. At night when I lay in my bed I could feel the heels of the tale kicking against the walls of my body.” 

All writers have also been asked at readings, lectures, and interviews, ” When did you decide to become a writer?”  Steven Millhauser’s answer in this story is: “Three thousand years ago in the temple of Shiloh.”  His story “A Voice in the Night” is his fictional account of the source of his writing obsession.

“A Voice in the Night” is divided up into four three-part sections:
Section I is a retelling of the story in 1 Samuel, Chapter 3, in which the boy Samuel, age 12, hears his named called in the night three times and thinks it is Eli, the high priest of the temple of Shiloh;
Section II takes place in 1950, in which an American boy age, seven, lies awake in his bed for four straight nights, thinking of the Samuel story and wondering if he will know how to respond if he hears a voice in the night;
Section III focuses on the boy at the age of sixty-eight, now an author, thinking about his father, his Jewish education, and his long-ago waiting for the voice in the night.

The story is about ‘being called” or “having a calling.” Once in high school, when the boy asked his father, a university professor, if he liked teaching, the father answered: “If I were a millionaire, I would pay for the privilege of teaching.”  The son is moved by this answer, knows he has heard something important, and is proud and envious of his father, thinking he wants to say that someday; he knows it is “a calling.  Samuel’s call in the night.”

The author’s childhood is filled with three elements that contribute to the writer’s calling:
 First, stories, in this case, stories from the Jewish tradition: Joseph in the pit, the parting of the Red Sea, David soothing the soul of Saul with his harp; and children’s tales of Rapunzel being called to let down her hair, Dr. Doolittle telling of the pushmi-pullyu’
 Second, the mysterious sounds of words, as when his father said the Rabbi was making boys jabber words they did not understand, calling it “pure gibberish.” And the boy liked that word for the sound of it—gibberish;
Third, sentences: his father tells him the three greatest opening sentences in all of literature are: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”; “Call me Ishmael,” and the opening of the children’s book “Tootle”: Far, far to the west of everywhere is the village of Lower Trainswich.”

“A Voice in the Night” with the author seeing understanding the nature of his own calling:

“A calling. Not Samuel’s calling but another.  Not that way but this way. Samuel ministering unto the Lord; his father-teacher ministering unto the generations.  And the son? What about him?  Far, far to the west of everywhere, ministering unto the Muse.  Thanks, Old Sea-Parter, for leaving me be. Tired now.  Soon we’ll all sleep.”

“A Voice in the Night” not only responds to the questions, “Where do your stories come from? And “When did you become a writer,” it also responds to the kind of fiction that Millhauser finds most irresistible—the modern romance form, most often embodied in the short story form.

In the Oct 3, 2008 issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Steven Millhauser published a short essay entitled “The Ambition of the Short Story.”
You can find it at:

I quote below the conclusion of that essay:

The short story believes in transformation. It believes in hidden powers. The novel prefers things in plain view. It has no patience with individual grains of sand, which glitter but are difficult to see. The novel wants to sweep everything into its mighty embrace — shores, mountains, continents. But it can never succeed, because the world is vaster than a novel, the world rushes away at every point. The novel leaps restlessly from place to place, always hungry, always dissatisfied, always fearful of coming to an end — because when it stops, exhausted but never at peace, the world will have escaped it.

The short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there — right there, in the palm of its hand — lies the universe. It seeks to know that grain of sand the way a lover seeks to know the face of the beloved. It looks for the moment when the grain of sand reveals its true nature. In that moment of mystic expansion, when the macrocosmic flower bursts from the microcosmic seed, the short story feels its power. It becomes bigger than itself. It becomes bigger than the novel. It becomes as big as the universe.
Therein lies the immodesty of the short story, its secret aggression. Its method is revelation. Its littleness is the agency of its power. The ponderous mass of the novel strikes it as the laughable image of weakness. The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar. That is the outrageous ambition of the short story, that is its deepest faith, that is the greatness of its smallness.
 Before Millhauser, one of the most important advocates for this kind of fiction was Flannery O’Connor.  In the essay “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” in her collection Mystery and Manners, O’Connor claimed that the social sciences had “cast a dreary blight on the public approach to fiction.” (The paper was first read in 1960 at Wesleyan College for Women in Macon, Georgia; one can only wonder, had she lived, what she would have said fifty years later when social approaches to fiction have narrowed artistic and critical vision even more).  O’Connor complains that many readers and critics “demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit fiction’s scope, associating the only legitimate material for fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life.

