Friday, February 09, 2007

Trying to understand literature - A discussion

The following are two of the email discussions I had with professors of creative writing (with a leaning towards fiction). My initial query being the same, justifies the near similar emails I sent to each of them. Some portions of my responses would be similar too as what I wished to say remains the same across both exchanges. Read on.
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Dear Mr. ******,
I hope this mail doesn't come across as an intrusion. I read that you co-edited the anthology The Contemporary American Short Story and I was hoping that you might be the best person to help me with a doubt that has been nagging me for a long while.
If an introduction to myself would help, here goes. I am a computer scientist (please don't get bored as soon you read that) and I enjoy writing though not yet as a profession. I work with ******* in India. I write mostly in English and tend to write literary short stories, poems and nonfiction. I created a literary magazine called Alvibest (condensation of Ars longa. Vita Brevis Est) which sends out the magazine as a PDF to subscribers (only about 100 of them now). India suffers from a lack of literary journals to the tune of what America or Canada has. Actually, there might be only as many as fingers on one hand could count. So I decided to create one recently. I do not claim literary worth or merit though I would confess to being in love with writing.
I hope that helps place where I come from when I ask, "Why is contemporary short fiction seemingly devoid of form?". I read stories in the New Yorker, VQR, AGNI, The Paris Review and I always seem to wonder at the end of the story "Ok. So?" I was brought up with the stories of Saki, HH Munro, O'Henry (and the stories that are collected in the annual series nowadays make me respond with the same ok-so?) and Poe. Those stories had a clear form of beginning-middle-end. The characters were interesting and the stories were good too, although they might seem (at times) excessively plotted. I thought it was just something to do with me, until many of my friends responded in a similar fashion when they read these stories.
Please correct me if I am wrong, but aren't contemporary short fiction attempting to present a slice of life, without twist, without plot, without form, as life often tends to be? Why would we do that to short stories if we still expect a beginning-middle-end for a novel? Aren't they but stories of a different metre? Undoubtedly, a novel provides a canvas large enough to detail several characters and their development and short stories cannot afford such luxury, but why are stories of late so starkly abstruse in their content? Not all of them, but most of them make me wonder "Ok, so what was this story all about?".
If you read John Updike's story "The Crow in the Woods" you might get an idea of what I am trying to say. The story is beautiful and creates the images very well, but it ends on a rather abrupt note. Is the contemporary short story all about creating wonderful characters/scenes/images and then stopping?
I hope you could guide me on this matter (understanding the contemporary short story and why it so often ends on an abrupt note) or if you feel that it would demand too much of your time, could you point me to some resources which will help me appreciate the form of contemporary short stories? Thank you for your time.

Regards
*******

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Dear ******,

Thanks for your note. I’m always glad to hear from an ardent reader and admirer of short stories. Because I’m teaching and finishing a novel at the moment I can’t be as expansive as I’d like to be here, but I could point you to a source or two. I don’t disagree with your point that a lot of stories one finds in prominent places lack a certain resonance and feeling of completeness. The writers of such stories would probably argue that we’re in a postmodern or post-postmodern era in which pastiche or slice of life best reflects the fragmented, warp-speed culture in which we live. With the notion that form should mirror content, perhaps these writers believe that stories should not be unified since modern life lacks order and cohesion. For my part, I’d argue that every era contains its own chaos, every individual is a swirl of thoughts and memories, and the demand that art be precise and unified should be no less true now than it was in the time of Aristotle. In short, I don’t disagree with you. However, I would say that there are scores of contemporary short story practitioners who are turning out excellent work. The tables of contents of my two co-edited anthologies can be found here:

{Anthology 1}
{Anthology 2}

While some of the writers can be hit and miss when you take their collections as a whole, I’d certainly stand by the oeuvres of Charles Baxter, John Cheever, Stuart Dybek, Ha Jin, Bernard Malamud, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro and Tim O’Brien, to name just a few. I think Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies more than stands up to the hype. And these are only American writers. If part of your frustration has to do with the seeming lack of plot, this was shared by Michael Chabon a few years ago and prompted him to edit a series of anthologies that return to traditional forms. For more, follow these links:

