Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ambrose Bierce, "Chickamauga"



Once a week, the Library of America sends subscribers to its website a “Story of the Week.”  This week, the story is Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga,” a tightly controlled fiction with a meaningful trick at the end.  I discussed the story with my students many times over the years and included it in my textbook Fiction’s Many Worlds.  Here are some of the discoveries I made about the story with the help of my students.
This is the Library of America’s headnote for the story:
Armed with a toy sword, a little boy treks through the forest and fights off imaginary enemies—not realizing that, nearby, a very real battle was being waged.”

Ambrose Bierce, Chickamauga
The anti-war theme of Bierce's story depends on the basic tensions between child world and adult world and between fantasy and reality.  The boy's fantasy world of playing at war is his only reality; consequently, when he encounters the genuine external reality of war it seems curiously fantastic to him; thus he is able to integrate it effortlessly into his fantasy play world.  Bierce develops the story on the ironic realization that the adult view of war often springs from child-like views in which men glorify battle, only to find out too late that the reality of it is horror and death.   The primary communicators of this fantasy image of war in Bierce's story are books and pictures which glorify war, for the boy has been taught "postures of aggression and defense" by the "engraver's art."  Thus when he encounters the actuality of war, the boy responds to it as if it were merely the fantasy pictures he has seen or the world of play-reality he has known.
As is typical of many Bierce stories, style and technique are practically everything in "Chickamauga."  Although Bierce was writing during a period of American Literature characterized by realistic depictions of external reality, Bierce maintained his allegiance to romanticism.  Often compared with Edgar Allan Poe, Bierce focuses not so much on external reality but rather on the strange dream-like world that lies somewhere in between fantasy and reality.  Thus, the genius of his stories depends not so much on the theme, which is often fairly obvious, but on the delicate and tightly controlled way that Bierce tells the story and creates a nightmarish world that involves the reader emotionally.    
The fact that the boy is a deaf mute emphasizes his childish fantasy world detached from external reality and makes more plausible the primary device of contrasting the child's view of war as a game with the adult's view of it as a horrifying actuality.  It enables Bierce to set up a strange dreamlike effect as we see the events primarily from the boy's point of view.  However, even as the story depends on Bierce's developing the perspective of the child, in which the reader is made to see the maimed and bleeding soldiers as circus clowns and child-like playmates, this point of view is counterpointed by that of an adult teller--sometimes in a developed background exposition, sometimes in a flat declarative statement.  For example, when the boy seems to see some strange animals crawling through the forest, the narrator simply says: "They were men." When the boy sees men lying in the water as if without heads, the narrator simply says: "They were drowned."
This narrator is not named in the story, but is presented as a disembodied presence who not only sees what the boy sees, but also sees the boy and draws conclusions about the boy's responses. The boy's mind is as inaccessible to him as it is to the reader.  This technique enables the reader to respond both to the boy's point of view and to the adult teller. As the narrator says about the scene witnessed by the boy, "not all of this did the child note; it is what would have been noted by an elder observer." And indeed it is the elder observer who establishes the ironic tone at the beginning of the story which mocks the warrior-fire, the heroic race, and the notion of a spirit of battle in the boy which make him born to "war and dominion as a heritage."
It is indeed the subtle tension between this adult point of view and the childish perception of the boy that creates the story's impact and reflects its theme.  At one point in the story when the boy (because of his deafness) sleeps through the battle that rages nearby, the adult narrator says he was as "heedless of the grandeur of the struggle as the dead who had died to make the glory." Because of this structural counterpoint the narrator has no need to make any more explicit comment on the action.  For the juxtaposition of the two perspectives creates a tragic irony of war as something more than an heroic and childish game, even as it makes us see how war depends on just such a childish point of view to persist. 

A film version of this story, part of a trilogy of Bierce stories by French director Robert Enrico, begins with pictures of fighters behind the opening credits. The film is eerily silent, with grotesque images of men crawling across the ground as the camera pans the area disclosing more and more wounded and silent soldiers.  Visual images in the film are not as violent and graphic as those described in Bierce's story; however, the anti-war theme is stronger in the film than in the story because of the stark juxtaposition of images of childlike "playing at war" and adult reality.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Short Story Month: 2017—Part 13: The Short Story as a Literary Form

Short Story Month: 2017—Part 13: The Short Story as a Literary Form

Lorrie More:  “The commercial slick story has largely died out.  The stories we are left with are almost always all serious art.”

William Boyd:  “The well-written short story is not suited to the sound bite culture: it's too dense, its effects are too complex for easy digestion.”

Joyce Carol Oates:  She has said she doubts the 21st century will be as hospitable to the short story as the 19th and 20th, since the short story, unlike the novel, is "invariably literary."

Bret Anthony Johnson: “I think the reason short story collections don’t sell as well as novels is because they’re much more difficult to read.  Novels might require a longer commitment, but stories demand a deeper concentration and a more intense focus, and a lot of people would rather not exert themselves in that way”

Robert Stone:  “The short story is like a pitch in baseball.  It’s one continuous movement that ideally has to, like a pitch, break and then with a kind of retrospective inevitability end up in a catch’s mitt.  It’s a beautiful form when it works, but it’s very difficult.”


