Wednesday, January 29, 2014

David Means' "The Mighty Shannon" and Andre's Dubus III's "Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed"

I have long had an uneasy suspicion that really good short stories embody a philosophic, psychological, theological, or interpersonal theme about the complexity of what it means to be a human being—basic, universal issues.  I have talked about the importance of universal theme many times on this blog—indeed every time I have discussed the stories of Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Bernard Malamud, William Trevor, David Means—to mention only a few of the really great short story writers.

One of the differences between really good short stories and merely ordinary short stories, I am convinced, is that "ordinary" short stories and most novels are more concerned with as-if-real characters and events than with  themes, or, if they do seem to be "about" something,  their themes are often obvious and simplistic.

This makes me "uneasy" because it suggests that good short stories make demands on the reader that ordinary short stories and most novels do not—a claim that smacks of elitism and the academic because it suggests that one has to "learn" how to read good short stories, but not how to read ordinary short stories and most novels.  It makes me uneasy because it may cause some readers to huff and sneer that such good stories may be fit only for students and professors in the classroom, not for ordinary people in the real world (whatever that is)

This issue occurred to me again recently when, after reading Andre Dubus III's story, "Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed," in his new book Dirty Love, I read a story by David Means in the February issue of Harper's Magazine entitled "The Might Shannon." Although both stories are ostensibly about one man's attempts to deal with his discovery that his wife is having an affair, I thought Dubus's story was just an ordinary one, that is, a story with an obvious, even simplistic theme; while I thought Means' story was a very good one, that is, a story with a complex philosophical theme about what it universally means to be human.

Now, in all fairness, I have to admit  a predisposition:  I have always admired David Means' stories and have always respected him for remaining staunchly committed to the short story form.  And I must also confess I have always thought Andre Dubus III's fiction was second rate—just ordinary novelistic House of Sand and Fog stuff, casually realistic and carelessly written, about as-if-real characters and interesting plots that not very challenging.

Furthermore, I surely don't have to remind anyone that I am partial to short fictions, much preferring them over long fictions. Dubus's story is a "short novel"—about 25% of his book; whereas Mean's story is a very short story— about five and a half pages in Harper's. And, I would argue ,Dubus's piece is not a tightly woven, thematically dense novella like the classics of the "novella" genre, but rather a "novel" that just happens to be relatively short.

Finally, I have to admit, once again, that I greatly admire writers who love the language and treat it carefully, making it an inextricable part of the narrative, not merely a transparent means by which the narrative jogs realistically along, a clear glass through which to view the world (whatever that is). Given this criteria, there is no doubt in my mind that David Means is a much more scrupulous artist of language than Andre Dubus III.

If all that makes me an effete snob, a dilettante, an ivory tower academic just plain out of touch with the gritty world of everyday reality, one of those ethereal characters who cannot abide Junot Diaz, but loves Henry James—then so be it.

Let me make a few comments about the Dubus story first, for it is fairly easy to dismiss. The central character, Mark Welch, aged 56,, has been married to his wife Laura, also 56) for 24 years.  When he suspects that Laura is having an affair (because one night he senses she holds his testicles as if she is comparing them to someone else's), he hires a detective to make a video of the man treating her to oral sex in a parked car.  Welch forces his wife to watch the video, and makes a wreck of the kitchen when she says he made her do it by always criticizing her. Much of the rest of the story focuses on his alternating between rage and remorse—imagining what his wife has been doing with the man, taking a peek at her email record, planning on how to kill the man, convincing himself that he doesn't care because she has bad breath and has never really been a good cook, having a sexual encounter with another woman, fantasying she will return to the man she has loved all along, etc. etc.—all pretty pedestrian soap opera stuff that goes on and on repetitively and predictably.

In order to provide some motivation for the affair and some opportunity for Mark to reach an inevitable self-recognition, we are given some background to his becoming a successful project manager by being more than a little ruthless and, from his wife's point of view, just plain bossy. In a revelatory confrontation she tells him, "You treat me like I work for you. You always have.  Well I don't work for you all right?"

