Monday, December 21, 2009


Alice Munro once insisted, “I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a short story.” On another occasion, she used a metaphor to describe this short-story excitement. “I can get a kind of tension when I’m writing a short story, like I’m pulling on a rope and I know where the rope is attached. With a novel, everything goes flabby.” Munro says she doesn’t seem to be able to write in any other way. “I guess that’s why I don’t write a novel. God knows I still keep trying. But there always comes a point where everything seems to be getting really flat. You don’t feel the tension…I don’t feel this pulling on the rope to get to the other side that I have to feel.” Munro added, “People have suggested this is because I want to be able to manage everything and that I fear loss of control…. I have to agree that I fear loss of control. But I don’t think it’s anything as simple as that.”

Munro has said that when she reads a story she does not take it up at the beginning and follow it like a road “with views and neat diversions along the way.” Rather, for her, reading a story is like moving through a house, making connections between one enclosed space and another. Consequently, Munro declares, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.” She admits that the word “feeling” is not very precise, but that if she tries to be more intellectually respectable she will be dishonest. Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood.” “What I like is not to really know what the story is all about. And for me to keep trying to find out.” What makes a story interesting, she says, is the “thing that I don’t know and that I will discover as I go along.

I have written about Munro in more detail in another place, especially the common critical view (mistaken, I think) that Munro’s stories are “novelistic’ (“Why Does Alice Munro Write Short Stories?” Wascana Review 38 (2003): 16-28. I did a blog entry on the story “Wenlock Edge” in this new collection last February). I will thus only raise one issue about this new book—the thematic significance of the title, which originated with Munro’s discovery of the 19th-century Russian mathematician and novelist Sophia Kovalevsky while looking for something else in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The title story focuses on the last few days before Kovalevsky died of pneumonia contracted during a cold wet trip from Paris to Stockholm, where she held a chair in mathematics, the first woman to hold such a professorship in European history. Kovalevsky’s seemingly contradictory talents led Munro to a biography by Don H. Kennedy and his wife entitled Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky (1983), which quotes Kovalevsky’s last words at four o’clock in the morning on February 10, 1891: “Too much happiness.” Kovalevsky has been looking forward to the future, having received recognition for her work in an era when woman were not thought to be capable of higher mathematical thinking. She is also happily anticipating her forthcoming marriage to Maxsim Kovalesky, a distant relation and a professor of law--a great bear of a man who offers her comfort and security. Although the title of the story may suggest that Kovalevsky has so much happiness her death is a tragedy, it also may suggest her acceptance of the fact that happiness cannot be separated from unhappiness.

Indeed, the inextricability of happiness and unhappiness may be the thematic web that Munro weaves throughout many of the stories in this collection, especially since several reviewers have already suggested that there is much more violence in these stories than in Munro’s previous work: Two young girls murder an abhorred playmate; a man kills his children because he thinks his wife has walked out on him; a woman dying of cancer is threatened in her home by a man who has murdered his family. However, in keeping with the theme of “too much happiness,” or happiness bound up with unhappiness, the horror in these stories is often balanced by some compensatory acceptance. For example in “Dimensions,” although the central character’s insane bullying husband has killed their children, she understands that he knows their life and their children better than anyone else and goes to visit him in an asylum. Moreover, the story ends with a random rescue and a kind of personal salvation that seems somehow poetically just.

“Free Radicals” is also about a bittersweet confrontation that ends with poetic justice. The central character who has cancer and whose husband has recently died, has her home invaded by a man who shows her pictures of his parents and sister that he has recently murdered. In spite of the fact that she knows the cancer will kill probably her, she clings to life and tries to gain the intruder’s sympathy by telling him how she has been guilty of a crime in her past. However, the story is a lie, a fiction in which she takes on the role of her husband’s wronged first wife who is going to poison the other woman. Telling her that what he did was not so underhanded as what she did, the murderer leaves, only to be killed in a car accident.

Although in the last forty years the short story has been characterized first by experimentation and then by attenuation, Alice Munro has continued to go her own way, so confident of the nature of the short story and her control of the form that she needs to observe no trends nor imitate no precursors.

ore polished and profound than she has ever been, Alice Munro is the preeminent practitioner of the short story--and one of the most brilliant writers in any genre—in the world today. If there is any justice and judgment in matters literary, she should redeem the short story from its second-class status single-handedly.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Best Short Story Collections for 2009

It’s that time again, when the scramble to sell dominates the Christian world. And, of course, the diminishing world of books is no exception. It is no accident that struggling newspapers provide lists of “Best” books surrounded by ads for books and bookstores. What more respectable gift to give than a book? It shows you know some stuff, right? And what are the best books to give? Well, if you do not know enough stuff, you surely cannot go wrong if you choose books that The New York Times calls “Notable” or “Best,” that The LA Times calls “Favorite,” and that the San Francisco Chronicle calls its “Gift Guide.” Here is a summary of some of the most influential lists of short story collections of 2009. Of course there were more novels than short story collections on all the lists, but, as you can see, over a dozen short story collections got good reviews and made the important “buy me! buy me!” lists for the end of the year.

I love the short story and want to encourage readers to read the form. However, I must admit, I cannot see how some of the following can be called “Best,” although they might be called “Favorite.” I have referenced those collections that I have commented on in previous blogs if you are interested. But in short, the three I most agree on as being “Best” are Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson, Once the Shore by Paul Yoon, and Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. I do not for the life of me understand how anyone could place Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry, Jay McInerney’s How It Ended, and Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned in lists of the Best of 2009.

New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2009

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, Maile Meloy
Do Not Deny Me, Jean Thompson
Don’t Cry, Mary Gaitskill
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower
How It Ended, Jay McInerney
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin
Love and Obstacles, Aleksandar Hemon
My Father’s Tears, John Updike
Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro
Nothing Right, Antonya Nelson
Once the Shore, Paul Yoon
Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro

That’s a good dozen. Not a bad showing for the short story this year. Of the twelve, one made it to the Top Ten List: Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It.
Michiko Kakutani put Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned on the top ten, and Janet Maslin put Jay McInerney’s How It Ended on her top ten. Can that be right? God help us!

Los Angeles Times Favorite Books of 2009

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, Maile Meloy
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
It’s Beginning to Hurt, James Lasdun
Love in Infant Monkeys, Lydia Millet
Once the Shore, Paul Yoon
The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro

San Francisco Gift Guide for 2009

Best American Short Stories: 2009
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard
John Cheever’s Collected Stories
Raymond Carver’s Collected Stories
My Father’s Tears, John Updike
Best American Mystery Stories
Detective Stories

Atlantic Books of the Year 2009

It’s Beginning to Hurt, James Lasdun

Atlantic Runners up 2009

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro

Boston Globe

Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard
Look at the Birdie, Kurt Vonnegut
Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro

Christian Science Monitor

The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Library Journal

It’s Beginning to Hurt, James Lasdun

Kansas City Star

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin
Love and Obstacles, Aleksandar Hemon
The Maple Stories, John Updike
Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro

I have commented on the following collections on previous blog postings:

Don’t Cry, Mary Gaitskill, June 27 blog
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, March 24 blog
How It Ended, Jay McInerney, August 14
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin, February 13 blog
Love and Obstacles, Aleksandar Hemon, April 27 blog
Nothing Right, Antonya Nelson, January 29 blog
Once the Shore, Paul Yoon, November 23 blog

I have just finished reading Alice Munro’s new book Too Much Happiness and will post a blog on it next week.

I have not had a chance to read the following from 2009, but plan to read them in the next few weeks and post some thoughts on them:

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, Maile Meloy
Do Not Deny Me, Jean Thompson
It’s Beginning to Hurt, James Lasdun
Best American Short Stories: 2009

I have not forgotten that I have still not got around to commenting on three books from the 2008 lists, but I will try to get to them in the next couple of months.

Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollack
The Boat, Nam Le
Yesterday’s Weather, Ann Enright

Merry Christmas to all my readers.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Paul Yoon's ONCE THE SHORE, a "Best Book" for 2009

Paul Yoon’s debut collection of stories, Once the Shore, is one of two short story collections to get on Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Books of 2009. (The other one, which made to the top ten list, is In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. See my blog entries on Feb. 10 and Feb 13, 2009.) Yoon, a Korean American, was born in New York City. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Wesleyan University. He currently lives in Boston. Two of his stories have been chosen for The Best American Short Stories: 2006 and The Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories: 2009. His book, which came out in April, 2009, was not widely reviewed, but received favorable reviews in some good places: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe.

I read Once the Shore recently and recommend it to you. All the stories take place on an island, which Yoon names Solla, based on the actual island Cheju, which is sixty miles south of the Korean mainland; approximately forty miles long and twenty miles wide. Yoon has said that although a sense of place is very important to him, when he had finished Once the Shore he realized that he had changed everything about the island—geography, events, history—and that the stories were not about Cheju at all. Yoon has also said that he was most interested in exploring the effect of outside forces invading an isolated environment and changing people’s lives on the island between the military occupation following World War II and its present reincarnation as a visa-free tourist destination.

However, Yoon’s wonderfully lyrical stories are no more about Cheju/Solla Island than Sherwood Anderson’s stories are about Winesburg/Clyde, Ohio, nor are they any more about the social effects of the military occupation of Korea than Turgenev’s stories in Sportsman’s Sketches are about the social suppression of the serfs by the Russian nobility. Stories have to take place somewhere, of course, and they often have to have some sort of recognizable social context. But those requirements may be more necessary corollaries than fictional focus.

If the Irish short-story writer Frank O’Connor were still alive, he would point to Once the Shore as an exemplum of his theory that the short story as a genre most often deals with what he called “a submerged population group,” (not to be confused with the current politically correct “diversity”) and that it most often focuses on human loneliness.

Paul Yoon’s book is not a social document, nor a “story cycle” parading as a socio-realistic “composite novel,” but rather a collection of self-sufficient, independent stories about individual human complexity in the tradition of other great short-story writers such as Turgenev, Chekhov, William Trevor, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, and Alistair Macleod. Mind you, I am not saying Yoon is an equal to that exalted group of short story masters, but he is a sensitive, knowledgeable, and talented student of their tradition.

I am sure Yoon knows these great writers. He mentions MacLeod’s Island as one of his favorite books. And anybody who recognizes what a great short story writer MacLeod is already has my attention. The tradition within which Yoon has expertly placed himself might be called “lyrical realism.” It was pioneered by those two great Russians, Turgenev and Chekhov. When you read a story in this tradition, you begin moving confidently along as if you were living in the real world, made up of concretely detailed objects, inhabited by fully rounded characters who seems like people you might actually know. However, as you read, you begin to experience a sense of an alternate reality that is not made up of “stuff that happens,” but rather made up of words, sentences, rhythms, metaphors, fantasy, fairy tale, formality, tone, meaning, significance. Events in such stories may seem to be events that happen in the world of everyday reality, but at any moment, with a subtle shift, events unfold that can only happen in the world of wish or fear. However, by this time, you have been so gradually captured by the rhythm and tone of the story’s language that you will accept anything.

Take the title story of Yoon’s collection, his first published work, chosen for the 2006 Best American Short Stories. The story takes an actual historical event, the 2001 Ehime Maru incident, in which a Japanese fishery school training vessel was sunk by the U.S. nuclear submarine USS Greeneville, killing nine Japanese fishermen, and shifts it from the coast of Hawaii to the coast of Korea, the locale of his fictional island Solla. Changing the drowned Japanese to Korean, Yoon tells the story of a twenty-six-year old waiter at one of the island’s resort hotels, whose brother is killed in the accident. Against this story of loss, he balances the story of an American woman in her sixties visiting the resort whose husband has only been dead a few months. She tells the waiter how her husband, stationed in the South Pacific during the War, came to the island on a furlough and carved a heart with their initials in a cave on the island. Although she gradually realized that her husband had lied about this, she wants to locate the cave to somehow find the husband who left her to go to war but never really returned the same man.

The young waiter is also seeking some sort of reconciliation; he is figuratively looking for the mythical center of the ocean that his brother had once told him they could find together. When he takes the woman to the caves, he thinks it is possible that this island, his home, is that center of the ocean. After serving her a special communal meal, he takes her into a cave, where with a sharp stone she begins carving on the wall a design that he thinks could be the words of a language “long forgotten.”

Yoon delicately weaves the two disparate stories together, and the finished fabric gives us a completely unified tapestry that reminds us that although we are ultimately alone, there is always the possibility of finding others who share our loneliness—a discovery that, paradoxically, unites us in the great web of human experience.

In Yoon’s stories, it is not merely plot, as-if-real characters, a real place, or a social/historical context that achieves this, but rather the rhythm and tone of a sensitive storyteller using language to create an alternate world that objectifies our deepest wishes and our profoundest fears.

Once the Shore, published by Sarabande Books, is available in paperback. Buy yourself a copy for Christmas. I think you will agree it is a paradigm of the short story as a beautiful form.

Monday, November 16, 2009

First Anniversary of "Reading the Short Story"

Today, November 16, 2009, marks the one-year anniversary of Charles May’s blog “Reading the Short Story.” It was one year ago today that, calling myself a “cheerleader for the short story,” I announced my intention to write a blog in which, on a regular basis, I would post comments about reading and studying the short story, a form that I taught and wrote about for forty years before I retired four years ago from California State University, Long Beach.

In the past year, I have written sixty blog posts for this site, most of them fairly substantial discussions of new short story collections, individual short stories, and other matters of note to those interested in the short story as a form. Although I have not always succeeded, I have tried to focus on significant theoretical and generic issues, using individual collections and stories as examples of those issues.

I do not have a counter for this blog, but noticed this morning that the counter that ticks off those who have visited my user profile turned over to 1,000. I don’t know what this means. I really do not know how many people have visited the blog occasionally or how many read it regularly, although I do have twenty-eight “followers,” whatever that means.

One writes to be read, so I am grateful to those who read this blog regularly and who stumble on it while doing a Google search. I am especially grateful to those who take the time to write comments. I have tried to respond to every comment I have received, and I will continue to do so. I started the blog as a means by which I could engage in dialogue with other short story fans about the form that we love. The one thing I miss most since my retirement is the opportunity to talk “with,” not “to,” others about short fiction. However, as it was in the classroom, if my love of the short story became more a monologue than a dialogue, so be it. If no one responds to my remarks, I will still continue writing them.

I started the blog as a stimulus to myself—something to keep me reading, not aimlessly, but with a purpose—something to keep me writing, not carelessly, but with care. That seems to have worked for me. I feel compelled to write at least one blog entry a week, which means that I must continue reading new short stories, continue keeping up with what others are saying about the short story, and continue thinking about the unique characteristics of the form that make it, in my opinion, more aesthetically and psychologically complex and interesting than the novel.

Because there has been some publicity recently about bloggers receiving rewards for publicizing certain products—so-called “Mom” bloggers who get junkets and goodies—I thought I should state here quite emphatically that I receive no rewards from publishers for my comments about new collections of short stories. I do write occasional reviews for reference works and newspapers, for which I receive a copy of the book—either from the publisher or the publication where the review appears. And yes, I do receive a modest check for the published review. And yes, I do also comment on the book on this blog if it is of theoretical or critical interest. But I always read the stories I write about carefully, and at least twice, and I always try to provide a fair and well-considered evaluation. The only thing I wish to "promote" is getting more people to read and appreciate short stories. Wryly, I might add, no one should worry that anyone will try to "buy" my favor. The short story is just not a commercial commodity worth the seller's trouble.

On a personal note, I have commented occasionally that although I do not often read novels, I do “listen” to them on my daily morning walks with our dog Shannon. Today, the first birthday of this blog, is also the 15th birthday of Shannon. I just finished listening to, of all things, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” a book I had not read in fifty years, a book that came out when I was sixteen and which I thought was the true document of my generation.