Claire Keegan: “ It’s very difficult. It’s very challenging. The level of intensity is very high. You’ve got to leave most of what could be said, out. It’s a discipline of omission. .. One of the things that is most difficult about the short story is that it seems easy. People think because it’s short, it’s minor, but if you take up your pen and try to write one you will find that it is otherwise. It is not a comforting genre. It’s not a comforting read. Often it can be quite a disturbing read. So, as Frank O’Connor said, there is something train-journey-ish about a novel, you can sit back and get into it, but the short story is more about holding your breath than breathing.”

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Short Story Month-2017 part 12: The Unified Writing and Reading Experience


Writing the Story in One Sitting

Lorrie Moore:  To write a short story, you have to be able to stay up all night. To read it all in one sitting and at some point see the whole thing through in a rush is part of the process. There’s urgency and wholeness in stories.

Hemingway said he wrote “the Killers” in one day.  Katherine Anne Porter said she always writes a story in one sitting, “one single burst of energy.”  Kafka wrote “The Judgment in one night.


         V. S. Pritchett says a good short story writer knows he is putting on a personal individual act, catching a piece of life as it flies and making “his personal performance out of it.”  Katherine Mansfield said that what is essential for the short story writer is to “penetrate one’s subject ..feelings, and objects as well, must be contemplated—or rather-submitted to—until one is truly lost in them.”


 Reading One Story at a Time

George Saunders: When I get the stories together, I wish I could put a disclaimer at the front: Please read no more than one or two a day.  Otherwise it feels to me like the contours that I put in there when I was working on just that story get lost in the reading process.

Short-story readers are a special kind of reader, like readers of poetry. Many novel readers don’t like collections of stories—I think that they dislike the frequent change of time, place and people. Of course, stories should not be read one after the other.

Lorrie Moore:  There’s a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span. But we know that’s not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story. (Though they may have a narcotizing paperback novel in their purse. This is not their fault.) Shockingly, people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes. And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way.



Thursday, May 25, 2017

Short Story Month 2017-Part 11: Dream and Desire in the Short Story


Short Story Month 2017-Part 11: Dream and Desire in the Short Story

Jarrell, Randall:  “Reading stories, we cannot help remembering that ‘We have to reckon with what exists, and dreams, daydreams, too, are also facts; if anyone really wants to investigate realities, he cannot do better than to start with such as these.  If he neglects them he will learn little or nothing of the world of life.”

Joyce Carol Oates:  “The short story is a dream verbalized, arranged in space and presented to the world, imagined as a sympathetic audience: the dream is said to be some kind of manifestation of desire, so the short story must also represent a desire, perhaps only partly expressed, but the most interesting thing about it is its mystery.”

Christina Stead:  "The belief that life is a dream and we the dreamers only dreams, which comes to us at strange, romantic, and tragic moments, what is it but a desire for the great legend, the powerful story rooted in all things which explains life to us and, understanding which, the meaning of things can be threaded through all that happens."

Alice Munro: “We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving or entertaining stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of.


Robert Olen Butler: “Fiction is the art form of human yearning.” Butler cites Joyce’s famous theory of epiphany--that moment in the story when something about the human condition shines forth in its essence.  Butler says this is the result of the yearning present in all the separate organically resonant moments in the fiction accumulating to a critical mass.  It is just that because of its brevity, these two moments typically occur at the same time in the short story. “The final epiphany of a literary short story is also the shining forth of the character’s yearning.”  

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Short Story Month 2017-part 10: Short Story Writers on Thematic Significance


Short Story Month 2017-part 10: Short Story Writers on Thematic Significance

V. S. Pritchett: The short story wakes the reader up. "It answers the primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience, the desire for the electric shock."

Sherwood Anderson: “The life of reality is confused, disorderly, almost always without apparent purpose, whereas in the artist’s imaginative life…there is determination to give the tale form—to make it real to the theme, not to life.  Often the better the job is done, the greater the confusion.

C., S. Lewis:  To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series…s only really a net whereby to catch something else.  The real theme may be and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state of quality… It may be asked why anyone should be encouraged to write a form in which the means are apparently so often at war with the end…. I suggest that the internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life. . In real life, as in a story, something must happen.  That is just the trouble.  We grasp at a state and fond only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied.

Frank O’Connor:  The greatest essential of a short story is a theme, a story to tell.  A theme is something that is worth something to everybody. You grab somebody and say, “Look, an extraordinary thing happened to me yesterday—I met a man—he said this to me—”and that, to me, is a theme. The moment you grab somebody by the lapels and you've got something to tell, that's a real story.  The moment you say this, you're committed


Raymond Carver:  It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring--with immense, even startling power.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Short Story Month 2017—part 9: Short Story Writers on Unity of Impression


Short Story Month 2017—part 9:  Short Story Writers on Unity of Impression
  
Ambrose Bierce: The only way to get unity of impression from a novel is to shut it up and look at the covers.

Chekhov: "The short story, like the stage, has its conventions.  My instinct tells me that at the end of a story I must artfully concentrate for the reader an impression of the entire work, and therefore must casually mention something about those whom I have already presented.  Perhaps I am in error."

Edgar Allan Poe:  A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents--he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect... In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

          Edith Wharton:  The least touch of irrelevance, the least chill of inattention, will instantly undo the spell, and it will take as long to weave again as to get Humpty Dumpty back on his wall.


Wells Tower: It's very easy to write a terrible short story: you just write something and then stop.

John Wain:  There are perfectly successful short stories, and there are totally unsuccessful ones, and there’s nothing in between.