The story ends with Mark thinking maybe he will apologize to her, make it all up to her, pay more attention to her, let her do whatever she wants.  Standing at the threshold to his home, he hears her footsteps in the entryway: "his heart in his head once again for he did not know if he was even up for any of this, this change from change, the door swinging inward as he straightened, his wife's face lovely and surprised and waiting."

What is this story about?  Well, it is about what many soap operas on television are about.  Nothing more. Simplistic, predictable, pedestrian, ordinary.  On finishing it, a reader might tsk tsk testily at Mark's bossy attitude toward his wife, nod knowingly,  and smile smugly.

David Means does not give a name for the male character in his story; he is simply "I" in this first-person account that begins with a pain in his hips and lower back and shoulders and neck, for which he consults a doctor. The doctor says he needs to look at the man's stress levels, suggesting that it is possible that his musculoskeletal pain is related to his emotional life.  The idea that something inner might be related to something outer is echoed when, standing vulnerable  in his underwear, the man looks out of the examining room window and sees his reflection, "while a barge navigated through his belly and the buildings of Fort Lee, New Jersey, stabbed through his breastbone."

The man thinks a great deal about his condition, just as Mark Welch does in Dubus's story, but he thinks in longer, more complex sentences. For example, after the doctor's tentative diagnosis, he thinks:

"I did not want to acknowledge that one way or another my so-called migrating pain was connected to what was going on at home, not only with Sharon, who at that time was in the middle of her affair with her colleague at the firm, but also with my own thing with Marie, who was at that time my lover but also, in truth, a responsive gesture (as Dr. Haywood would later call it)."

The theme of the relationship between inner and outer is suggested again in the following long, well considered sentence: "Even there on that crinkling sheet of paper, with sweat beading on my brown, listening to Dr. Zuck breathe while the light outside faded and the light inside, fluorescent and shrill, pressed the glass, I had a sense that whatever was going on with my body was eventually going to find a way to relate itself to the extremely tactile facts of my life, my son, the house, the yard, as they, in turn, would relate to vague, nebulous, cloudy sensations that surrounded love, desire, loneliness, need."

Compare this with Dubus's more obvious description of his character considering what to do about his cheating wife:

"Wasn't it time to let her go?  But to allow the question into his head and heart was to allow a black tumor to take residence there where it would grow.  But the only thing growing was this distance between himself and the world he supposedly lived in.  He's become a man things happened to, and he found himself groping for the tools of his work: Risk response and its plans for contingency and mitigation.  The monitoring and controlling of the results of those plans."

The man in Means' story says he is aware of his "predicament as it would unfold in the next few months…until, finally, the story of my pain—as Dr. Haywood would describe it—would merge with the story of my relationship with Sharon and our simultaneous assured destruction in the form of two affairs."  Telling the story years later, he has trouble dividing the blame between himself and his wife, although he knows she betrayed him first and he responded in kind; he does admit, however, because he is the one telling the story, "the whole unseemly thing was ultimately on my shoulders."

One indication of the difference between the level of complexity, both syntactic and psychological, in the two stories, are examples in each of a kind of Henry Jamesian self-reflexive awareness.

When Mean's central character describes an encounter with his son Gunner's Spanish teacher, with whom he later has a brief retaliatory affair, she greets him with "Hey, Gunner's Dad." He avoids mentioning Gunner.  "Looking back, I think that one thing that sparked our relationship was her awareness of my avoidance, and my awareness of her awareness, which fed a mutual effort to keep the two arenas separate, opening up a glorious no-man's land, a pure space, unbinding and wild."

When a woman smiles at Dubus's central character as if she has known him longer than she has, the narrator  says: "This makes him feel comfortable which then makes him uncomfortable for feeling so comfortable."

It just seems to me that the Means double awareness is more complex than the Dubus one.

