Tag Archives: stories

Peer Review

UnderwoodMy short story Peer Review appears this month in issue #1 of the new literary journal Media Virus. (Issue #1 is really the second issue of the journal; my inner Java programmer likes that the numbering system indicates a zero-based index.)

Though blatantly inspired by Kafka–Joseph K. is a main character, and much of the “action” is set in The Castle–this is actually a true story.

A long time ago, I was one of the editors of my undergraduate literary magazine. We had a circulation of a couple hundred, maybe, and twice a year we slogged through a big pile of bad break-up poetry, pompous efforts in surrealism, and juvenilia of all sorts. It was a somewhat depressing chore. Every now and then, though, something really good showed up. One year, the really good thing was a poem, attached to a name we didn’t recognize but in a style we thought we could identify as belonging to a good friend of mine (who never owned up to it, but I’m still suspicious). Our hearts were gladdened, we rejoiced, and we three editors unanimously voted it in.

Unfortunately, the poem had some salty language and disturbing content. This was a small Catholic liberal arts college, and salty disturbances were not welcome. Our advisor didn’t stop us, but someone in the college copy center (the journal had zine-like production values) did. They refused to continue printing it unless we took the poem out.

Maybe we should have made a bigger stink about it, turned it into a local cause celebre and stood our ground: legally, the college was well within its rights to stop the publication (a private institution has a lot of leeway), but you only get to be young and idealistic once. We held up for a couple weeks, with a little faculty sympathy, but in the end we buckled under and pulled the poem. I’m still a little disappointed we didn’t try harder.

But during the brief controversy, the poem made the rounds through the faculty and administration, attached to various memos and letters. I heard that it even got discussed at the president’s Christmas party. Given the success of the journal itself, it was probably read by more people than would have seen it if it had just been tucked in amongst the better bad break-up poems and audacious second-person stories casting the reader into the consciousness of a plastic bottle.

All of this was in the Dark Ages, around 1989, before e-mail and the Internet changed a whole lot of things. The story would probably have played out very differently today, now that Joseph K. has traded in his bank of manual typewriters and stacks of carbon paper for a cheap Linux server on a wireless network.

Or perhaps not. The Internet has increased the noise, but not necessarily improved the signal; it’s easier to publish, but harder to build mindshare. It may still be a valid strategy to address your manila envelope to Mr. N., clerk of Section S, and hope for the best.

Pieces and fifteen other stories

PiecesI’m dipping a toe into the self-publishing waters with a short story collection, “Pieces and fifteen other stories,” available at Smashwords as an e-book, Lulu as a paperback and e-book, and on Amazon for the Kindle. It’s priced to move on all platforms: $2 for the e-book, and $12.50 in the print-on-demand version.

Twelve of the sixteen stories have been published in small literary journals. Many of them are available online, for free; you can see the list here. I suppose that the free versions undercut my low, low price for the whole collection, but note that the collection has a couple of benefits: it contains several stories not available online, it packages all of the stories together into an easily-consumable and carefully-sequenced format, and the proceeds help to underwrite my literary efforts.

The four new stories aren’t just “bottom-of-the-drawer” filler, either. One of them was accepted for publication at a small journal that went under before it was printed. Another was one of the manuscripts that made the cut in the Speakeasy contest to be sent to the final judge that year, Amy Bloom. The other two have been in heavy circulation to journals, sometimes coming back with helpful editorial comments, so they’re well-polished pieces.

I chose Lulu.com because I’ve used it before for making calendars and picture books for family consumption: it’s an easy process, and a quality product. I chose Smashwords because I’ve seen some good reviews, and they didn’t push a lot of the vanity press “services”: they provide a basic platform for distribution e-books, and that’s all I need. And I chose Amazon, with some trepidation (as previously noted), because of their scale, and because the installed base of Kindle devices seems like a good market of avid readers. (Note that Smashwords makes a Kindle-compatible version available, too; if you’re a Kindle user with some concerns about the Amazon stranglehold, take a look at the Smashwords version). There are many other e-book and POD resources out there; if you have a favorite, please make a case for it, and I’ll take a look at it.

I’ll publish updates on the adventure here; I don’t expect to see the same sort of success that some writers have had in e-book publishing, but there may be a niche market for these stories worth tapping.

in defense of the short story

Malaria poster in small hotel, Puerto Rico ... San Juan (LOC)Crawford Kilian’s “About Writing” blog is one of my regular reads; he offers lots of good, no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts advice about writing. A recent article, though, about the rather arbitrary demarcations based on length between short stories, novellas, and novels, contained a paragraph that raised my hackles a bit:

I don’t want to discourage anyone from writing at whatever length they like. Short stories can be great reading, and also great training for writers aiming at novels. Two or three novellas, published together, can be quite marketable (preferably, however, if the author’s already well known).