However, O’Connor’s “voice in the night” comes not as a demand for “realism of fact,” but rather for what she called “the modern romance tradition.”  I have discussed O’Connor’s role in this tradition in the introduction to the book I edited last year entitled Critical Insights:  Flannery O’Connor, and will not repeat here my comments there.  Both O’Connor and Millhauser’s identification with the romantic tradition of the romance explains why they are such masters of the short story form—a form that is much more aligned with “mystery” than with “manners.”  O’Connor says works in this tradition make alive some experience we are not accustomed to observe every day, experiences which ordinary folk may never experience in their ordinary lives.  She says the fictional qualities of the romance “lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected” and that it is this kind of “realism” she wants to consider. It is a fiction that more closely aligned with poetry, a fiction that is “initially set going by literature more than by life.” 

O’Connor says if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, “then what he sees on the surface will be or interest to him only as far as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”  For the romance writer, “the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.”

When Frank Kermode in his Norton lectures several years ago asked, "Why Are Narratives Obscure?" he cited Kafka's parable  "Before the Law" in The Trial. It’s about a man who comes to beg admission to the Law but is kept out by a doorkeeper.  So he sits there year after year in inconclusive conversation with the doorkeeper outside the door unable to get in. When he is old and near death, he sees an immortal radiance streaming from the door.  He asks the doorkeeper why he alone has come to this door and receives this reply: "This door was intended only for you.  Now I am going to shut it."  A terrible parable, you would have to agree.  "To perceive the radiance of the shrine," says Kermode, "is not to gain access to it; the Law, or the Kingdom to those within, such as the doorkeeper, may be powerful and beautiful, but to those outside they are absolutely inexplicable.  This is a mystery.  While the insiders protect the Law without understanding it, the outsiders like us see an uninterpretable radiance and die."  A terrible parable indeed.

Kermode is concerned, of course, with the radiant obscurity of parables. The word “parable” is used in the Gospel of Mark as a synonym for "mystery."  It is the radiance Eudora Welty refers to when she says the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own.  It is wrapped in an atmosphere.  This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initially obscures its plain, real shape." To Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz, to outsiders to the mystery, the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."

Why is there more mystery in short stories than in novels?

First there is the historical and prehistorical source of the short story in myth and oral tale that, by its very nature, was concerned with mystery, for everything was mystery and story was the only explanatory model available.  A genre never completely departs from its origins.

Second, there is short story's dependence more on pattern than plot for its structure.  As a result of this dependence, the action of a short story is more apt to be organized around an implicit principle or idea rather than a series of events occurring causally in time

Third, there is the mystery of motivation in short stories.  It is not easy to determine why Bartleby prefers not to, what Roderick Usher is so afraid of.  Part of the problem may be 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, are driven by the discourse demands of the narrative and thus act as if they are obsessed, propelled by some central force rather than merely logically, causally, or randomly.

Flannery O'Connor says "The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery." 

Steven Millhauser, who hearkened to the “voice in the night,” would surely agree.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reader Comments Oct. and Nov. 2012--Accidently Deleted

Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Eric.  I always know I can count on you to challenge me to further thinking about literary issues.  I am not really concerned with the reader’s recognition of short stories vs. novels generally.  Heft and length of reading are usually sufficient.  Poe’s single setting criteria could very well depend on how long one’s butt holds out.  One could very well get so caught up in a good detective novel that he or she will read all night in a single lying as it were.  The reading issue for me settles on the so-called novella, a category which I think Gatsby belongs to because of the symbolic structure and the stylistic tightness of the prose.  I did a blog post a while back on Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, which I argued was structured and styled more like a novella than a novel.  I am now reading his new work, which he categorizes as a novella, entitled The Testament of Mary. I have posted some blogs in the past on what I think are the differences between novellas, short stories, and novels. More on this in the future, I reckon.  Thanks again for your helpful response.