Midway through "The Mighty Shannon," the narrator/central character enacts a repetition of the inside/outside theme that may be quite familiar to literary readers.  When Marie sneaks over to his house during a lunch break while his wife is not home, we have this passage:

"Inside my house, I felt not only the guilt and fear you'd expect but also the same brooding sense of myself I'd get two years later at our annual holiday cocktail party, standing at the window and looking out at the cold, wintry street while behind me someone shook a shaker with an icy sound like a comet flying through the din of chat, and I stared outside for a few beats beyond civility and felt, behind me, the party I was hosting awaiting my return.  One more man staring out his window feeling the weight of his obligations shove him into a loneliness that was almost, but not quite, beyond comprehension."

Compare Means' passage with this famous account of a man looking out a window at a wintery scene:

"Gabriel's warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window.  How cool it must be outside!  How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park!  The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument.  How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!"

That tapping of Gabriel's trembling fingers is picked up in Joyce's grand final paragraph:

"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight… It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Lest you think this is an accidental echo, Means' central character says he felt the same sensation when he went on a second honeymoon with his wife to Ireland.  Indeed, the title of the story comes from his recalling a third honeymoon when he and his wife cross a bridge over what one of them refers to as "the mighty Shannon."  Joyce's "The Dead" is a classic of the short story genre because it explores the theme of the mystery of the inner life, the secret life, so delicately.  David Means pays a subtle tribute to the story.

Another example of the inside/outside theme occurs when Means' character describes one afternoon when his cell phone rings and he hears his wife's voice as if far off, and he realizes it is a "pocket dial" and that her phone is in her purse.  He hears a giggle that he knows she makes only in response to something said "in the most intimate terms."  He shouts, "Hey, hey, I'm here in your purse, Sharon.  I'm right here in your fucking purse."  He admits that now, years later, he is still ashamed of being privy to a moment of her life from that vantage: "It was as if I'd gone behind her face for a moment and stared out through the bright blood spume of her eyelids."

This is the most crucial example of the inner/outer theme Means creates throughout the story because it suggests that most important ability to empathize with the other—to be able to go out of the self and see as the other sees.  This is, indeed, the heart of "The Mighty Shannon."

The story ends with the central character and his wife Sharon sitting on their back deck with drinks in hand, recalling their meeting with a marriage counselor and laughing at how he had fallen to the floor of the office because of his pain.  He says if you were hiding in a bush near their deck you would hear the "intimate forgiving sound" of Sharon's laugh and his own responsive laugh, an entwined sound that is like a "Bach counterpoint: two themes working together in a helix of motion, twisting around a dark heavenly void that might be where God, if he lives, lives.  Hearing it, you'd be able to tease out the story that had produced the laugh.... If you listened with enough sensitivity, you'd hear in our laughter…the first hint of a playfulness that is, if you're lucky, the wonderful byproduct of forgiveness."

It just seems to me that David Means' story is a better example of the genre than Andre Dubus III's story—more complex, more profound, more subtle, more artistically sound.  The basic theme of the difficulty of moving from the outer of the other person to the inner is an important one, and Means explores it in a style that syntactically matches that complex theme. As in a Henry James story, the reader must listen to the rhythm with enough sensitivity to "tease out the story."

*A footnote here:  In his story "A River in Egypt," in his most recent book The Spot (2010),  the central character Cavanaugh is an assistant art director who has just been dropped from a big budget sci-fi movie because his design was “too real, too clear.” His wife Sharon is a lawyer. His son Gunner must take a test for cystic fibrosis. One of the toys the child plays with is called the Question Cube and one of the questions is “What river is in Egypt?  The Nile? The Hudson? The Thames? Or the Kalamazoo?”  It's a delicate story about a father trying to come to terms with his son’s possibly fatal disease.  The story ends with a moment in which the father, who has been concerned with his own anxiety, shifts to the boy lying in the back seat of the car. The diagnosis is still somewhere off in the future. I don't know if this is an indication that Means is working on a set of linked stories for his next collection.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Samar Farah Fitzgerald's "Where Do You Go?" and Rolf Yngve's "The Quail"--also Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?"