Link1
Link2

All best,
******

-- ******* ******
Director, MFA Program in Creative Writing
Associate Professor of English
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Dear Mr. ******,
Thank you so much for sparing some time to reply to my email. I am extremely sorry that I didn't notice the sentence on your page which said "*** *** *** ***(forthcoming in 2008)". I suppose you refer to this novel which engages you currently.
It is my personal dream to perfect the art of writing short stories and I am working on it in my own way. Hence, as you might have recognised, I am very concerned about the way this art form is going.
To be honest, I do not understand this notion of modernism, post-modernism etc. I read about the art (rather anti-art) movement called Dadaism and could only shake my head in disbelief. It appears as if the discipline required to work on art (in its various forms) troubles many a soul into coming up with less demanding detours which they wish to be called art as well.
You raise a fantastic point in your response: every age had its chaos, but earlier fiction didn't seem to be affected by it (although colonialism, slave trade, wars were all part of those eras) save providing material to write about. We seem to permit the modern artist complete freedom, and unfortunately, the freedom to call anything they produce as art/literature. I am not fanatical about traditional forms, but I would like to know whether I could partly objectively look at a piece of fiction and be able to say that it is good and then term it beautiful based on the tenderness of my senses. I am able to do this with the works of Nabokov or the works (although they aren't all fiction) of Pico Iyer. This need might be quite an Indian (Asian) one for we come to treat music, visual arts and writing with the same severity demanding them to be clear in their intent.
Yes, the authors you mention are good (I haven't read some of them). Jhumpa Lahiri is good. Her stories (and I really mean the story in each of them) are good but she doesn't seem to care about playing with the language (as, say, Cervantes or Nabokov or Saki did). English is a fine language and its beauty must be exercised to provide delight to the reader. It is not about being flowery, but heightening the senses of the reader. Personally, I think Ms. Lahiri's stories in the Interpreter of Maladies lack that. Nabokov's (and I fail to hide my preferences over this email) works excite me to the point of perspiration. You can taste the words he uses and relish the imagery.
Cheever is delightful in his stories although I have read just a couple of them. I am sure you must have read "The Country Husband". I read it several times and though I liked his description and the way the piece moves, I have no clue how it ended and what he meant by the last line. Cheever appears to be delighted at the way he composed the story. Many people have admired it and said wonderful things about it (including Nabokov), but not in one place did I find a thorough reading and analysis of it. The conflicts in the characters (Weed and his wife, primarily) and the several incidents symbolising the "narrow escape" are fine, but the story... I wonder. Not one person with whom I have interacted (and fate and I might be bad at choosing people) could convincingly or categorically state what that story was about.
Undoubtedly, many current stories are beautiful (I enjoyed the story "Old boys, Old Girls" which also won the 2006 O'Henry prize. But at the end if someone asked me What was it about? I might fail to provide an answer that sounds like the crux of a story. It might be my failing more than the traits of the story) but I read all of them thrice. Once to simply enjoy it, or not, second time to look deeper and feel the writer's pulse and finally to vivisect it objectively with simple questions like: What is the story in two sentences? What is the leitmotif? Can you visualise the protagonist and be able to sketch him (I also sketch)? Did you feel the love/hate/passion/tiredness/fear/pettiness/etc. of the character(s)? and a couple more. I must confess that most of my sessions of buttonholing a story haven't been successful enough to arrive at a specific verdict.
It is not merely lack of plot, but the lack of clarity into what marks a good story that leaves me frowning even on pleasant Spring evenings. Can I sit on a chaise lounge and while a friend reads a story and summarises it for me, ask him clear and pointed questions and, upon receiving appropriate responses, be able to say "Then that might be an interesting story"? I am not seeking objective measures in abundance, but some simple qualities that don't leave me befuddled and wondering as to: How did this story win the prize? Why did they publish this story? Where is the story?
Again I have taken too much of your time but don't expect a response unless some of the points I raise here titillate a need to discuss. Thank you very much for providing pointers in your response as well as responding. It's been a pleasure conversing with you about this.

Regards
*******

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The following email exchanges were with another professor.