Richard Ford:  If stories fail, then they don’t make a short story.  It’s like bread.  Either it’s a loaf of bread or it’s doughy goo.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Short Story Month 2017—Part 8: Short Story Writers on Mystery in the Story


Short Story Month 2017—Part 8: Short Story Writers on Mystery in the Story

Joy Williams:  “A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the dark.  The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery…. he wants to escape his time, the obligations of his time, and, by writing, transcend them.”

Flannery O’Connor:  "The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible...The type of mind that can understand [the short story] is the kind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery."

Flannery O’Connor:  “The short story is] a form in which the writer makes alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe everyday, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.... Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected."

Catherine Brady: “Every good story has to risk being obscure, aimless, about nothing if it is to sustain that ‘something wild’ not within reach, not enclosed in the story because it cannot be named or identified in any single passage.”

Alice Munro:” I write because I want to get a feeling of mystery or surprise. Not a mystery that finishes you off, but something that makes the character or reader wonder. I don’t really like interpretations. I don’t want to make definite explanations.”

Amy Hempel: “I  don’t like having anything spelled out. Of course, mystery is not vagueness. Mystery is controlled. It involves information meted out only as needed. I not only don’t want the explanation, I want the mystery.”

Eudora Welty:   "The first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own. It is wrapped in an atmosphere. This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initially obscures its plain, real shape.”



Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Short Story Month 2017—Part 7: Subjectivity of the Short Story


Short Story Month 2017—Part 7: Subjectivity of the Short Story

Mary Lavin: “I feel that it is in the short story that a writer distills the essence of his thought.  I believe this because the short story shape as well as matter, is determined by the writer’s own character.  Both are one.”

Eudora Welty:  “All of one writer’s stories must take on their quality, carry their signature, because of one characteristic lyrical impulse of his mind—the impulse to praise, love, to call up, to prophesy.  Something in the outside world, some person, place, thing, leads back to the emotions in a specific way, it is the break of the living world upon what is stirring inside the mind, and the answering impulse that in a moment of high consciousness fuses impact and image and fires them off together.”

Elizabeth Bowen:  "The first necessity for the short story...is necessariness. The story, that is to say, must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough to have made the writer write.”

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

Erskine Caldwell:  “To transform a simple incident into a story, You get a kind of fever, I suppose, mentally and emotionally, that lifts you up and carries you away. You have to sustain this energy you’ve gotten to write your story. By the time you’ve finished, all your energy, your passion, is spent. You’ve been drained of everything.”

Lorrie Moore:  “Perhaps, in many ways, it’s a more magical form. Who knows sometimes where stories come from? They are perhaps more attached to the author’s emotional life and come more out of inspiration than slogging. You shouldn’t write without inspiration—at least not very often.”


Clark Blaise:  “With the short story, the beginning is the end, it seems to me.  If you yield to the magic of a beginning, which just seizes you, and you can continue it…if something in that beginning is pushing you, then yes, you won’t give it up, you’ll know that there was a crack in it somewhere that allowed you to see another dimension, so you’ll stick with it.”

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Short Story Month 2017—Part 6: Short Story Writers on Time in the Story


Short Story Month 2017—Part 6: Short Story Writers on Time in the Story

Julio Cortezar:  The short-story writer knows that he can’t proceed cumulatively, that time is not his ally.  His own solution is to work vertically, heading up or down in literary space.

Maurice Shadbolt:  The real challenge is to pull as much of life as a story can bear into the fewest possible pages: to produce, if possible, that hallucinatory point in which time past and time future seems to co-exist with time present, that hallucinatory point which to me defines the good or great short story..."

           Russell Banks:  The short story and the novel bear greatly different relations to time. The novel, I think, has a mimetic relation to time. The novel simulates the flow of time, so once you get very far into a novel, you forget where you began—just as you do in real time. Whereas with a short story the point is not to forget the beginning. The ending only makes sense if you can remember the beginning. I think the proper length for a short story is to go as far as you can without going so far that you have forgotten the beginning.


Jayne Anne Phillips:  “I think that stories in reality are often circular; past and present and future are mixed up in terms of the way we think; and the closer a story can get to that—the more completely it can represent that—the more timeless the story becomes.

David Means:  In a short story you’d better do something with time or it’ll feel short.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Short Story Month 2017—Part 5: Short Story Writers on the Novel vs. Short Story


Short Story Month 2017—Part 5: Short Story Writers on the Novel vs. Short Story

Isak Dinesen:  "I see today a new art of narration, a novel literature and category of belles-lettres, dawning upon the world. And this new art and literature--for the sake of the individual characters in the story, and in order to keep close to them and not be afraid--will be ready to sacrifice story itself.... The literature of individuals is a noble art, a great earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story.... Within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer the cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: 'Who am I?'"

A.E. Coppard: “First I want to crush the assumption that the short story and the novel are manifestations of one principle of fiction, differentiated merely by size.  In fact, the relationship of the short story to the novel amounts to nothing at all.  The novel is a distinct form of art having a pedigree and practice of hardly more than a couple of hundred years; the short story, so far from being its offspring, is an ancient art originating in the folk tale, which was a thing of joy even before writing, not to mention printing, was invented… The folk tale ministered to an apparently inborn and universal desire to hear tales.”

Deborah Eisenberg: “There’s something that I can’t quite put my finger on about the demands of doing something long, something that looks just slightly more conventional.”