When I was in undergraduate school, I wrote a column for my college newspaper in which I paraded as a “Beatnik” kind of guy; it was accompanied by a drawing a friend of mine did of me in a beret, with a pointy goatee, and a set of bongo drums between my knees. There are probably some books we read in our youth that we should never read again. Instead of nodding sagely this time as I listened to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity pontificate about being beat and hip, I chuckled. Instead of longing to hit the road with my gang, picking up cool chicks and drinking lots of beer, I tsk tsked at the juvenile antics and irresponsibility of Kerouac and Cassidy and the rest.

I grow old . . .I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

In three months, I will be sixty-nine. I trust that in a year from now, as I near seventy, I will still be writing this blog, still reading short stories, still urging others to read them, still writing about them, still listening to novels on my walks with Shannon. It is less a walk than an amble now, taking twice as long to cover half the distance we used to cover. But Shannon still explores the world around her, sniffing for scents that she has somehow missed on her many journeys. I do not get impatient. I understand. I do the same.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Praise for the Short Story in the Wall Street Journal: Will Wonders Never Cease?

“When Brevity is a Virtue,” an article by Alexandra Alter in today’s Wall Street Journal, (Nov. 13, 2009; online at throws a welcome new spotlight on the short story by noting that the form seems poised this fall to get its due with new collections from Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ha Jin.

Alter rightly points out that when great short stories are praised for having “novelistic” qualities, it is a subtle disparagement, instructing us that the novel is the highest literary achievement.

Alter suggests that changing technology and reading habits are giving the short story a boost, as readers discover the form in online literary journals and download short stories to their ipods and e-readers.

However, the article also reminds us of the prevailing opinion among agents and publishers that short stories do not sell. The fact that Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge has sold 472,000 copies after winning the Pulitzer is, according to these Nay Sayers, an anomaly. And Alice Munro’s winning the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for the body of her work is because, well, “She’s Alice Munro, and by the way, why the hell doesn’t she write a novel?” Reviewers forgive her by claiming that her stories are “novelistic.” Munro’s editor Ann Close is quoted by Alter as saying that the precision and vigor of Munro’s plotting and prose allows her to pack as much into her stories as many novels contain. Pack what stuff?

Munro’s new collection, Too Much Happiness, has been out in Canada and the United Kingdom for the past three months and will be released by Knopf in the U.S. next week. The Los Angeles Times published a review of the book this past Sunday, Nov. 8. All the stories have been published previously, mostly in The New Yorker and Harper’s, and I have read them as they have appeared. On a previous blog, I talked a bit about one of the stories, “On Wenlock Edge.”

I will post a blog on Too Much Happiness in a couple of weeks when I get the book and have had a chance to make sure that Munro has not changed the stories since their original publication in magazines. I will try to make some sense out of the frequent, somewhat disparaging claim that Munro’s stories are like novels, an accusation she knows very well, as evidenced by this wry comment from the story “Fiction” in her new collection:

“A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”

None of the short story Nay Sayers can say that Alice Munro is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, not even Oprah, who has said she does not like short stories because she “wants more.” Desiring quantity rather than quality is an Oprah problem that I wish she would not impose on the thousands of her book club members.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Oprah Finally Chooses a Collection of Short Stories for her Book Club

On one of her recent video blogs, Oprah pronounced vigorously (and the thousands of her book club members must have nodded their heads in agreement) “I don’t like short stories. I am not a fan of short stories. They leave me wanting more.”

However, she did finally choose a short story collection, and thousands of her book club members rushed to Amazon and Costco to buy it. As usual with the TV cultural Diva’s book choices, it landed on several bestseller lists and jumped up high on Amazon’s sales list. Today, it was # 31, and there were seventy rave “reviews” of the book from Amazon customers.

The book is Say You’re One of Them, by the Nigerian-born Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan, a collection of two novellas and three short stories, about the horrors of street life and genocide in Africa, as experienced by children. “What Language is That?” is the story of a 6-year-old girl who is forbidden to associate with her “Best Friend” because of “faith differences.” In “Ex-mas Feast,” a Kenyan boy, age 8, tells of his 12-year-old sister’s work as a prostitute to help support her family. In “Luxurious Hearses,” a teenage Muslim boy tries to get out of northern Nigeria on a busload of Christians heading south. In “Fattening for Gabon,” a 10-year-old boy and his sister are sent to live with his uncle, who wants to sell them to human traffickers. “My Parents Bedroom” is told by a 9-year-old girl whose Hutu father kills her Tutsi mother.

Oprah has raved about the book on her show and her video blogs, and, although I have always resented the weight Oprah has in influencing the sales of books, I am happy that she has finally chosen a collection of short stories. I just wish they had been better short stories.

In my opinion, Akpan is a capable writer. He is from a southern Nigerian village, but his parents were educated teachers, and he learned English early and grew up reading Shakespeare and the Brontes. He is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, and his first published story, “An Ex-Mas Feast” appeared in the “Debut Fiction” issue of The New Yorker on June 13 & 20, 2005. He has, what Alan Cheuse called in the Chicago Tribune, a “translucent style,” a straightforward, clear style that does not draw attention to itself as either lyrical or sentimental, but serves as a fairly clear glass through which one witnesses horrors of poverty, ignorance, and intolerance.

The issue Akpan’s stories raise for me is that of “mind vs. heart.” I think Cheuse is right when he says that the stories “nearly render the mind helpless and throw the heart into a hopeless erratic rhythm out of fear, out of pity, out of the shame of being only a few degrees of separation removed from these monstrous modern circumstances.”

I don’t really want my mind rendered helpless when I read, and I distrust fiction that, sans mind, tries to get to my “heart,” a word that I reserve for the mindless pump that a surgeon laid bare a couple of years ago to perform for me a triple bypass. “Heart” is a word that Oprah, on her show and video blogs, uses easily and frequently. She recently said that Akpan’s “Ex-Mas Feast” "opened her heart."

And the seventy or so readers who have posted their comments on proclaim that their hearts also have been opened. If Say You’re One of Them does anything to make people more aware of the horrors of life in much of Africa, because of poverty and murderous intolerance, I applaud the book as a valuable social document. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a valuable social document; that does not make it a valuable work of literature.

The most thoughtful review I have read of Akpan’s book is by Charles Taylor in The New York Times. Akpan has said in an interview that the world is not looking at the miseries in Africa. Taylor agrees, but adds, “looking isn’t enough for art.”
I quote below the last paragraph of Taylor’s review:

“For some, the impulse to repel will be seized on as proof of the importance and power of Akpan’s writing. Aesthetic judgments are usually the first casualty when any writer addresses a humanitarian disaster, and it would be silly to deny that sometimes a writer’s moral urgency can render aesthetic judgment beside the point. Still, though it seems self-evident, importance of subject matter does not equal quality of execution. No matter how much Akpan particularizes his characters’ plights—a one-handed Muslim boy trying to hide his identity from a busload of Christians; a 10-year-old and his sister being readied for slavery or worse; a Rwandan girl watching the madness that overcame her country invade her house—they remain little more than stand-ins for the suffering millions. They are not just marked by their suffering; they are nothing more than their suffering, and therefore on some basic level they are faceless. Humanist empathy devoid of the distinctly human is finally not art but merely grim reportage.”

A webcast with Oprah and Uwem Akpan is scheduled for Mon. Nov. 9 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time. You can find it on Oprah’s website.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Orhan Pamuk: A Chapter in a Novel is not Necessarily a Short Story

Orhan Pamuk, the first Turk to win the Nobel Prize (2006), has a new novel released this week, The Museum of Innocence, translated by Maureen Freely, published by Knopf. Favorable reviews appeared today (Oct. 21) in The Los Angeles Times and yesterday in The Washington Post.

I have no intention of commenting on the novel, for I have not read it, but I do want to make a few comments about a chapter that appeared in the Sept. 7, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, entitled “Distant Relations.” According to Marie Arana in the Post and Tim Rutten in the Times, The Museum of Innocence is a “spellbinding, engrossing, mesmerizing” story of a romantic/erotic obsession. The story in The New Yorker is about the beginnings of that obsession.

Kemal, a 30-year old bachelor, is engaged to a woman named Sibel. Both are of the same class, urbane, educated, and sophisticated. American educated, Kemal lives with his parents in a wealthy neighborhood.

