Sunday, August 29, 2010

O. Henry Prize Stories, Then and Now

I recently got the new O. Henry Prize collection and read the whole thing, cover to cover. I liked some of the stories, very much unliked others, but there was one thing I couldn't help but notice: pretty much every story has a death in it. The first one in the collection, which is by Annie Proulx, is about some 19th century western pioneers who die (miserably), the Wendell Berry story has people dying left and right, the William Trevor has a murder, the Daniel Alarcon has blind people falling to their deaths off a bridge, Peter Cameron's story (maybe my favorite in the collection) has another fatal fall, etc. One story is actually in the form of an obituary.

It got me thinking about a potential blog post! Because if I remember my favorite stories of years past, none of them were about death. Were they? I mean, Charles Baxter's "Gryphon" or "Saul and Patsy are Getting Comfortable in Michigan" didn't hinge on grief, nor did all those Ann Beattie stories full of yuppies and Cuisinarts (I love Ann Beattie, but it's true: so many of her stories have people making salads or pesto), or most of Raymond Carver's stories (the execrable "A Small Good Thing" being a notable exception), etc. So then I (re)read the O. Henry from 1989 (don't have the 1990) and guess what? Yeah, there are just as many dead people in those stories as in today's.

So -- feh. I guess killing off characters to give your story emotional weight is a long-standing tradition, not just some post-9-11 tic, or whatever. Not that I haven't done it myself (in practically everything I've written, ha ha) or that it's necessarily bad. It isn't. The deaths of other people are life-altering, powerful experiences, so of course we want to write and read about them. But it got so that by the time I was 2/3 of the way through the 2010 collection, I could feel the death coming up. And in some stories the ghoulish death scene feels tacked on, as if the writers and editors thought that a nice juicy death could turn a regular story into Literature.

So, did I come to any actual conclusions after reading all these stories? Not really. It's hard to compare old O. Henry stories with new ones, because the old ones were chosen by a single old guy, William Abrahams, who had a pretty conservative sensibility. It could have been at least partly his personal taste that make the 1989 stories seem sort of less colorful -- more intellectual and upper west-sidey -- than the new stories, which are, of course, more multi-culti. One of the 1989 stories that stands out is "Here and There" by David Foster Wallace. It's the best story in the collection by about 1000 times (and no dead people). Rick Bass's "The Watch" is also in that collection -- not a perfect story but an interesting one. It got me thinking about how around that time there began a flood of cartoony-realist stories, like those of T. C. Boyle, George Saunders, and Ralph Lombreglia, though Rick Bass himself went in the Western Regionalism direction soon thereafter.

I should probably say something more, though, about multi-culturalism, which is the most obvious difference between the stories of today and twenty years ago. Around half the stories in the newer edition are about non-American people. There is definitely a sense, these days, that we've come close to exhausting the literary possibilities American culture offers, and that it's time to pay more attention to other cultures. True enough! I do think, though, that some writers depend too heavily on novelty and write stories that teach us about other cultures/cuisines/climates but don't say much about the inner lives of other people. My main complaint about some of "other culture" stories in the 2010 anthology is that the writers stand too far outside their characters. Of course, plenty of American stories are the same, especially stories about Southerners, poor people, or outsiders. And plenty of other culture stories do inner lives brilliantly.

Because that's what it's all about, for me: the inner lives of human beings. Is that what it's all about for you? Or am I weird?

Monday, August 23, 2010


Pardon the hiatus, there, but what can I say, it's August. Rhian read my novel draft and spent two days telling me what's wrong with it--that deserves a ten-day blogging break, right? Actually, she saved the thing--I was going to feed it to the hens. She is now preparing a monster post on something or other, brace yourselves.

Meanwhile, the forces of gadgetism were out in strength. Our old advocate for arbitrary, profit-generating change, Nicholas Negroponte, gave the physical book five years to live.

One rolls one's eyes. One palms one's face. But seriously now--could he be right? I myself personally have bought about half a dozen e-books this year, and despite my ongoing love affair with the iPad, the experience was inferior to that of reading a paper book in pretty much every way. Maybe I'm weird, though. The only Kindle I've logged any time with didn't impress me either, though I did see a lot of them at the Jersey Shore this year. (I am tempted to drop a benjamin and a couple of tommyjeffs on the new edition, Just To See.) Maybe people are really digging this stuff. I don't buy CDs anymore--perhaps books are like CDs, for most people.

And furthermore, even if he is right, do we care? The writer in me doesn't, but the reader in me certainly does. Rhian's guess: hardcovers and textbooks will die, paperbacks will soldier on indefinitely. Vinyl, after all, is still readily available, and I'm even still shooting film (or will be when I get around to ordering more stop bath).

The one thing I am certain I would like to see die is the public declaring of the impending death of stuff. But that's one thing I suspect is immortal.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Embracing the tweet

Well, as usual, I contradict myself. I thought Twitter was stupid. Remember this? I should have known better than to blame the tool when people misuse it. No, Twitter is awesome. Not as a forum for extended narrative--as a mojo-restoring tonic. It turns out you can get a fair amount of short story into 140 characters, if you try real hard.

A woman leaves her purse at a restaurant. She returns for it, and finds a note inside that reads "I hate you." The handwriting is her own.

Deep in a bunker in the mountains of Colorado, a general accesses defense secrets that could destroy the world. The password is "ravioli."

Woman pines for famous actor over many years. Wins contest to have dinner with him. During meal he says, "You remind me of my yard man."

Talking dogs, walking upright, explore Cincinnati.

OK, these aren't going to win any awards, but surely any one of them could make a person's bus ride infinitessimally better? And can one ask any more than that of the form?

Share your 140-character stories, if you will. And a link to your lit tweets.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

If you like this, you are wrong

I don't think I'm going to bother commenting much on, and I'm certainly not going to link to, Anis Shivani's dumbass list of overrated writers on Huffingtonpost. Oh, I am not a fan of every writer on that list, to be sure. But the notion that my admiration for Lydia Davis or Marilynne Robinson, who have written some of the most brilliant, moving, and inimitably human books I have ever read, is little more than the result of having been told once by a college professor that they are good, or that their writing is "easy enough to copy," as opposed to actually having read them and enjoyed them multiple times myself, is depressingly stupid. This is the worst kind of argument there is--the kind where somebody doesn't understand something and is so utterly narcissistic and insecure that he can't allow the possibility that others might understand it better. And so he invents an explanation that renders his ignorance virtuous and others' understanding fatuous. He sounds like a guy who was just denied tenure.

If you want to criticize a writer, go right ahead. But just for once, could we have a critical debate that doesn't involve declaring opposing viewpoints morally bankrupt? Can I please like John Ashbery without being labeled a pompous, self-deceiving ivory-tower snob? Can I please be permitted the courtesy of knowing my own personal motivations, instead of having them dictated to me by some dude on the internet? It's a shame, because some of Shivani's actual literary analysis of some of his overrated writers is in fact quite good. I wish he could have just said what he thought without first having to invalidate what I think, based upon my status as a college professor in an MFA program.

At least he deserves congratulations for one thing--creating the first top-whatever literary list in years with more women on it than men. Sweet!