H. E. Bates:  “The short story, whether short or long, poetical or reported, plotted or sketched, concrete or cobweb, has an insistent and eternal fluidity that slips through the hands…. The novel is predominantly an exploration of life…The development of character, the forward movement of time, have always been and perhaps always will be the pulse and nerve of the novel.  But in the short story time need not move, except by an infinitesimal fraction; the characters themselves need not move; they need not grow old; indeed there may be no characters at all.”

Grace Paley: For me, somehow, the short story is very close to the poem in feeling and not so close in feeling to the novel, although it’s about the same people that a novel would be about. But what it tries to say is the poem of those lives.

Anne Beattie: “I don’t think that short stories have all that much in common with novels.  A story re-creates for me more directly what my sense of the world is; a short story writer has to use language differently from a novelist.”

Annie Proulx:  “The construction of short stories calls for a markedly different set of mind than work on a novel, and for me short stories are at once more interesting and more difficult to write than longer works.  I think the short story is a superior form. It’s definitely more difficult than writing a novel.”

William Faulkner:  "A short story is the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry...A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has."

            Grace Paley:  I really am in love with the story form, so I can’t say the novel will do something a short story can’t.  I would just say they probably do something different. And I’ve never been really clear about it.

George Saunders:  The novel and the short story “are, at their origin, very different… In a novel the whole point is the little constructions along the way… A chance to describe a certain household or a certain while-travelling phenomenon.  And the plot is just a way to link these together, and, in a sense justify them…. Whereas in a story the progression of the plot is what the whole machine is ultimately judged against.  You can do the other things—description, dialogue, etc., but any piece that is inessential to the sense that this thing is moving forward, and along a certain thematic track is felt as extraneous.”

William Carlos Williams: What are the advantages of the short story as an art form?  One clear advantage as against a novel—which is its nearest cousin—is that you do not have to bear in mind the complex structural paraphernalia of a novel in writing a short story and so may dwell on the manner, the writing. 

Edith Wharton:  “The chief technical difference between the short story and the novel may be summed up by saying that the situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel; and it follows that the effect produced by the short story depends almost entirely on its form, or presentation.  The short story, free from the longuers of the novel is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness--too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth."

William Faulkner:  “When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant.”

Frank O’Connor: "The short story, compared with the novel, is a lonely, personal art; the lyric cry in face of human destiny, it does not deal as the novel does with types or with problems of moment, but with what Synge calls 'the profound and common interests of life'."

Nadine Gordimer:  "The strongest convention of the novel, prolonged coherence of tone...is false to the nature of whatever can be grasped of human reality.... where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, not there, in darkness. Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of--the present moment."


           Richard Bausch:  T”he short story is such a persistent form:  For the fact is that there are matters of the spirit the short story addresses better than any other literary art."

Lee K. Abbott: Stories are sometimes as demanding to read as they are to write, and frankly writing a couple hundred pages or three or four hundred pages of that kind of thing would kill me, exhaust the hell out of me.

John Cheever:  I do think that if it is good, it is perhaps the most intense form of writing that I’ve ever had any experience with.  The last story I wrote that I liked—I felt as though it had been written out of my left ventricle—I thought ‘I don’t want to write any more short stories, because you don’t fool around…. With a short story, you have to be in there on every word; every verb has to be lambent and strong.  It’s a fairly exhausting task, I think.”


Monday, May 8, 2017

Short Story Month 2017: Part 4: Short-Story Writers on Leaving Things OUt


Leaving Things Out

Anton Chekhov:  "In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because, because--I don't know why."

Rudyard Kipling:  "A tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know the operation has been performed, but everyone feels the effect."

Hemingway:  “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”

William Boyd:  “Something occurs in the writing - and reading - of a short story that is on another level from the writing and reading of a novel. The basic issue, it seems to me, is one of compression versus expansion. The essence of almost every short story, by contrast, is one of distillation, of reduction. It's not a simple question of length, either. We are talking about a different category of prose fiction altogether.”

Peter Taylor:  “Compression is what I have set great store by as a short-story writerThe short-story writer is concerned with compression, with saying as much as he can in a short space, just as the poet is. So he has to choose the right dramatic moment for the presentation. If he can do that in writing a story, he can have as big a canvas as he would with a novel. That’s the genius of the short-story writer—finding precisely the right moment in the vital interplay between the characters.”

John Barth:  “We may safely generalize that short story writers, as a class, from Poe to Paley, incline to see how much they can leave out, and novelists as a class, from Petronius to Pynchon, how much they can leave in.”

William Trevor:  “I think the short story is the art of the glimpse.  If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time.”

Julio Cortezar:  “The short story begins with the notion of limits…it cuts off a fragment of reality, giving it certain limits, but in such a way that this segment acts like an explosion which fully opens a much more ample reality.”

Anne Beattie:  “Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it.”

