Monday, December 21, 2009

The Long Short Story Revisited

Last year at just this time, the Solstice, I wrote a short piece on the Long Short Story, and this is a Part II to that. This is the same post as you'll see on the new, so you could read it in either place. Posts at the two sites won't always be redundant, but this is long overdue. This piece began as a lecture at Spalding.

I believe I can say that I was one of the first literary writers you sort of know to use a personal computer. It was an Osborne I, and the word processor (what an outrageous term that was at the time) was WordStar, a true miracle of its day. (William F. Buckley once called WordStar his “brother.”) Wow. Our retyping ourselves hell was over. I hope whoever figured WordStar out is living well today or has risen to sit at the right hand of God if that seat isn’t taken. Anyway, an inheritance from my grandmother, $2000, fixed me up with one of the first portable computers. It was 1982 and I was thirty six.

Because I’d been a writer a long time by then, who spent many long years typing and retyping (not a bad way to learn the craft), the computer was an astonishing leap forward. From Model T to Cessna 210, turboprop with a retractable gear and pressurized cabin – that’s the degree of change. I remember in Murray, KY standing over the shoulder of someone who was demo-ing an Apple desktop (Apple I?), the late 1970’s. I watched that cursor, sort of yellow, dance across the black screen. I watched text get moved around on the page, words inserted. In that one Kubrick movie, the opening sequence shows cavemen, who were way more monkey than human, suddenly discover using tools. In Murray that day, watching that guy, forgive me, “word process” (geeeez it’s still pretty ugly that term), I felt like I was watching the second opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Soon after that, we hurled into, as the man said in “Pulp Fiction,” a time of transition. The first story I wrote on the Osborne, I mean to say actually composed on the computer, was an autobiographical dump using baseball as the ostensible subject. The story was “Infield.” I never imagined it would be in any book, much less my own. It was a long story from the start, roughly 8,500 words. (With the computer, the average length of my stories leaped by a whopping 5,000 words.) This limited the market, because the literary magazines were geared for, actually dictated, a rather standard length of a short story, 3 to 5 thousand words. You could get by with 6,000, though they might ask you to cut. You would endure a short chat with the editor, who had you so very over the barrel, about how the story was fat in the beginning and a little confusing there in the middle and not tight enough in the end, and – basically — take out two pages, he’d tell you, and it’d be all fixed, would perfectly, no MIRACULOUSLY, coincide with the space he had in the magazine! The sneakily fine Florida Review was the first to take a really long story of mine, “Dakota Feed and Grain,” named after at restaurant in Murray. Roughly 1990. That story was 10,000 words. The editor, your friend and mine, the estimable Russell Kesler. The Florida Review never even commented on the length.

When I won the Flannery O’Connor Award, that collection contained stories that were first crafted pre-computer but were refined and grown using WordStar and also stories composed by hand and then worked to final form with WordStar and, finally, some stories, “Infield” being the first, written and evolved entirely on the computer. I hadn’t planned for it to be so long. It bloomed at my fingertips. It was like mainlining a story. Most of the real work was in revision, sculpting the first draft to final, but hell, on the computer you COULD revise, thoroughly – and still make it to work by 8 o’clock.

I’m calling this blog, which almost certainly is about the fiction form best termed the “novella” – I’m calling it “The Long Short” (as in the Long Short Story), but it turns out one person’s short is another’s long: I found this review by Janet Maslin in the New York Times just a couple of weeks ago, an article called “Bite Size Legal Trouble and Suspense,” about Grisham’s new book Ford County, which travelers in airports are already waving around because that’s how it goes with John Grisham. Maslin says, “John Grisham had some story ideas that he didn’t think could sustain full length narrative [full length narrative! – like “Brokeback Mountain” wasn’t a full length narrative but a broken little chip off some fully legit full length narrative block]. So [I’m still quoting Maslin] he did what he customarily does: whatever he wants to. Was anyone at Doubleday going to argue with that? Mr. Grisham took seven of his unused plot ideas and turned them into a sharp, lean tale free of subplots and padding [emphasis mine – implication: novels contain padding]. At an average length of over 40 pages[she goes on to say], these narratives are shorter than novellas but longer than conventional short stories….” [Janet Maslin has some version of the precise measure short and long well in mind, very impressive, mysterious to the rest of us – These next lines, get ready for them, they are hurtful to a starving short story writes – Maslin writes:], “For a fledgling author, this format would be a tough sell. For Mr. Grisham, it’s a vacation from whatever grueling work goes into the construction of fully rigged best sellers. The change invigorates him in ways that show up on the page.”

Maslin apparently doesn’t see (this from me, a story writer) what the “change” is that invigorates Grisham. It’s the change to the long short form, baby. The long story is a real form, like a sonnet, like a portrait (in painting), like a still life – the short story, long or short, isn’t detritus conveniently made into something or other from the notebook between bestsellers. It’s the short long for John Grisham, and the long short for me, and for many of you, and for Andre Dubus and Richard Yates and Alice Munro and Andrea Barrett and F. Scott Fitgerald and Stephen Crane and Robert Stone and Ann Beattie. It’s all the same thing, man, art in words. Yeah, formerly — Doubleday exists for John Grisham, because Doubleday is novels, and novels are John Grisham, and that’s fine but we’re talking about the NBA here, lottery winners, 50 or 60 literary lottery winners in the American literary world, but in 2010 there are millions of writers and only thousands of readers [I exaggerate but not much to make my point], and the day is coming to an end when Doubleday tells us what size of picture to paint because of what size of wall they like to hang things on.

You recall it was magazines that sustained the short story, back when we had magazines. But you could also, most assuredly without stretching it, say it the other way, that the short story sustained the magazines. It was a time when readers outnumbered writers. The sea change was afoot before the computer but our beautiful little laptops sealed the deal, make no mistake about it.

One of the stories in my Flannery collection, the newest at the time I won, was “Forty Martyrs,” a giant at upwards of 40 pages, and the Flannery O’Connor series editor, Charles East (rest in peace: he’s just died Oct. 1, a great, kind, good man) suggested I take it out because it made the book too long. I did, and this is not a criticism of Charles – it was the right thing, the book galleys were 275 pages without “Forty Martyrs.”

That was in the ‘80’s. In the ‘90’s, “Forty Martyrs” became the anchor tenant of my novel-in-stories, all of the stories in it 8,000 words or more. When I wrote my novel, Past Tense, about how the past haunts us, I gave it 75 page chapters. I call it a novel-in-novellas. To give it some kind of form, I tried very hard to make each chapter exactly 75 manuscript pages, not by fattening the short ones and trimming the long ones, but just by targetting that as I wrote — how different is that from giving a poem fourteen lines iambic and a rhyme scheme? Form is good. Grace and form have been in fiction all along.

Yes, I make the leap that the long short story, which I’ll arbitrarily define as a work of fiction longer than 7,000 words and shorter than a novella (aah hahaha – good one, I kill me), or maybe I could vaguely define it as a story so long most magazines couldn’t print it – anyway, I’ll make the leap that the short story became a real form with the appearance of the magazines, or at least that their existences were symbiotic, and that the long short story, although it existed before, became a real contemporary story form after writers began to compose on their computers. At first editors saw the long story as full of fluff and fat that needed cutting. Later when they too worked almost exclusively on the computer, you didn’t hear that so much. It coincided with, within ten years, a wave of magazines going under, and newspapers soon to follow, so editors had bigger fish to fry than to complain if an established writer came knocking with something longer than the editor had in mind. This is probably an established fact, that the use of the computer by writers helped the longer story to be an option though it put pressure on an already to the breaking point magazine publishing industry, so it all comes down to Philip Deaver’s grandmother and the Osborne I, just kidding; but sometimes it’s fun to contemplate one’s personal involvement, even if minute, in the establishment of an established fact.