Although simple word count sounds pedestrian, I don't think you should give up to quickly on scale as a way to define and classify prose fiction. Scale seems to be an essential aspect of reality, both physical and psychological. Baseballs and electrons can both be thought of as fundamentally quantum particles, but the baseball leads a very placid and Newtonian sort of life, where the electron jumps around so much in a space/time sort of way that it can practically be called a "cloud". Actually the baseball is doing the same thing, but, relative to its mass, the quantum jumps are the equivalent of nil. The same behavior but on different scales. Psychologically the quality of our experiences are also related to scale if not as drastically as electrons and baseballs. Poe's "single sitting" for example is a scalar explanation. As someone said, "quantity is a kind of quality". And scale I think would turn out to be more useful and sophisticated than just the idea of word count. on C.S Lewis on the Hidden Element in Stories and the Significance of Rereading
on 12/7/12

I also thought "Anything Helps" was a great story, but I also think it's a shaggy dog kind of story. on Best American Short Stories 2012—Part IV
on 12/3/12
Hi, Karen, good to hear from you. I will take another look at the Saunders story, for I have always admired his work. I got a nice note from Edith Pearlman, who liked my discussion of Honeydew. I am not sure about the Pushcart, for I have always found those selections uneven. I will take a look at it though. Thanks for your comments. And thanks for reading mine. on Best American Short Stories 2012: Part III
on 12/3/12
Hi, Prof. May, I've worked through this group: "Diem Perdidi" is incredibly beautiful. I listened to a wonderful NPR reading (three videos, about 9 minutes each; though it's a video, it's really audio only) which only made me love it more. Otsuka really has a gift, seen here and through The Buddha in the Attic, for using poetic style to tell a story. "Honeydew" bothered me at first – I so loved all those elements, but hated the ending tying up all the loose ends. Because of your comments, I tried again, and just like the Rubin Vase test where a vase becomes two profiles (or vice versa), I clicked on a kind of sardonic humor that changed the way I saw the whole piece. I still think I would've preferred that the story ended with the three of them in the woods, but there is a kind of bizarreness that works. "Occupational Hazard" seemed like it needed editing; it should've started with the funeral. I don't get what the girl's act with her mom, inspired by the father, had to do with on Best American Short Stories 2012: Part III
on 11/28/12
Eric, it is always good to hear from you. I just finished reading Gatsby again, for the upteenth time, and thank you for giving me the impetus to do so. You know, there are lots of books that one reads when young that pale when read again in the so called golden years. Catcher in the Rye was a disappointment to me when I reread it recently. However, I loved Gatsby all over again. A brilliant book, a kind of miracle of style and vision that Fitzgerald never really achieved again. The difference between the short story and the novel is not, for me, so much a matter of word length as it is a matter of technique. I realize there are some novelistic techniques in Gatsby, but basically I think it is a novella, in the tradition of Heart of Darkness, Billy Budd, The Bear, etc. And true novellas (as opposed to short novels) are, in my opinion, closer to the short story in technique than they are to novels. And it is that novella technique that makes me think Castle of Otranto is closer on C.S Lewis on the Hidden Element in Stories and the Significance of Rereading
on 11/26/12
John, I have not received my copy of Munro's new book yet, so do not know what changes she might have made in "Corrie" since it appeared in New Yorker. I will get back to you when I get the book later this week. on Alice Munro, "Corrie" New Yorker, Oct 11, 2010
on 11/26/12
I thought "Anything Helps" was a great story, maybe the best in the collection. Not a wasted line. And certainly moving, maybe the most moving piece in the lot.. Other than that, I definitely agree with your other evaluations. I wasn't a fan of the Wilson story, either. A great dialogue exchange with the director and the pet wrangler, but beyond that, kind of meh.. on Best American Short Stories 2012—Part IV
on 11/21/12
Read a review of Munro's new anthology in our local paper this a.m. Intrigued by the reviewer's one-sentence reference to "Corrie". Downloaded the book. Read "Corrie" first. Was fooled and felt foolish as the last paragraphs went by. Wanted to plumb what this story's story was and found your post (among not-so-well-thought-others). Thanks. on Alice Munro, "Corrie" New Yorker, Oct 11, 2010
John Read
on 11/18/12