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Short Story Month 2017: Part 3—Writers on the Short Story



Finding The big in the Little:

Henry James: “a story is a tiny nugget with a hard latent value.”
Bernard Malamud: The short story packs a self in a few pages predicating a lifetime.  A short story is a way of indicating the complexity of life in a few pages, producing the surprise and effect of a profound knowledge in a short time.  A short story is a way of indicating the complexity of life in a few pages, producing the surprise and effect of a profound knowledge in a short time. There’s, among other things, a drama, a resonance, of the reconciliation of opposites: much to say, little time to say it, something like the effect of a poem.
Chekhov:  once told a writer that his works  "lack the compactness that makes short things alive."
Donald Barthelme: “Fragments are the only forms I trust.”
Richard Bausch:  The short story is such a persistent form, for the fact is that there are matters of the spirit the short story addresses better than any other literary art. 
Clare Boylan:  “I love the feeling with the short story of the world is in the detail and that small random acts can set ordinary lives alight or consume them to ash.”
Richard Ford:  “Short stories want to give us something big but want to do it in precious little time and space. “Short stories feel as though they arise out of some fierce schism that by their very existence they mean to reconcile.  And fascination edging on to mystery does exist in the discrepancy between the ingenious capacity of great stories to penetrate us and our ineludible awareness of their brevity.”
Amy Hempel, 1988:  “The trick is to find a tiny way into a huge subject.”

Stephen Millhauser: “I imagine the short story saying to the novel: You can have everything — everything — all I ask is a single grain of sand. The novel, with a careless shrug, a shrug both cheerful and contemptuous, grants the wish.  But that grain of sand is the story’s way out. That grain of sand is the story’s salvation. I take my cue from William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” Think of it: the world in a grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small, contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself. The short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there — right there, in the palm of its hand — lies the universe.”

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Short Story Month 2017—Part 2: Writers on the Short Story


Form Rather than Content is Focus for the Short Story:

Herbert Gold: The short story must “tend to control and formalize experience and strike hot like the lyric poem.”
Charles D’Ambrosio:  “It’s the musical nature of sentences, where you actually hear the sound in a meaningful way, and those sounds have meaning and nuances as important as any of the content.  I can feel the whole thing in any one of the sentences.  I love that aspect of the short story; it’s almost like reading a poem.”
Amy Hempel:  “Often I’ve started a story knowing the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, but without knowing what the words are. I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”
Lee K. Abbott:  “One of the things I like to do with the sentence is somehow make it prosodic, make it a music, take advantage of those techniques and forms that were heretofore the province of the poet, assonance and consonance and various kinds of ellipses and alliteration and, you know, all the rhetorical strategies that poets had used in their verse over time.”
Deborah Eisenberg:  “Sometimes there’s a kind of tonality that I want, almost as if I was writing a piece of music…sometimes in the back of my mind there’s a musical model.”
Hugh Hood:  “Story is very close to liturgy, which is why one's children like to have the story repeated exactly as they heard it the night before. The script ought not to deviate from the prescribed form."
James Lasdun: “One of the reasons short stories do not sell well is that the genre demands an interest in form as well as content more than a novel does and people do not seem so interested in form these days.”
Donald Barthelme: “The change of emphasis from the what to the how seems to me to be the major impulse in art since Flaubert, and it’s not merely formalism, it’s not at all superficial, it’s an attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one.
Gustave Flaubert: (Goncourt Journals): “I don’t give a damn about the story, the plot.  When I am writing, my idea is to render a colour, a tonality.”
Adam Haslett, 2004: “I think of each story as having a rhythm, an intensity, and I am always trying to find the rhythm that fits a particular story.”
Andrea Lee:  Novels are fun, but I think I’ll always love short fiction best, because I am obsessed with structure and symmetry, and somehow it is more satisfying for me to work with these on a small canvas.  The word is intensity.  I love the way a short story can offer a sharp concentrated insight like a stiletto thrust.  I love the way you can experience a whole life time in a few pages, as you do in the lines of a poem.”
Alberto Moravia:  “The novel has a bone structure of ideas holding it together, whereas the short story is, so to speak, boneless…made up of intuitions of feelings.”
David Means:  “Short stories demand a kind of intense poetic eye, and you can’t flinch.  I relate stories to songs; you listen to a song and get a bit of narrative along with beat and tone and sound and images, then the song fades out, or hits that final beat, and you’re left with something that’s tangible and also deeply mysterious.”
Truman Capote:  “By control, I mean maintaining a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material. Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence— especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.”
Harold Brodkey:  “Words have a strangely changeable, contingent kind of meaning, and as T. S. Eliot said in one of his famous essays, the music of language carries more of the real meaning than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.”
Katherine Mansfield:  “It’s a queer thing how craft comes into writing.  For example in ‘Miss Brill’ I choose not only the length of every sentence but even the sound of every sentence.  I choose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her, and to fit her on that day at that very moment.  After I’d written it I read it aloud—numbers of times—just as one would play over a musical composition—trying to get it nearer and nearer to the expression of Miss Brill—until it fitted her.”

Julio Cortazar:  “The mysterious significance does not lie only in the subject of the story… The idea of significance is worthless if we do not relate it to the ideas of intensity and tension, which refer to the technique used to develop the subject.  And this is where the sharp distinction is made between the good and the bad short-story writer.”