The story begins with this sentence: “The series of events and coincidences that would change my entire life began on April 27, 1975, when Sibel happened to spot a purse designed by the famous Jenny Colon in a shop window as we were walking along Valikonagi Avenue, enjoying the cool spring evening.”

When Kemal goes into the shop the next day to buy the purse for Sibel, he encounters an 18-year-old girl, named Fusun, who he recognizes as a poor “distant relation.” He is immediately attracted to her: “I felt my heart rise into my throat, with the force of an immense wave about toe crash against the shore.”

As usual with such fascinations, it is something inexplicably physical: “My eyes traveled from her empty shoe over her long bare legs. It wasn’t even May yet, and they were already tanned.” “With slender dexterous fingers, [she] removed the balls of crumbled tissue paper.” “I was admiring her honey-hued arms and her quick elegant gestures.” As Kemal leaves the shop, he pauses for a moment: “My ghost had left my body and was now, in some corner of Heaven, embracing Fusun and kissing her.”

Also, as is usual in such fascinations, what Kemal sees in Fusun is himself. When he must take the purse back because his fiancĂ© says it is a fake, he “cannot deny the startling truth that when I looked at Fusun I saw someone familiar, someone I felt I knew intimately. She resembled me…I felt I could easily put myself in her place, could understand her deeply.”

When Fusun begins to cry about the returned purse, he holds her, “which made my head spin. Perhaps it was because I was trying to suppress my desire, stronger each time I touched her, that I conjured up the illusion that we had known each other for years.”

However, “Fearful of the sexual beast now threatening to rear its head, I took my hand from her hair.” However, he does not leave the store until he has figured out a way to meet her later in an unoccupied apartment owned by his mother. “Back in the street, my shame and guilt mixed with so many images of bliss in the unseasonable warmth of that April afternoon that the very sidewalks of Nisantasi seemed aglow with a mysterious yellow.”

The story ends with Kemal’s mother pressing the key to the apartment in his hand, giving him a look like the one she gave him as a child, warning him that “life held unsuspected dangers that were far deeper and more treacherous than, for instance, failing to take proper care of a key.”

According to the reviews of this book, which I will probably never read, Kemal “takes” Fusion’s virginity and begins an affair with her. However, Fusun does not love Kemal and marries an unsuccessful art film writer. Kemal’s obsession becomes more intense. He loses Sibel to another man and begins stalking the neighborhood where Fusun and her husband live, stealing cigarette butts, underwear, bits of jewelry, and keeping them in the apartment where they had first had sex—which, of course, becomes his “Museum of Innocence.”

Well, being the irredeemable romantic that I am, I love novels of romantic/erotic obsession. At the top of my list of favorite novels are Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. However, it seems to me that for such an obsessive novel to succeed, it has to be consummately written. It has to be miraculous in its style. For it is its style that “mesmerizes,” not its mere story, which can so easily devolve into the merely sentimental. I realize that quoting passages out of context, as I have above, can be misleading. But I just cannot take a man who talks the way Kemal does seriously. The language just does not create a world that makes the story transformative.

As I have argued many times in this blog, it is much easier to forgive careless writing in a novel than it is in a short story. Reading a novel, (Lord knows there is so much of it) one can certainly get caught up in the mere plot or an obsessive character and be “carried away” or “mesmerized,” as the reviewers in the LA Times and the Washington Post seem to have been, ignoring stylistic infelicities, easy sentimentalities, and phrases that could have used another rewrite.

Stylistically, structurally, and thematically, the fragment of Pamuk’s new novel that appeared recently in The New Yorker makes a poor short story. Stylistically, it is casual and careless. It includes long passages about the nature of Fusun’s “distant relation” to Kemal that are not relevant to the fragment. It focuses on a central event—the purchase and return of the ostensibly fake purse—that has not significance except to make possible the initial meeting of Kemal and Fusun—which could have been accomplished in many other ways with absolutely no loss of thematic significance.

I have no objection to writers publishing sections of upcoming novels in The New Yorker. It is a great way to “double dip” into the meager pot of money that writers must scrabble for. I just wish The New Yorker would not call them short stories. I just finished “listening to” Louise Erdrich’s Plague of Doves (As you might recall, I seldom “read” novels, but listen to them on my Ipod as I take my morning walk, accompanied by my aging dog, Shannon.) I had read many of the “stories” that make up Erdrich’s novel previously, mostly in The New Yorker, or as they appeared in Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Awards Stories. But Erdrich’s novels are, by their very nature episodic, the parts of which are detachable. She seems to have written them as self-sufficient tales—creating a stylized rhythm and a magical-realist world that I often find self-indulgent, but that I can become “engrossed” in or “mesmerized” by.

The obsessive novels that I love so much—Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, The French Lieutenant’s Woman—amaze me every time I read them. I cannot quite believe that ordinary humans wrote them. In my humble human opinion, Orhan Pamuk is just an ordinary human.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Poe: Baltimore comes to bury him; I come to praise him

Last week, in this bicentennial year of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, Baltimore staged a second wake and funeral procession for the writer most responsible for recognizing the unique characteristics of the short story as an artistic form. The following is a quote from The Baltimore Sun:

"Edgar Allen Poe is finally getting the send-off he always deserved -- from a city that has spent decades claiming him as one of its own.

True, he's spent more than a century-and-a-half buried in the hallowed grounds surrounding Baltimore's Westminster Hall. It's also true that Baltimore isn't the only city celebrating Poe, in this bicentennial of his birth on Jan. 19, 1809. At least four other East Coast cities -- Richmond, Philadelphia, New York and Boston -- have legitimate claims to Poe's legacy. The five cities have been squabbling for years, and have spent the past year exploiting their connections to the pioneering writer and early master of the horror and mystery genres.

But Baltimore has something that none of the rest of them have. And over the coming week, his fans here are going to flaunt it for all it's worth -- in ways the macabre Mr. Poe would doubtless appreciate.

"We have the body!" says Poe fan Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law. No one else can say that."
Which explains why Baltimore will be holding a second wake, funeral procession and funeral for the long-dead Poe, 160 years after the first.

On an early October day in 1849, Poe was found walking the streets of the city, bedraggled, incoherent, possibly beaten up, dressed in clothes that didn't belong to him. He died four days later at Washington College Hospital (later Church Home & Hospital, closed in 2000) and was buried at Westminster the next day, after a sparsely attended three-minute service. His death warranted a paltry four-sentence obituary in The Sun. "This is Baltimore's chance," says Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum, where a Wednesday-afternoon-and-evening viewing of the famed poet and author's body will begin a five-day commemoration of both his mysterious death on Oct. 7, 1849, and the quiet, almost secretive funeral services that followed. "This is what I've been working for, to honor Poe and to say, 'Thanks.' It's the least I could do."

I did a book on Poe’s short fiction several years ago. He has always been a favorite of mine, much underestimated by many of my colleagues. I remember once when I was teaching a full semester course on Poe’s work, one of my fellow teachers said to me, “I don’t understand what you can find to say about Poe for a whole semester. I can barely fill up one class meeting on his work.”

In honor of Baltimore’s "reburial" of Poe, I come to praise him, not to bury him, by making a few comments on his contribution to the theory of the short story as a completely different narrative form than the novel.

It can be argued that a literary genre does not really exist as long as it is merely practiced. Because a genre concept is just that--a concept--it only truly comes into being when the rules and conventions which constitute it are articulated within the larger conceptual context of literature as a whole. Poe's rigor as a literary critic and genre theorist is thus as important for understanding his contribution to the short story form as is his skill as a short-story writer.

There is little doubt that Poe was, if nothing else, a thoroughgoing formalist, always more interested in the work's pattern, structure, conventions, and techniques than its reference to the external world or its social or psychological theme. The meaning of the work for Poe was its technique, so much so that in many of his stories he thematizes aesthetic and literary theory issues, making the creation and explication of unity the central thematic "truth" of the work.

