Thursday, March 20, 2008

Reading About Yourself

The other day I was reading Lorrie Moore's short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here," which is possibly the most devastating story of the decade. I first read it years ago, like in 1998 or so, when it came out. It's held up even better than I remembered. It's about a couple -- a woman, mostly -- whose baby son gets a kidney tumor. Downer, yes? No -- yes -- sort of. The story's mostly about the experience of taking a baby to the hospital to get treatment and suddenly finding oneself in the strange alter-world of sick kids.

But it's also very much about what it means to use one's life experience in writing. Moore says in the bio section of Best American Short Stories, "This story has a relationship to real life like that of a coin to a head." In other words, it happened. The husband in the story says, "Take notes on this. We need the money." The woman, the writer, bridles at this -- this isn't fiction, it's real life! But the last lines of the story are "Here are the notes. Where's the money?" Damn!!! It's devastating!!!!

In 1998 I was a writer, too, and I had a year-old son. If something horrible happened to me, maybe I too would exploit it. In any event, I empathize.

With all the talk lately about the "death of the short story," I've been making a mental list of short stories I love, and this one is on it. Honestly, I don't think there's a single story on my top ten from before 1980. I like stories that are about what it's like to live now, to be a human being on this planet at this time. I admire stories like "Hills Like White Elephants" (just an example) but I don't love them as I love the Moore story, or "Sleep" by Stephen Dixon, or "Glenn Gould" by Lydia Davis, or several Alice Munro stories. Is it because I'm self-absorbed, and need to hear stories about myself? Maybe! Is that a bad thing?

For me, reading is very much about figuring out the world as I know it. I'm drawn to stories about women, about writers, married people, mothers, sisters, snowstorms, school, the 80's, the 70's, right now. I also like stories about thinking and psychology. Not exclusively, but still: it seems like an awfully narrow way to read, but there you are.

Maybe one reason I'm so excited by short stories right now -- even if there aren't as many new ones as there used to be -- is because so many people with my particular interests are writing them.


bookfraud said...

that lorrie moore story is devastating, and from someone who is known for her humor, it's pretty amazing as well.

if something horrible happened to me, maybe I too would exploit it. i am considering the same thing with (the not so horrible but awful) bed bugs. what i wonder is if anything awful were to happen to my 10-month-old son, would i write about it? would it be courageous or exploitative? if i don't write about it, does it make me a good father or a coward? there really is no correct answer.

nothing on the top 10 prior to 1980? not even "the dead" or "araby"? or "the beast in the jungle" or "the swimmer" or "the killers"? granted, they aren't about mothers, women, writers, the 70s or 80s, but there's (famously) snow in "the dead."

maybe that's why i have such a hard time getting excited about short fiction these days -- all of the above were written by larger-than-life, literary giants walking the earth. the super-heavyweights don't write as much short stories any more. or maybe it's that we mistakenly don't identify great short story writers as super-heavyweights.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

This is a really good post, but I interpreted coin to a head as a vague imitation of reality, not even necessarily hers. I thought of that story as a brilliant simulation of someone's grief, not necessarily her grief, and the things about taking notes in the story put in to give the story authenticity, because she is such a masterful writer. But if it was her life, I think that writing about the horrors in our lives in fiction can help us process and order our experiences so we feel more in control of them. The only danger is in being so true to the story the fiction elements suffer, so one needs some distance of time perhaps. Personally, I used to love the types of relatable stories you mentioned. I adored Margaret Atwood. Now, I'm into reading all those crazy guys, especially the Russians, Nabokov, Faulkner and then Virginia Woolf, all because they are so foreign to my life experience I feel like I've travelled somewhere in time and space and into foreign brains. I want to know how men think.

rmellis said...

Lorrie Moore has always been a genius about that terrible place where humor and horror overlap. Like "terrific mother" which I still can't read.

Maybe it's that I like these writers in different ways. I've read all those guys, and appreciate them, but I appreciate people like Cheever -- those guys writing so specifically about the concerns of their time -- less and less as time goes on.

G: Maybe my current preference for very new fiction has something to do with the stage in life I'm at, or something. I've just been reading scads of Margaret Atwood, too!