This touches on two misconceptions about the short story that overlook the fact that the story and the novel are two completely different creatures:

  1. Short stories are a training ground for the real work of fiction, the novel.
  2. Short stories are outside the marketable space that novels occupy.

These are commonly-held beliefs, and to a great extent self-fulfilling prophesies. And they are both far off the mark.

Short stories (and sometimes novellas, too, those odd ducks in the middle distance) are not miniature novels. They do not do the same things that novels do, and do not play by the novel’s rules. The pleasures to be found in writing and reading stories are completely different from those to be found in writing and reading novels; they are not mutually exclusive pleasures–a reader can be passionate about both forms, and a writer can be successful at both (though, I would argue, there are few who are supremely successful at both)–but they are very different.

The short story is an art of compression. It is in many ways closer to poetry than to the novel; though it’s written in prose, with paragraphs and often dialogue and frequently plot, it relies upon a succinct and careful choice of words to convey its effect. The story is about the art of excision: the story writer’s scalpel must be sharp and merciless.

Novels, by contrast, tend toward the inclusive. They are about finding and extending relations and connections across characters and settings, and often have a baroque architecture full of reflections and echoes. A novel need not be mercilessly efficient: it can be, as Henry James (one of those few who was a master of both forms) said, a “loose and baggy monster” and still be successful. Indeed, the looser and baggier the better in many cases.

Reading a novel is like relaxing into a comfortable chair. It invites the reader to become lost in its world, to spin out the million possibilities of its setting while reading; there’s a hypnotic effect to reading a novel, a loss of the sense of time and place. When I’m reading a good novel, I find that I slow down toward the end and try not to glance at the bottom of the page: I want the effect to go on, I don’t want to leave the novel’s world.

Stories, on the other hand, are more like a Shaker chair: carefully crafted, beautiful in their apparent simplicity, but a little uncomfortable for an extended sit. Most stories have few characters, one or two settings, and almost never subplots. Like a poem, every word in a story has to serve the story’s ultimate goal; there’s very little room for digression and diversion. Reading a story is a quick plunge into a bracing pool: its ultimate effect occurs more on reflection than while submerged.

What the stories offer to the reader and the writer, that the novel doesn’t, is a variety of experience and a diversity of voices. A story can be experimental in ways that a novel, or at least the traditional novel, cannot, because it doesn’t have to sustain a style or voice or device over hundreds of pages. Each story is its own world, swiftly brought to life in twenty or so pages and then just as quickly discarded. Though many writers of short fiction revisit the same places, themes, even characters, over the course of many stories, there’s no demand for unity across the stories as there would be in a novel: each story offers a new view of the familiar, a different perspective that may reinforce or contradict related stories.

When a writer has had a successful career at writing stories, the critics will often wonder aloud, “Why hasn’t she written a novel?” Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel: incredibly gifted short story writers, but not a novel among them. Not, I think, because of a lack of ambition on their part: their ideas, concise and sparkling, are simply more suited to the story form.

We fans of the story often hear that “short story collections don’t sell,” “publishers never buy story collections,” “people would rather read novels.” When publishers do put out a collection of stories, they tend to disguise it: “a novel in stories,” they say, or they make clear in the marketing material that the stories are “linked” in some way. This does a great disservice to both the story and to the reader: it forces the stories into a relationship that may not be appropriate, and it tries to trick the reader into thinking they’re getting something that they aren’t. The publishing industry’s fear of the short story is a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one wants to read story collections because story collections aren’t offered to readers as what they are: a reading experience very different from a novel, but equally enjoyable and engrossing. Stories might be a little more work sometimes than novels–the reader is switching settings and characters every ten or twenty pages, which can sometimes feel like whiplash–but a well-sequenced story collection, like a good poetry collection, can leave space for reflection between pieces and help the cumulative effect of dissonant themes and voices build to a powerful crescendo.

Stories are also the appropriate form for the way we live now. They are interstitial by nature, able to be squeezed into small spaces (I love the little volumes of One Story and Duck and Herring, perfect for slipping into a pocket or purse), ideal for the few moments we can steal for ourselves. And their fractured narratives and small moments of insight feel more like a modern life than the carefully wrought, intricately plotted novel: this morning I felt like I was in a Faulkner story, by mid-day things had turned Kafkaesque, and perhaps tonight I’ll relax into a more genteel Mansfield mode. Our lives are a jangling buzz of voices, and stories help us make sense of that.