And perhaps Castle of Otranto which you discuss as a short fiction (in the Poe Study), if not short story, but which at 35,000 words is quite a bit shorter than Gatsby, but still long for a short story. on C.S Lewis on the Hidden Element in Stories and the Significance of Rereading
on 11/17/12
I know your book on Poe, when I became interested in short stories and saw that your blog was by the same guy who wrote your Study of Poe's Short Fiction, I started to follow the blog. During Sandy I reread it by LED lamp, and am very glad I did. It's not very long, but hardly modest. And you can congratulate yourself for writing some deep, if brief, discussions of Poe's short fiction without much lit crit jargon at all. I am reading it through yet again but this time rereading the Poe story discussed. For some reason I have a lot of problems wrapping my head around Metzengerstein, and your discussion was very helpful. I am trying to write some of my own thoughts on some of Poe's fictions, and frankly was very impressed with your straightforward approach, which I feel is absolutely essential. I am also trying to read more of the coeval German romantics, especially Tieck. If a couple of those guys had been fused int the same person perhaps there would have been a German Poe, on Terrence Holt's In The Valley of the Kings and Edgar Allan Poe
on 11/14/12
You said "The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel, but that is because, in my opinion, it is more a long short story than it is a short novel." I think discussing your ideas about that would make a very interesting post, that would have to go in some measure to the crux of what a short story is, if it can be as long as a 50,000+ words. Eric on C.S Lewis on the Hidden Element in Stories and the Significance of Rereading
on 11/14/12
I was puzzled to see that Axis is not in Munro's new collection. That decision intrigues me. Best American Short Stories but not Dear Life? Why? I'll be thinking about that as I make my way through Dear Life. on Best American Short Stories 2012: Part II
on 11/7/12
My reactions to "Paramour" and "Volcano" were the reverse of yours - I was more interested in "Paramour," the idea of how new knowledge changes how we feel about past events, and the interesting wording of the ending paragraph – the narration isn't through Christine any more, but she'd probably find the last sentence kind of startling. And creepy. Whereas I couldn't overcome my intense feeling of unfairness generated by "Volcano" – and it felt kind of standard psych-horror, lifted up a notch by the lucid dreaming seminar. But the sensuality of the story was pretty remarkable. I loved "Navigators" – it's my favorite in the volume so far, because it conveys this heartbreaking situation in such a strange context. It's the kind of read-between-the-lines thing I love. I'm curious to see how it plays out with those with no gaming background at all. Interesting this is the second year in a row a heavy-duty gaming story, telling a story through the game itself, has been included in BASS ( on Best American Short Stories 2012: Part II
on 11/7/12
I'm so glad you're going through BASS 2012 story by story. I liked "…Anne Frank" a lot more than when I read it back in its TNY run, mostly because I stopped trying to compare it trope for trope to the original. It was the choreography, who touches whom, who snipes at whom, where they are and where they go, the claustrophobic pantry, that really sold me. "Pilgrim Life" reminded me of "After Ellen," a TNY story from the summer that I truly hated, and I couldn't get past it, but I thought it was better. At least there was movement. But yeah, I agree, the loser thing annoys me. "The Other Place" felt like a manipulation to me. But that's me. Who am I to argue with Mary Gaitskill. I loved "Last Speaker" with its flawed characters who love each other anyway – and the tiny bits of humor (the wheelchair might be a feature rather than an obstacle…lol). And the daughter who changed her name, which the mother never realized was possible – that projects something into the future. I on Fourth Anniversary of Reading the Short Story: Reading Best American Short Stories: 2012
on 11/7/12
very nice blog sir , i read your bio also its glad to know that you have teaching experience of 40 years . on Frank O'Connor Short Story Award Shortlist: 2012-- Kevin Barry's Dark Lies the Island
on 11/4/12
Don't apologise, Charles. I like reading your thoughts and chewing over them. And this theme, of the grasp at timelessness and the inevitable falling back, is one of the great themes, as you eloquently point out. I was reminded, in another context - thinking about the relationship between literary and musical forms - of Proust, and of Orpheus, who has to look back.... on C.S Lewis on the Hidden Element in Stories and the Significance of Rereading
on 11/4/12