Anonymous said...

I agree that this is an exceptional story, and I always believed that it reflected her experience quite factually. However, there was one aspect of the story that put me off a little.

Before I go on I must tell you that I am a retired pediatric cardiac surgeon, and I'm sure that biases my interpretation. But I thought Moore had a certain animus toward her son's surgeon, and it came through in the story. When Moore writes about the surgeon asking her to autograph one of her books that he owns and making some inane remark about the characters, it didn't ring true. I can't imagine ANY doctor dealing with a life-threatening condition imposing on a parent that way. I never operated on the child of a well-known author, but I did operate on kids of professional athletes, and tempted as I was to talk to those guys about sports, I never did. It felt to me like Moore wanted to take a dig at the doctor, and it undermined the credibility of the piece.

That's a minor point, however. It's still a brilliant story.

Max said...

It IS a narrow way to read, and maybe that's why I'm increasingly finding Ward Six (why have you named it after a Chekhov story?) to be boring and predictable. (You less so than jrl.)
You're reading what every other MFA grad is reading. You exist in an insular world.
Those in that world dominate literary fiction today, to its detriment. See any Best American anthology, where mediocre and bad stories outnumber the good or excellent ones.

rmellis said...

I read it because I LOVE it, Mr. Max. I'm reading new stuff, mostly, because I already read the old stuff, plus I'm a writer and I WRITE new stuff. I can't write old stuff!

No one likes the idea that writers write to their own times. Or maybe people just hate their times. I love living now. I love reading about now, too.

I'll tell JRL to get on the stick and stop boring you, Max! Unfortunately he's been busy getting a couple books ready to be published.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, Max, we'd made such progress, and now this. I'm afraid I'm going to have to raise my fee to $150 an hour.

amy said...

Whenever people say or write things about how nothing interesting is being published any more (ahem, max!), I feel like something is revealed about how hard they are looking. There is lots of really interesting and innovative fiction being written and published. Maybe it doesn't always make it to the Best Americans, but so what -- there are so many small presses and literary magazines and websites where interesting and off-kilter things can surface.

Also, for what it's worth, I don't think this blog is ever boring or predictable. I've always found it to be uniquely honest and fresh, which is why I value it.

So there.

amy said...

Oh yeah, and Rhian, what about Flannery O'Connor? I'm just now rereading some of her short stories and remembering how startling and weird and funny and brutal they are. Her characters and her world are nothing like me, but I think that's exactly why I like them, maybe...

rmellis said...

Amy, oh yeah, I love Flannery O'Connor, beyond reason. OK, I guess I was wrong, "Good Country People" is probably in my top ten.


rmellis said...

Whoops, sorry, I checked and the woman's name is actually "Hulga."

zoe said...

I don't find this blog boring in the least. I've discovered loads of good writers here that aren't known at all in the UK and for that (particularly Barbara Gowdy) I am eternally thankful.

This obsession with MFAs is weird. Is there nobody in America writing without an MFA? I know this can't be the case and yet the way you tell it, it's as if there's a massive conspiracy where only MFA people are published, read and appreciated.

I know I'm repeating myself here Max, and at the risk of further boring you, I'm still wondering why you read Ward Six at all if it so thoroughly gets your goat.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for liking the blog!

rmellis said...

I used to worry about being a boring blogger, but then I realized that if I'm boring, nobody HAS to read it. It's not like I'm wasting anyone's money! ;)

zoe said...

Would it be possible for bookfraud to identify the writers of the stories he mentioned? They're probably really obvious to everyone else, but I don't know them and would like to check them out.

Also, I meant to write earlier that Margaret Atwood is still my favourite favourite and always will be, by god.

rmellis said...

Well, in case he doesn't come back, "the dead" and "araby" are james joyce. "Beast in the Jungle" is Henry James. "The Swimmer" is Cheever. "The Killers" is Hemingway.

They're all good, of course! But I don't know -- I like them like I like the Mona Lisa, or Mozart: with a certain emotional distance.

I think Margaret Atwood might be my total favorite, too. Sometimes I even forget to mention her, because it's like saying my mom is one of my favorite people. Well, duh!

zoe said...