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Short Story Month 2017: Writers on the Short Story—Part 1


      Many authors like short stories for precisely the same reasons that many readers do not.  It should not surprise you that many writers assigned the dreaded title, “a writer’s writer”—such as Alice Munro, William Trevor, Deborah Eisenberg, Mavis Gallant, Joy Williams, Steven Millhauser, David Means—are primarily short story writers.  And it should not also surprise you that Francine Prose’s bravely titled book of a few years ago—How to Read Like a Writer—spent much more time analyzing and praising the prose of short story writers than she did that of novelists.
      Prose’s central point is that to be a good reader, one must be knowledgeable of, and sensitive to, those elements of writing that constitute the craft: words, sentences, character, dialogue, and details.  Prose reminds us of something that modern students of literature often find it hard to accept—that subject matter is not all that important, that what the writer most often wants to do is write really great sentences.  Many current literature students, who have been taught to read for social themes, political issues, and cultural contexts, might therefore assume that Prose’s book has been written only for creative writing students, not creative reading students.  That is an unfortunate assumption.
     In the forty years I was a teacher, I argued that the short story is a unique literary form that makes different demands on readers than its often bullying big-shouldered brother, the novel.  Often, the only ones I have found to agree with me are authors of the short story.  Perhaps, as many of you, when I was young, I wished to be a writer of the short story.  But for various reasons—lack of  storytelling talent, lack of energy, lack of nerve—I became a reader of the form instead.  Only in the last few of years of my retirement have I actually written and published a couple of short stories.  Those modest efforts do not make me a writer.  However, the process of writing them has confirmed some of the convictions I have about the form that reading thousands of them over the years has instilled in me. 
     For Short Story Month 2017, I have rummaged through forty years of notes, have read hundreds of interviews, intros, and commentaries to gather the judgments of  over100 different authors on the short story.  I have organized these characteristics into major categories.  This is the first of several I will post this month:
Do Writers Really Love the Short Story?
Julie Orringer has said that when she started out writing short stories she imagined that this was a kind of practice for a novel that was going to come later.  However, she says, “As I got farther along in my studies and in the development of my writing I became so excited about the short story as a form I ceased thinking of it and anything I wanted to do as preparation… I was happy to think that I might always work in the short story form.” 
Isabel Allende: “People think if they can write a short story then eventually they will be able to write a novel.  It’s actually the other way around.  If you are able to write a novel, someday with a lot of work and good luck you may be able to write a good short story.”
 Truman Capote: “When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium.”
Annie Proulx:  “I sometimes think it would be better in creative-writing programs if students cut their writing teeth on novels instead of short stories. Short stories are often very difficult and demanding, drawing on deep knowledge of human nature and the particulars of pivotal events. Every single word counts heavily. The punctuation is critical. Finding the right words and making honorable sentences takes time. The general reading public has no idea of what goes into a short story because it is literally short and can give the impression that the writer sat down and rattled the thing out in an hour or two.” 
Ron Carlson: ” I love the short story; I’d write them forever, regardless of the fact that it isn’t a particularly sharp career move.”
Stuart Dybek: “What I love about the short story is that you can jump into it where it’s already geared up at a high level, start out already in third gear and then kick it into fourth and fifth.Dan Chaon:  One of the things I love about the short story as an art form is its ability to evoke the ephemeral quality of being alive… My hope and ideal is to rescue ‘missing’ moments in time before they vanish back into the haze of daily life.”
Tim Gatreaux: “The short story, of course, is a wonderful form that I love dearly. It is a manageable form. You can work on a short story sentence by sentence almost the way you work on a poem You can make sure that the logic of the first sentence ties in with the logic of the very last. I think the short story is more of an art form, really, than the novel. I'm sure a lot of people would disagree with me on that.”
Jonathan Franzen: I like stories because they leave the writer no place to hide.  There’s no yakking your way out of trouble.  I’m going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you’ve got nothing to say I’m going to know it.
Angela Carter said what she likes about the short story is how "the limited trajectory of the short narrative concentrates its meaning. Sign and sense can fuse to an extent impossible to achieve in an extended narrative."


Monday, May 1, 2017

When Does a Bunch of Stuff Become a Story? Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses” Wins the £30, 00 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award for 2017.