Dear ********,
I hope this mail doesn't come forth as an intrusion. I came across your course webpage (*** ***) and I was hoping that you might be the right person to help me with a doubt that has been nagging me for a long while.
If an introduction to myself would help, here goes. I am a computer scientist (please don't get bored as soon you read that) and I enjoy writing though not yet as a profession. I work with *** *** in India. I write mostly in English and tend to write literary short stories, poems and nonfiction. I created a literary magazine called Alvibest (condensation of Ars longa. Vita Brevis Est) which sends out the magazine as a PDF to subscribers (only about 100 of them now). India suffers from a lack of literary journals to the tune of what America or Canada has. Actually, there might be only as many as fingers on one hand could count. So I decided to create one recently. I do not claim literary worth or merit though I would confess to being in love with writing.
I hope that helps place where I come from when I ask, "Why is contemporary short fiction seemingly devoid of form?". I read stories in the New Yorker, VQR, AGNI, The Paris Review and I always seem to wonder at the end of the story "Ok. So?" I was brought up with the stories of Saki, H.H. Munro, O'Henry (and the stories that are collected in the annual series nowadays make me respond with the same ok-so?) and Poe (and that is a fine story you have picked for your course). Those stories had a clear form of beginning-middle-end. The characters were interesting and the stories were good too, although they might seem (at times) excessively plotted. I thought it was just something to do with me, until many of my friends responded in a similar fashion when they read these stories.
Please correct me if I am wrong, but isn't contemporary short fiction attempting to present a slice of life, without twist, without plot, without form, as life often tends to be? Why would we do that to short stories if we still expect a beginning-middle-end for a novel? Aren't they but stories of a different metre? Undoubtedly, a novel provides a canvas large enough to detail several characters and their development and short stories cannot afford such luxury, but why are stories of late so starkly abstruse in their content? Not all of them, but most of them make me wonder "Ok, so what was this story all about?".
If you read John Updike's story "The Crow in the Woods" you might get an idea of what I am trying to say. The story is beautiful and creates the images very well, but it ends on a rather abrupt note. Is the contemporary short story all about creating wonderful characters/scenes/images and then stopping? Like a wonderful stroke of red paint on a white sheet, left there to be admired, but not delivering much sense as paintings often tend to do.
I hope you could guide me on this matter (understanding the contemporary short story and why it so often ends on an abrupt note) or, if you feel that it would demand too much of your time, could you point me to some resources which will help me appreciate the form of contemporary short stories (I was unable to find The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction here in India, so any other resource would be helpful)? Thank you for your time.

Regards
*******

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Dear ********,

Thank you for your thoughtful query. My brief answer to your question would be that not all contemporary stories lack the clear form to which you allude, though it is certainly true that in many cases the twists and turns lead us only to confusion or unsatisfyingly abrupt endings--or both. Some writers test our tolerance for ambiguity by being deliberately cryptic, as if parsing Joycean codes. Others, however, in attempting to engage the mysteries of human personality test our own notions of life and skirt the irrational. As Vladimir Nabokov notes in discussing Gogol's "The Overcoat": "[Gogol] pottered happily on the brink of his private abyss" and reflected the "sudden slanting of the rational plane of life." As contemporary readers of serious shortfiction, we become accustomed to the telescoping of events and those epiphanic moments when the writer's treatment of the slices and glimpses break upon us like a prism. In a post-Freudian world we come to accept the mixed tones/mixed motivations that are part of all of us. Unlikethe novel--from which we demand more form for the investment of time needed to engage it--short fiction is a different genre with different expectations.

As mentioned, this is a hasty response and one that I will reflect on and perhaps reshape in a later email. Meanwhile, with your permission,I would like to share your good email with the students in my spring2007 course on "The Modern Short Story" by way of getting them to think about the important questions you raise.

Thanks again.
******* *******

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Dear ********,
Thank you very much for your response. I agree that not all contemporary stories tax the reader with content that leaves one bewildered and often wondering whether some pages are missing. But the frequency and the leaning of the short story seems to be - and I may be mistaken - towards a form where the story is not of greatest importance. This would bring us to the vital question of What is a story? Length of it can be discussed once we understand what the notion of a story is and what a reader expects to find in the confines of 10-1000 pages.