Now I feel like a moron... To be fair, I never remember the names of any short stories, even if I love them. It's like song titles -- I have to go, "You know, the one that goes...".

I met Margaret Atwood at the Edinburgh book festival last year when she did a long pen interview with Alice Munro. I forced myself to go up and speak to her and made a tit of myself telling her how much she'd influenced me and so on. But really, and you might think this is taking it too far, I read The Edible Woman when I was about 13 or 14 and it imprinted itself on me and (partially) made me the woman I am.

Now, to have that power and impact as a writer...

David Rochester said...


I guess I'm not entirely sure why it makes a difference how or what you read, except perhaps that for certain types of career writers, reading the current trends is sort of analagous to doctors reading their colleagues' research articles ... maybe it's good to keep abreast of what the competition is doing. I used to worry a bit about whether I was reading "properly", but then I started to think that when reading becomes a burden, I must surely have lost the point somewhere along the way.

I will admit to chuckling at Max's comment ... he does have a point, I think, about MFA programs. I remember when my agent was getting ready to pitch for me, she emailed me several times in despair, asking if I'd even ever applied to an MFA program. I reminded her,to her horror, that not only had I not done that, I'm a college dropout, and couldn't get into Oberlin's creative writing program because my fiction wasn't "sufficiently relevant to contemporary thought."

It was as though I'd broken some kind of law, daring to write a novel without the official sanction of a degree. Weird.

max said...

I found the responses to my comment to be boring and predictable. But I'll answer some direct questions from Zoe.
I don't read most of the posts on Ward Six! I read very, very few. I'll skim, or read the beginning and end of some. Many I skip altogether.
As for MFA domination of literary fiction. In the 2005 Best American, almost all of the authors attended a university writing program and/or teach in one. Two of the exceptions were older ladies -- Munro and Rishi (whose stories were the best of the lot).
I got into a wrangle with an editor of a prestigious magazine and the MFA complaint came up. He wrote back that his magazine did publish "new" writers -- and he gave me four names. I googled them and found that two had MFAs, two were working on their MFAs, and one of those four worked for the magazine.
I wrote him, relaying this information and stressing that I had never said anything about "new" writers. I want something new.
He surprised me. His answer (exact quote): "You're right. It is all MFA all the time. Don't know quite what to do about it."
My surprise came from the fact that someone in the establishment would actually admit the truth. It's that rare in the literary world.
Not that he'll lift his little finger to do something about it.
See "Literary Rejections on Display" (the best thing that I got from dropping by the Ward was a tip to that site). I'm not the only one thinking these thoughts.
I believe a true reader should range far and wide, to different countries and different times. And into nooks and crannies, to find wonderful books that are overlooked.
Right now I'm reading a Japanese novel written in 1906, and I wonder why I can relate to its main character more than I can to the bogus concoctions being foisted off on us nowadays.

max said...

I forgot to add:
Yo seem to casually accept being a narrow reader, Rhian.
But I believe we are what we read.
Take our president, George W. Bush. Now there's a narrow man.

zoe said...

It might be a good idea to consider that Americans aren't the only people getting published currently.

The domination of MFAs in the publishing world doesn't exist in Britain. There are a few universities that offer similar courses, but the vast majority of writers don't hold MFAs (or similar). Actually, I think it's often more of a badge of honour at times here to state that you have no formal qualification -- which is just as limiting as the opposite.
Is the Best American the only literary yardstick to go by? Surely, just because the word Best is in the title, readers don't have to take that as gospel.
One of the joys of reading is stumbling across someone new that you love. I resent someone telling me I should read such and such because it's worthy or a prizewinner or not in English. I will admit, I like to read American and Canadian fiction because it's "other" to me. I don't see that I need to be apologetic because some of those writers have MFAs.

rmellis said...

haha, you can't get me mad by comparing me with a member of the Bush family again, Max!

No, I don't take being "narrowly read" lightly... and I'll confess: I actually think I'm pretty widely read. I read high, low, old, new. But if you think I'm narrow, fine. I can certainly improve, and that's what I'm trying to do, with having a blog and all.