Everyone who writes stories knows that often you have a folder, or box, or file, of “stuff” that you just keep adding to and tinkering around with and then putting away.  You feel the stuff goes together in some way, but you are not quite sure how, or at least you cannot find a way to put it together that makes it a satisfying whole.
Bret Anthony Johnston, whose first book was a well-received 2004 collection of short stories entitled Corpus Christi and who now directs the creative writing program at Harvard, told Benedicte Page on The Bookseller Blog that “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses” was in a “process of accrual” for a decade.  He said he would be working on his novel and would get frustrated and leave it a while and write a little vignette about a horse.  When he started to have enough of the vignettes and his character became a “backbone” to them, he spread them over the floor and tried to understand the order of his character’s memory—where it would go next. “The trajectory of memory is not logical,” says Johnston, “ and a lot of time was spent trying to disabuse the story of logic.”
On the EFG Award website, Johnston said part of him is shocked that what he calls “The Weird Horse Story” was ever even published, much less a prize winner; he jokes that he is completely convinced there has been a mistake by the EFG in giving him the award and that any day he will received an email telling him they are sorry for the error.
That Johnston’s ten-year-folder of stuff is a indeed a story has been verified by the fact that a jury of five esteemed judges—Andrew Holgate, Mark Lawson, Rose Tremain, Neel Mukherjee, and Anne Enright—have chosen it out of over 1,000 entries to the 2017 EFG Short Story Award. However, the question that students of the short story might well ask is what made the collection of stuff a story. It is not enough that it is all about horses, for subject matter alone does not a story make.  Nor is it enough that it is about one character who loves horses, although it is his weakening memory that holds the story together. No, there also had to be some thematic significance of the relationship between the man and the material that gives the story its “storyness.” Often writing a story is a process of making, or finding, or letting happen, that thematic link.
You don’t have to love horses to love this story, but it helps.  The central character, Atlee Rouse, is, at the end of the story an eighty-year-old horseman from Texas who, although gradually losing his memory, remembers enough to convince us that the central fact of his mind and soul is that he loves horses. And we love him because he loves horses.  Johnston has said that what he thinks we do as writers and readers is exercise “profound depths of empathy,” entering a story without judgment. He told the EFG Interviewer that he worked hard to empathize with Atlee at various moments of his life, the good and the difficult. The result is that the reader also empathizes with Atlee. The story would not work otherwise; it certainly would not have won the EFG Prize without the reader’s becoming engaged with what Atlee Rouse knows about horses.
In an interview Johnston did with J. Rentilly after the publication of Corpus Christi in 2004, he said he believed that we live by stories, that regardless of how tragic, there is some comfort in telling them. “This is linked to memory, of course,” said Johnston, “and one of the things that I’ve tried to explore… might well be called the mythology of memory.”
Although “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses” is made up of various details about horses and several horse-related events of Atlee’s life with his daughter Tammy and his wife Laurel, the central event that keeps reoccurring is what Johnston describes as the “most beautiful thing he’d ever seen”: the wild horses in Arizona when in 1983 he makes a trip to deliver a horse to a couple in Phoenix and he sees a wild horse herd, whose playful antics charm him and impress him with their elegant beauty. There is something magical and transcendent about the horses for Atlee; when they run, they seem like one “tremulous and far ranging body, until they came together in a gorgeous line, a meridian dividing before and after.” When forty of them play frisky games in the river, “Atlee’s heart seemed too big for his chest.”
Indeed, one of the things that makes the story work is the almost supernatural magic of horses that all horse lovers are familiar with.  The animal has always the subject of many mythologies and stories, often suggesting the union of animal and human and a kind of animal-human empathy. One of the many references stitched throughout the story is Plato’s believe that the soul was a chariot pulled by two winged horses, one tame and one wild. Others are: A horse’s heart weights ten pounds. A lost horse can follow its own tracks home. After a long separation, horses will put their nostrils together and inhale each other’s breath as a welcome home greeting.
On Atlee’s last morning at the Salt River, waiting for the wild horses that seem like a miracle or a mirage, a colt comes to the water and splashes in. Atlee wants his wife to be there with him to bear witness to the sight, “to feel what he did: that his whole life had led to this moment, had always been leading here.” When the colt goes under, Atlee dives into the water to try to save it, but knows he cannot reach it in time or be of any help. It is at this point that a stallion appears and dives down, coming up with his teeth clamped on the colt’s mane and pulls it out. 
Atlee can hardly wait to call his wife and tell her about what he has witnessed. Although he says he will tell his daughter when he gets home, things get in the way and he never gets around to it. For the rest of his life, it is just an experience for him and his wife, and then with her death and the horses also, of course, it is just his and his alone.  The story ends with this self-reflexive observation: “A passing moment, scattering and shapeless, a story that wasn’t a story at all, just something stuck in his head about horses, a memory without beginning or middle or end.”
What the story thata does not seem like a story at all seems to capture is that mysterious magical nature of horses in their natural “wild” state, and how, when they are “captured” and tamed by humans, they become obsessed, like the carnival horse that is always ridden in clockwise circles and for the rest of its life never turns left.  The seemingly random factoids, anecdotes, and stories of horses that run throughout the story are not random at all, but rather unified to evoke this sense of magical union between human and animal.
Johnston has said he believes that short story collections don’t sell as well as novels because they are much more difficult to read. “Novels might require a longer commitment, but stories demand a deeper concentration and a more intense focus, and a lot of people would rather not exert themselves in that way. On the surface it would seem as though our sound-byte society would gravitate to shorter work, it it’s not the case. However, those that do buy and read literary short fiction are among the best and brightest readers we have.  They’re willing to take risks, to invest their attentions and emotions; that’s exactly the kind of reader I want.”
Indeed, it is exactly the kind of reader that all short-story writers want. A bunch of stuff becomes a story not only when a writer senses a meaningful connection between the bits and pieces that have clung to his memory, but also when a reader takes the time to read carefully enough to value that unifying connection.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Rick Bass Wins 2016 Story Prize

  
Rick Bass’s For a Little While: New and Collected Stories has just won the 2016 Story Prize, for which Bass will receive $20,000.  It contains eighteen stories previously published in book form and seven stories new to book form. The paperback version, which I just ordered, will be available o March 21. I will comment on the new stories in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime, here is a brief discussion of one of my favorite Bass stories in For a Little While, “The Hermit’s Story.


“The Hermit’s Story,” a magical tale about the entry into an alternate reality, begins with a sort of poetic overture about the blue color of an ice storm.  The narrator and his wife have gone to the home of Ann and Roger for Thanksgiving dinner.  The power is out, and after the two couples eat pie and drink wine before a roaring fire, Ann tells a story about an experience she had twenty years before up in Saskatchewan with a man named Gray Owl who hired Ann to train six German shorthair pointers.

After Ann has trained the dogs all summer and into the fall, she takes them back to Gray Owl to show him how to continue to work them.  She and Gray Owl take the dogs out into the snow, and Ann uses live quail to show Gray Owl how the dogs will follow the birds and point them.  They work the dogs for a week until they get lost in a heavy snowstorm, drifting away from their home area by as much as ten miles.  When they come to a frozen lake and Gray Owl walks out on its surface and kicks at it to find some water for the dogs, he abruptly disappears below the ice.

