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Posts in "short story" category

“Uneven” Short Story Collections

Uneven Short Story Collections  One of the most common critiques I hear for short story collections is that they're "uneven." I don't hear it very often for novels, and only occasionally as a critique of an author's oeuvre.

A few brief samples:

  • Publisher's Weekly called David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" uneven.
  • Seattle Times called Evan S. Connell's "Lost In Uttar Pradesh" uneven.
  • Martin Amis's "Heavy Water and Other Stories" called uneven.
  • In the LA Times, John Freeman called John Updike's "My Father's Tears" an uneven collection.

It's not exaggerating to call it the most frequent criticism leveled at short story collections. But I wonder whether this critique is effective or informative. 

I think the "uneven" critique is particularly prejudiced against short story collections that embrace a wide variety of forms, such as pairing postmodern meta-fiction along with Carver-type realism and throwing in some genre-inspired work. 

Almost inevitably, the reviewers tastes will lean towards one style or another, and they'll laud half the collection and slam the other half. So the critical matrix of short story reviewers (where "uneven" or "even" is used to judge collections) encourages a form-based, limited type of "unity" to collections, and discourage a thematic or innovative type of unity.

"Uneven" also says more about a reviewer's taste than about the content itself. I know this is tricky waters — how would one separate the reviewer's taste from their evaluation of content? — but I feel as if the word uneven is shorthand for "I liked some stories and I didn't like others," which doesn't tell me much about whether I would like the same stories or dislike the ones disliked.

Also, saying that some stories are liked and others disliked is a bit of a cop-out, review-wise. You could direct this criticism at virtually all collections — aren't collections, by their nature, created so some stories stand out of the pack, and seem better than others?

Uneven also means the reviewers are judging the collection as a mosaic of pieces, rather than as a unified whole. For some collections, this is the appropriate approach, but for others, it might be better to judge it as a cohesive beast, the same way one might read and review a novel. A good collection accomplishes a certain goal, and the reviewer should pay attention to the degree to which that goal is attained, talking about the collection as a single entity.

John Grisham’s Ford County

Ford county john grisham On November 3rd, John Grisham is dipping into the short story realm with his first collection, "Ford County," which has a manly ring to it (it's where his first novel, A Time to Kill, takes place). Nice to have the commercial boys dip into a realm normally owned by the literary folk. I predict sales that haven't been seen since Steven King published his last short story collection.

There's a video interview with him, in which he describes his motivation for writing this collection: "Well, I tried everything else but poetry." Oh, if only all short story writers could have such noble aspirations.

Grisham says that they're long short stories — there are only seven — but no matter the length, it's excellent publicity for the form.

Fiction Bonanza

There's a flurry of new short stories being released over at Five Chapters these next fifteen days. Instead of serializing a story over five days, there's a new short story each day, including some from collections I've been reading lately — Jennine Capo Crucet, who won the Iowa Short Fiction award this year, and Lori Ostlund, the Flannery O'Connor Award winner. 

It's being called the Infinite FiveChapters, and while this a flagrant abuse of the word Infinite, we'll let it slide because A) hyperbole is fun, and B) end of summer blowouts are especially good when they involve short stories.

Some others scheduled to show up:
  • Lauren Grodstein
  • Adam Davies (who's been showing up everywhere recently!)
  • Samantha Peale
  • Victor Lodato
  • Tania James
The full schedule includes many more authors.

Short Stories as Moles; or, the Literary Journal Scene in Germany

Thanks to Absinthe Minded (great name, by the way), for referring me to this article in the Goethe Institut about the literary journal/short story scene in Germany. Love the opening:

“Like moles, literary magazines burrow through the subsoil and often bring literary treasures to light. They live on self-exploitation, are sometimes short-lived and bizarre, and publish against the mainstream. And they sometimes feel out trends that later rock the literary scene with truly eruptive success.”

The article goes on to discuss the career of Günter Eich, how circulations run between 30 and 30,000 (ha! — love the lowballing), and the stubbornly long literary journal name “das heft das seinen langen namen ändern wollte.”

Rolf Grimminger, quoted in the articles, notes the changing role of literary journals:

“The significance of literary magazines has changed greatly in recent decades. In the 1950s is canada pharmacy online safe they were still a real medium of information about what was going on and about authors and the possibilities of writing. Then competition came in the form of features articles in newspapers and audio-visual media”. Today the charm of many magazines is precisely their niche existence and their subversive subterranean activities.”

He’s right about the persevering charm of literary magazines — for many of them, it is about filling a (admittedly small) niche. In the U.S., though, I doubt that feature articles in newspapers were ever offering competition. The rising competition is certainly audio-visual media, especially since publishers are now wanting books themselves to be multimedia shows.