In the ‘80’s, suddenly if something was short and otherwise trimmed down (I’m speaking in generalizations to make a larger point), it was called “minimalism,” and even the minimalists revered the work of Alice Munro which was invariably long (though she reportedly has never felt much compulsion to write a novel – I think she has one). But by 1990, not so much minimalism anymore, and half the writing world was on Macs and the other half on PCs. Ray Carver’s last story “Errand,” gracefully long and lush, clearly was rendered unminimally after he was out from under the mothy wing of Gordon Lish. (The recent biography of Carver reveals he'd been free of the Lish influence for a number of years by the time he died.)

The lengthening of the literary short story isn’t all because of the publishing industry’s going slack or the rise of the computer. The final short story of Joyce’s Dubliners is a masterwork of all time, “The Dead,” not usually thought of as a novella not because of its length but because it focuses on a group of characters moving through a single evening, which will get it classified for sure as a long short, not a short long. The final short story of Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories was “Brokeback Mountain,” a story that must be over 10,000 words (someone out there will know or can find out). Laura van den Berg’s title story for her new collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us is also over 10,000 words. Nancy Zafris, the new Series Editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award, observed to me recently that a current winner of the prize has a story 68 pages long, surely pushing the Flannery O’Connor Award high-end limit. This summer Alice Munro placed a story in Harper’s that was called a novella on the cover of the magazine, and Munro regularly places long stories in the New Yorker. Her collections are full of long stories, she’s known for her winding road plots and for stories that depend partly on the passage of considerable time for some of their impact and resonance. Does the fact that so many well-known contemporary story writers cite Alice Munro as their exemplar and ideal mean that long stories are experiencing increased acceptance, that if you are a writer of stature your long story might be allowed to take up all those expensive hard copy pages within a magazine? Does the slow rise of digital publication mean the gradual reconsideration of traditional length limitations, all else being equal even though, elephant in the room alert, all else isn’t equal? Could it be that, in this time of there being (here comes the elephant) millions of writers and only thousands of readers, and all the millions of writers are bamming out their work on high powered laptops – could it be that the tendency of the computer-era writer is to write longer not just to write longer but because it’s a natural form and they’ve got just the technology to achieve it still make it to work by 8 o’clock (because they will have to have a day job)?

In the past it was axiomatic that the reason you didn’t write a long story or a novella was because “there’s no place to publish it.” It seems apparent to me that the hard copy magazine markets that publish short fiction are getting more friendly to the longer story (they are less frequently accusing writers of “losing control” and/or writing fat), and perhaps if we can agree that online markets for stories are growing in number, markets that don’t even think in terms of numbers of pages, perhaps the world in general is getting there, and perhaps John Grisham knows it. Is that optimistic enough for ya?

Many of you know that I follow the work of Richard Ford. I’ve read his every published word – okay, except for that first novel — and it’s my opinion that his stories are much better than his novels which are pretty danged good. I first heard from him the quote I always use in these lectures and once thought was his, but he advised me came from Randall Jarrell, definition of a novel:

A novel is a long work of fiction that there’s something wrong with.

Ford over the years has been a spokesman for the short story, and has edited two volumes for Granta plus, I believe, one of the Best American Short Story anthologies. If you have never seen it, please read Ford’s hilarious and spot-on introduction to his reverent acknowledgement of the long short in his Granta Book of the American Long Story, now eleven years old, containing great ones from Peter Taylor, Jane Smiley, Philip Roth, William Styron, Stanley Elkin, Andrea Barrett, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates of course, Barry Hannah, and Edwidge Danticat. I hope Granta does it again one of these days and that Ford, who better?, edits it.

I believe that Updike’s stories are better than his novels, and Robert Stone’s are awful good too, and Ray Carver of course and Andre Dubus and Alice Munro, they’re devoted to the form, and I do believe we must cease to view the short story as a form fledgling writers use to become real writers so they can write novels and that bestselling writers use to dump the growing detritus in their notebooks-of-gold between their gleaming bestsellers. If you have some doubt of this, read “The Dead” again (not a bag of fluff rendered fat with a word-gushing laptop but a masterwork in the long short story form by an author capable of writing both short short and long long) an exquisite beauty in and of itself, a master work that renders

at worst silly,

at best moot,

a discussion of the long and/or short of it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Reads from the Title Story

Thursday night in the exquisitely fine Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Laura van den Berg made a triumphant return to her old college to read from her new book, the short story collection What The World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. And what to say about the poise and smarts of this rising star. Her family circled around her and embraced her from the moment she arrived, and the celebration was large, thorough and complete. So was the fun.

Her stories have a dark surreal edge to them, and like Andrea Barrett she will make inquiry into science and quirky facts along the way. The stories emerge from the interactions of the characters, and she knows to let landscape act as a character, too. In a class of mine the following day, she explained that a story might click for her, in the writing, because of the oddest small thing. In the title story of her collection, she said, when she learned that in Madagascar the earth was red, the whole narrative came together and she was on her way. "Somehow," she said, "that small fact did it."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Patricia Smith!

On the occasion of the launch of Volume II of Rollins College's specs journal, a celebratory reading will take place this coming Thursday, Oct. 8, 7:30 in Bush Auditorium on the Rollins campus. I'm happy to pass along the news that the great Patricia Smith will read. Smith, who has two poems in this issue of specs, is something else entirely, let me tell you. Join us and see. You won't soon forget it.

Patricia is the author of five acclaimed books of poetry, including Blood Dazzler, a collection of poems (finalist for the 2008 National Book Award) chronicling the events of Hurricane Katrina.

A four-time Individual Winner of the National Poetry Slam (more than any other in the competition’s history), Smith has also appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and has performed three one-woman shows.

She was the winner of the first Hurston/Wright Award in Poetry for her book, Teahouse of the Almighty, which was also a National Poetry Series selection.

She currently teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, and is a Professor of Creative Writing at the City University of New York/College of Staten Island.

Insider advice: Park in the SunBank parking garage, located directly across Fairbanks from Bush Auditorium. Maybe get there around 7. Join us to celebrate specs and show yet another national literary luminary who we are! :-)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jeanie Comes to Town (Urban Think!, Fri., 9/18, 7 PM)

I'm pleased that Jeanie Thompson is coming to read from her new book The Seasons Bear Us. I had the opportunity to read this manuscript on its way to publication and found it moving, smart, and beautiful all at once. The manuscript became a beautiful and moving book. Jeanie is a poet of national importance, and one of the pleasures of having her here is to introduce her to our formidable community of writers. What better place than the fine literary scene at Urban Think! I hope you get a chance to join us at 7 PM this Friday. Bring friends.

And After

I caught you looking at my hand,
you held it up above us, light
in your larger hand, you held it
like a specimen –
splayed the fingers –
naked, ringless, white.

What were you thinking when I
caught you looking at my hand?
I wouldn’t call it beautiful, though you can.

After love, the body doesn’t care –
it slackens in a drowse, goes unaware,
just naked, ringed with pleasure everywhere.
The organ of the skin has ruled the blood,
the heart, the lumpish brain –

Were you thinking
that this hand,
that’d touched you deftly
back to life, to breath,
will lie so still in death?

Where had I been
when I caught you
looking at my hand?
Far away in the skin’s flush, pale now,
contracting, wondering,
where did this begin?

What were you thinking
when I caught you looking at my hand?
Were you thinking, “How small within
my larger hand, I don’t know this hand at all,
or even grasp her naked pleasure, when she alone
seems ringed with light.”

What were you thinking – (I didn’t ask) –
when I caught you – (you didn’t know) –
looking at my hand – (that afterglow,
held in morning light.)

by Jeanie Thompson
from The Seasons Bear Us

Saturday, July 18, 2009

July 17, 1969 -- Welcome to the United States Army

You might take a look at this wonderful NY Times chronology of 1969. You'll note below that my memory has drifted from the actual calendar dates but the spirit of the Times piece is the same idea as below, that 1969 was packed with stuff we'd never forget, and Walter Cronkite and the Times are who told us about it. Check it out.

