Puce Needle Diggings
What exactly is the short story? The self-evident distinction—short stories are short—is frustratingly vague. How short? Is Faulkner’s “The Bear” a short story? Joyce’s “The Dead”? Is there some kind of impermeable membrane separating the short stories from the novellas from the novels? Every fiction writer seems to go on record with the opinion that the genre differs from the novel in more than the size of its canvas: that it demands more discipline, forgives less error, is more thoroughly honed and streamlined. But this definition consists entirely of comparisons between the two genres; it keeps the short story in the novel’s shadow while pretending to venerate it, like a Victorian gentleman calling women “the fairer sex.” Unfortunately, most of the other things that can be said about short stories can also be said of novels—both are narrative (most of the time) prose (generally speaking) fiction (except when not) involving characters (though not necessarily) in a setting (with some exceptions). Does the short story have any kind of independent artistic existence, or is mere convenience the only reason for bothering with the labels in the first place?
Anthologies of short fiction usually suggest some kind of theory, however vague. The late R.V. Cassill’s alphabetically organized Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, a brick of a book clearly meant for the classroom, traces a heavily Anglophone trajectory rooted paradoxically in Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Maupassant, and emphasizes the formal elegance of the great, classroom-tested monuments of the genre. In contrast, the chronologically ordered Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike, enshrines lesser-known works by the same famous names (Faulkner, Hemingway, Malamud) and votes in favor of the short story as a form of high social mimesis. Penguin’s platoon of subidentified collections (English, Scottish, Welsh, Modern British, American, Canadian, Latin American, Gay, Lesbian, Modern Women’s, and Russian Fiction, among others) suggests that what divides us is stronger than what unites us after all, at least on the page. To collect is to discern, and thereby to critique, even when the collector pretends otherwise.
The new collection Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story tries very hard not to look as though it’s advancing any big ideas about what the short story is or does. “The editors [of the Paris Review] have never believed that there was one single way to write a story. We’ve never espoused a movement or school. We’ve never observed a word limit,” write Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein, the Review‘s (unrelated; the shared name is a coincidence) current editors, in their three-paragraph prefatory remarks to the collection. It’s not exactly a manifesto.
The way the book was assembled seems even less likely to generate a single overarching statement or aspiration. The two Steins asked twenty contemporary short story writers to choose a favorite story from the archives of the magazine and write a brief note describing “the key to its success as a work of fiction.” As a result, the stories range across the long-canonized philosophical games of Borges’s “Funes, the Memorious” and disjointed globetrotting of Donald Barthelme’s “Several Garlic Tales” to the polite evil glowering behind Ethan Canin’s boarding-school story “The Palace Thief” and breezy humor of Dallas Wiebe’s “Night Flight to Stockholm.” As you could see from that abbreviated list, some of the writers are now old stars twinkling in the firmament, and some are obscure to all but readers of short-fiction-publishing literary magazines.
A significant part of the fun of reading short story anthologies is variety. The voice, style, subject, and plot keep changing every dozen pages or so; when they’re well-curated, it’s hard to be bored. Consequently, it’s hard to generalize about what to expect from a collection like this one. But one thing that could be said is that you start to get the sense that the collection exists in part to extol the virtues of a particular kind of literary short story from the post-WWII era—a vision of the short story as the junction where an urge to experiment, formally and stylistically, meets a mania for self-contained perfection.
To briefly examine three sharply different examples from this book: Joy Williams is far less frequently heralded as a stylistic genius of brutality than Cormac McCarthy, but I vastly preferred the half-hour I spent squirming and soaking in the grim eloquence of her 1969 Australian frontier story “Dimmer” to the sonic cudgelings of Blood Meridian, which seem unsubtle by comparison. Her description of the arms of Outback cowboys reads like the last iteration of successive work-intensive sketches for how to reconcile terse Hemingwayisms with the Biblical, sinuous shadows of Faulkner’s prose:
Wool had become embedded in the wounds of their fingers, spun out black and coarse like a paw’s webbing. The blood of lambs lay caked beneath their nails. On their dark arms they had tattoos. Legends of roses and tigers. Puce needle diggings. Stain of capillaries. The muscled petals that women love to touch.
In contrast, Evan S. Connell’s 1950s class satire “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge” takes on an entirely different set of literary-historical issues. It positions itself in partial opposition to the very idea of fiction as a tool for social change, while also questioning the modernist veneration of the everyday, and the notion of epiphanic insight, with a deft flick of the knife:
While idly dusting the bookcase one morning she paused to read the titles and saw and old red-gold volume of Conrad that had stood untouched for years. … In the midst of one of the stories she came upon a passage that had once been underlined, apparently by Tom Bridge, which remarked that some people go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain. … Mrs. Bridge put the book on the mantel for she intended to read more of this perceptive man, but during the afternoon Hazel automatically put Conrad back on the shelf and Mrs. Bridge did not think of him again.
The genteel tone—with its Anglophilic touches (the omitted commas, “midst,” “for she intended”), its repeated invocations of Mrs. Bridge at the formal remove of a title, and pleasantly unshowy metafictional angle—invokes the world of Woolf, Forster, or Mansfield. But unlike their stories, where the sudden interpolation of Conrad’s voice would break through the skin of the ordinary into some kind of revelation, that moment of deep personal change is comically averted. The parodically overcultured style resumes, with barely a ripple left in the wake of the passage ventriloquized from Typhoon.
