The Long and Short of Short Stories

Over at Kate’s Book Blog, talk of a short story reading group has made me go all soft and nostalgic about the genre. While I love reading novels (and struggle to write one, as not one but two agents asked me if I had something to show them), I gravitate toward writing short stories. And I enjoy reading them – after all, short stories are to American literature what jazz is to American music. So, I thought I’d share American masters of the form who are favorites, for anyone caring to dip their toes into pithy prose.

If you aren’t acquainted with short stories, I recommend starting with the classics: collections by Raymond Carver, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty, and “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson. Or simply dive into any one of many available anthologies, such as “Great American Short Stories,” ed. Wallace Stegner. For contemporary classics, please don’t miss Tobias Wolff’s “Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories,” an absolute stunner.

Having cautioned you on beginning with the established greats, let me warn you about the current state of short story publishing: It's spotty at best, imitative and shallow at worst – lots ‘o drek. The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, former standard-bearers of quality fiction, should hang their heads in shame. Zoetrope All-Story is good, although it has settled into primarily a showcase for Big Names (this magazine started out as a stellar forum for new authors). Happily, online zines are filling the vacuum left by the print press; despite the uneven quality of work, something rich and new and strange will emerge, I’m sure.

And now, a drum roll, please, for the select few (in LK’s most humble opinion) must-read collections by some of the genre’s best current practitioners:

George Saunders, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Pastoralia”. Dystopian fantasy from one of the most imaginative and funny observers of American culture.

Charles D’Ambrosio, “The Point and Other Stories.” Okay, I haven’t yet read his latest, The Dead Fish Museum (waiting for softcover), but this is an author dedicated to the short story form who pays attention to craft. The quintessential short story writer’s writer.

Annie Proulx, “Close Range.” I am so glad I ran out and bought this book, in hardcover, before all the Hollywood hoo-hah about Brokeback Mountain and Shipping News. Sharp language, stunning metaphors, a tight grip on the American landscape – she’s a national treasure and to be fully appreciated, like Yellowstone, must be experienced in the real setting – that is, in the pages, not on screen.

Anthony Doerr, “The Shell Collector.” This guy uses nature and terrain like no one else, covering locales from all over the world. Evocative imagery, beautiful language. If he keeps up the quality of work that is found in this collection, Doerr has a shot at ranking as one of The Masters.

Denis Johnson, “Jesus’ Son.” His other writing hasn’t hit me that hard, but this tough, haunting collection of stories works as a unit, similarly to Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” Johnson may not ever rise to this level of writing again, but, as in Anderson’s case, maybe once is enough.


Thoughts for Thursday

In cultural and literary references, Thursday gets short shrift.

Think about it: Other days of the week garner a lot more attention. There's Monday, which everyone sings the blues about. Tuesday is, in our opinion, undeservedly popular: You’ve got Mardi Gras, for starters, and Ruby Tuesday and Tuesday afternoons and Tuesday Weld. Wednesday: Hump Day – ‘nuff said. Everyone thanks their god when it’s Friday. And then we have the crowning jewel of calendar days, The Weekend, of which Saturday and Sunday are held sacred in many contexts, including that ultimate bid for immortality, an Elton John song.

Thursday got a Last Supper. Two thousand years ago. No fries.

Clearly this is a day that needs to up its game in the annals of time. We think Thursday ought to be reckoned with for what it is, the day that kicks back the rest of the week like a stiff drink.

So, in our Literate Kittenish way, we will honor Thursdays with random musings and general observations (except when we’re out of town). Feel free to join in.

Any other thoughts on Thursday?


Who put the O in pOp culture?

Oprah. There, we said it. We suppose Oprah is one of the less harmful of the dopiness pushers out there, but for the record, LK does not believe in the Mary Poppins of culture (“a spoonful of sugar makes the meaning of existence go down”). Nevertheless, we did procure a copy of the first-ever so-called reading issue (featuring a letter from Harper Lee, which we cited in a previous entry), filched (why fill Oprah’s bloated coffers any more than we need to?) from the waiting room tables of our local beauty salon, with the owner’s permission, of course (we’re not pirates).

In between the O list (her favorite things. As if her favorite things are even remotely related to our favorite things) and recipes for “ripe stuff,” (that would be fruit, for all you highbrow literalists), a few tiny nuggets of erudition emerged. All coated in blandness and read-at-the-beach grit. But usable when buffed up with a little elbow grease and a lot of Murphy’s Oil Soap. At least Grace Paley graces a few columns. From her poem “How to Tell a Story (My Method) (Most of the Time):

Find the paragraph to
hold the poem steady
for six or eight pages…
don’t let her lose the poem
in the telling of day by
day because the subject
is time the place is only
paper the story is still
a puzzle the teller
knows why

The issue includes a section on “How to Read a Hard Book.” Just in case any of Oprah’s faithful decide that upping the IQ points ranks alongside of attending little Kirsten and Kevin’s soccer games, or if they want to knock off a couple of pages of Moby-Dick during their next manicure. (Turn to page 81 for more tips on Spa Savviness!)