Dorothy, The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel, but that is because, in my opinion, it is more a long short story than it is a short novel. And yes, I agree that what Lewis describes as something that is timeless is something that Gatsby tries to embody in Daisy. When he must face the reality that she is only a temporal event in space--mere flesh--and therefore subject to all that flesh is heir to, the loss is too great. The green light that he yearns to reach out for (which is untouchable) is already behind him and therefore accessible only in the imagination. When Nick tells Gatsby he can't repeat the past, he is incredulous, insisting that, of course he can. All religion and all art aspire in some way to defeating time. So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past because even as we know we cannot escape time, cannot, as we live achieve timelessness, we continue to beat on--like Ahab, like Kurtz, like Oedipus, like Hamlet, and on and on. So on C.S Lewis on the Hidden Element in Stories and the Significance of Rereading
on 11/4/12
It's October 31st today and i didn't feel I could write to anybody living in America without expressing my sorrow for all those who've suffered in the terrible storm. I wanted to pick up on one of your quotes from CS Lewis. 'We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which that state is never quite embodied.' For some reason, this made me think of the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, at the end of 'The Great Gatsby'. I wondered whether the green light might have been, for Gatsby, an instance of what Lewis is talking about. And I wanted to ask you - because surely you will have thought about it - why the green light is already behind Gatsby (at the time Nick is talking about) and what is happening with time in these last paragraphs of the story. on C.S Lewis on the Hidden Element in Stories and the Significance of Rereading
on 10/31/12
Thanks for this, Jay. I am looking forward to the book--I always look forward to a Munro collection. I don't know why she left Axis out; it is in the new Best American Short Stories Collection. I will take a look at the changes Munro has made, especially in "Corrie," which was debated quite a bit on my blog and others. I don't like the sound of "Finale" either; and the title "Dear Life" has a valedictory tone to it also, don't you think? Especially since "Dear Life" first appeared in the New Yorker not as a story, but as a memoir. Thanks for reading my blog, Jay. I appreciate it. on Alice Munro's "Amundsen" and The Stories in Her New Book, Dear Life
on 10/29/12
Hi, Dorothy. Thanks for reading my blog. I have heard other short story writers talk about the form in terms of a musical form. It seems that sometimes the subject of the story is not as important as the pattern or rhythm. I have read a number of stories in the present tense. The problem I have with some of them is that they neglect one of the primary aspects of "story" as an event that occurred in the past, as an event that the storyteller feels has a sense of completion--not just one thing after another. on Is the Short Story an Obsessive, Unnatural Form?
on 10/29/12
I ordered a copy of the new collection (it's already out in Canada), and just finished reading it. Wonderful stuff, needless to say. It's worth re-reading the stories that have been printed in the various publications, since Munro has made some changes. (For instance, I believe she adds a paragraph to the end of "Corrie" that quite changes the story.) All the stories Munro has published since TOO MUCH HAPPINESS are collected, with the exception of "Axis". I wonder why Munro decided to omit that one, and I'm curious to see if it shows up in a book in the future. I certainly hope we see more collections, though I have to say that there was a slight valedictory air to the last four stories in DEAR LIFE, which Munro includes under the heading "Finale". What a wonder Munro is! The only complaint I have about the book is the decision to put "To Reach Japan" first. Generally, short story collections should open and close with their strongest stories, right? So I was a bit flummoxed on Alice Munro's "Amundsen" and The Stories in Her New Book, Dear Life
on 10/29/12
Thanks for saving me $14.95!!! on Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her
on 10/28/12
This is a PS to my last comment. What do you think of the current fashion of writing solely in the present tense, (both novels and short stories)? It suddenly occurred to me to put the question to you. on Is the Short Story an Obsessive, Unnatural Form?
on 10/28/12
Thank you for these insights, Charles. I've read several of your posts now, and they always give me food for thought. I think, from the perspective of writing short stories as compared with novels, the unity is as much one of pitch and tone as other qualities. I'm conscious of this as I write, how the pitch of a story is intense and unsustainable over time, how I could not and would not wish to sustain it. It often helps me to think in relation to musical forms. on Is the Short Story an Obsessive, Unnatural Form?