I try not to take history personally. But Walter Cronkite, who as a news anchor, along with Eric Sevareid, embarked in the Sixties on giving us the nightly body counts from the Vietnam war as a way to put pressure on the administration to think a little bit about the terrific horror that was going on in Southeast Asia for no reason anybody could name, died yesterday, 40 years to the day after I was spirited out of Tuscola in the dead of night to serve my country. I was drafted by my lower jaw, like how you pull a Northern Pike from the water after he bites. A whiner by temperament, I had opposed the war with letters to the town newspaper but I was unable to make my opinion stick with moral action when it came right down to it.

Our group of draftees, many players from my Little League team, who had gone on to graduate from college but got nabbed right after they took off their graduation robes, and younger kids, the 19 year olds who were raised with Midwestern values and lacked the wiles to dodge the draft, were driven triumphantly out of town at midnight on a bus for Chicago where we all had our induction physical in a warehouse somewhere featuring the all-important finger up the ass, metaphor not lost on any of us. Yes, it was 15 months after the ’68 Tet offensive, after which even Robert McNamara knew it was all for naught, but nevertheless there we went, up into the sky from O’Hare to Columbus, Georgia to begin basic training.

The army then was fat, corrupt, and stupid. My drill sergeant attempted to sell me amphetamines on the firing line while we were practicing shooting our M-16s. At home everyone was going through the motions of peace, with a fairly nice economy, while we, the select few, were bound for Southeast Asia, some to die. We forget why. It was war inertia. Nobody could figure out how to get out without admitting that it had been a stupid murderous nutty vile Kafkaesque devil’s spiral of lunacy from the start. Please for fun try to think of one good thing that came from it except an inspiring war memorial with 58,000 or so dead boys chiseled on it. Untold thousands more slept under bridges and in the woods after their return; some are still out there.

Walter Cronkite, who was constitutionally unlikely to express his opinion in his role as a journalist, visited Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, roughly February of '68, and upon his return finally broke out on Feb. 27, '68 with an editorial in favor of negotiation and opposed to the continuation of the dying. Robert McNamara was out of a job by March 1, and Johnson declared he would not stand for re-election. Cronkite proceeded to begin closing his very important CBS Evening News program with US and Vietnamese body counts. That’s what they called them. Body counts. It was hard even then to see how the body counts could be accurate, but on a given evening you might see this on your TV screen:

Body Count:
US – 109
Vietnamese – 1254


For those without an iota of conscience, including very reverent Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Quakers, Mormons, Moonies, Jehovah's Witnesses and Nazarenes, that count might have looked like impending victory. How many Vietnamese could be left? Surely we were almost done with them!

When the Tet offensive hit, which was a suicidal mess for the North Vietnamese but had huge impact on the US because we didn’t know they still had the heart, let alone the numbers, to raise a ruckus like that that late in the war – when Tet hit, everybody knew the war was a failed futile mess. That’s why peace candidate Eugene McCarthy was gonna win the presidency, we thought, unless Bobby Kennedy, seeing that Eugene would win, wanted to hop in himself, and then he damn sure was gonna win, unless he got killed while campaigning. Most Americans still didn't know where Vietnam was, but it was pretty clear they weren't gonna topple America since they didn't have one single plane or boat. People in this country wanted the war to be over. Nixon whipped Humphrey because Humphrey was VP during the Vietnam debacle. Nixon could get us out of Vietnam, he told us.

That was a little less than a year before I was drafted. Well, it turned out we were only about half done from a US body count point of view. Nixon pushed for Peace with Honor, how ironic, which meant more war, a lot more, including the bombing of Hanoi on Christmas, tons of fun stuff, and, oddly, no "honor" at all. Just embarrassment. We were wrong. We lost. We were stupid. We kept slaughtering and being slaughtered long after everything was obvious except the reason why. Presidents with daughters kept sending other people’s sons off to die. It was amazing. I'm serious, it was like a collective mental disease episode, not one single logical thing about it. We couldn't get out because we couldn't get out because we wouldn't get out. This is where that special use of the term "quagmire" came from, if you ever wondered.

And, as Cronkite would say, that's the way it was -- that’s what kind of happy horseshit was going on when I was drafted July 17, 1969. I was at Ft. Benning for roughly 60 days. What happened during that small window of time, all dutifully reported by Walter Cronkite each evening? The day after, while I was getting my head shaved, I watched Ted Kennedy, wet from a long swim at Chappaquiddick, remorsefully talking to the press. Because of this he would never be president. Three days after that, we landed on the moon. We troops sat in folding chairs on sand outside our barracks watching it on a small black and white TV. A few weeks later, a beautiful famous actress, Sharon Tate, and others were killed in a really nasty cult murder, Charles Manson and the gang. Aug. 14, wearing fatigues of green, I turned 23. Aug. 19 Bill Clinton turned 23, and in Wrigley Field's outfield in the middle of a ballgame, two hooligans were about burn the American flag. Dodger centerfielder Rick Monday, otherwise forgotten since, rescued it unharmed to a standing ovation. Elsewhere, Woodstock was happening. We watched it at the USO while we played pool. Hordes of kids our age swarming along a country road in New York State, love, peace and rock’n’roll.

Not us though. We were cannon fodder. It wasn’t even the luck of the draw, because there wasn’t yet a draft lottery when we were drafted. (The first one was a few months later.) I’m not still mad about it! It’s a few wars later, and I’ve seen it happen over and over. It is terribly primitive, bloodlust, conquering other nations, slaughter. I always loved the bumper sticker “War is menstruation envy.” I don’t think that’s too far off. Something unconscious is taking place, something Freudian I'm almost certain. We go into war so easily. Republicans, particularly, love it. They hate abortion and would deny it to a woman under almost any circumstances, and are particularly grossed out by partial birth abortion because they value life so much, but the random bombing of a major city, including the killing of women some of whom might be pregnant, does not give them one moment's pause. For this one thing, you can even raise their taxes!

And we can never figure a way to get out of a war short of blasting the enemy to smithereens like Hiroshima. Short of that, a war just drags on, peters out. Since the end of the Cold War, there’s not been much external to ourselves that has threatened the existence of the United States. We did get surprised when a Hole in the Wall gang pulled off a suicide mission that exceeded even their fondest dreams. They got us pretty good, and we never got them back to our own satisfaction because, why, well, because, well, a cat bit us and we decided, rather mysteriously, to avenge it by kicking the dog. It didn't really matter if we actually got the people who got us. What mattered was that we rush to get into a war that was fairly big, kill a society or a country, get the blood splattered and fire off some weapons and make the very heavens themselves regret hurting us, by raising hell, literally, because we are good, good people, not like people in other countries, most of whom are ignorant, can't speak English, are not favored by destiny to use all the world's oil, and aren't white like God.

But listen. Allowing myself to be drafted was my first but not my last serious moral lapse. And then what happened? -- I never went to Vietnam. They sent me to Germany, where I was a clerk and a shortstop on the company softball team. This is my kind of luck. I kept bitching about the war until one of my friends told me to stop. “Shut up,” he told me. “Our generation is dying in Southeast Asia and you’ve got a cushy gig. Shut up.” I saw his point. I can't see it now, but I did then. My wife came there to be with me. We toured Europe when we could take some leave and then later more extensively, after I was excused from active duty, that would be 38 years ago to the day, July 17, 1971. That day we drove our new sky blue super beetle out of Frankfurt, drove a long way to St. Moritz and slept in a tent on the high shoulder of a mountain. In the morning, 38 years ago today, July 18, my wife and I walked higher into the mountains until the meadows were full of snow, then back down, making plans for the future, talking, trying to purge the shame and olive drab out of our blood. I turned 24 in Paris (hence the Paris picture down below, not taken back then but later). I turned 25 in Athens. I saw Barcelona, Rome, Vienna, Venice, Split, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, London, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, so much more. In our travels in Europe, I saw the battlefields of WWI and WWII, astonishing expanses of headstones in rank and file. I saw ruined castles along the Rhine. The Frankfurt opera house was still a bombed out hulk from 1944, along with houses up and down that street.