One of the stories in the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories that intrigued me, but that I did not have a chance to discuss in December, is Samar Farah Fitzgerald's "Where Do You Go?"  The story reminded me of another story I once read, which is not unusual, of course. The story I recalled is Rolfe Yngve's "The Quail," which I included in my short story textbook several years ago.

It was not the style of Fitzgerald's story that struck a chord with me, but rather the similarity to Yngve's  basic theme of a young couple coming in contact with, and thus being significantly contrasted with, an older couple.

Yngve's story is quite short—about three pages in my text book anthology--and focuses on a simple object that takes on symbolic significance—the quail of the title. Basically, the story is about a young couple who, during the first spring of their marriage, are visited by eight quail who come to eat in their elderly landlord's garden. They are still within the honeymoon phrase of their relationship, and their life seems quite idyllic.  They feed the quail, while the landlord and his wife rail against them for eating their seedlings. The seasons pass until winter when the quail disappear.  The young husband discovers that the elderly landlord has trapped them and eaten them; he does not tell his wife.

The question that my students and I discussed is whether the story makes effective use of the symbolic object or whether it is a bit too rigged and predictable.  The dichotomies in the story are quite explicit: old couple and young couple, romance and reality, the beautiful and the practical.  The fact that the quail arrive during the first spring of the couple's marriage is sufficient to indicate the symbolic value of the birds. 

The fact that the protagonists are referred to only as "the couple" or "the tenant and his wife," while the antagonists, if such they are, are only called the landlord and his wife is sufficient to indicate the fable-like nature of the story.  The language, with its short simple declarative sentences, also suggest that what we are reading, in spite of the fact that the characters seem "as-if-real," is an illustrative fable, not a realistic story.

Given the fact that the romance of early married life inevitably gives way to the practicality of everyday reality, there is no other way that the story could end than that the quail are transformed from being the symbolic center of a romantic idyll for the young couple to being merely food for the older couple. 

Samar Farah Fitzgerald's "Where Do You Go?" is also about a young couple, Vega and Henry, who, in the spring of their second year of marriage, move out of the city to a house they buy in a neighborhood mainly occupied by elderly couples, widows, and divorcees. The young wife begins taking walks with an old man with emphysema man who smokes cigarettes secretly; the young husband begins do small odd jobs for the old man's wife.

Fitzgerald's story, at eighteen pages, is considerably longer than Yngve's story—the added length creating more of an "as-if-real" quality to the story--in contrast to the fable-like nature of Yngve's story.  But I wonder if this difference in generic style is the only reason that Fitzgerald's story is  so much longer than Yngve's.  It makes me reconsider Chekhov's famous injunction about short stories:  "It is better to say not enough (or too little) than to say too much."  But then, Chekhov added teasingly, "because, because, "I don't know why."  Well, if Chekhov didn't know why, then who does? Even after all these years of studying short stories, I am not sure I do.

The short story, as I have argued many times over the years, is a form that is more often structured by a meaningful theme than by mere mimesis. The form originated as an illustrative fable and, in spite of the Renaissance shift to realism, still has something of the parable about it.  The novel does not have the same heritage and thus, in contrast to the short story's thematic need to be controlled by what Poe called a "single effect," has a tendency to be, what Henry James called, a "loose, baggy monster" (no offense intended).

By this criteria, I ask myself the following questions:  Does a short story have to be limited or controlled or structured around a central theme? Can't it just be about "something that happened"? Can't it just be a story of an event or an action?  Moreover, if it is structured around a central theme or "effect," can it not be "loose" enough to include details that have nothing to do with that central theme?  Can't there just be details that suggest that this is a "real" event, taking place in a "real" world, involving "real" people?