My library puts an orange label on the spines of story collections, perhaps as a warning to readers: this book is not quite like its neighbors, it may offer a reading experience completely different from what you expect. I find this to be useful not as a warning, but as a beacon: I know that inside each of these emblazoned books are a dozen different voices, clamoring against each other, and that some of them will whisper in my ears for weeks.

Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work

Why the Devil Chose New England for His WorkIt is hard to tell the enemy from the innocent in the dark where I can only see the outline of a face or a silhouette, and of course all these people will have to be killed again tomorrow night. It is not the kind of war anyone can win.

“Life During Peacetime,” from Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work by Jason Brown

The eleven stories of Jason Brown’s collection Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work are linked by their setting in the fictional Maine town of Vaughn, and by their interest in young people navigating treacherous waters (both literally and figuratively). Though presented mostly in the realistic voice of contemporary short fiction (echoes of Carver and Dubus are clear), the stories also evoke earlier works of American short fiction.

The Faulkner comparison is obvious: Vaughn is a little like Yoknapatawpha County, with recurring characters and settings throughout the stories, and the rudiments of a family saga in the Vaughns, descended from the town’s colonial founders, and Smalls, who are not quite the Snopes clan but frequently play the fallen-from-grace role. But I also hear not a little bit of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The title of the collection suggests a Jeremiad by one of the Puritan fathers, and the title story contains echoes of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”; in several instances, there is a “Young Goodman Brown” moment, in which a young protagonist has a sudden insight into the secret life hidden in the town’s quiet houses, often after an encounter that is almost as terrifying as meeting the devil in the woods.

Like Faulkner’s and Hawthorne’s stories, Brown’s are deeply rooted in place; the voices in Devil are thoroughly Yankee, with the Maine woods and the Kennebec River as much characters as places. But like the best regionalism, they rise to the universal, presenting characters and situations that speak to readers in any place.

Five Stories About Camping

We’ve just come back from a family camping trip to St. Croix State Park; inspired by the lists at A Commonplace Blog (inspired, in turn, by the Five Best series at the Wall Street Journal), here are five short stories that deal with one aspect or another of the camping experience:

To Build a Fire by Jack London

When I teach firebuilding to Scouts, I explain that there are three components to a successful fire: fuel, spark, and oxygen. The rest, as they say, is commentary.

One of the best commentaries on firebuilding is Jack London’s story of survival on the Yukon Trail. I read this story back in middle school or high school, where it’s taught as an example of the “Man against Nature” theme, and it has always stuck with me; I allude to it when I do firebuilding with Webelos at winter camp, hoping that it will make some sort of connection for them between Scoutcraft, literature, and winter survival. Even if it doesn’t, though, I hope it at least encourages them to remember not to put their fire under a snow-laden tree branch.

The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood

My favorite camping tradition is to read classic ghost stories to the hiss of the Coleman lantern, after everyone else has gone to bed; M.R. James, J.S. LeFanue, and Wilkie Collins all have the smell of woodsmoke around them when I reflect on their stories.

“The Wendigo” tells the story of a camping trip gone terribly wrong, which helps put the small inconveniences of any normal camping trip (my own was marred by forgetting the air mattress pump and the stovetop espresso maker) into perspective: anything you’ll meet in our state parks is sure to be easier to overcome than a flesh-eating unspeakable monster.

It’s also the best story to read when camping in the northwoods: the wendigo/windigo is an Algonquian monster that grows out of the fears (and desires) of consuming human flesh. Thoroughly weird and creepy, especially when read in the insufficient light cast by a Coleman lantern.

Big Two-Hearted River by Earnest Hemingway

There probably is no better camping and fishing tale than Hemingway’s story of Nick Adams in the burnt-over country of northern Michigan. Adams has taken to the woods to remember and to forget; the story unfolds without quite unfolding, never giving away the things that haunt Adams. It is a very in-the-moment story, focused on the minutiae of making camp, cooking coffee, and catching fish, with faint glimpses of things swimming far below the surface.

We Are Not In This Together by William Kittredge

William Kittredge is an heir, if not the heir, to Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. In “We Are Not In This Together,” a man hunts a killer grizzly bear, but the bear is much like Ahab’s white whale: the prey is as much his own heart.

A Note on the Camping Craze That is Currently Sweeping America by Richard Brautigan

Much as I imagine my camping trips in the Nick Adams vein, they’re really more like the suburbs-in-the-woods that Richard Brautigan describes. We live closer to our fellow campers than we do our neighbors in the city, and no self-respecting bear (or chipmunk) would wander into the camper cul-de-sacs for the open-fire TV dinners we feast on. And when I look at much of my beloved camping gear–the Coleman lantern, the Kangaroo Kitchen, the nylon hammock–I see the schlock that Brautigan describes. I only hope to be rolled up in my tent someday and carted out in an ambulance.