You begin to realize the big picture. Things look quite rational day to day in our neighborhoods, perhaps. But big picture, we’re grasshoppers, not very bright collectively, doing what comes natural which is, mostly, eating the earth and killing each other for the rights to have more earth to eat. Under a thin veneer of civilization fathers still want their sons to put on the uniform and bravely die so they can cry and bury them and have their chests burst with pride. We know now this can't go on forever. We're rattling our own cage now. It's just a matter of time. When it all ends, we’ll be why. And I proved long ago, July 17, 1969 to be exact, that I'm completely in the flow, not one bit above any of it, I know.

But anyway, happy July 18. This is, sad to say, the deadliest month so far in Afghanistan. We need to hire an architect and get the next memorial wall going.

A nod and a toast to my fellow draftees who went on this day 40 years ago. Rest in peace, Walter Cronkite – you will be missed. I’m writing, and I’m trying to figure how I can get to Paris for a year when my sabbatical comes. I'm fairly green, I'm praying when I think of it, exercising and eating right. I can do better at things. I'll try. I have great kids. It's been a long 40 years and a short 40 years. I shouldn't have let myself be drafted. I honor those who were drafted and served, whatever honor means, whatever "serving" means, and those who didn't by whatever wiles they used, their rich daddy with privileged entre into the National Guard, twisted knee, CO status, color blind, gay, Canada, running and hiding, female, or jail. It's a rough goddamned world. If we need forgiveness for the past, we've got to do the forgiving ourselves. If we want peace, we'll have to make it. Hell yes things could be worse, and will be -- that's for sure --, but meantime I'm quietly planning ahead for sabbatical, trolling for a small place in Vezelay or sweet small apartment in Paris with a view over the river toward Sacre Coeur.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Erotica and Her Sisters

I’m pasting below a letter I received today from the only genuine writer of erotica I know, who graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program the same semester as her pal, the estimable Susan Lilley. I asked her in my note to help us find the path to real literary erotica and away from Ms. McNaughty. I hit paydirt, as you will see. Here’s the reply of Ann Rosenquist Fee:

OH PHIL, what timing!! I’m at the Minneapolis airport with a few hours to spare, waiting for a fellow Stonecoast grad to arrive from New York so we can teach, tomorrow at the Loft Literary Center, a one-day workshop called Sex on the Page. The class is a product of our final Stonecoast presentation, in which I presented Ann’s Theory of Erotic Truth (an original blend of theories from French philosopher Georges Bataille and erotica writer/editor Susie Bright), and then my co-presenter, Ellen Neuborne, and I used that as a lens to help students judge what works and what doesn’t in their own and others’ erotic scenes, and then showed how to use that lens to create the most powerful, efficient and relevant erotic scenes possible in service to story. In short, our theory mandates that in order for erotic art to succeed, it needs two things: 1) an element of transgression, either in content or form (and we mean REAL transgression, smart transgression, not purportedly naughty sex, which doesn't surprise us at all, really -- transgression as in a conventional narrative that suddenly becomes a panting list of phrases and fragments when a kiss is described, because such a break in form embodies and shows-versus-tells how the character experiences this moment differently than, say, walking down the street) and 2) a fecundity, a transcendence, a fertility to the scene that both slams the reader into his/her own body and also sends them to an entirely other place, which, in sum, should be more/different than what porn achieves, and always in service to the larger story.

Here ere are some suggestions straight from the outline I’m prepping right now.

Texts that get at the theory…
Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality
Susie Bright, Full Exposure: Opening Up to Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression
Susie Bright, The Sexual State of the Union
Jean Paulhan’s foreword to Story of O
Diana Widmaier Picasso, Picasso: Art Can Only Be Erotic

Examples of powerful and artful erotic writing…
Best American Erotica collections edited by Susie Bright (especially 2006 with “Talk About Sex: An Orientation” by Jamie Cat Callan)
Any Cleis Press erotica collection edited by Alison Tyler
Judy Blume, Forever
Cris Mazza, “Is It Sexual Harassment Yet” from Normal: Fiction Collective Two (1998)
Anais Nin, House of Incest
Pauline Reage, Story of O
Jeanette Winterson, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles
Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

And here's the link to the Loft class description...;

…in case you decide Rollins or some other entity needs Sex on the Page. Ellen and I are pitching it to conferences around the country – we were thrilled to have the Loft as our first taker.

Hello to superstar Susan, please, and to Paul next time you’re in touch. Writerly vibes to you all…


Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Finishing

I was talking with some people last night at the great Bloomsday celebration at yours and my favorite indy bookstore, Urban Think, in Thornton Park, and someone was saying that he knew a writer who writes first drafts on a typewriter, then puts them on the computer as a second draft. Why haven't I ever thought of that? I'm so much more friendly to the keyboard than my own legendarily bad handwriting. One reason I have never thought of that is that first drafts usually go in my notebook which one would think is a place for handwriting, but sometimes I do a first draft on the computer, print it out, edit it by hand, and tape the edited copy into my notebook. So already it, the notebook, isn't a place solely for handwriting. I paste, tape, and post many different things in there. Typed drafts would be fine.

I should go on ebay or craigslist and see if I can find an Olympia portable in great condition. It would be a real adjustment, reintroducing into the household the steady click clack ding zing bang. When I was growing up in the big house (shown here), I had a desk in my room that instead of setting on the floor like an ordinary desk was bolted to the vertical oak studs behind the plaster wall, the easier to clean beneath it. From sixth grade, I was up there in my room typing, and I had my grandfather's serious Royal upright, battleship gray and weighing in at four hundred and twenty two pounds. When I would throw the carriage (sorry to the young pups -- you had to be there), the whole house would shake. You've heard of teenagers playing music too loud in their rooms. My parents would have given anything if I'd preferred Gracie Slick and the Beatles on the hi-fi instead.

I read Updike one time saying that when he first started writing, he just liked to see all those words of his on a page, and a lot of what he was doing in his stories had to do with filling the page up, and he said he was always supremely satisfied to roll a page out of the typewriter that was completely filled with his words. In fact, it was always a little disconcerting to him to take a page out that was not "finished." To him, “finished” meant filling the available space. When he was young, that is -- later, finished to Updike had the meaning it has to the rest of us -- finding the end of our story, completing the writing of it so that the draft has a beginning, middle, and an end.

I might look around for a typewriter, or oil up the old family Hermes, that we used to use for addressing envelopes before we learned how to do that on the printer. The Olympia was a great typewriter, not talking about the electric. I remember buying my first Olympia in Champaign, '66. I had a second one, '71.

In my mind, there is some connection I haven’t understood yet between typing on the typewriter and finishing. Somehow the levels of effort for typing accurately to avoid excessive retyping and for squaring away the content in a story were one thing. On the computer keyboard, the writing is supremely easy, revision so easy it is sometimes too easy, and the arc and heart of a story become the main concentration which, separated from the process of writing, seems to come along slower. Who’d have thunk it?

My experience with this may not be the common experience. To comment on this precise thing, you’d have to have done plenty of time doing creative writing on a typewriter, and with that understanding I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about finishing. Over the past five years, I’ve seemed to have developed a habit of robust starts that come to not very much. A story idea that comes along goes into a partial first draft satisfactorily, but I don’t give it the time, or lose the enthusiasm, and the next thing you know it’s on the back burner or abandoned entirely. This habit came along without my spotting it as a pattern until recently.

I know enough about me and writing to know how to address this. In writing, word by word, line by line, story by story, there is always a balance between the application of discipline and logic and the “go with the flow” surge of instinct and impulse. Both angles on the text are needed, discipline and instinct. The author is in charge. Therefore, as the author, if I notice I’m not finishing a lot of stuff and it concerns me, the fix is to break the habit by finishing no matter what. Well, I’ll tell myself, it may not be worth finishing. Well, MAKE it worth finishing, I’ll reply. I’m trying to make this a practical, workable observation on finishing, so I’ll take the ideal out of it. Everything can’t be finished or made worth finishing. To which I think to myself, yeah, but let’s improve the average.