The course for most journals seems not towards mainstream status and struggling against the parameters of their niche, but working on embracing, exploring, and digging deeper into those niches.

10 Greatest Short Story Writers?

Greatest Short Story WritersOver at Listverse, they do a great job of amassing a huge number of Top 10 Lists, but the ten greatest short story writers is wack.

Okay, they have some shoo-ins (oh, and they limit it to American short story writers). O’Henry? I’ll grant that. Poe? Sure.

Then debatables. Asimov? Well, he’s a talented writer, especially if you’re in the SF scene, so that one could be argued in terms of preference. And same goes for Steven King.

But Ray Bradbury, I’ll grant that fullstop — he’s a guy who’s risen above genre to the level of pure greatness (although his greatness is certainly in his past, and not in the drivel he keeps pushing out these days).

And sorry, JD Salinger just doesn’t make the cut. Nine stories is really his only proper story collection (the others are novellas). Besides, he’s really known for Catcher in the Rye. Except if when he dies he comes out with a treasure trove of stuff he’s been writing for decades — then he might well turn into a contender for the list.

Also got to argue with Updike. His fame rests on the Rabbit books and other novels, and though I respect his facility with poetry and essays and short stories, it’s still all about the novels.

The ultimate WTF moment? Chuck Palahniuk. Seems like the list author had a secret Man Crush, cause there is no other way Chucky is getting on this list (even despite the kick-ass I-am-Wolverine photo)

What we desparately need is some Cheever, some Flannery, some Hemingway, some Carver, and less of a list weighted toward Genre Folk and Old Fuddy Duddies.

Of course, if you’d like to argue as well, you can wade into the forum and join the 202 commenters who have already given their two cents.

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Guardian Summer Short Stories

The Guardian has released their summer short story bonanza, which includes some as short as a thousand words.

Dave Eggers offers “A Fork Brought Along,” which has the amazing distinction of being the funniest story I’ve ever read about a fork.

AM Holmes contributes “All Is Good Except The Rain” which has so much dialogue it resembles a play, but two women having a discussion over lunch turns into very strange affairs, ala typical AM Holmes style (my favorite story of hers — “Georgica” — has a woman spying on lovers at the beach, waiting until they leave so she can extract the fluid from condoms and impregnate herself with it. Shocking and haunting.)

In “The Massive Rat,” which offers his Black Swan Green world from the Father’s perspective, David Mitchell wins the award for best verb — “Me and Lorna have sort of Berlinned the house into her zone and mine” — and for the cheesiest coincidence (read it).

Also includes William Boyd, Julie Myerson, and the winner of their short story competition, Lisa Blower.

Short Story Censorship

In a high school English class unit called Love/Gender/Family Unit, Kathleen Reilly taught short stories by David Sedaris, Laura Lippman, Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway. But not anymore. She recently resigned, after parents demanded she remove the stories from the curriculum.

Parent Sue Ann Johnson was one of the more vocal objectors to the stories, arguing kids are being harmed:

“There is an agenda, people. Wake up,” she said. “We are desensitizing our children to violence. We’re desensitizing them to sex. We’re desensitizing them to drugs. We’re talking about the hearts and minds of the future of America.”

I can only wag my index finger of shame. This is a simple error, to suppose that exposing someone to violence/sex/drugs is the same as desensitization. Certainly desensitization is something to avoid, but would anyone say that visiting the slums in Kenya risks desensitizing students to poverty? The exposure would probably lead them to become more sensitive, perhaps even to act in positive ways on their sensitivities.

I’m reminded of Chuck Palahniuk’s defense of Fight Club, how he argued that portraying violence in all its real, mucky messiness was the best antidote for the glorified fakery in movies that leads to desensitization.

Literature is the best possible place to expose students to such things. You can’t help but think that most acts of censorship are a failure to read properly; in other words, a form of illiteracy. It’s a failure to read literature as it’s meant to be read — not as a nonfiction book advocating a particular lifestyle, but an interaction and exploration of life itself.

The National Coalition Against Censorship has also picked up the story. There’s a you-go-get-’em editorial in the local newspaper, too, from a recent graduate arguing that his alma mater should keep the short stories in the curriculum. It’s cute because it’s so winsome.

Perhaps we need some kind of Short Story Superhero that can defend against these censorship mafias. With a suit and a spiffy motto, nothing could withstand Short Story Man! He could leap tall parents in a single bound. He could cast protective webs around the banned books.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize

The shortlist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story prize is out, and they did much better at creating a shortlist than last year, when the Jhumpa Lahiri coup took down the prize.