LK mentions all this because naturally one of the hard books mentioned is none other than Proust’s ISoLT. (We guess Proust is making a comeback…LK does so enjoy surfing the crest of a trend.) We couldn’t resist sharing the O secret to finishing ISoLT (from an author named Marcelle Clements):

Read fast. Read for plot – though you won’t understand what the plot is until the end. Don’t be frightened by the size of the novel….All you need to know to start is that this is, in Proust’s words, a story told by “a man who says ‘I.’”….You must do violence to yourself and keep going. Don’t forget: You can always return.

Uh-huh. Nice try, but we’re not so sure this will convince thousands of O readers to pick Proust’s tome up over, say, Love Smart by Phil McGraw. Even though Swann can provide a lot more insight about some of the swains over at Match.com than Dr. Phil ever could…


Swann, the Stalker?

I’m nearing the end of “Swann’s Way,” and am in the midst of the pages and pages examining Swann’s love for Odette.

Only Swann isn’t really in love with Odette. He suffers more from an obsession (borderline stalker by today’s standards), that kind of puppy crush that is bittersweet in a teenager, embittering in an adult. Swann’s love is not mature, selfless, giving. (And Odette is not an object worthy of mature love, which I’ll discuss in a future post.) Instead, his love objectifies Odette, so that she mirrors what he wants to see and feel – and when she doesn’t conform to this ideal, he feels contemptuous, both of her and himself. Throughout these pages, Swann vacillates between contempt and rationalization, for both his behavior and hers. (Actually, the prose is better than it was in earlier passages of this section – Proust seems to have hit his stride now.)

Then Swann detested her. “But also, I’m too stupid,” he would tell himself, “I’m paying with my own money for other people’s pleasures. All the same, she ought to take care and not pull to hard on her bowstring, because I might very well not give anything more at all.”…And because his hatred, like his love, needed to manifest itself and to act, he took pleasure in pursuing his evil fantasies further and further…

And a page and a half later:

Now that, after this oscillation, Odette had naturally returned to the place from which Swann’s jealousy had for a time removed her, to the angle from which he found her charming, he pictured her as full of tenderness…How he must have hurt her! Of course he could not find valid reasons for his resentment against her, but they would not have been enough to make him feel that resentment if he had not loved her so much.

Still, Proust steers clear of stereotyping Swann as the mad lover because of his recording of every shade of Swann’s feelings. Readers simply can’t help but identify with Swann and his plight at some points because they had to have undergone some of these experiences themselves.

One passage I thought particularly humorous was Swann’s pursuit of Odette to Pierrefond, where he spent most of his time avoiding her, so as not to arouse her suspicions, but mooning over the places where she had been (how many of us have done this same thing in the first flush of a romance?).

Even before seeing Odette there, even if he did not manage to see her, what happiness it would give him to step on that earth where, not knowing the exact location, at any given moment, of her presence, he would feel palpitating everywhere the possibility of her sudden appearance….

And, of course, the scene where he goes to confront Odette and her other lover but ends up knocking on the windows of the wrong house is priceless:

Because he was in the habit, when he came to Odette’s house very late, of recognizing her window by the fact that it was the only one lit among windows that were all alike, he had made a mistake and knocked at the window after hers, which belonged to the adjoining house.

If he had been indulging in this behavior today, he would be given a restraining order!


Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”

In between Proust pages and Bowles (Jane and Paul) short stories this weekend, LK managed to knock off Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” A chillingly good read. If you haven’t read this author, by all means get your hands on one of his books. His most famous, “Remains of the Day,” would be a good place to start. Or this book, if you can face the bleak premise and near-monochromatic tone.

While LK begs off full-blown book reviews (we just want bragging rights to have finished another book), here’s a brief encapsulation:

Set in a parallel universe of England circa 1990, “Never Let Me Go” outlines the story of students from Hailsham, a rather unorthodox school by our standards. As the story unfolds, we learn that Hailsham is a place where cloned children are raised, by guardians instead of parents, until they are released to pursue their careers – first as “carers” of organ donors then as organ donors themselves, providing up to four donations for “normal” humans.

Kathy H. narrates the tale of her life and the intertwined tales of her fellow students, the tough-fibered Ruth and gentle, awkward Tommy. The three form a nuclear family of sorts, supporting each other as they awkwardly navigate their lives as social outcasts.

Ishiguro skillfully straddles fiction genres – this is neither science nor speculative nor pure mainstream fiction. The clinical detachment of Kathy H.’s voice, along with its spare language, give the novel a heartbreaking poignancy, and Ishiguro masterfully spins out facts about the true purpose of Hailsham and its students, one detail at a time, propelling us toward the book’s inevitable outcome. It seems Kathy and her friends never question their duty or their fate. By stripping the language of specificity, Ishiguro allows readers to buy into the students’ own sense of unreality and acceptance. Euphemisms do more than protect our psyche: they also sell unpalatable truths. Ishiguro never sinks into moralizing or didacticism; he allows the story and characters to raise weighty questions: about what constitutes morality, duty and family and social contracts.

Check out Slate for Margaret Atwood’s thoughtful take on this novel.