I know that can be done, because I do keep a lot of my unfinished drafts, and years later I’ll take a look and miserably observe that the draft had a lot going for it and I should have finished it. Sometimes it is hard to get one’s self back in some bygone mode to finish an old start. It should be tried when one arrives on the idea that he has to begin finishing more. But the lesson in looking back on the junk pile of starts that were worthy but given up on is mainly to reaffirm something the typewriter years taught us, that writing is work, that the good stuff is hard to do which is why the few rewards for the good, finished work are so sweet.

No magic. I’ve got a 6,000 word story troubled by unresolved autobiography and some other torments, and word back from my trusty first readers isn’t good. As usual, they’ve seen into the piece perfectly, spelling out its issues (which far outweigh it). Finishing is far off. It will involve pushing. It will involve reading the piece over and over until I understand my own motives and edit out the crap and spot strands that aren’t being pulled through. And press on—I’m in a covered wagon, westward ho the long trek. My horses and ox are being hoisted up Scott’s Bluff, in Nebraska, which looks like a big obstacle. The ferryman has my wagons on the river. I’m hoping to get to the ocean. I don’t know it, but between me and finishing, there’s the Grand Tetons.

On another burner I’ve got a big story, culminating piece of an otherwise pretty successful book manuscript. I know the problems. First readers have helped, but I knew the problems all along. The piece, at the conceptual level, was risky, but that’s what I wanted and every time I reread it it’s still what I want. Onward. It’s summer.

There’s probably a science to finishing a story. Maybe a seven step process. Or a twelve step process to address the habit of not finishing. Nevermind. We know what to do. Lean into it. Read it again for all its possibilities. Don’t be afraid. Get a little joy. Work in the morning earlier, well before the sun is up. Leave the radio off. Take the coffee black. Work to finish. Retype the goddamn thing! Let it be messy—not every piece we write will be a masterwork, but the process of finishing grows us in the art, make no mistake—takes us to the next level where the good work is.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Writer Paul Freidinger on James Wood and How Fiction Works

The writer Paul Freidinger is my guest on this site for the first time -- first, I hope, of many. We both grew up in Central Illinois and probably played basketball and baseball against each other in the early sixties. Astoundingly, Paul had a poem in the same Florida Review as my "Wilbur Gray Falls in Love with an Idea," in the mid-eighties, and still we didn't actually meet and shake hands until four or five years ago. In addition to being a serious and remarkable poet, Paul is a gargantuan reader and reviewer of contemporary fiction. You would not, I think you'll agree, if you read the piece below a thousand times, peg him as a Cub fan. Enjoy.

For the last few years I’ve followed the reviews of contemporary fiction by James Wood whenever I’ve had the chance. I have to say I usually feel younger than he is although I am older by more than fifteen years. I feel younger because reading him leaves me with the sense of being vastly inexperienced in comparison to his depth of understanding the pantheon of Western literature. My lack doesn’t diminish the sense of pleasure and insight I receive when I read his reviews. In light of this, it took the gift of his recent book How Fiction Works to be motivated to read it. I’m left with the impression it should be required reading for any writer or anyone who has a serious interest in literary fiction.

I am not intending for this to be a full-length discussion of the book. I would hope to discuss other parts of it in the future. For now I would like to focus on a small section which I think a reader could apply to any book he or she may be reading. I should preface this by saying I hate the term “literary fiction,” and that distinction only serves to marginalize writers and readers alike. When I was young, I always wondered what made a book a classic. As I grew older, I decided a classic was simply a great story told in a superior way. I can also confess that I often disagree with Wood, as many qualified critics do. I think the value of his book is that it offers practical models to approach a wide variety of modern fiction.

I should point out that Wood is impressively grounded in the classics and the evolution of the novel and has a thorough grasp of Western philosophy. In his book he focuses on Shakespeare, Flaubert, Proust, Chekov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Austen, Henry James, Joyce, among others, attempting as he goes to trace the evolution to the modern novel and the use by authors of free indirect style. He speaks highly of writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, J.M. Coetzee, and V.S. Naipaul. Contemporary writers he likes include people as diverse as Ian McEwan, Norman Rush, Marilynne Robinson, W.G. Sebald, Josè Saramago, Roberto Bolaño, and Alexsander Hemon. He argues in favor of a realist fiction which respects the lineage of the tradition of those named authors, but he isn’t above embracing certain postmodern writers, as long as they don’t diverge into “hysterical realism,” narrative in its lightness that is neither unbearable nor grounded in the realm of a character’s possible life.

Of the current novelists, I want to draw attention to this one quote as a simple way to assess a book. Wood explains at length:
The novelist is always working with at least three languages. There is the author’s own language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; there is the character’s presumed language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; and there is what we would call language of the world—the language that fiction inherits before it gets to turn it into novelistic style, the language of daily speech, of newspapers, of offices, of advertising, of the blogosphere and text messaging. In this sense, the novelist is a triple writer, and the contemporary writer now feels especially the pressure of this tripleness, thanks to the omnivorous presence of the third horse of this troika, the language of the world, which has invaded our subjectivity, our intimacy, the intimacy that James thought should be the proper quarry of the novel, and which he called (in a troika of his own) “the palpable present-intimate.”
As it turns out, I read Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence at the same time I was reading How Fiction Works. About Rushdie’s Fury Wood wrote that “playful self-indulgence is a sign of an author in terminal decline.” The Enchantress of Florence is no less an example of this. I feel certain Wood would say it has a hard time staying grounded, that the author falls in love with his own cleverness, that Rushdie can’t be serious long enough to write the novel he is capable of. As a reader-reviewer, I can easily agree that Rushdie the author overpowers his characters. I wouldn’t say this is one of his best books. On the other hand, I would say that Rushdie remains a unique practitioner of fiction, suited as no other current writer is to articulate how Hinduism and Islam are bound and simultaneously antithetical and the tragic way Western Civilization continues to misunderstand Asia and create problems on a world stage born of our own ignorance. He is a brilliant story teller to boot, and for all of its faults, I loved The Enchantress of Florence.

Wood takes issue with two other books of which I am fond: Delillo’s Underworld and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I took the effort to track down Wood’s reviews of both books, and he pronounced both of them failures. He charged Underworld with having no center and being populated with dead characters. The Corrections, he went on to say, was a distillation of DeLillo’s book, concentrated on a single family’s dynamic, but suffering from the same lack of authenticity, the same absence of “living, breathable” characters. I love both of these books, and they have become part of my own ontology, part of the way I experience the world. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t evaluate some experience by the means I learned in reading DeLillo and Franzen. For me they are examples of how fiction can teach us to live, to judge experience, to gain a heightened sense of receptivity. I empathize with the characters easily, and I was sad to see both come to an end. Again, I would like to say that, in retrospect, James Wood helped guide me through them, after the fact, and reading his reviews helped me appreciate them more; perhaps, more because of their flaws. I have read two novels by Norman Rush and disliked them intensely. I read them because of Wood’s recommendations. An odd thing happened for me with Rush. Wood aptly demonstrates how Rush creates a style of language by cobbling it together in an unusual way. It turns out that he articulated something I attempt with my own writing: the process of forming a language with different registers that contain within them a kind of tension, perhaps unlike any ordinary spoken language, but one that forces a reader to pay attention and see the world from a new perspective. I guess my argument here is that one needn’t subscribe wholly to the church of James Wood to learn from him, and that poets have as much to gain from him as fiction writers.

I’ll continue with one last comment on the dangers, as Wood sees them, of a writer adopting the “language of the world.” Here, Wood cites David Foster Wallace as the poster child for good intentions gone awry. About Wallace’s use of this style, Wood fires, “the language of his unidentified narration is hideously ugly, and rather painful for more than a page or two.” He goes on to say,
the risky tautology inherent in the contemporary writing project has begun: in order to invoke a debased language (the debased language your character might use), you must be willing to represent that mangled language in your text, and perhaps, thoroughly debase your own language... In other words, the novelist’s job is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring. David Foster Wallace is good at becoming the whole of boredom.
Whether or not you the reader buy his assessment, I think any writer today grapples with the challenge of how to use language effectively. I think Wood reveals himself in this prejudice, and I can list any number of reputable writers who would ignore his advice. Ignoring his advice would not minimize the writer’s task.