Since there was no theory of the short prose tale when Poe was writing, he took theoretical ideas from those genres that did posses a critical history, such as drama and poetry, and applied them to the Gothic tale form which was popular during his time. The following generic elements are the most important ones Poe made use of: (1)the conventionalized and ritualized structure of the drama; (2)the metaphoric and self-contained unity of the lyric poem; (3)the technique of verisimilitude of the eighteenth-century novel; (4)the point of view and unifying tone of the eighteenth-century essay; and (5)the spiritual undercurrent and projective technique of the old romance and the Gothic story.

When you add to these the notion of prose assuming the spatial form of painting, which Poe suggested in the 1842 Hawthorne review, you have the basis for a new generic form. Poe's notion of short fiction as a picture is particularly important, for to see narrative as a painting is to see it as a design in space rather than a movement in time. Although the consequent implication of considering characters as static groupings in a composition means a loss of dramatic effect, this is compensated for by a gain in emphasis on overall pattern, which is equivalent to thematic design.

Poe’s 1842 Hawthorne review is of course the central document for understanding Poe's contribution to the theory of the short story, for it derives from his earlier discussions of the relationship between aesthetic unity and the concept of plot and looks forward to the ultimate implications of pattern and design in Eureka. The logic of the argument in the Hawthorne review is quite clear: What is most important in the literary work is unity; however, unity can only be achieved in a work which the reader can hold in the mind all at once. After the poem, traditionally the highest of high literary art, Poe says that the short tale has the most potential for being unified in the way the poem is. The effect of the tale is synonymous with its overall pattern or design, which is also synonymous with its theme or idea. Form and meaning emerge from the unity of the motifs of the story.

Poe carries his concern with unity of effect even further in "The Philosophy of Composition," for here he asserts the importance of considering the work backwards, that is, beginning with its end. Obviously, the possibility of beginning with the end is what distinguishes fiction from reality, what transforms reality into narrative discourse. A narrative, by its very nature, cannot be told until the events which it takes as its subject matter have already occurred. Therefore the "end" of the events, both in terms of their actual termination and in terms of the purpose to which the narrator binds them, is the beginning of the discourse.

It is hardly necessary to say that the only narrative which the reader ever gets is that which is already discourse, already ended as an event, so that there is nothing left for it but to move toward its end in an aesthetic, eventless way, i.e, via tone, metaphor, and all the other purely artistic conventions of fictional discourse.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Short Story Trumps the Novel in National Book Award Anniversary Poll

The National Book Award is celebrating its 60th anniversary by conducting a poll to determine the “Best of the National Book Award in Fiction” since the award for fiction was first given in 1950. During that sixty-year period, seventy-one books won the award (Some years, an award was given for best fiction in paperback as well as hardback.) One hundred and forty writers from across the country then chose the six best of the best.

And the good news for lovers of the short story is that of those six, four, I repeat, four, were short story collections!

I am, of course, delighted with this result, although, since the choice was made by other writers, I am not surprised. Writers value, above all things, good writing, and, as I have always preached to my students and anyone else who would listen, the best writing is often to be found in the short story. It is no accident that the majority of passages selected for analysis in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer are from short stories.

Short story writers, I think, are just more focused on the word and the sentence than novelists, who are more apt to think in macrocosmic terms of plot and character and perhaps be a little careless about the microcosmic elements of diction and syntax. The short story depends on form, on language, on rhythm to create a shimmering shape that rewards the careful reader with revelations about the subtlety and complexity of human experience that the novel often neglects or ignores.

If you would like to vote on which of the six books is the best of the best, go to:

The six nominated books are:

The Collected Stories of William Faulkner, 1951

Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, 1953

Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, 1972

Thomas Pyncheon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 1974

Stories of John Cheever, 1981

Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, 1983

Over the sixty-year history of the award, twelve out of seventy-one awards for fiction have gone to short story collections. The remaining eight are:

Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel, 1959

Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus, 1960

The Collected Stories of Katherine Ann Porter, 1966

John Barth, Chimera, 1973

Isaac B. Singer, Crown of Feathers, 1974

Ellen Gilchrist, Victory Over Japan, 1984

Bob Shacochis, Easy in the Islands, 1985

Andrea Barret, Ship Fever, 1996

Since they announced this poll, The National Book Award has posted a blog each day, with comments by various writers, on the seventy-one books that have won for fiction. You can read the blogs at:

Visit the poll and vote for your favorite. Although I think Flannery O’Conner will win, my vote went to Eudora Welty, who is every bit as complex as O’Connor, just not obviously so.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Edwidge Danticat and Deborah Eisenberg Win MacArthur "Genuis" grants

Congratulations to Edwidge Danticat and Deborah Eisenberg for being awarded MacArthur Awards (so-called “Genius” grants) this week. They are the only two authors among the twenty-four winners. Each will receive $500,000 over the next five years, to, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, “do with as they please.”

I am pleased that both authors are well known for their short-story collections. Danticat’s first, Krik? Krak!” was very well reviewed, and Eisenberg’s several collections, including her most recent, Twilight of the Superheroes, place her among the top half dozen short story writers currently practicing that underrated art.

The short story’s lack of room to ruminate about so-called “big” socio-political issues is one reason the form is not popular with so-called “serious” critics who prefer genres that generalize. The kind of complexity that fascinates masters of the short story is not captured by using more and more words but by using just the right ones. Good stories, like good poems, don’t pontificate
The best stories of Deborah Eisenberg, who has been called a master of the form, reflect her continuing conscientious effort to provide a structure and a syntax for feelings unspeakable until just the right rhythm makes what was loose and lying around inside clench and cluster into a meaningful pattern.

In “Some Other, Better Otto,” in Twilight of the Superheroes, the central character is so self negating, so full of doubt and dubiousness that you just want to smack him. But you know he can’t help it, that of all his possible selves he cannot quite seem to find that other, better one that would make his life full and complete. However, what great short story writers like Eisenberg wisely know is that there is no unified self, only rare moments of recognition, evanescent contacts of communication.

South African writer Nadine Gordimer once said that the novel is often bound to a consistency that does not convey the true quality of human life, “where contact is more like the flash of fireflies.” Short-story writers, Gordimer says, “see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.”

In “Like It or Not,” also in Superheroes, a divorced Midwestern high school biology teacher visits a sophisticated friend in Italy and is expertly guided about by a polished and knowledgeable European man. Like a delicate Jamesian romance, nothing much happens but much is immanent. Its not just that the man feels he is getting older or that the woman feels insecurely empty, but, rather, as the man tells a young woman they encounter in a hotel, “It’s quite mysterious, what attracts one human being to another.” This is the kind of mystery that great short-story writers, such as Chekhov, have always struggled with. As the central character of his brilliant story “Lady with the Pet Dog” inchoately understands, people have two lives, one open and known by all who cared to know, and another life, running its course in secret.

Eisenberg is indeed a master of the short story. She succeeds much more often than she fails because she brilliantly exploits what the form does best. It’s only when she seems to be seduced by the public demand for the novelistic that she breaks faith with the great masters who have preceded her.

After earning enough money by driving cab and working as a laborer, Edwidge Danticat’s parents brought her to the U.S when she was twelve. Her first book Breath, Eyes, Memory, a novel about four generations of Haitian women, was published in 1994, when she was twenty five, after earning an undergraduate degree at Barnard College and a Master of Fine Arts degree at Brown University. Widely praised, it was picked by Oprah Winfrey’s book club and stayed on the bestseller lists for a short time. Krik? Krak! was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995.

The title of Edwidge Danticat’s first collection of nine stories, mostly about young women growing up under an oppressive regime in Haiti and trying to create a new home in America, comes from an African storytelling call-and-response tradition recounted in the first story, “Children of the Sea.” Someone asks Krik? which inquires if the audience wishes to hear a story, and the listeners emphatically answer Krak!, which means, “yes.”

A central theme in Krik? Krak! focuses on storytelling as a way to heal past psychic injuries and to create a sense of community. The refugees on the boat in “Children of the Sea” tell stories to help them cope with the possibility of imminent death, and the townspeople in “Wall of Fire Rising” sit around a blank television screen after the authorities have turned off the state-sponsored newscasts and tell stories. The mother tells her son stories in “Night Women” to help him deal with his fear and her prostitution.