But the merits of other stories escape this kind of stylistic close-reading. Guy Davenport’s 1996 “Dinner at the Bank of England” imagines a conversation between a middle-aged George Santayana and a young British Imperial captain in London at the very beginning of the twentieth century. It transforms the genre of the short story into a latter-day Platonic dialogue, and, like those dialogues, defies both summary and quotation. And yet it manages subtle, if nerdy, humor alongside the political philosophy:
—Liberalism in its triumphant maturity will be its opposite, an opaque tyranny and a repression through benevolence that no tyrant however violent has ever achieved.
—Here here! You’re talking for effect, as at the Union.
—There is no fanaticism like sweet reason.
This vision of the short story as the author’s equivalent to the mad scientist’s laboratory, crowded with all exotic varieties of strange and transfixing experiments, also accomplishes something different. While Object Lessons declines to willingly advocate for a particular movement or school, it does tell us about the more loosely organized school of people who read short stories. And the unavoidable observation that the people who read short stories are different from the people who do not provides the background tension that weaves together the stories in this book.
The editors’ preface attempts to smooth over this division: “Our hope is that this collection will be useful to young writers, and to others interested in literary technique. Most of all, it is intended for readers who are not (or are no longer) in the habit of reading short stories.” Of course, these are two distinct species of audience. If you are a young writer and/or a person interested in literary technique, the chances are very good that you read lots of short stories, or at least enough to get by, and that you’ve authored a few yourself. You read them so that you can write them, and you write them because you have to start somewhere and a full-length novel is a hard place to start. Conversely, if you’re not in the habit of reading short stories, you’re probably not an aspiring writer. The reader who is not a short story reader is a reader of novels instead, or maybe of memoirs, or popular social-science books by TED speakers, and usually has a day job. The mission this book sets for itself is as odd as a TV show that aims to be “useful” to bright young people looking to break into television production—but also to people who like movies but rarely watch TV.
Many observers have argued that many contemporary short stories seem to grow only in the hothouse environment of creative writing workshops, and wilt under the cooler winds outside. Elif Batuman complained in n+1 in 2006 that “the short story continues to be propagated in America by a purely formal apparatus: by the big magazines, which, if they print fiction at all, sandwich one short story per issue between features and reviews; and by workshop-based creative writing programs and their attendant literary journals.” In this view of things, creative writing classes assign students to write short fiction which then gets published by the small number of magazines that publish such things and are read in turn by small audiences comprised mainly of the kind of people writing short fiction. There are rude nicknames for this kind of self-indulgently recursive practice.
But this insularity is only a problem if it results in a lot of bad short fiction, and while often it does, it’s not clear that it’s any worse than the abundance of bad lyric poetry produced by the writing workshops of the world (much of which is also published in the little magazines of the world). To judge from the stories in Object Lessons, at the very top end of the genre, everything is astoundingly good. They do things that you would not expect a novel to do: they are more willing to take risks and try experiments, evolving into stranger and hardier mutations in the less-observed expanses of the literary wild. Many are far more interesting, clever, and innovative than works that are longer by a full order of magnitude. So what if the short story is just a contrivance of contemporary American authorial culture? Why should it have to also convert the heathen wilds of nonfiction-readers and extend a bridge to the novel-reading schismatics?
Yet it’s exactly that theory of the short story that drives this collection: the insistence that there is no real contradiction between the didactic vision of the short story as an arena for teaching writers how to write, and the idea of the short story as a suitable object for the lover of fiction more generally—that you ought to be able to bring the two groups together under the same roof. The Paris Review has a stake in both positions. What editor of a literary magazine wouldn’t like to see a return to the golden age of short fiction, when Hemingway and Fitzgerald strode the earth, commanding large audiences? What writer wouldn’t? It’s possible that we’re living in such times. When the New York Times Magazine publishes a piece titled “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” and the book in question is a short story collection, and Alice Munro has achieved literary iconicity for her work in the genre, the health of the short story can’t be doing so badly. As for any business, it’s in magazines’ own best interest to make a few hopefully-self-fulfilling prophecies along the lines of “The short story has returned.”
But does the casual reader have any such stake? The genre of the high postwar short story, as on exhibit in this book, is a preserve for the stranger strains of the microorganisms whose larger cousins have been killed off: not only in the form of the neon hallucinations of a self-identified avant-garde, but also Edwardian tales of aging schoolmasters, the philosophical thought-game, and careful recalibrations of dialogue, mood, and narrative in a game of inches. A book like this will not convert the unsuspecting. It will draw in the reader who already reads for the pleasure of seeing the mechanisms of storytelling at work; who may know the names Carver, Barthelme, and Borges, though not especially well; who delights in diversity and novelty rather than reliability or simplicity. These readers might consider taking out a subscription to the Paris Review after they finish this collection. They might even find themselves mulling over the possibility of writing a short story or two of their own.
Spencer Lenfield is a Rhodes Scholar currently studying classics at Oxford University.