on 10/28/12
I got quite tired of reading Diaz's stories as they kept popping up in The New Yorker. On my blog, I've become quite grumpy about his work and there have been some interesting arguments in the comments sections between those who think like I do and those who defend him, only I've yet to read a convincing defense. Ah well, I'm sure we'll be hearing his name throughout the awards season this year. on Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her
on 10/26/12
You seem like you need to do something other than read another short story. Maybe write one. on Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her
on 10/25/12
I haven't read him. The quotes you use make him sound interesting but,I appreciate your bucking the headwind of flattering commentary. on Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her
on 10/23/12
Yes, indeed. I think the short story is "mostly" interested in the everyday world to the extent that it can be transformed into significance. I think there is indeed a category of experience one could call the "personally mythic." In fact, I am not sure I know what a universal sacredness is; I think sacred is always personal; when it becomes other, it becomes a "church" and thus social. on The Profane and the Sacred: Novel vs. Short Story
on 10/20/12
Do you think there could be a middle ground in the short story? Something that is beyond profane but, only personally mythic and not touching a universal sacredness. on The Profane and the Sacred: Novel vs. Short Story
on 10/20/12
Thanks for this wonderfully detailed comment, Michael. I am sorry I do not have the time to respond to it as it deserves at this moment. However, when Munro's new book comes out, I plan to look carefully to see if she has tweaked the story (as she often does). I will get back to this when I get the book. on Alice Munro's "Corrie": Secrecy and Point of View
on 10/20/12
As usual, good to hear from you. I am glad you have discovered Valley of Kings. And, of course, Poe has always been a favorite of mine. I tried in my modest little book on Poe to explain how and why he became such a master of the short story. It is surprising just how many authors have been influenced by Poe, don't you think? For example, John Barth has said he owes much to Poe. I think Millhauser is indebted to Poe as is George Saunders. on Terrence Holt's In The Valley of the Kings and Edgar Allan Poe
on 10/20/12
Steve, thanks for this information. I am surprised that "Axis" is not in the collection since it is in the new Best American Short Stories collection. I look forward to reading the two previously unpublished stories. on The Profane and the Sacred: Novel vs. Short Story
on 10/20/12
Thanks very much for this, Sandra. I always appreciate your comments. I am not arguing that the novel never deals with the sacred and the profane, but rather that the short story is, from its very beginning, based on the human encounter with the tension between the sacred and the profane. I think, as opposed to the novel, which is most often focused on social issues, the short story is more often focused on personal spiritual issues. I hope to make this clearer in my book; or I should say, I "must" make this clear in the book. Thanks again. on The Profane and the Sacred: Novel vs. Short Story
on 10/20/12
Thanks for you comment, Carmen. What you would like most in a book such as I am working on is precisely what I hope to make it. I appreciate your reading my blog. on How-to-Read Books and New Book on Reading Short Stories
on 10/20/12
Thanks for your comments, Kelly. And thanks much for checking out my blog. Denis Johnson's collection is an important one, it seems to me. I look forward to hearing from you again. on Denis Johnson's "Emergency": Puzzle the Prof Contest--Short Story Month 2011
on 10/20/12
Love your interpretation. I looked at it from the vantage point of the Vietnam War and the blindness/justification towards it: We killed the mother and saved the children; Neil Young reference/our bumbling about like the incompetent doctor/Fat Quivering Nurse worried only about herself and her family. Will definitely return to this piece again and again, as both a writer and a reader. on Denis Johnson's "Emergency": Puzzle the Prof Contest--Short Story Month 2011
on 10/12/12
Thank you so much for working on this project. As a short story writer, I wanted to give you my input. I think a book that shows general readers (especially those who "prefer novels") how to appreciate short stories is sorely needed. There are plenty of how-to-write books and writing workshops for short story writers. What I would like to see is something I can hand my mother, roommate or ESL student, that will leave them with a better understanding of why the short story can be a fascinating and beautiful form. Selfishly, what I would most like is a book that would help people understand why I love what I read and write. on How-to-Read Books and New Book on Reading Short Stories