Tunneling to the Center of Earth

We started expanding, tunneling farther and farther underneath our town. We dug random patterns that looped in on themselves and spread from one edge of the town to the other. We dug tunnels high enough to let us walk upright that would quickly turn into tiny pinpoints, so small we had to wedge ourselves through to keep going, the earth scattering in pieces as we moved.

Kevin Wilson’s collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is full of strange wonders: a grandmother-for-hire, a trio of recent college graduates who spend the summer and fall digging tunnels, a doomed Southern family doing battle by way of paper cranes, a museum of obsessive collections, spontaneous human combustion. The stories are playful, inventive, and glib.

Perhaps a bit too glib. Most of the stories belong to what I think of as the McSweeney’s school of surrealism, a thin fabulism that descends more from “Saturday Night Live” than “Un chien andalou.” They are built around one or two strange images or situations, with the characters, resembling actors in sketch comedy, going through the motions to push the odd situation to its furthest limits. The stories are entertaining, but not terribly insightful.

There are a few moments, though, when Wilson rises above his material and delivers something poignant, interesting, and haunting. “Go, Fight, Win,” the story of a reluctant cheerleader and her strange relationship with a child pyromaniac, is a powerful story, with characters who are much more than props. And “Mortal Kombat,” in which two high school misfits do battle against a love they can’t comprehend, has deeply affecting moments. When the stories are driven more by character than by situation, they shine.

The Dance Hall at Spring Hill

When I was eight my Aunt Suzanna died. My sister Eva and I started crying at her funeral and we couldn’t stop. I remembered the uneasy looks we got from relatives, all dry-eyed, as if there were something wrong with us for crying at all. By the time we got control of ourselves, I couldn’t tell if I was crying for Aunt Suzanna or out of shame for my own tears.

The Dance Hall at Spring Hill, Duke Klassen

The German Catholics of Spring Hill are the near neighbors of Bill Holm’s Icelandic Lutherans. Like those Icelanders, they’ve wrestled a living from the harsh prairie of western Minnesota, and in the process have become as hard and cold, at least on the outside, as the stones and ice of their landscape. There’s little room for sentimentality on the prairie: kittens are drowned, dogs are run over, mothers are buried, houses are burned. Klassen’s stories are stark and unadorned, only rarely taking lyrical flight; life and death on the prairie is a matter of fact affair.

Not that there isn’t room for some humor and magic, though, in these interlinked stories. In “Mrs. Cabot and Mrs. Abernathy,” the school board is forced to hire a Protestant teacher when no Catholic is willing to work for the salary offered. The schoolchildren, who until then had only encountered Protestants when Lutheran farmers (uncles and cousins of Bill Holm, perhaps) came over from a neighboring dry county to buy booze, discover that Protestants have a strange obsession with oral hygiene. They are ordered to get their own toothbrushes (no sharing) and visit the dentist, which they do with the resignation of Catholic martyrs. In “Rimpel-Zimpel,” a boy, his father, and a hired hand challenge property lines and a fearsome storm to fish a secret lake, and are rewarded with “pails … so full that fish flop out as fast as we throw them in.” And in “Below the Surface,” two blows to the head transform a boy first from a stoic farmer to an awe-struck romantic, then back again, but not without a painful sense of loss.

The fifteen stories in The Dance Hall at Spring Hill drift back and forth over about thirty years, from the 1920s to the 1950s, chronicling the transformations in the place and its people: railroads come and go, farming practices change and shape the landscape, generations come and go. But abiding through all the change are the tough but not joyless people on their bleak prairie, as impossible to root out as the rocks in their fields.

A Small, Good Thing

From a shopkeeper who has to contend with barbarians, to a shopkeeper who acts (unwittingly) like a barbarian, until he learns the story behind the stale cake that was never picked up and acts like an angel.

We always get the boys’ birthday cake at A Baker’s Wife, a local pastry shop run by a Plaza Hotel chef. Their cakes are rich and dreamy, and I always volunteer to pick it up because then I can secretly grab a chocolate croissant or a miniature pecan pie.

But I can never order the cake without thinking of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” It casts a pall over the whole cake-ordering experience.

He was a baker. He was glad he wasn’t a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.

Told in Carver’s signature flat, direct style, “A Small, Good Thing” is the story of a birthday cake that is tragically left at the bakery, the baker’s attempts to be reimbursed for the cake, and the solace of warm rolls.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Something dawned on you when you heard the children’s song: Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream. You begin to suspect that you were, perhaps, a butterfly dreaming it was human, or worse yet, a brain in a jar experiencing sights and sounds and smells and tastes–all of them but dreamstuff. And so you waited for death in order to wake up, in order to find out whether you were strapped with spotted wings or surrounded by a glass jar.