I will say, in ending, that this is one small component of Wood’s rubric. I’m advocating the value to a reader of intentionally assessing a writer’s language and whether the characters’ voices are true to themselves or simply an author’s desire to convey his own conceits at the expense of a character’s personality. I’m suggesting a reader examine whether a writer can resurrect our daily language and give a character an authentic voice, or whether he becomes a victim of the superficial, to the degree of being unable to make us care enough about that character to complete his story. The rest of Wood’s book takes one deeper into the formation of a novel and what is essential to its success. He offers equally sound advice as he takes the reader through the essential elements of the novel. Give it a chance, read the book. It might make you a better reader. It might even cause you to reconsider your own writing.

*All quotes are from James Wood’s How Fiction Works.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Reflections on Matthews

I am so pleased that Jeanie Thompson, the poet who serves as Executive Director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, allowed me to let fly with an amplification of my November lecture at Spalding University (I teach poetry and fiction in the brief residency MFA program there). The amplified piece appears in First Draft, the great magazine of the Forum edited by the estimable Danny Gamble (a toast to both Jeanie and Danny). Last summer, I wrote a friendly overview of the work of David Huddle for the Southern Review, Huddle being a friend and mentor since 1991 when I met him at Bread Loaf after years of admiring his work from afar. The piece in First Draft, entitled “Deep Image, Humor, and the Poetry of William Matthews," observes my modest little friendship and connection with Matthews, who died a day or so after his 55th birthday in November of 1997.

You can read First Draft, including my article, at

and how can you resist!

Both the Spalding lecture and this retrospective of mine in First Draft are the results of a long mood of remembrance many of us have been in since the 10th anniversary of Bill’s death, which was in November of 2007. Back in February of 1997, working at that time in a consulting firm in Longwood, I coordinated with UCF to bring him to Orlando to read. He read at UCF on February 13th, 1997, and stayed at the Holiday Inn across the street from the main entrance. I joined him for breakfast the day after the reading and to give him a ride to the airport – he was in a rush to get back to Celia on Valentine’s Day. His book Time and Money had won a big award, the Ruth Lilly Award, as well as the New York Critics Circle Award, and he appeared to be getting the recognition we all thought he’d deserved for a number of years. He was tired, but he was happy, and at the reading he was funny and generous. As we sat there at breakfast eating fruit and cereal and talking, he had almost exactly nine months to live. We can never know these things.

“I think there might be a Pulitzer in Time and Money,” I told him.

“No,” he said. “Helen (Vendler, the influential poetry critic through whom one must go to the Pulitzer, or at least such was the case at the time) doesn’t like people like me.”

Isn’t that a wild statement?

After that, in August of ‘97, we traded notes. He was just back from Israel and, I think, Prague, and that was entirely too much travel for a man in his condition. He and Celia were scoping out a house to buy. The September before, 1996, he’d had surgery for serious vascular problems, probably shouldn't have come to Orlando the following February. So in that next August I wrote and asked him how he was doing. He wrote back, very quickly, “I suppose you mean by that have I quit smoking.” It was a funny, faux cranky remark, seriously funny. I say how can we ever know what's ahead, but I've always thought if anyone knew it was Bill himself. The evidence was piling up in his interior life, I imagine, after that big surgery, though he wouldn't have been likely to mention it. (to be continued)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Death of John Updike

The death of John Updike caused a flurry of retrospect and comment in the New York Times, and as usual looking at all of it gives a fuller picture than looking at any bit of it. Michiko Kakutani wrote a great appraisal, and Christopher Lehman-Haupt wrote the actual obituary. The slide show link below is somehow richer than all the words surviving writers lavish on Updike, the master of words.

Somewhere in these materials Philip Roth eulogizes that Updike was 20th century America's version of 19th century America's Nathaniel Hawthorn. I don't think that's far off at all. I like the comparison to Henry James, because of the full array Updike brought to the label "Man of Letters." Michiko Kakutani, in her piece, finally said he published too much, and observed that in one of his nonfiction collections of articles he reprinted the captions he'd written for Marilyn Monroe's pictorial in Playboy way back when.

Updike was not only a man of letters but a man of books. The Times coverage included Updike's famous thoughts about the origins of his writing, that before he loved writing sentences, he loved books, the making of books, printing presses, binding, typewriters, pens, paper, filling pages with handwriting or typing or print. For him, finally getting his written words between the covers of a published book, that alone was supremely important and satisfying to him, and thus he kept the mighty pace of three pages of writing a day, an average of one book a year (and way more writing than just one book in a year -- 800 contributions to the New Yorker magazine, counting the fact that he, like our friend Jamaica Kincaid, was an anonymous writer of the New Yorker's Talk of the Town feature).

A friend who is a friend of a relative of Updike's has written me that his death of lung cancer began in September when he was hospitalized for what they thought was pneumonia. It was reported that he checked into a hospice facility near his home in New England on Monday and died Tuesday. I believe I read he has two books coming out this coming year.

Because of his prose, which could be especially when he was young a bit of an acquired taste, I'm seeing persistent critical comment about his style even in his obituaries and the appraisals. He was a big deal and it will take years to get him into perspective. Michiko Kakutani quoted James Wood from long ago saying, in effect, that Updike was way more style than substance. I've said on this page that even I, who worship at his feet and memory, believe Updike's novels were not the best display of his writing. I've said you can find his best writing in his short fiction precisely because his expansive painting of detail is controlled better in the short form -- he really lets the horse go in the long work. I am fond of a couple of his short novels that are rarely mentioned, one being A Month of Sundays.

My ex-wife was a fanatic about Updike from the time I met her in 1964. She introduced me to his work and we followed his career all the way. I believe in my files I have that Time magazine from '68, pictured above. I have a hardback copy of Couples from back then, and many copies of the Rabbit and Bech series. In 1995 I was on a road trip for my job and was driving back to the hotel on the beltway between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis airport. The NPR station announced that Updike was in town, speaking McAlister College in St. Paul. I went to the hotel, changed into jeans, and drove up there for the reading. I got there way early (two hours). I found the venue, an old gym at the college, with a student center (I seem to recall) one floor below it. I got two slices of pizza and a large cup of orange juice, went into the gym where chairs were being set out for the event, placed myself on the center aisle in the first row, and waited. I was 49 years old, and I felt like I was thirteen and about to meet Stan Musial. After the reading, I was second in line behind another fanatic for the book signing. The other fanatic had brought all his old Updike books and, while 300 people lined up to meet the author, had Updike sign them all. Then I stepped up and Updike flashed a smiling generous look at the departing fanatic, a look that very clearly and bemusedly said, "You see it all in this business."

