The Short Story, The Class Room, and New Directions Forward: Fakes Reviewed at LARB

The Los Angles Review of Books has an excellent review of David Shields and Matthew Vollmer’s Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. What is so interesting about (in addition to the book itself) is the author, Johannes Lichtman, goes into some detail about the foundational text books of the MFA scene, how they have shaped writing and how this book may too, for good and bad. As I’m always interested in how the short story is developed I found it quite interesting. I’m less and less inclined to like the MFA experience of teaching writing. I didn’t get an MFA, but I can remember my undergrad days and the heavy Carver influence running through the whole thing.

AS MOST PEOPLE KNOW, it’s not easy to make money writing. Young writers read of a mythical past when aspiring authors could work for “newspapers” in exotic locales like Kansas City, but even if there is still a newspaper operating out of some soon-to-be-abandoned warehouse on the banks of the Missouri, I bet it isn’t hiring. The BFA/MFA track has become one of the last refuges for young writers before they start fighting their way into the welfare state of grants and fellowships, and even if we remain undecided on the question of whether writing can be taught — if I have to read another essay asking that question I may run away to Kansas City myself — we have definitively declared that the teaching and learning of creative writing can be a good way to make money (or at least to postpone the need to do so).

For this reason, contemporary fiction anthologies have never been more proliferant than they are now. Classroom texts — most often either the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone or the Vintage Book of Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff — are where many undergraduate writers (weaned on high school classics, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, and Chuck Palahniuk) get their first doses of modern short fiction. These books answer the burning question: what are real writers writing today?

Which makes it such a shame that the two most popular anthologies offer such limited answers. The Vintage and Scriber collections feature eleven writers in common, but more importantly, they draw from a common aesthetic. Both favor a kind of story that generally relies on a first page/first sentence hook, a second page circling back to explain how we came to this interesting place, and, after the necessary information has been dumped on the reader, a series of events that lead to some sort of change in the protagonist: a change which usually takes place epiphanically, when the story has, to paraphrase Stuart Dybek, shifted from the narrative to the lyrical mode.

There’s nothing wrong with writing stories in this manner; some of the best American fiction follows just such a traditional blueprint. But the Vintage anthology — which, published in 1994, is starting to feel a bit dated — suggests that this is pretty much the only way to write a story. While the Scribner book offers more ethnic diversity than the Vintage anthology, it likewise doesn’t put much effort into diversity of narrative approach. To the latter’s credit, it does include work by Junot Diaz, A.M. Homes, and Daniel Orozco, but woefully absent from its pages are David Foster Wallace, Lydia Davis, and Dave Eggers, three of our most stylistically influential authors. As such, the Scribner anthology is pretty much the worst fiction anthology out there. Except for every other anthology.

I’ll also point you to another review of the book that is quite positive. The entirety is below:

David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, eds., Fakes: Shields’ ongoing project to smash the support beams of conventional fiction (or maybe just expose them; hard to tell sometimes) clearly led him to help assemble this collection, which is largely made up of parodies of everyday forms of writing. (Jack Pendarvis’ “Our Spring Catalog” brilliantly sends up publishing-speak.) But fiction can’t survive on satire alone—one hopes—and the best stories here thrive on taking their artificial formats and making something sincere from them: Charles Yu’s “Problems for Self-Study,” Charles McLeod’s “National Treasures,” Caron A. Levis’ “Permission Slip.”