on 10/11/12
Charles - not related to your post, but I thought you'd want to know that the table of contents of Munro's "Dear Life" is now visible on (since the Canadian publ. date is earlier than the US one). Fourteen stories, two previously unpublished, and of her recent published work "Axis" (New Yorker, Jan. 2011) is not included. on The Profane and the Sacred: Novel vs. Short Story
on 10/9/12
This is fascinating to me. But in the back of my mind I wonder what you say about the novels of Hilary Mantel in particular the 'who am I' question posed throughout regarding Cromwell. (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) It does seem to me she straddles the novel and short story in how she writes the profane (the historical events) and the sacred (the moral dilemmas and complexities of self). Have I missed the point about this separation of novel and short story? Thank you so much for a unique and outstanding blog. on The Profane and the Sacred: Novel vs. Short Story
on 10/7/12
Just finished In The Valley Of Kings which I would no doubt not have read without having read your post. So thanks for that. I fervently admire Poe's writings (I believe Pym to be as overlooked a masterpiece as overlooked can be), and it was worth reading Holt just to try to pick up the references to different tales. There was some strong Kafka influences in there too. I don't know if it is a novella or short story but the title piece was VERY well constructed, kind of like the Pit and the Pendulum with no way out. Anyway thanks for the recommend and if you know of any other good literature that is similarly Poe-etic, I would be glad to know of it. Personally I think Poe was right, the essential possibility of the short story is to hold it in the mind all at once, that it is short. Just about everything else is more or less true about shorter or longer forms. Des Esseintes or Mersault is as artificial and marginal as Bartleby or Roderick Usher. Oh, by the way, in terms of my on Terrence Holt's In The Valley of the Kings and Edgar Allan Poe
on 10/5/12
Hello, I've just redd Munro's story as appears in the Pen/O. Henry anthology, and the reason I Googled this story (and found your page) is that I wanted to see if anyone had understood the structure as I had. From your discussion, it looks to me as if everyone is unduly simplifying (or complicating?) the terms of what Munro does. That is, everyone accepts implicitly that Corrie's conclusion is correct and is trying to decide if Munro cheated. This seems wrong to me in the first place. The story hinges on how Corrie perceives herself: as damaged, as self-deprecating under "her self-satisfaction, if that's what it was", as "lucky" for whatever scraps she can claim, as precisely the sort of person who deserves to "pay" and be tricked. This doesn't have to be something Howard does to her, although it may work just fine in his favor. Munro tells us that Corrie has come to her conclusion in the night, but Munro doesn't tell us Corrie is correct, nor does she provide evidence that she is. on Alice Munro's "Corrie": Secrecy and Point of View
on 10/1/12
on 9/27/12
Thanks, Sandra. When someone who never reads lit crit finds my own writing helpful, that is about the best complement I could receive. Above all else, I want to be readable and helpful. on Is the Short Story an Obsessive, Unnatural Form?
on 9/25/12
I write and read short stories. I almost never read lit crit but I find that your writing informs my own esthetic for writing as well as reading. I look forward to your upcoming book on Reading the Short Story. on Is the Short Story an Obsessive, Unnatural Form?
on 9/25/12
It is wonderful to come across something brand new. I've been reading Lewis for years but never heard of "On Stories". Thank you for the information! I'm going to begin my search for this book immediately. on C.S Lewis on the Hidden Element in Stories and the Significance of Rereading
on 9/24/12
Thanks for writing, Jay. I too like Richard Yates's stories, although I think he is a better novelist. I have written about his stories and agree that Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is a better collection than Liars in Love. Yates provides me with an interesting opportunity to discuss the problem of "realism" in short stories. I will see if I can find the piece I did a few years ago on Yates's stories. on 200 Short Stories I admire From Boccaccio up to the 21st Century
on 9/21/12
Good to hear from you, Michael. I have listened to David Means' reading of "Chef's House' and his discussion of the story, which I like. I also am a great admirer of Means'stories and have posted more than one blog essay on his work. Glad you agree with me about Toibin, who is a better novelist than a short story writer in my own humble opinion. on Colm Tóibín’s THE EMPTY FAMILY: 2011 Frank O'Connor Short Story Award Shortlist