Rolf Yngve's story "The Quail" is so tightly controlled around the theme of young and age, romance and reality, that there is little or nothing in it that is not about that theme.   However, there may indeed be details in Fitzgerald's story that have little or nothing to do with the theme of youth and age.  But, could that not mean that Fitzgerald's story is about more than the theme of youth and age?  Or could it mean that her story is a more complex treatment of that theme than Yngve's?

I think the novelist, faced with the need to write a "long" work, often includes details that just "occur" to him or her at the time—interesting and intriguing, or clever and amusing—but that have little to do with the theme of the story.  This, I would call the "novelistic" temptation.  However, the short story writer more often tries to resist that temptation, ruthlessly cutting out everything that does not seem to advance or explore the significance he or she senses is at the heart of the story.  For example, in Fitzgerald's story the narrator  introduces a bartender who tells Vega about freezing his leg in dry ice so it could be amputated. You can find on line a true story of a man named Baz who did that.  It's a well-known intriguing obsession,  but is it relevant to Fitzgerald's story?

Another aspect of the novelistic temptation is to provide a social/historical/cultural context for the story, as well as a biographical background context for the characters.  For example, Fitzgerald provides a four-page section devoted to the story of how her young couple met and married. We know little of the background of Yngve's couple. Do we need to know the background?  Well, maybe in Fitzgerald's kind of story, we do, but in Yngve's we do not.

Moreover, there is something else going on in Fitzgerald's story.  Since the couple have moved from the city, her young woman has been having "inexplicable episodes of disorientation," which her husband suspects may be panic attacks.  The young husband starts having dreams that he is looking for his wife in "crabby caves under the lake, and he begins to worry that she might indeed disappear someday.  One of the young woman's attacks take place in the supermarket--an attack that brings on the most thematically mysterious sentence in the story: "But it was only a matter of time before that feeling, the knowledge that something was coming for her—and for Henry too, coming for them both—would return."

We don't really know what this ominous sense of the impending means, although the possibility of having a child is suggested, as well as the possibility of falling out of love and the possibility of mortality. The story ends with the couple at a party, when the narrator once again refers to  some inevitable time coming: "It was going to be different for each of them, they both knew that.  Vega would become unreachable, impatient and sullen as a teenager.  Henry would cry and, if his wife was still alive, he'd draw her into his weak arms."

When they go home, they make love, slowly, bringing "each other along."  The next morning, Henry puts his hand on Vega's stomach and "looked at her hopefully.  She nodded 'yes,' although it was impossible to know yet for sure."

"The Quail" is clearly an accessible story; the structure, technique, and meaning are all quite clear.   The question that might be posed is: Are we completely satisfied by a story that is so satisfying?  Or do we prefer a more puzzling story? 

"Where Do You Go?" is a less taut story, more realistic than fable-like, more discursive than economical.  Which is the more complex story?  Is it really better to say too little than too much? Is it necessary to provide a bio-background to the characters in the story? Does a story have to has a theme? 

AT the risk of making these questions all the more difficult to answer, I suggest a third story about a young newly-married couple coming up against the future, challenging the hopeful promise of Browning's "Grow old along with me; the best is yet to be."

"Why Don't You Dance?" the first story in Raymond Carver's controversial collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is characteristic of the qualities of his short fiction at the high point of his career.  The story begins with an unidentified man who has, for some unexplained reason, put all his furniture out on his front lawn.  What makes this event more than just a mundane yard sale is the fact that the man has arranged the furniture just as it was when it was in the house and has even plugged in the television and other appliances so that they work just as they did inside.  The only reference to the man's wife is the fact that the bed has a nightstand and a reading lamp on his side of the bed and a nightstand and reading lamp on "her" side of the bed; this is Carver's typical unstated way of suggesting that the man's marriage has collapsed and that his wife is no longer around.