Personally, I feel that cryptic prose is best left to Zen Koans (they are wonderful too, and there are some at: http://inagardencalledlife.blogspot.com/2007/01/zen-koans.html ) else reading short stories becomes less a matter of the soul and more a matter of the intellectual fecundity of the reader.
If the novel's justification is its demand on reader's time, then I think I would raise a justification for the short story as that on reader's hope. A reader does arrive at the start of a short story expecting a rapid heightening of experience and of senses in one sitting and in this hope that he carries in his breast, is the clear need for something that is not quotidian, and if it appears so, then its insight and revelations aren't. I hope I am able to get my point across. One would read the newspaper if he wanted something real and lacking something dramatic. Yes, the intent of a story is to dramatise life, isn't it? What then becomes of a story which tells me something about a character's life and ... the end.
The human cunning has only been partly gauged as of today. Given a piece of text, the finest minds can arrive at a few hundred interpretations and possible innuendoes. I do not belittle the interest and work of literary scholars, but I merely demand the basic from a short story; hence, the disturbance in my mind regarding the state of short stories. The reason I sent you the mail was primarily to seek your help in understanding what drives contemporary authors to write thus. Again, I agree that not all of them do so and traditional forms linger, but that is my concern - that it lingers.
You mention Nabokov and I couldn't help but smile. He is brilliant and his stories are truly short stories. He loves the language and it is clearly visible in his work. The imagery he creates runs clearly in the mind's eye while we share the roads and trains of Russia with his characters (I am referring to the short stories alone. His novels are splendid, too). I have never had complains against him save in one or two instances, but he excites me so, that I let them pass. But there is a clear story in his short story and that is why I find him delightful.
I beg your pardon, but this notion of modernism, post-modernism, post-Freudian world and similar hues of painting the world and its ways aren't clear to me. Maybe I lack the sensitivity to appreciate them. I still feel that a short story must contain a story and then we can lend our individual artistic peculiarities to it, thereby stamping it with our individual styles. I can pick a dozen stories in random from popular magazines today and ask one question of each of them: In two lines, what is the story? I wonder how many of them would yield a clear answer.
Cheever is delightful in his stories although I have read just a couple of them. I am sure you must have read "The Country Husband". I read it several times and though I liked his description and the way the piece moves, I have no clue how it ended and what he meant by the last line. Cheever appears to be delighted at the way he composed the story (esp. the last line). Many people have admired it and said wonderful things about it (including Nabokov), but not in one place did I find a thorough reading and analysis of it. The conflicts in the characters (Weed and his wife, primarily) and the several incidents symbolising the "narrow escape" are fine, but the story... I wonder. Not one person with whom I have interacted (and fate and I might be bad at choosing people) could convincingly or categorically state what that story was about. If I may be so bold as to suggest, your students might find it an interesting exercise to explain what the last paragraph in that story meant. I wouldn't be surprised if the sheer variety of the answers reveals something which we need to acknowledge.
Undoubtedly, many current stories are beautiful (I enjoyed the story "Old boys, Old Girls" which also won the 2006 O'Henry prize. But at the end if someone asked me What was it about? I might fail to provide an answer that sounds like the crux of a story. It might be my failing more than the traits of the story) but I read all of them thrice. Once to simply enjoy it, or not, second time to look deeper and feel the writer's pulse and finally to vivisect it objectively with simple questions like: What is the story in two sentences? What is the leitmotif? Can you visualise the protagonist and be able to sketch him (I also sketch)? Did you feel the love/hate/passion/tiredness/fear/pettiness/etc. of the character(s)? and a couple more. I must confess that most of my sessions of buttonholing a story haven't been successful enough to arrive at a specific verdict.
It is not merely lack of plot, but the lack of clarity into what marks a good story that leaves me frowning even on pleasant Spring evenings. This need might be quite an Indian (Asian) one for we come to treat music, visual arts and writing with the same severity demanding them to be clear in their intent. Can I sit on a chaise lounge and while a friend reads a story and summarises it for me, ask him clear and pointed questions and, upon receiving appropriate responses, be able to say "Then that might be an interesting story"? I am not seeking objective measures in abundance, but some simple qualities that don't leave me befuddled and wondering as to: How did this story win the prize? Why did they publish this story? Where is the story?
I am sorry to demand your time in reading this mail. I would be honoured if you chose to share this email with your students. I would love to hear the highlights of the discussion that might ensue. I do not claim to know/understand it all, but I genuinely want to learn to appreciate the modern short story. Do forgive me if any portion of the mail bears too much of my frustration in this quest. Looking forward to the more elaborate mail from you.

Regards
**********
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1 comment:

  1. Parvati9:16 AM

    I wouldn't have believed the state of the short story in our times, if I were not actually reading them. Who would have thought that a short story can take that name without having substance in it?

    Anyway, a social service are these two latest posts in that they revisit the definition of anything that is written; be it a short story or a novel or a nonfiction piece : there should be a solid substance in it that is presented in a well-written form. Body and soul are both mandatory.

    # As to John Updike's "The Crow in the Woods" -------PUHLEASE! Spare me, not only is there no story, which i am willing to pass, but there is no beauty that all of you and the world are raving about; what's with so many similes, what's with so many adjectives and qualifying phrases and comparisons, not in a rare beauty, but smotheringly cloyingly present in every damn word in every sickening sentence?
    Yes, there are beautiful usage of words, that make for good learning of expressions in the english language; but is it a good piece of writing? I would categorically say "No". Because, there is not beautiful body, nor for the body to express any worthwhile substance. This particular piece is hollow in the sense that if I remove all adjectives and embellishments, nothing is there.

    It is pretentious, irritating and tedious for me to read; he might as well have contributed it to an english learners reader under the title "Ornamental Adjectives, similes and Description - to be avoided more than twice in a single piece of writing of a 1000 words"

    # Your correspondence with the professors invigorates intellectually, but what is there to say or discuss? In modern days there is no story in a short story; if there is it is considered to be contrived, and artificial. And this forces me to go back to the golden classics, where there is no ambiguity of purpose - people were then not wondering and speculating about what a story was , they were spending all their intellect and energy in getting the plot clear in their own heads and finding the best and optimum way of presenting it to a discerning public.

    # I think even now, a writer should write from the utmost sincerity of his ignorance or knowledge and with a simple rationality that let me write something well. The key words are "something' that holds for substantiality and "well" that looks after the body.

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