Danticat has said that she hopes that the female storytellers she grew up with will tell their stories through her. “Epilogue: Women Like Us” is a meditation about women and writing. In the world she came from, the narrator says, women who write are called lying whores, and then raped and killed. Writers are politicians who are sent to prison, covered in hot tar and forced to eat their own waste. She concludes that her book is a testament to the way that these women lived and died and lived again.

If you have not discovered Danticat and Eisenberg, I recommend both very highly. They are quite different writers, in style and focus, but they are both very fine short-story writers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Carver's Collected Stories and the Gordon Lish Controversy

The recent release by Library of America of Raymond Carver’s Collected Stories has once more raised the issue of just how much of Carver’s first two collections, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, (1981) were Carver’s and how much were the result of the editing of Gordon Lish.

This is old news. Eleven years ago, D. T. Max did a long piece for the New York Times magazine entitled “The Carver Chronicles,” for which he examined the manuscripts of stories edited by Lish in the Lily Library at Indiana University. You can read the piece at:

The accepted mythos about the difference between Carver’s bleak first two collections and “his more generous” last two, Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From, is that he stopped drinking and met Tess Gallagher. It is a story that Gallagher herself has defended.

However, as D. T. Max’s study of the manuscripts at the Lilly Library attest, the real difference between early Carver and late Carver has to do with Gordon Lish, who published Carver’s first story in Esquire and his first book at Knopf. As one example, Max describes how Lish took Carver’s simple anecdote about a waitress reflecting on her encounter with a fat man in her restaurant and transformed it into the haunting story, “Fat” that opens Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

I have not seen the original “Fat,” but have taught the Lish edited version that appeared in Carver’s first book many times. Here are some of my notes for teaching that story:

The challenge in reading “Fat” is trying to determine what the narrator actually sees in the fat man and trying to determine why he is so strange--his fatness, his puffing, his use of the royal “we.”

The other characters try to use terms such as “a fatty” to reduce him, simplify him, stereotype him. The narrator cannot do this. Is there something special about her? The thing about a storyteller is: Some things seem to them to be significant, meaningful things that seem just weird or ordinary to non-storytellers. “Fat” is a story about a storyteller trying to tell a story in such a way that the teller and the listener understands that significance. The narrator says, “I know I was after something. But I don’t know what.”

She says, “Rudy, he is fat, I saw, but that is not the whole story.”
The problem is:
What is the whole story?

When the fat man says Thank you, she says, “’You are very welcome,’ and a feeling comes over me,” we ask: What is the feeling?

Rita says, “This story’s getting interesting now,” just after the narrator quotes the fat man as saying, “No, if we had our choice, but there is no choice.” But the narrator says this is when the story is over. It sounds as if we are going to get the background, the motivation, the reason he is so fat. But the storyteller is not interested in where he is from or why he is what he is. Cause is not the issue here.

Why does she say, “waiting for what?” Why does she feel her life is going to change? Is this a genuine feeling or a bogus one? What does one have to do to make a change in one’s life? Why would the fat man stimulate the change? She doesn’t want to be fat. She doesn’t want to say, “There is no choice.” What kind of change does she face? She sees the fat man as one who is trapped in his own flesh. We are all caught within our flesh. But just to be the physical presence that we are--does that mean we are so limited within ourselves?

The fat man’s fatness is just a reminder of that trap of the flesh. The storyteller knows he is trapped. Why does she feel terrifically fat when Rudy is on top of her? Why is he so small? Is it good that she feels fat? Is it a negative that Rudy seems so small?

"Fat” explores both the positive and negative sides of the flesh and the body. If we lived in a world of sacred reality, the fat man would be a god. But living in the world of the physical and the real, he is trapped in his flesh.

Rita says it is a funny story; the storyteller says, “I can see she doesn’t know what to make of it.”

I do not know what Carver’s original version meant, if anything, but Lish’s edited version is a haunting story about the mysterious universal reality of flesh and the spirit.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was very well received by critics and nominated for the National Book Award. Carver won a Guggenheim and was hired to teach at Syracuse University. There is little doubt that this reception was due in no small part to the editing of Lish.

It was when Carver began putting together his second book, which he wanted to call Beginners, that he started to object to Lish’s editing. Carver wrote to Lish and asked to be let out of his contract with Knopf because of the way that Lish had transformed Beginners into What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Carver wrote to Lish:

Maybe if I were alone, by myself, and no one had ever seen these stories, maybe then, knowing that your versions are better than some of the ones I sent, maybe I could get into this and go with it…. Tess has seen all of these and gone over them closely. Donald Hall has seen many of the new ones…and Richard Ford, Toby Wolff, Geoffrey Wolff, too, some of them… How can I explain to these fellows when I see them, as I will see them, what happened…Please, Gordon, for God’s sake help me in this and try to understand…I’ve got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I’ve been up all night thinking on this…I’ll say it again, if I have any standing or reputation or credibility in the world, I owe it to you. I owe you this more-or-less pretty interesting life I have [but] I can’t take the risk as to what might happen to me…. My very sanity is on the line here. I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another book.”

Well, Lish had his way with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. However, ironically, the book so solidified Carver’s reputation that when he begged Lish not to make any severe changes in his third book Cathedral, Lish had to give in, although he was not happy about it and wanted to make his contribution to Carver’s work public. He was advised by friends, such as Don DeLillo, to keep quiet—that Carver was already too much loved, that it would make reading his work too ambiguous, that readers would resent Lish for complicating the reading of his work.

All this can be read in D. T. Max’s piece, so the revelations in the new Library of America volume are not really new. However, because of recent reviews in The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, which focus almost entirely on the fact that the book contains both the Lish-edited versions of Carver’s stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love alongside the stories as Carver originally wrote them in the collection Beginners, the debate has been raised again more publicly.

The review in the Wall Street Journal by David Propson and the review in The Los Angeles Times by David Ulin sum up rather nicely the different opinions about which of Carver’s stories are the best—Lish or non-Lish.

Propson says: “One measure of Mr. Carver’s achievement is that, before his career was lamentably cut short, he found a more mature sensibility than the minimalist posturing that Mr. Lish had imposed on his work.” After breaking with Lish, Propson says, in Cathedral, Carver’s work loses its chilly edge, an “appealing development,” with a “newfound sense of generosity and even humor on display.”

David Ulin believes that the pared-down Lish versions of many of the stories are better than the original stories, although he believes that the restored version of “A Small Good Thing,” which appeared in Cathedral is a much better story than the Lish-edited version,“ The Bath,” which appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

In my opinion, anyone who calls Carver's stories in his first two collections "posturing" or suggests that his later stories are more "mature" just wants short stories to read more like novels, with lots of rumination, explanation, exposition, sentimentality, and mere detail.

The issue gets complicated by non-literary matters. Not many people seem to like Gordon Lish, especially for his high-handed attempt to hijack Carver’s work, work—work that he obviously recognized as very promising, work he perhaps could not write himself. However, everyone seems to love Carver. He just comes across as a big huggable, bear like sort of guy.

I like Carver’s stories very much. I remember in 1981 when I first discovered him. Someone asked me to review What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I had never read Carver before, but was so amazed and delighted with his stories that I later read everything he wrote. I taught upper division seminars on Carver’s work several times, covering all of his fiction—from his amateurish undergraduate stories written at Sacramento State and Humboldt State in California up to his very fine tribute to Chekhov, “The Errand.”

As I have written before in this blog, I think many of Carver’s Lish-edited stories are better than many of the longer, “more generous” stories in Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From. However, I also like the later Carver stories. I am just not sure that Carver could have written them without the earlier editing by Lish. The fact that Lish helped Carver hone his craft by editing it does not take away Carver’s art for me. I think Carver is one of the best short-story writers of the twentieth century. But I am not sure he would have made it without the initial help of Gordon Lish.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Word from Tamar Yellin, and a Word about Spatial vs. Temporal Form in the Short Story

After posting my last blog on Tamar Yellin’s Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, I had some reservations about my supposition that she had written the stories as separate entities and then was convinced by her publisher to find a connecting thread that would make the book marketable as a novel.