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

Either I am lax in my attention to the literary genre I have devoted my life to studying, or else the literary lines of communication between the U.S. and other countries--at least concerning the short story—are woefully inadequate.

I have just finished reading Peter Stamm’s new collection of short stories, We’re Flying, and wrote a review of it for Magill’s Literary Annual.  Stamm is a Swiss writer who--sad to say--I had not heard of until I read a short story by him in The New Yorker this past year entitled “Sweet Dreams,” which is included, along with over twenty other stories, in his new book. I cannot duplicate in my blog comments I make in the review for proprietary reasons, but I recommend it to you highly.

A few weeks ago, a marketing assistant at Canada’s Pintail Books asked if I would like to read Canadian writer Zsuzsi Gartner’s new collection of stories entitled Better Living Through Plastic Explosives.  Because the title of the book was in the Subject line, and because--shame on me--I had not heard of it, I almost deleted the email, thinking it was an advert for, yes, you guessed it, plastic explosives.  You never know what someone may be pushing on the Internet these days.

I did a bit of research on Ms. Gartner, and found out--again shame on me—that the collection (her second by the way) was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2011. I told Pintail (which is a Canada Penguin imprint) that I would be happy to read the book. I have just finished reading Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and recommend Ms Gartner to you very highly—especially if you like the kind of satiric short fiction that Donald Barthelme developed in the 60’s and that George Saunders, Rick Moody, and David Foster Wallace have shown to be a lasting part of the short story tradition.

After doing some more research on Ms. Gartner, my admiration for her has grown.  She has said that at its best, the short story is “the greatest genre on earth.”  Echoing Steven Millhauser’s comments a couple of years ago that the short story could contain the universe in a grain of sand, Gartner has said, “A great short story might be small, but it can contain the universe.”  She says that she never forgets that a story is “about its language”—that a sentence can contain a world and that a story should maintain an air of mystery. These are characteristics of the short story I have always espoused and applaud Ms. Gartner for her keen appreciation of the form.

In another interview, Gartner vehemently argues that there is a “stupid” literary bias against the short story, and that she doesn’t understand, “as a reader, let alone as a writer, the reason for it.”  She does, however, suggest that part of the problem of the short story’s failure to sell is that many writers begin writing short stories and then “catapult into novels and then ‘never look back.’”  She says her favorite mantra is “The short story is not a warm-up to the novel.” Amen to that, said the owl-eyed man in a brave voice.

She has also echoed George Saunders’ comments a few years ago about the increasing difficulty of writing satire when so much of the world seems a satire in and of itself.  She notes, like Saunders, that “any day of the week you can randomly open the newspaper or troll about on-line and discover better stuff than you could’ve made up.”

One of my favorite stories in this collection is “Summer of the Flesh Eater,” in which a group of snooty-nosed veggie yuppies living in a north Vancouver cul-de-sac have their “highly civilized” lives challenged by a red-necked steak-on-the-barbecue kind of guy wearing a Brando style wife-beater t-shirt and an old pickup on blocks in the front yard moves in next door. In very precise language (not a sentence wasted), Gartner explores the Darwinian gap between the so-called civilized (have we really evolved very far after all?) and the so-called primitive.  The voice of the narrator, one of the yuppie husbands (do we still call such folks yuppies?) is a comic delight.

Another favorite is “The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion,” in which adopted girls who just want to fit into Canadian society go to war with their white tiger moms who want them to maintain their cultural identity, complete with foot binding. It is a “laugh-with a groan” satire of the multicultural and the melting pot vs. the patchwork quilt.

Also funny is “Someone is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of America.” The title comes from the silly 1976 novel entitled Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe by Nan and Ivan Lyons, in which chefs are killed in the manner of their most famous dish (drowning the lobster chef, for example) and giving the recipe for each killer dish. In Gartner’s take, an assassin determined to wipe out motivational speakers chases one into the wilds where he must try to survive.

Brief and right on the mark is “Floating Like a Goat,” subtitled “Or What We Talk About when we Talk About Art” (the subtitle a take on the same Carver story that Nathan Englander raided last year) about a hyped up mother who writes a rant to her daughter’s art instructor, challenging her that her bad evaluation of her daughter’s work is actually an attack on the nature of art itself.

Gartner says she has no plans to write a novel: “I pack a lot of stuff into my stories, which might be hard to sustain for 300 pages.  I write really densely and I enjoy it.  A novel might be hard for the reader as well—it might be exhausting.”

Yes, indeed, she may be right.  Her careful control of sentences demands close reading. It is the style required of the short story form, but too demanding for the novel.  One reviewer called Gartner the “anti-Munro.”  That’s kind of like calling the Barthelme type story of the sixties “anti-story.” I have to admit that if it comes to choosing between the wonderfully subtle stories of Alice Munro (I just finished reading and writing a review of Dear Life), and the sharply satirical and well-written stories of Zsuzsi Gartner, I must choose Ms. Munro.  But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try to sneak at least one collection by Gartner or Saunders in my backpack. I love writers who love sentences and who love the short story.