But it turns out you missed the mark. It is not life that is a dream; it is death that is a dream.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

In the afterlife, you will populate the dreams of the living, as others who have moved on to the next stage of death populate yours; you will meet old gods, bereft of their worshipers, reduced to a deathless, homeless nomadism; you will be a series of e-mail autoresponders and cron jobs, maintaining the web of human relationships long after the last human being has returned to dust.

The forty visions of the afterlife presented in Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives are contradictory, mutually exclusive, and fascinating. They are as likely to be atheistic as suffused with God (or gods), both technological and supernatural. Eagleman doesn’t present anything like stories–there are no characters, only the barest hint of plot or setting. And they aren’t really prose poems, either, though some are heartbreakingly lyrical and elegiacal. They are more like scientific or philosophical thought experiments, taking a notion (whether from a traditional view of death, or from some flight of fancy) and extending it to its final implications. (That Eagleman is neuroscientist, with other publications in topics like synesthesia and the brain’s plasticity, should not surprise readers of “Sum.”) The pieces are brief–one or two pages for the most part, the longest no more than five–but they are rich in insight and inference.

If there’s a common thread that runs through the book, it’s disappointment. The afterlife is never quite what its inhabitants (including the intelligence behind it) expected. In one piece, humans have been created as sophisticated mapping machines unleashed on the Earth’s surface to record its every contour and corner; and though they do spread far and wide as designed, they spend much more time mapping themselves and each other than their designers intended. In another, God gives each ascending soul the book of true knowledge, which should answer every secret question, but because the answers are so different from what people have learned from their own flawed books of knowledge they refuse to believe, insisting on holding to their old beliefs about God and Heaven.

Love, too, is a unifying theme, and the source of much of the book’s lyricism. Eagleman is too much of a realist, or at least too conscious of disappointment, to suggest that love is the true afterlife, or that love will defeat death; but he does imply, in ways both touching and funny, that love is a mystery at least as troubling as death, and certainly the source of much that makes this side of the afterlife delightfu.

Gordon’s Scalpal

The recent New Yorker fiction issue included an interesting piece: Raymond Carver’s original version of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, titled “Beginners”. Even more interesting, the New Yorker offers the story in its edited format, with the insertions and deletions that Gordon Lish made to turn the story from the longer version Carver wrote to the shorter version that has been widely anthologized as perhaps the quintessential “Carveresque” story (along with “A Small Good Thing” and “Where I’m Calling From”). Reading the two versions side by side, or the mark-up on-line, is quite an eye-opening experience.

I’m certainly not one to dismiss the value of an editor’s work; indeed, I wish in most cases that editors were a little more aggressive with their scalpals: there are a good many books and movies that could stand a serious trim. My own work has benefited greatly from people who could look at it with clear-eyed ruthlessness; I like to see red marks. And looking at “Beginners”, particularly the first few pages of edits, I have to say I like the edits: Lish trims some excess fat and tightens up the language.

But toward the end, it seems to me, Lish goes a bit too far. When I first read the edited story, a dozen years or more ago, it struck me as a good story, an interesting story, but maybe a little thin. I carried away few images from it; it was an almost placeless tale, told entirely through conversation, and I didn’t find myself particularly drawn to any of the characters. The unedited story, though, is absolutely lyrical: the reunion of the old couple in Herb/Mel’s story, the image of the ghost horses in the field, Terri’s confession about Herb/Mel’s suicidal tendencies, all make this a haunting and evocative story. Stripping the story of these pieces seems to have stripped it of its soul.

The New Yorker includes several letters from Carver to Lish, including a long one in which Carver seems on the verge of a breakdown over Lish’s edits. Though Carver had come to be associated with “minimalism,” largely, it would seem, through Lish’s editing, he was trying to break out of the strictures in which he found himself with the success of his first collection. “Beginners” hints at what might have been: a lyrical, expansive, more humane vision, one more closely aligned with the universe Carver’s literary hero Chekhov than with the constrained “Kmart realism” that Carver’s early work represented. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is a better (and typically Carveresque) title, but “Beginners” is a better story.

Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, is trying to publish the unedited versions of Carver’s stories from the end of his life; that project is tied up in the vagaries of copyright and the decidedly non-literary fights that go on in the publishing world. I for one wish her the best of luck: I want to read more of the Carver we never knew, side-by-side with the minimalist stories that have cast such a long shadow over contemporary short fiction.

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