The only book I had with me that day that he might sign was my softback copy of the 1995 Best American Short Stories. I had a story ("Forty Martyrs") in the back list that year, the section of the book "100 Other Distinguished Stories from 1994," and he was in the same list. He was always in the book or in the backlist, year after year. For me it was unique and happy, this development, so I carried it with me everywhere I went. I told him it was the second time he and I had been in a book together (we were both in the 1988 O. Henry volume -- he was frequently in there, but once ["Arcola Girls"] was quite a thrill for me). He said, "Let me see," and I gladly flipped from U's to the D's. He said, "It's great to meet you," and shook my hand. He was super cordial, and in a great mood, as his appearance at McAlister was co-sponsored by The Hungry Mind bookstore on the occasion of the publication of his Rabbit compendium, all four of the Rabbit novels in one book. Combined into that volume, the Rabbit series was a ranking contender for the elusive label The Great American Novel. My encounter with him was about a minute and a half and I'm surely treasuring both the signature and the memory this week.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Richard Bausch's "Design"

Reading this Richard Bausch story again, a favorite of mine for fifteen years (another of the stories my good friend the writer Mary Burns pointed me toward) (and having met Bausch himself since the last time I read it), I’m as pleased as I was the first time. This story appeared in the 1990 Best American Short Stories anthology, and, in fact, Bausch had two stories in that volume. I think he and Alice Munro are the only authors ever to pull that off (someone give me a shout about this if you know). It is so perfect that this story, which then was entitled “A Kind of Simple, Happy Grace,” is one of Bausch’s honored two that make up that achievement. James Wood, in his fine book How Fiction Works, sometimes seems not to have a clue about how fiction actually works, and I think it is because he’s so taken by the craft aspect, which can be talked about at length. Only God knows how the art aspect works, and that part is so mysterious and magical even God hasn’t bothered to write a book about it. Perhaps Wood's intention (I’ll confess here I’m not through the book though I am through the section on characters in fiction) is to explore the question How Fiction Works rather than answer it. I haven’t read as much fiction as Wood has (very few people have – he’s amazing), but I’ve written more of it, and I can tell you the word “works” in his title is tricky. Anybody who ever ran a workshop knows it. It’s avoided. Works for who? What constitutes working? The word, when you think of it, is intentionally vague. “Well, I dunno, it just works, works for me anyway.” That kinda thing.

In the chapters where Wood is pondering character, he turns to the traditional terminology of round characters and flat ones (well, not so traditional – the terms, Wood advises us, come from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel), and he (Wood) concludes all characters, even the best ones in the best fiction, are somewhat flat, because they can’t be round, because round characters are “real.” Real people are round characters, and fiction can’t go that far in creating characters, so in fiction they’re all a bit flat. And for damn sure, you aren’t going to have any round characters in short fiction because it’s too short to make them even a little bit round! Take a look (How Fiction Works, p 128), I think he really says this.

We have to find our way to stories. We tease them up from the subconscious by following a trail we hope we’re seeing but maybe not and maybe that’s okay, just keep going. The trail is mostly made up of characters who emerge as we write. In the back of the Best American Short Stories anthology in which the story we’re talking about appeared, Bausch reported that one summer it came to pass that he had to drive to work on “a route that led [him] past several churches, ranged within sight of each other in the lovely hills beyond McClean, Virginia.” He said that from that landscape he began to imagine a story about two men from different denominations and that the story would somehow involve them finally coming into “a sort of helpless embrace.” Bausch had no idea what the embrace would be about, who they men were, or how the story would get there. He couldn’t know that because he didn’t know the men yet. I love this, the story and understanding the background of it. What story was whispering to Richard Bausch from this landscape? After many blind alleys, he finally found it. He says it took him seven years to write. “So simple,” he said. “I don’t have the slightest idea why.”

“Design” begins with the Catholic priest Father Russell watching from his window the aging Baptist minister Reverend Tarmigian raking his leaves across the way even though the leaves weren’t finished falling and the old man was in no condition to be doing it. Tarmigian, ailing, pale and just a little dottering, didn’t seem at all well even from a distance, and Father Russell was going through a bad time, worried about everything, including but not limited to the old minister on the opposite side of the deep gully separating their churches. To get from one to the other one had to walk down to the sidewalk by the road, and walk over there, crossing the gully on a sidewalk bridge. Finally, having watched the old man struggle in his work, Russell had to go over there, even though through the years he’d actually avoided contact with the Reverend, idle conversation, waste of time, a whole flock on the right side of the gully to worry about, plate full, can’t take on the scene that’s going on over on the other side. So guilt came to roost. Time to go talk.

I think Tarmigian is one of the most interesting and fine characters I’ve seen in contemporary short fiction. I love this man, bright eyed though dying, still raking the leaves of the massive churchyard, still carrying the mulch up the hill to the cemetery where his wife, dead twenty years, was buried. Pausing there to pray a while, and back down the hill to work. Teasing Father Russell for being so worried about him. What are characters in fiction? James Wood asks rhetorically as he opens his discussion on character development in his book. But it isn’t even a question worth asking, is it? It’s like asking, What are people for? One might as well ask what are atoms in a compound? What are rivers through a field?

While parrying Father Russell’s concern about his well being, Tarmigian lapses into preacher shop-talk, telling him that recently he’s been counseling a couple who have been married 52 years and want a divorce. Tarmigian is on the one hand wryly amused, on the other hand enthralled by the question. He tells Russell, it’s like the woman suddenly slaps herself on the forehead and says, what were we thinking? Fifty two years! The couple can’t agree on what television show to watch. Damn sure they don’t want to sleep in the same room! Those are just a couple of the points of contention, but fifty two years is the main thing – when marriage was invented, nobody ever dreamed two people would have to co-habitate until they were blue in the face. One farts a lot, the other is stone deaf, years ago they went beyond knowing each other well into the region of knowing each other too well, then past that into the zone of once again not knowing each other at all. This is what hard labor and crusades and disease were for, to kill off one of them, most likely the male, mercifully of course, we hope, in some regular civilized death way, but one of them has to go. Read the fine print! Until death do us part!

Father Russell, in the story, makes three trips over to Tarmigian’s place, worried about him. In the second trip, Russell has traipsed over to the very frail Tarmigian’s side of the gully to get him to stop working and go to a doctor. Russell is having a crisis, ostensibly so worried about Tarmigian that he can’t sleep, though we, the reader, can see this is a case of classic projection and Russell is easily as worried about himself. Celibacy! He’s forty three, alone, coming unstuck from reality. He has is own neurotic past to deal with and he can’t deal with it by himself in his creaky old rectory, nobody can!, his flock’s going walkabout all over town, the past haunts even those of us who aren’t neurotic, his faith-tormented present isn't feeling so great either, and his prospects looking ahead are pretty grim if you ask me (and for sure he'd agree, in this mid-life mood of his). Imagine the storms inside this man. And don’t forget, for a priest, this kind of worry about self is masturbation pure and simple – self indulgence – so he’s (convinced himself he's very) worried not about himself but about the guy next door. And also. Russell is a good guy and really IS worried about the guy next door.

Tarmigian meantime is on Russell’s last nerve, seeming to push his worry to the limit. In this second trip over, Russell comes into the church and finds Tarmigian, normally dottering even on terra firma, teetering at the very tip top of a rickety ladder painting the upper regions of the interior of his church. You have to know Richard Bausch to know how he loved writing this, so funny I’m laughing in my chair right now. When Tarmigian coughs, the ladder tips this way and that, and he coughs a lot. One hand’s fully bandaged from a mishap with the sharp lid of a paint can, and that’s the hand Tarmigian holds on with – the paint brush is in the other one. Father Russell fairly seizes up watching all this.

In the third visit of Father Russell over to Tarmigian’s place, when the priest arrives, Tarmigian is nowhere to be found, and Russell places himself in a pew in Tarmigian’s church and waits. Russell is a wreck, on the edge of a breakdown, worried about Tarmigian's health and, of course, himself. He's shaking and upset, holding back tears. He really wants to go to confession to this old minister, his father in a way and his brother in another way and in yet another way his priest, but Baptists aren’t into the sacrament of penance, dang. Finally Russell hears Tarmigian’s voice, out on the front walk with someone, talking loudly as he strolls into the church. He's walking into the church with an old woman, and the old woman is deaf. Tarmigian sees the priest sitting there and welcomes him, introduces him to the woman, who turns out to be guess who, the woman of the 52 year marriage on the rocks, and asks her to settle a moment in a back pew while he talks with the priest who seems to be wigging out. As they talk, the woman shouts she can't hear what they're saying and that she's deaf as a post. Meantime Tarmigian is calming the priest. The woman yells a couple more times, "Hey, what's going on over there. I can't hear a thing. I am stone cold deaf!" Tarmigian is aware she's trying to figure out what they're talking about, these two men of different cloths – what an odd thing. “What’s going on?” she shouts. It’s puzzling. She can see one of them is upset. "Hey!" she shouts, kindly, but just letting them know she's lost as to what's happening. Tarmigian, ever more frail, talks Russell down best he can, telling him to relax, all's well, it gets like this sometimes, don't worry – "I'm fine,” he assures the priest, “don't worry about me," etc. Russell is in tears. They are a few feet away from the deaf woman in the pew who's watching them but can't hear them. Finally Tarmigian says to Father Russell, turned away so his lips can’t be read, something like, so, are you gonna be okay? and then he says, "C'mon, let's shake hands so she sees us -- no, wait," he says, "let's embrace. Let's give her an ecumenical thrill." And they do. Of course, in the story, the hug is way more important than just performance for a deaf onlooker. We’re in Russell’s third person limited point of view and he feels the skeletal remains of his wise and kindly old Baptist neighbor, experiences the embrace as confession, and nearly collapses in the old man's arms. Tarmigian, we assume, experiences it as fellow reverend and father figure to the young priest, as spiritual healer and marriage counselor to the old woman.

