Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Long And Short Of Stories

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Is there such a thing as a typical American short story? Some will answer that question by pointing to a banality of tone. Compared with their European counterparts, they will say, American short story writers are provincial, producing domestic dramas beholden to Chekhov in all the wrong ways, and following templates established by writing workshops such as the one in Iowa and influential magazines such as the New Yorker.

There is some truth to these assertions, given the number of stories written in a plain style and proceeding in a dreary manner towards inconclusive endings that don't throw much light on the whole. Then again, the work of those such as Ben Marcus, Lydia Davis and George Saunders and many others also demonstrates that there are those who create wholly distinctive fiction. It’s also unfair to tar those from Iowa or in the New Yorker with the same brush, especially as, in recent years, there’s been considerable variance in their stories.

This is driven home once again by a new Paris Review anthology where you’ll find the realistic, the comic, the experimental and the minimal – the Paris Review being, of course, one of the magazines that did so much to popularize the form from its inception in 1953. (Those of you who haven’t browsed the magazine’s online archive of interviews with prominent writers, poets and essayists should stop reading this column now and do so at once.)

Object Lessons, as the anthology is called, is a collection with a difference: here, twenty writers introduce short stories by writers they admire and in doing so, provide short classes on what makes a short story praiseworthy in the first place. All the stories here were originally published in the Paris Review, and as such the collection isn’t meant to be representative of the form. The editors point out that it isn’t a “greatest hits anthology” either; the authors were simply asked to select a personal favourite and then describe why and how they work.

Here, stories by writers who are well-known jostle for space with those lesser-known. There’s Raymond Carver’s ‘Why Don’t You Dance’, Steven Millhauser’s ‘Flying Carpets’ and James Salter’s ‘Bangkok’ – but there’s also Dallas Wiebe’s ‘Night Flight to Stockholm’, Mary Beth-Hughes’s’ Pelican Song’ and Thomas Glynn’s ‘Except for the Sickness I’m Quite Healthy Now’.

The writers who’ve selected the stories offer insights that are several notches above the show-don’t-tell variety. On the Millhauser story, Daniel Orozco points out how the fantastical is rendered commonplace and “the magic of a boy’s childhood is recalled with the melancholy of the man who can never experience such again”. For David Means, it’s a well-chosen space break in the Carver story that gives it its power. On a Denis Johnson story, Jeffrey Eugenides asserts: “Compared to writing novels, writing short fiction is mainly a question of knowing what to leave out”.

There are few pedantic pronouncements and much close reading, which is why it makes sense to read the chosen story first and then double back to the appreciation. To read Dave Eggers on James Salter and Lydia Davis on Jane Bowles, for instance, is to gain a far richer appreciation of the stories when they’re still fresh in mind.

Here, too, writers known for specific styles pay homage to others with allied styles: Ben Marcus writes on David Barthelme, Ali Smith on Lydia Davis. There are other unsought correspondences: Mona Simpson chooses Norman Rush who chooses Guy Davenport; Ali Smith chooses Lydia Davis who chooses Jane Bowles.

The essay that stands out is by Aleksander Hemon, on Borges’s 'Funes the Memorius’. Hemon asserts that works by such authors “offer crucial evidence that it is impossible to conceptualise humanity without literature,” and goes on to make the case for Funes as the quintessential Borgesian character. Says Hemon, “Borges suggests that forgetting – that is, forgetting ceaselessly – is essential and necessary for thought and language and literature, for simply being a human being”. That’s worth remembering.

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