So, I did something I seldom do; I wrote to her directly and asked her about the organization of the book. She was very kind to respond to my query. I reprint below her response:

Thank you for getting in touch and for your review. I appreciate it. The book was conceived as written - as a hybrid form between the novel and the short story collection, a form my friend the writer Zoran Zivkovic (who has written many of them) terms a 'mosaic novel.' In this form the stories can stand alone and have the necessary weight to do so, but are bound together (often by the final story) into a whole intended to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The theme of the ten lost tribes informed all the stories and they were written in sequence, with their epigraphs, as a complete work. Quite careful attention needs to be paid to the epigraphs in order to pick up on the thematic narratives that run through them and illuminate both the stories and the book as a whole. However, with a few exceptions, there is no deliberate connection between each story and its epigraphs; I wished to be as subtle as possible.
I t never occurred to me that readers would not realise that the narrator is the same throughout.
I agree that the short story form places greater demands upon the reader and that this is one of the main reasons short story collections don't sell as well as novels.”

I must say, I like the metaphor of a “mosaic” more than I do the usual metaphor of linked stories as a “short story cycle” or as a “composite novel.” For the word, suggesting as it does parts interlinking spatially rather than temporally, is more hospitable to the short story as a form. The short story as an individual artistic unit is more apt to depend on spatial organization than temporal organization, it seems to me.

However, I have trouble thinking of a group of related short stories as a "novel." I am still convinced that short stories are very different than chapters, and that if read as chapters, they will not be appreciated or understood as they should be.

Alice Munro once said that when she reads a story she does not take it up at the beginning and follow it like a road “with views and neat diversions along the way.” Rather, for her, reading a story is like moving through a house, making connections between one enclosed space and another. Consequently, Munro declares, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.” At another time, she said, “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well. There has to be a feeling in the story.”

Now that I am trying to write fiction on a more regular basis, I am finding that I am less concerned with telling a story in a linear fashion than I am with constructing a significant spatial entity out of various parts that seems to “go together.” The real problem is how to find/create feeling out of the spatial relationship between the various parts of the story.

I would be happy to hear from writers who read this blog about their own experience with the spatial versus the temporal construction of the short story.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tamar Yellin's "Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes": Organizing Short Story Collections

Tamar Yellin’s second collection of stories, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, was published earlier this year by The Toby Press and has recently come out in paperback. I just had a chance to read it. I have not read her first collection Kafka in Bronteland and Other Stories, so her work is new to me.

I like her stories. They are tightly, thematically organized, as is typical of the well-made Chekhovian short story. They seem perfect paradigms of Frank O’Connor’s thesis in his book The Lonely Voice that the short story often focuses on a “submerged population group,” by which he means a character who is cut off from the mainstream of society and thus who must define himself or herself existentially in crisis moments.

I recommend this collection of stories for their individual emphases on characters who search for something intangible that always lies just beyond their reach—a special language, a special book, a perfect narrative, a homeland, etc.

However, the issue I would like to raise in this blog entry is the author’s effort to organize a collection of stories into a book. What Yellin does is give the names of one of the lost tribes of Israel to each one of her stories and to preface each story with quotes from various historians and theologians about the lost tribes.

I don’t think that Yellin wrote the stories specifically to fit this overall structure. I think she wrote the stories as individual stand-alone stories and then, finding she had enough for a book, faced the usual publisher’s demand that collections of stories have an organizing structure so that it can be marketed as if it were a novel, or at least that the publisher can leave off the subhead “And Other Stories” from the cover.

Most all the stories have a first-person narrator, and the progress of the stories move from a young child through a young student to a teacher to an older person—as if the narrator were the same for each story, thus making the book simulate the coming-of-age novel. However, curiously, the narrator is never named, and, even more curious, the gender of the narrator is never made clear, although some stories strongly suggest a female narrator.

One could make the case that the lack of name and gender of the narrator universalizes the voice and throws the most emphasis on the character with whom she/he comes in contact, for most all the stories focus on an obsessed character that the narrator encounters. But I am not sure about this.

The striking exception is the last story, which seems very obviously a version of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, with the narrator playing the Marlowe role, going up river to try to find a mysterious, somewhat magical, figure who is possibly the quintessential Wandering Jew. Since the narrator never finds the figure, the focus here is solely on the narrator.

Yellin’s short story collections have not, as far as I can tell, sold widely, nor have they been widely reviewed, especially in the United States. They may have been reviewed more widely in the United Kingdom, for she lives in Yorkshire. If you are interested, she has a website at

If you have not run across Yellin, I recommend her to you. In an interview that is available online, she has said she is more comfortable with the short story than the novel, for she likes every word and sentence to have weight. “When I write stories I can be as brief as I like. And yet a short story can embrace an entire life, an entire universe.”

She also says a story is not worth telling unless it has some deeper meaning. I agree completely. Any writer who thinks this highly of the short story and continues to write them even though her publisher may strongly encourage her to write novels, or at least to make her story collections promotable as novels, is usually worth reading, as far as I am concerned.

The general issue Yellin’s book raises, an issue I have talked about before, is the difference between a chapter in a novel and a story in an organized collection. In my opinion, short stories differ from chapters in novels in that each short story demands a more careful attention and a closer reading than chapters in novels usually do, since the chapter is merely a part of a whole, whereas a short story must stand completely alone as an individually organized narrative entity.

One reason that short stories do not sell as well as novels is this individual demand that each story makes on the reader. If the stories are good stories, linking them together under some overarching rubric will not eliminate this demand; you still will not be able to read them as if they were chapters. And if you can read them as if they were chapters, they are either not very good short stories or else you are not reading them carefully. As usual, I would appreciate any reaction to my polemics. I have been at this long enough to be hardheaded about it, but not so long that I cannot learn from others.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pow Wow or Hodge Podge? Ishmael Reed and Race Fiction

Ishmael Reed and his longtime partner Carla Blank edited a collection of sixty-three short fiction pieces early in the year entitled Pow Wow, subtitled “Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now.” Da Capo Press recently issued the hefty volume in paperback, and I have been reading it this past month.

Although the book includes several complex short stories such as Russell Banks’ “The Guinea Pig Lady,” Stanley Elkin’s “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe,” Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat,” James Alan McPherson’s “Gold Coast,” Bharati Mukherjee’s “A Wife’s Story,” and Grace Paley’s “Goodbye and Good Luck,” many other pieces are amateurish and artistically insignificant.

The problem with the book is that Reed and Blank's criteria for selection seems to have little to do with the quality of the writing and a lot to do with the subject of race prejudice. Alongside the fine stories mentioned above are numerous short, clumsy pieces that are too subjective, too polemic, too sensational, too melodramatic, or too sentimental to be of any interest except historical and social.

The problem with stories about race prejudice is they are too often, if you will pardon the inevitable expression, a matter of black and white. Many race prejudice stories feature a victim and a victimizer. The victim is usually helpless and the victimizer is usually ignorant. It is difficult to make an interesting, complex story out of such an obvious and simplistic conflict, don’t you think?

I know, of course, that there are many very fine stories about race conflict—both by white writers and by writers of color. But, the very fine stories that explore race prejudice engage us, at least it seems to me, because the characters are not merely ignorant bigots and innocent victims but because the story probes deeply into those complexities of perceived difference that separate human beings from each other.

I know this is a touchy subject. But reading the pieces in Ishmael Reed and Carla Blank’s Pow Wow raised it for me over and over again. I would appreciate hearing from how those of you who teach stories about race prejudice and those of you who write stories about race prejudice deal with this issue.

Is it risky, or even racist, to criticize a story about race prejudice because it is amateurishly written, because it is subjective or polemical and lacks artistic control and thematic complexity?

Is it difficult to write a story about race prejudice without focusing on a simplistic conflict with a predictable conclusion?

In his long polemical introduction, in which he blames the media for much race prejudice, Ishmael Reed says, “Most American critics concentrate on literature authored by whites, regardless of right-wing propaganda that falsely claims that in American universities and colleges Toni Morrison has replaced Shakespeare.”

Is it really right-wing propaganda that in many classrooms stories about race have taken the place of stories by white writers regardless of the quality and complexity of the writing?

Is it really true that most American critics nowadays concentrate on literature written by whites when so many recent critical studies seem oriented toward the cultural rather than the universal?