  • An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe)
  • Singularity by Charlotte Grimshaw (New Zealand)
  • Ripples and other Stories by Shih-Li Kow (Malaysia)
  • Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy (United States)
  • The Pleasant Light of Day by Philip O Ceallaigh (Ireland)
  • Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (United States)

Nice international selection, and love to see my boy Tower representing. Winner of the 35,000 Euro prize will be announced Sept. 20.

Review: “Fugue State” Brian Evenson

Fugue StateThe stories in “Fugue State” will haunt you. Brian Evenson has a remarkable ability to come up with creepy tales that won’t be extracted from your head. For example, take “Invisible Box.” Imagine a girl sleeping with a mime, a mime that’s still dressed up with the gloves and the face paint. During the completely silent sex, the mime draws a box around the two of them, and for days afterwards, the girl can’t shake the feeling that the box still traps her.

Try sleeping on that one.

If the stories were odd in certain genres or patterns, they would be easier to shake, but these are wholly original creations that frighten in unexpected ways. In “Younger,” there’s this horror of a father leaving his two young girls alone with the strict instruction not to answer the door if anyone comes. The way that the unknown knocker knocks traumatizes the younger sister for the rest of her life. There’s nothing intrinsically scary about the storyline itself — it sounds pretty prosaic. But Evenson invests the story with such tension it might as well be vampires and zombies at the door.

The graphic story in this collection, “Dread,” lives up to its name. Illustrated in stark black and white panels, the main character has a schizophrenic struggle after being haunted by a phrase in a unmemorable quality canada pharmacy book: “He no longer resembled me.” The graphic novelist Zak Sally, who drew wonderfully for this story, also created a header for each of the other eighteen stories, but these are too small and too infrequent. A full page graphic for at least some of the stories would be an improvement.

Not all the stories are frightening. If you want a satire of the publishing industry, “Ninety Over Ninety” is hilarious. It’s a spoofed version of “Entourage” for the publishing world. Kossweiller, a hard-working editor at the Entwinkle House, publishes works of literature that don’t sell, and then is routinely hammered and abused by his commercial-fiction-seeking boss, “Cinchy,” who is deathly afraid of dolls. (Entwinkle = Entrekin? You make the call).

The title refers to esoteric tortures “Cinchy” uses to abuse editors who displease him, like making an editor get ninety contracts in ninety days, and then once he got them, ripping them all up in front of him.

Overall, Fugue State is highly readable and highly entertaining (if you don’t mind being freaked out for a week or so). Evenson plays with notions of self and authorhood, while never giving up the emotional core of fear. If I had some kind of star system or a BookFox “Read This!” award, Evenson would get high marks.

Review of Damion Searls “What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going”

Damion SearlIn the fourth story of this collection, “A Guide to San Francisco,” the narrator says, “I have to admit I have never been as moved by the realists or the world-creating fabulists as I am by the pattern-makers.” If you agree with that aesthetic preference, you should read Damion Searls’ “What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going.”

The book is slim enough to be a fiction chapbook, with five first-person stories about writers, and relies on complex patterns and beautiful prose to carry the pieces. Rather than a casual series of events, a slow accumulation of acutely rendered details moves the stories forward.

Lovers of literature should lap up the frequent references to literary titans like Hawthorne, Nabakov, Gide, Orwell, and Fitzgerald. There’s also a good bit of Borges in some of the stories, with literary criticism about stories that don’t exist, and meta stories commenting upon themselves, and fiction not only mirroring reality but creating it.

Here are a few treasures that I enjoyed mining:

  • “The trees drip with green: the air is too saturated to hold more color.”
  • “[The angels] loom, like the buried first memory of a parent.”
  • “Her high, thin gaze would sweep down from above her crucifix necklace or pearls like a frigid Arctic wind to cool anyone’s faintest interest in mentioning [sexuality] around her.”

“The Cubicles” chronicles the career struggles of a technical writer, and the deflation of expectations and dreams: “I no longer aspired to see my name blazoned on title pages, meanwhile achieving such fame nevertheless: my name on the credits pages of dozens of books, read by thousands, books explaining how to use a certain database or manage client ROI in a B2B e-business footprint or design a Customer Call Center (CCC).” The third story, Goldenchain, shows the rattling gasp of an expiring marriage during a trip to Puget Sound. All five of the stories bear of the mark of careful, deliberate thought about character and language, and give fruits to those intrigued enough to return for a second (and third) reading.

If nothing I’ve said has convinced you one way or another, take another look at the cover. It’s a stenciled car driving into a kaleidoscopic square. Yeah, reading this book can kind of feel like that.

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