The story begins its muted dramatic turn when a young couple who are furnishing their first apartment stop by and begin to inspect the furniture.  As the girl tries out the bed and the boy turns on the television, their dialogue is clipped and cryptic, reminiscent of the dialogue of characters in a story a by Ernest Hemingway.  There is something a bit unsettling about watching the young couple try out the man's furniture--the girl lying on the bed, the boy watching television, for it suggests a new story beginning to be enacted on the remnants of an old one.  "I feel funny " the boy says, and well he should as the girl tries to seduce him into this new story in the making. The girl plays the role more willingly, lying on the bed, inviting him, asking him to kiss her; the boy sits up making believe he is watching the television. 

When the man returns from a trip to the store, the dialogue continues in its understated and laconic way as the couple make offers for some of the furnishings and the man indifferently accepts whatever they offer.  The man turns off the TV and tells the girl to pick out a record; but she does not know the names on the labels, for they belong to another milieu than hers.  In the epilogue of the story, weeks later, the girl is telling someone about it, about getting drunk and dancing in the man's driveway.  "She told everyone.  There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out.  After a time, she quit trying."  The story ends with the common short story motif of the ancient mariner, as the girl must tell the story--the manifestation of the repetition compulsion--over and over again until it can be, if not understood, at least integrated. 
The story is an embodiment of the way that modern short fiction since Chekhov has attempted to embody inner reality by simply describing outer reality.  By placing all his furniture on his front lawn, the man has externalized what has previously been hidden inside the house.  When the young couple arrive, they embody the ritual process of replacement of the older man's lost relationship with the beginnings of their own, creating their own relationship on the remains of the man's.  However, the story is not a hopeful one, for the seemingly minor conflicts the dialogue reveals between the two young people--his watching television and her wanting him to try the bed; her wanting to dance and his drinking--presage another doomed relationship just like the one that has ended.  Indeed, there is more to it, as the girl senses, but she cannot quite articulate the meaning of the event, can only, as storytellers must, retell it over and over again, trying to get it talked out and intuitively understood.

It's a puzzling story, probably made all the more puzzling by Gordon Lish's cut-and-slash editing—a story that truly challenges Chekhov's dictum about brevity.

I would be glad to hear from any of my readers about these issues—especially Rolf Yngve and Samar  Farah Fitzgerald.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


James Doyle of London's Turnpike Books was kind enough to send me an attractive paperback edition of selected short stories by the great A.A. Coppard entitled Weep Not My Wanton. The collection contains only seven stories, but they are fine examples of Coppard's subject and style.  In addition to the title story, the book includes "Dusky Ruth," "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me," "The Higgler," "The Wife of Ted Wickham," "The Watercress Girl," and "The Field of Mustard."  In America, Amazon has it listed at $7.99; in the UK, Amazon prices it at £6.93.

I have read Coppard before, of course, but was happy to read these stories once again. I especially enjoyed the controlled and scrupulous rhythm of his sentences, even when his lyricism borders on the self-conscious. Take this opening of the title story: "Air and light on Sack Down at summer sunset were soft as ointment and sweet as milk…watching the silken barley moving in its lower fields with the slow movement of summer sea, reaching no harbour, having no end."

I especially enjoyed the poetic control of Coppard's language after having just finished reading Andre Dubus III's new collection of four novellas entitled Dirty Love, the style of which which I found loose and lazy 

Similes may be just a matter of taste, or they may be a matter of appropriate tone, but I prefer the Coppard images cited below to those of Dubus. The danger of the simile beast is that if you push them too far, the comparison overwhelms the original. I wonder what you think:


"Thoughts and images went flowing through him as easily and amiably as fish swim in their pools, and as idly too."
"The clock ticked almost as if it had been caught in some indecent act."
"She looked at him as uncomprehendingly as a mouse might look at a gravestone."
"Beautiful she was: red hair, a complexion like the inside of a nut."

"his heart kicking like a hanged man's feet"
"two cans of coke lie on their side like forgotten children"
"the vodka going into Mark like a mildly dangerous thought he ignores"
"Her tongue darts in and out of his mouth like a nurse tending to many patients at once."

Any suggestions as to which of the following is the most effective and why?