Under that different title, you can find the story in the 1990 Best American Short Stories. I recently read it in my copy of The Stories of Richard Bausch. I wish James Wood would read “Design.” What is character in fiction? It’s art. It’s a bunch of words the artist makes live and breathe so it’s a round character we’re better for having met, this old minister Tarmigian. The author found this man among the churches in the landscape he was driving through at the time. He imagined an embrace and found his way to it. Inspired, he knew just the brushstrokes to give us and exactly when to stop. He got two stories into the 1990 Best American. This one took him seven years. That’s how fiction “works.” So simple.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Updike’s “A Constellation of Events”

I’m reading the formidable writer and critic James Wood’s new book How Fiction Works, and the first twenty five percent of it (that’s how far I’ve gotten) is devoted to one of my favorite things, third person limited point of view, which he, from a different school of thinking and a different angle of comment, calls “free indirect style.” Wood is a writer my pal, the poet, essayist and Central Illinoisian Paul Freidinger, has really latched onto, in the New Yorker and really all over the place (including an interview with him conducted by the Kenyon Review that came out on their website about the time mine did – get on and find it in their archive). Wood’s astonishing contribution is the breadth of his reading and his continuing command over all of it.

Anyway, James Wood traces free indirect style (I like this expansion of the concept of point of view to the level of “style,” and when you think of it, of course, per the quote I’m about to show you, point of view IS style – something I’ve never thought before) to Flaubert. In the quote below, Wood’s simply helping us understand what he’s pinpointing with the term “free independent style”:
The tension between the author’s style and his or her characters’ styles becomes
acute when three elements coincide: when a notable stylist is at work, like
Bellow or Joyce; when that stylist also has a commitment to following the
perceptions and thoughts of his or her characters (a commitment usually
organized by free indirect style or its off-spring, stream of consciousness);
and when the stylist has a special interest in the rendering of detail.
Stylishness, free indirect style, and detail: I have described
Flaubert, whose work opens up and tries to solve this tension, and who is really
its founder.
Of course, John Updike, contemporary realist master, is a prose stylist, more articulate than most of us by double, and so there’s a problem. When he’s writing in free indirect style, he’s under an awful lot of pressure for his point of view character, mainly, to have the Updikean eye for detail and flare for language. This would be a rare Yankee suburban WASP bored cop, housewife or businessman, indeed. Yet Updike has to sell us on the reality of this character so that we aren’t distracted when the character pleases us with his spectacular observation or precision articulation of detail (he doesn’t want the reader to stop and think, “wait a minute, who’s talking here – the character or the author?”).

Free indirect style allows the “style” of the story to free float hopefully quite unobtrustively between the voice of the author and the voice of the character so that the reader isn’t distracted or bothered but buys in – just as the good reader dutifully performs that grandest of mental gymnastics, the “willing suspension of disbelief.”

John Updike’s little beauty of a story “A Constellation of Events” can be found in this collection (Trust Me) along with “Poker Night,” “Leaf Season,” “Getting Into the Set,” and “Deaths of Distant Friends” – all of these latter stories frequently anthologized but never “A Constellation of Events.” If you have attempted to read Updike’s novels and haven’t been drawn to them, there is quite likely a good reason for that, relevant to this discussion if only we had time. You could come to your own conclusions, and they’d be right, if you’d give Updike’s mid-career stories a try instead of one of the novels, next time you’re so moved. The stories in Trust Me, as usual with him, first appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, and the Atlantic, mostly in the late seventies through the late eighties – that’s “mid-career” for Updike, a time when critics finally admitted he’d grown into his much touted vocabulary and his somewhat muscle-bound talent for metaphor and simile.

“A Constellation of Events” is told from the point of view of the wife of an insurance executive, living in suburban Hartford, CT. She, Betty, is recalling four days in a certain February that made a sort of constellation if you looked how they dotted a calendar. On that first day, some certain day in the winter when the fields were full of new snow, she and her husband (Rob) pulled together a few friends (and their young families – toddlers, adolescents, etc.) to go cross-country skiing. There were three couples plus kids in the entourage. Updike writes: “They all met at the Pattersons’ field in their different-colored cars and soon made a line of dark silhouettes across the white pasture.”

Like the three stars in the belt of Orion, snow skiing has a way of bringing the illusion of order (in the form of a single file line) to a random group of individuals. But among them there were two people who were having an affair, and while the other adults mostly knew it, they pretended that everything was regular and relatively fine. Betty, our third person limited point of view character, took on the role of helping those who were bringing up the rear, including the slightly slumping, vaguely depressed, cuckolded husband (Rafe) as well as Betty and Rob’s own daughter who was (a) too young for skiing and (b) didn’t have the right equipment. Rafe had the right equipment but the skis were set wrong, and he kept popping out of his bindings.

Out in the country, broken off from the rest of the group, Rafe and Betty, struggling with stragglers and equipment, manage to get each other’s attention. They find commonality in a book Rafe’s reading which he loans her. There is an afternoon together to discuss the book, and before long this unlikely duo is finding even more commonality on the naugahide of the couch in Rafe’s law office downtown.

The story is short, probably 3500 words or about 12 pages in the printed collection. It begins with Betty bored but in a good mood about her marriage. All signs are her husband is bored as well, no signs he’s straying as Rafe’s wife is with some other guy. Rob and Betty aren’t at the end of their marriage but they are in the desert-like middle of it. There is no sign that this private lapse of Betty and Rafe’s will cause an end to either of their marriages, but it will cause hurt, infinite confusion, and long-lasting disorder, and Rafe and Betty know it and say it to each other, and they ask each other if they really want that, and they both seem to say “yes.” In the frame of the story, Betty, staring at the calendar later on, looking at the distribution of those four sunny winter days among the squares that formed the month of February when all this happened, thinks of the days as a miracle, no matter how it all turned out.

Why have I been drawn to this story over the years? It is Updike’s style and insight, not the story line. It is his assumptions, cagily attributed to Betty in a free indirect style that allows him to launder his views through a fictional character. It is the inexorable progress of the situation through these few days we see and Betty, too, comes to understand, what she wants to do. It amazes her, in retrospect, that she was capable of this sudden switch in direction. Updike writes at the end:
And though there was much in the aftermath to regret, and a harm that would
never cease, Betty remembered these days – the open fields, the dripping eaves,
the paintings, the law books – as bright, as a single iridescent unit, not
scattered as is a constellation but continuous, a rainbow, a U-turn.
To appreciate this story we must understand that Betty, a good person, precisely the sort you know and are friends with, could actually believably do this U-turn, and maybe even that you know what she might feel like later if she did.

In mid-career, Updike had grown into his language, his metaphors, his stories. The novel is a whole different issue, for all authors. It is a gigantic project, enormously demanding. It takes time from our limited lives, a couple of years to write if you write steadily, maybe three, and after all that it might suck anyway. It’s in the stories, perfectable in their scale and scope, that you can see the masters handle the rough air of our lives through their characters whom they first have to sell us (with the skillful use of free indirect style) can talk and observe like the masters but also can live and love and be like you and me.