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.”

Tin House Summer 2010 – A Quick Review

I picked up the summer issue of Tin House because, a. I was at writers conference and I felt bad for the person selling them, b. it had an interview with Etgar Keret, someone whose work I really like, and c. I got two issues for the price of one. The Keret didn’t disappoint, although, is probably not worth the price alone of the Tin House. Also included is an interview with David Shields, but it was quickly uninteresting to me as I find his stance tedious (you can read the article on line here). What was a welcome change was the quality of the fiction. I had never read a issue before and I was unsure about the quality of the work. Over all the whole magazine was quite good. There were several stories worth noting.

Snow White, Red Rose by Lydia Millet was a solid set of twisting revelations from a narrator who befriends two girls. The questions, naturally, is what is going to happen. She holds the suspense well, but as often happens when you are heading into criminality, the ending suffers because the crime is always so mater of fact is undoes all the excitement you had with the suspense.

The White Glove by Steven Millhauser reminded me of some of Cristina Fernandez Cubas short stories. Both deal with events that seem supernatural, or threatening, but are never quiet revealed to be as horrid as you might think. It is as if the author plays with the tension to let you imagination get away with you even as you are reading. A narrator tells of his enchantment with a girl in his class and her family. The family is perfect, yet she wears a mysterious white glove and he is uncertain why she seems so shy about it. Is it abuse? What could be happening?

The Wheelbarow from Sophie McManus’ story of a vet just back from a war zone showed great comfort with slang and in its economy made for a taught story rich with details. It was a good change to have to puzzle out some of the expressions; it invigorates the writing.

Don’t Trust the Imagination? Maybe You Don’t Have One

I was listening to Griel Marcus talk about his new book on Van Morrison (something I’ll never read) and he said he had little interest in the biographic details of an artist. He felt that there are too many people who what to explain a work by the experiences the author has had, as if that were the sum of her art. Then he quoted John Nichols who had told him, those who don’t trust the imagination, don’t have one (paraphrases all). When I heard that two thoughts came together, one revolving around those who take the biographic details as explanation, and those who, like David Shields, suggest fiction has died and there is nothing left to say. While these are two types of people the ideas they share are similar: namely, that we have exhausted or are incapable of imaginative ideas.

For the first group I’m lenient. They don’t trade in imagination and may not be accustomed to use it in the way a writer does. My favorite example was a conversation I’d had about Coleridge’s Kubla Kahan. My debating partner held that it was the laudanum that had made the poem possible, what with all of its mystical and exotic illusions. But that is a simplistic read, at best, and removes any agency from Coleridge. Moreover, it projects a fact, Laudanum, along with a myth that drug use creates fantastical experiences that translate into good writing, and rewrites his story using some stereotype from the 60s. The need to explain, and not appreciate the work for itself, creates a pat and unimaginative read that suggests no work of the imagination is really the imagination.Of course, there are plenty of cases where the writer’s work is full of the personal, but the expectation that the writer is always mirroring her own life is limiting.

On the other hand, we have David Shields whose Reality Hunger posits the decline of fiction and the modes of story telling that fiction has come to server. It is only through nonfiction can we address our world. While nonfiction is written with imagination, the idea that only nonfiction is possible is a little unimaginative. What it really suggest is David Shields is unable to imagine new stories. It is hard to write and can happen to the best of writers. Tto say that the naturalistic novel that used to be the home of social criticism has out lived its usefulness, is one thing, but to say there is no where to go suggests the same mistake my conversation partner made: fiction is just a copy of reality. The naturalistic novels may not work anymore, but that doesn’t mean game’s up. Culture is too fluid, and the novel (which is really Shields’ target) is too young, as is the mass culture we now know and has been growing for the last 150 years or so, almost following the life of the novel (as it is commonly thought of).

I don’t know what the new thing, but it will be imaginative, not just another memoir. I think Steven Moore’s book The Novel An Alternative History offers an interesting antidote to Shields. Moore who is a lover of the strange has put together a history of novels that don’t fit the naturalistic tradition. There have been many of them, as Moore tells it, starting with the Greeks and Romans and on up to Cervantes (where his current book ends). What I find intriguing about these books is they weren’t attempts to describe reality per say, but an opening of the imagination. And more importantly, they weren’t tied to a centuries long tradition. While Moore loves the strange, his book is a solid counterpoint to Shields: why does fiction have to be reality? To me, history, a form of reality, although one Shields should understand is constructed, is a great form, but it doesn’t substitute for other forms of thinking, of using the imagination.

Ultimately, it is tempting to find explanations in reality, because they make things seem approachable, manageable, even rational. However, questioning that reality, not addressing it can be just as important as digging deeper into it. Hopefully, I’ll never say the ludicrous nonsense that Henry Rollins did when I saw him once: there will never be another musical genius. He was referring to Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, but all he was really doing was admitting is that he had given up. It is a sat fate.