"A small scarlet notice to stone-throwers was prominent as a wound." (Coppard)
"The spartan light on the screen was like the parting of a wound." (Dubus)

The most common critical comment made about the stories of Coppard, one of the few British writers of his generation to  remain dedicated to the short story, was that his stories combine two conflicting aspects: realism and simple earthiness on the one hand, and fairy tale fantasy and formal  sophistication on the other.  H. E. Bates, who said that  in Coppard,  there existed a “strange battle between tale-telling at its simplest and tale-telling at its most sophisticated,” complained that the second type overwhelmed the first in Coppard’s stories, resulting in stories that were too carefully elaborated. 

“The Field of Mustard,” often said to be Coppard's finest story, is a good example of the kind of combination of realism and lyricism that placed him within the tradition of Guy de Maupassant. It is also the best example of what Frank O’Connor called Coppard's “inner compulsion” to write one kind of story over and over again, the story in which the motivation is given by some woman’s secretiveness.” Centering on the seemingly simple conversation between two peasant women, Coppard uses repetitive imagery of the natural world and the inevitability of death to make this a meditation on lost possibilities, fatalistic foreboding, and unspeakable desires. 

Bates goes on to say that behind Coppard’s insistence that he writes not stories but tales lies the “theory that the art of telling stories, since it originates by the primitive camp-fires of unread peoples far back in time, is an oral and not a written one.” He argues that  such a method of tale-telling, "having much in common with folk-lore, local legend, and the spoken parable would depend for its effect largely on pictorial simplicity, the use of homely metaphor, and the entire absence of literary language.”

Bates claims that “unfortunately for Coppard’s theory his work shows the strongest signs—increasing rather than decreasing as time goes on—that he is in reality a very literary writer, influenced in turn by other very literary writers, notable Henry James.”
Thus, Coppard’s work is corrupted by sophistication. Bates complains that Coppard’s stories have the effect of being the product of an “arts-and-crafts shop, in which apparent spontaneity is in reality studied. 

This, of course, is a common complaint about the short story. I suspect that the  2013 Best American Short Stories collection, which, as a great admirer of the short story form, I enjoyed a great deal, will not be liked by many readers who are more comfortable with the more realistic style of the novel. The stories in the new BASS may be just too "short storyish" for many.

Frank O’Connor says that although Coppard knew Chekhov and Maupassant backward and forward, he “never settles for one convention rather than the other, or indeed for any convention other than his own need to grip the reader by the lapel and make him listen.  As a result, his formal range is remarkable—greater I should say than that of any other storyteller.”

Coppard believed that the closer the modern short story remained to the oral tradition the more acceptable it was.  However, influenced by Henry James, he insisted that the story neither have the ragged edge of reality or the informal tone of a careless teller, but rather that it be controlled by unity and completeness of contour.

In It’s Me, O Lord, Coppard says he “envisaged the short story as a work of literary perfection, supreme though small, a phoenix, a paragon…. I felt that it was my mÄ—tier, and that I could give it a significant setting, gold maybe, and adorn it with gems, a creation to be treasured.”

If you have not read Coppard, Weep Not My Wanton would be a fine introduction.  "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me" is a magical delight.  The title comes from a child's verbal game that goes, as I recall from my own childhood: "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me went down to the river to bathe; Adam and Eve got drowned. Who do you think was saved?"  Of course, when the respondent says, "Pinch Me," the teller does so, although, we trust, ever so gently. It is a nice example of reality intruding on fantasy, or else fantasy becoming reality.  And this is what the story is about also. If you have not read it, I won't spoil it for you.

"The Higgler" is a realistic story with some inevitable Coppard fairy tale element, in which the fear of craft combined with the reticence of innocence make for wrong choices. As in many Coppard stories, death always hovers in the background.  Similarly, "The Watercress Girl" is a spoiled romance that may or may not be ultimately redeemed.

I thank James Doyle for sending me this book and sending me back to Coppard.  I recommend it to you highly.