I probably should not even bring these things up, for I know that I will be called a right-wing bigot for doing so. But since Ishmael Reed has brought the issue up in Pow Wow’s introduction and table of contents, I reckon I have the right to challenge both his remarks and his anthology choices.

As usual, I would love to hear from those who read this blog regularly or who stumble upon it accidently.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Jay McInerney's "How It Ended": Shallow Characters and the Question of Suitable Subject Matter

As an introit to her interview with Jay McInerney in The Observer, Rachel Cook says, “There are some men who you wish would grow up, and some men you hope will remain forever the same: boyish, eager, occasionally ridiculous…fun. Jay McInerney is one of the latter.’’

Well, that may be true when you are having lunch with him in one of New York’s best restaurants. But when you are reading his latest book, a collection of stories that span his career from his 1982 debut Bright Lights, Big City to the present, he is definitely one of the former.

It took me a long time to get through this collection, entitled How it Ended in America and The Last Bachelor in England. I just found it too easy to put it down, and my shoulders sagged when I picked it up. There are twenty-six stories here, and they all begin to sound tediously the same. There are just too many characters, to quote from “It’s Six A. M. Do You Know Where You Are?” who think “decadence” and Dexedrine” are the “high points of the language of the Kings James and Lear.” As Janet Maslin, who reviewed the book for The New York Times, says, “This is the kind of guy whose idea of etiquette is to hold a girl’s hair while she snorts cocaine.”

McInerney’s first novel, and the film on which it was based, brought him a great deal of fame in the 1980’s, for which he was slammed by a number of critics who identified his own lifestyle with that of many of his characters—parties, women, drugs. I don’t think one should condemn a man’s writing for the way the man lives his life. The writing should be judged by the writing. But it’s hard to resist, after reading his story “Sleeping with Pigs,” the obvious observation that if you lie down with pigs, some crap will inevitably rub off.

McInerney says he knows that critics have questioned the legitimacy of his subject matter. “There’s a socialist bias,” he says, “to the consensus of the literary world: a 30s mentality that says factory workers are more worthy of our attention.” But I don’t think it is just that. After reading story after story of drinking and drugs, infidelity and cheating, men who seek serial relationships and one-night stands, and women who seek to marry powerful executives and politicians, I just get tired of it all.

I guess what really bothers me about McInerney’s stories is that whereas sometimes you think he may be satirically making fun of his shallow characters, other times you sense that he really envies the life they lead. Too often, he just just seems to be setting up wish-fulfillment fantasies of a narcissistic life without commitment.

I am not saying that such is not a suitable subject for story. I think everything that humans can imagine, or find unimaginable, is suitable for a story. The secret, however, is that all subjects must be redeemed or refined by style and form. I don’t always like the characters of Henry James or Flannery O’Connor, or Raymond Carver, but all three, in their quite different ways, use language to make their characters revelatory of the unspeakable complexity of what it means to be human. F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom McInerney has often been compared, could be as much a hack writer as McInerney, but at other times, when he found just the right voice, such as in “Winter Dreams,” “Absolution,” or The Great Gatsby, the result was a magical transformation of superficial characters into shimmering significance. McInerney is often clever, turning a phrase in a witty way, e.g. “You have traveled from the meticulous to the slime” and “Eat, drink, and remarry.” But he does not either love his people enough to make them more than two dimensional pawns fitted out with noses to snort and genitals to exploit. And he does not seem to love the language enough to make them more than mere flesh and foolishness.

What do you think?

Do authors have to have some respect for their characters?

Do the characters have to be deserving of respect in some way?

Do readers have to like characters to like the stories they are in?

Can just the right form and style transform even the most meaningless people into meaningful literary significance?

What is a literary character anyway? What transforms real into literary?

Are there fictional characters you love, but that if you met in real life you would despise?

How is that possible?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Hard Gemlike Flames and Loose Baggy Monsters

Jay McInerney says in the preface to his recent collection of stories How it Ended, “Like most novelists I cut my teeth writing short stories,” as if writing short stories were a painful childhood prerequisite to the really adult task of writing novels. You would think that a man who studied short stories under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, two masters of the form, would have a bit more respect for the short story than to refer to them as “warm-up exercises.”

To give him credit, McInerney says he has always been “more than a little daunted by the short story.” He rightfully acknowledges: “Whereas even a medium-sized novel—let alone the kind Henry James described as loose baggy monsters—can survive any number of false turns, boring characters and off-key sentences, the story is far less forgiving. A good one requires perfect pitch and a precise sense of form; it has to burn with a hard, gemlike flame.”

The "hard gemlike flame" phrase is from Walter Pater’s Renaissance. I reprint both the Pater and the James quote in context below, for they are, I think, worth considering.

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.

--Walter Pater, The Renaissance

A picture without composition slights its most precious chance for beauty, and is, moreover, not composed at all unless the painter knows how that principle of health and safety, working as an absolutely premeditated art, has prevailed. There may in its absence be life, incontestably, as The Newcomes has life, as Les Trois Mousquetaires, as Tolstoi's Peace and War, have it; but what do such large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean? We have heard it maintained, we well remember, that such things are "superior to art"; but we understand least of all what that may mean, and we look in vain for the artist, the divine explanatory genius, who will come to our aid and tell us. There is life and life, and as waste is only life sacrificed and thereby prevented from "counting," I delight in a deep-breathing economy and an organic form.

--Henry James, Preface to The Tragic Muse

Serendipitously, on my morning walks with my aging dog Shannon (The walks take longer now than they used to), I have been listening to Tobias Wolff’s memoir-like novel Old School about a boy who attends a boarding school and who aspires to be a writer. It’s a very fine, compact little novel about the seductive nature of literature and reader worship of the author. The school has periodic competitions in which boys submit poems and stories, which are then judged by a famous writer, who visits the school and has a private audience with the boy who wrote the winning piece. At one point, Robert Frost is the invited guest. After giving a poetry reading, Frost responds to a question from one of the teachers about whether a rigidly formal arrangement of language like Frost’s poetry is adequate to express the modern consciousness created by industrialization and war. “Should form give to more spontaneous modes of expression, even at the cost of a certain disorder?” the teacher asks. Frost responds by telling about writing a poem for a friend of his who died in the Great War. He then challenges the teacher:

Would you honor your own friend by putting words down any how, just as they come to you, with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give a true account of the loss? I am thinking of Achilles’ grief, that famous terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed toe cry. Sincere maybe for what that’s worth, but no depth or carry, no echo. You may have a grievance, but you do not have grief. And grievances are for petitions, not poetry.”

I do not know if Frost ever really said this or if Tobias Wolff invented it. I don’t really care. What I do care about is the truth of the assertion that in art, “Form is everything.” This is truer for the hard gemlike short story than it is for the loose baggy novel.

The highly formal nature of the short story has always been criticized by those critics and novelists who have argued that literature has a responsibility to be socially aware and involved. The short story was attacked by realistic writers in the nineteenth century, such as William Dean Howells, for being false to reality. James T. Farrell criticized the form in the 1930s for its failure to be a vehicle for revolutionary ideology. Maxwell Geismar lashed out against short story writers such as Salinger, Roth, Malamud, and Powers in 1964 for the narrow range of their vision and their stress on the intricate craftsmanship of the well-made story. In 1971, Malcolm Cowley criticized short story writers for having nothing to write about except their own effort in finding it difficult to write about anything. And in 1992, John Aldridge scolded short story writers for being too much technique and too little significance. All these complaints boil down to the same thing--that the short story is too much a matter of form and too little a matter of what social critics define as "real life."

But as Jose Ortega y Gasset says, "The material never saves a work of art, the gold it is made of does not hallow a statue. A work of art lives on its form, not on its material; the essential grace it emanates springs from its structure [which] forms the properly artistic part of the work." This seems so obvious it is difficult to see how anyone could deny it. The problem, of course, arises when such a statement leads the critic to ignore the human content of the work. The related problem is how to attend to the human content of the work without lapsing into the gratuitous oversimplification that the artwork is merely an information medium for the replication of everyday life or the rhetoric of ideology.