Ann decides to go into the water after Gray Owl, for even if he is already drowned, he has their tent and emergency rations.  However, when she crawls out on the ice and peers down into the hole where Gray Owl disappeared, she sees standing him below waving at her.  When he helps her down, he says that what has happened is that a cold snap in October has frozen a skin of ice over the shallow lake and then a snowfall insulated it.  When the lake drained in the winter, the ice on top remained.  Ann goes back to the shore and hands the dogs down into the warmth created by the enclosed space beneath the ice.

The world under the ice is a magical one, the air unlike anything they have ever breathed before. The cold air from the hole they made meets with the warm air from the earth beneath the lake to create breezes.   Although the ice above them contracts and groans, they feel they are safe beneath a sea watching waves of starlight sweep across their hiding place.  When they build a fire from cattails, small pockets of swamp gas ignite with explosions of brilliance.

The two head for what they hope is the southern shore, the dogs chasing and pointing snipe and other birds.  They finally reach the other shore and walk south for a half a day until they reach their truck.  That night they are back at Gray Owl’s cabin, and by the next night Ann is home again. The story ends with the narrator considering that Ann is the only one who carries the memory of that underworld passage.  He thinks that it perhaps gave her a model for what things are like for her dogs when they are hunting and enter a zone where the essences of things. 

When  “The Hermit’s Story,” appeared in the 1999 Best American Short Stories collection, Rick Bass said in his contributor’s note that as soon as he heard about a frozen lake with no water in it, he knew he wanted to write a story about that.  Because he was trying to train two bird dogs at the time, he made up a bird-dog trainer as a sort of wish fulfillment and had her go up to Canada and fall into such a lake.

Such an event alone, as dramatically potential as it might be, does not, of course, make a story.   What makes the event a story is Bass’s exploration of the symbolic significance of the magical world into which the characters enter.  That magical world is presaged even before they break through the ice with the blue world of the ice storm described by the narrator in the opening paragraphs in which the blue is like a scent trapped in the ice.  It is further emphasized by the fact that the storm has knocked out the electricity, creating a world of darkness.  In the midst of this cold, blue, dark world, the two couples sit before a fire, creating the classic setting for a story to be told.

When Ann and Gray Wolf work the dogs in the snow of Saskatchewan, they travel across snowy hills, the sky the color of snow so that it seems they are moving in a dream.  Except for the rasp of the snowshoes and the pull of gravity, they might believe they had ascended into a sky-place where the entire world was snow.  All this is preparation for their descent into the improbable, magical world underneath the frozen lake.  When they look up, the ice is clear, and they can see stars as if they were up there among them or else as if the stars were embedded in the ice.

The closest the narrator can come to articulating the meaning of the experience is to suggest that it perhaps was a zone where the appearances of things disappeared, where surfaces faded away and instead their very essence was “revealed, illuminated, circumscribed, possessed.”  Much like a magical journey in a fairy tale, the experience under the ice is a journey into a realm of dream and desire, which suggests that the world is a much more magical and mysterious place than we usually think.

Style is especially important to this story, for without Bass’s poetic descriptions, his rhythmic prose, and his suggestions about the mythic significance of the experience it would be merely an interesting anecdote, depending solely on the unusual nature of the frozen empty lake.  The opening paragraph, by repeating the reference to the color blue and the fictional metaphoric phrase “as if,” sets up the entry into the fairy tale world.  This “as if” metaphoric quality also is used to refer to Ann’s transformation of the dogs from wild and unruly pups into well-trained hunting dogs, “as if” they are rough blocks of stone with their internal form existing already, waiting to be chiseled free.  If the training is neglected, they have a tendency to revert to their old selves, “as if” the dogs’ greatness can disappear back into the stone.

Although often metaphoric, Bass’s style is not flowery, but rather simple and straightforward.  He does not tell the story in Ann’s words, but rather has the narrator retell it, thus filtering the story through two points of view.  Neither Ann nor Gray Owl talk much during their experience, and when they do it is in the simple straightforward language of people reduced to basic states.  In telling Ann about the lake, he says “It’s not really a phenomenon; it’s just what happens.”  And when she asks if he knew it would be like this, he says, “No.  I was looking for water.  I just got lucky.”  Although there is no indication, other than his name, that Gray Owl is Native American, his dialogue reflects the common literary convention of having Native Americans speak in short declarative sentences. 

Bass, a naturalist who has written nonfiction books about the Yaak Valley in Montana, also devotes much of the story to his fascination with the natural world of, as well as the dogs and the birds they hunt.  For example, when the birds flush out snipe from the cattails underneath the ice, Bass spends at least two pages pondering the presence of the birds, wondering if they had been unable to migrate because of injuries or a genetic absence.  With the curiosity of the naturalist, he wonders if the snipe had tried to carve out new ways of being in the stark and severe landscape, holding on until the spring would come like green fire.  If the snipe survived, the narrator reckons, they would be among the first to see the spring; they would think that the torches of Ann and Gray Owl were merely one of winter’s dreams.


The fairy-tale, folklore nature of the story persists throughout, with the narrator considering at the end that Ann holds on to her experience as one might hold on to a valuable gem found while out for a walk and thus containing some great magic or strength.