Notes From the Trenches: You Know You Love Top 10 Lists

Entertainment Weekly asked Elizabeth Gilbert to come up with a list of THE 10 NEW CLASSIC SHORT STORIES There’s no real quote to go with it, but it’s an interesting list. I don’t agree with aspects of the it, but people rarely do agree with this type of thing. Anyway, it gives you something to think about. There is also a list of New Classic Books, which is linked to the top ten list… The Road by Cormac McCarthy and, I think, the fourth or fifth Harry Potter book hold the top two spots… this is why I’m writing about the top 10 list instead of the new classics list.

Charles Baxter has something to say about the short story.

Interviewer to Charles Baxter:  What is the status of the short story?

Baxter:  Beats me. 

In The Missouri Review’s Spring 2008 issue,  Marsha McSpadden and Trevor Gore interview Charles Baxter, author of four short story collections, three poetry collections, two essay collections and five novels, including Saul and Patsy, The Feast of Love and, most recently, The Soul Thief.  Baxter has a rep for being an inspired teacher and a writer who is cooooool with an inordinate amount of o’s.  Here is a particularly intriguing part of the interview in which he talks about the current state of the short story, common mistakes young writers make, how he hates and loves Raymond Carver, and makes a debatably sexist statement about Lorrie Moore.

Interviewer: What’s the status of the short story?

Baxter: Beats me.  There usually has to be some writer in the culture who’s writing stories that get people so excited they want to write them, too.  For me, it was Raymond Carver, and to an extent Grace Paley.  Then it was Lorrie Moore.  A lot of women want to write stories like that.  I don’t know whether some of you  feel that way about George Saunders–quite a few people have gone nuts over those stories.  There are great young short story writers like Aimee Bender, Eric Puchner, George Saunders and Edward P. Jones.  Poe would say the most powerful literary work would be poems or short stories because you can take them in during one sitting and they’ll have a cumulative effect.  I wrote The Soul Thief so that you could read it in one afternoon and evening.  Ideally, that’s how short stories work.  When a short story really works, it changes your life, and it has that same effect because it hasn’t taken you a month and a half to read.  I would think, in a culture in which we’re distracted all the time, people would want to go back to stories.  I love that form.  You can learn more about writing from short stories than you can by writing novels.  If you make a mistake in a novel, you can go on to write another seven hundred pages before you’ve realized what your mistake was.  The novel is a very forgiving form.  I spent years of my life writing bad novels that were never published because I didn’t realize the mistakes I was making.  I only really figured out how to do it by writing stories. 

Interviewer:  What were the mistakes?

Baxter: I thought it was enough to write great sentences and that I didn’t have to know how people actually behaved.  I had those implausible characters.  It was a kind of hallucinatory, bogus world.  I was trying to impress people.  I was thinking too much about the audience.  I was gripped by a form of literary bad faith.  You need to practice humility; I hadn’t achieved that.  These novels were directed, absolutely, by these themes I wanted to prove about people.  All the characters looked like puppets.  It’s common among young writers to want to impress their readers.  It’s a result of watching too much TV and too many movies where the filmmakers assume that you have a short attention span, so they keep setting Chevrolets on fire.  That’s rhetoric.  That’s not art.

Interviewer:  You mentioned Carver.  I’d like to know what your thoughts are on Tess Gallagher bringing out the original Carver stories instead of the stories edited by Gordon Lish.

Baxter: In many cases, the edited stories are half as long as Carver intended them to be.  I kept What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on my desk and I would consult it often because it was an example of what I did not want to do.  I did not want to write that kind of book.  I loved the book.  But I hated it too.  You can learn the most from the books you don’t like.  And that book was a very powerful example of the kind of writing I didn’t want to do.  That was Lish.  Not Carver. 

The Story Prize

(Lam, Shepard & Hadley share a drink after the event)For those of us who write short stories but are under constant pressure to write novels because story collections don’t sell, The Story Prize is a welcome reminder that short fiction still matters to some people. The Story Prize gives $20,000 to the author of an outstanding story collection published in English during the previous year. This year’s three finalists, selected by Story Prize director Larry Dark and Story Prize founder Julie Lindsey were Sunstroke and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam, and Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard. On Wednesday, February 27th, at an award ceremony at The New School, literati gathered to hear each of the three finalists read an excerpt from one of their stories and then join Larry Dark on stage for a short conversation about their work. It was like being at a story writers’ version of the Oscars, where, instead of Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, the dazzling stars in attendance included Amy Hempel, Jayne Anne Phillips and David Gates (who was a judge this year.) One Story Editor Hannah Tinti, Managing Editor Pei-Ling Lue and I were in the audience to savor every word. Any of these three phenomenal collections would have been worthy of the prize, but this year’s winner is Jim Shepard (who read for One Story on January 4th.) Jim’s acceptance speech was so generous in its praise of the other two collections that it was a reminder that every great writer is also a great reader. And speaking of reading, if you haven’t read these three collections, buy them now. You won’t be disappointed. To see a webcast of the entire event, go here.

The Intellectual Property of Raymond Carver

Like many short story writers my age, I regard the works of Raymond Carver as the horizon toward which I trudge. Many of my “revelations” about writing happened after reading “Why don’t you dance?” and company in his first collection What we Talk About When We Talk About Love. You can read a snippet of my idolatry here, in our annotated history of the short story.

In October 17th’s New York Times, Motoko Rich explores the influence Gordon Lish’s editing had on Raymond Carver’s work, especially the much lauded What we talk about when we talk about love. In the pdf that accompanies the online article, you can read Carver’s original endings to two of the stories, side by side with how they eventually appeared, after Lish’s edits.

It is obvious when reading his original endings that his intent (at least with those stories) leaned toward a more verbose, clear resolution. Lish’s edits added the sense of dissonance, the foggy ether quality that, like it or not, Carver has been associated with throughout time. In many stories from that collection, the reader gets a sense that there is a huge body of glistening meaning there, but is left so vague as to encourage a variety of options, or none at all, depending on how you see it. A friend of mine once called Carver’s stories “disquieting,” and I have yet to think of a better description.

So, let’s take as a given that Lish edited Carver vigorously, that maybe Carver wasn’t instinctually a minimalist, a term his widow Tess Gallagher insists he never even liked associated with his work. Where does that leave us Carver-ites, who have grown to regard him as a sign post to the promised land of sparse description and evocative dialogue?

I have gone back and forth on this.

First, it would be naive to think a writer’s work goes from his or her midnight copybook to what we read in The New Yorker. Of course we know that in between the work has been scrutinized by many eyes and opinions, how many vary case by case. How important is the author’s initial intent? How important is what he or she thinks it means? When a work is published, does it then become the property of the reader, whose interpretation is all that matters? The philosophies of author’s intent and reader response is relevant when you consider that Tess Gallagher is now fighting to have Carver’s original collection republished the way Carver wanted it. And, that Knopf is trying to block this publication. If the meaning of literature is a thrill ride to which everyone gets a ticket, shouldn’t we save a seat in the front for the author?

I have concerns about reading a collection of Carver’s work the way he ntended. If the original work is published and we don’t find it to be as compelling, does it mean Carver is not as great as we thought he was? Are huge fans of Carver’s work going to even be able to make an unbiased judgement on the new work, having the old work’s rhythms and influences in our collective head? Or, is it important to know what he intended, solely so we can file it in our database we collect subconsciously about this master?

On the other side of things, it would be naive to think an editor can just edit, say, a 14-year-old amateur into the likes of Raymond Carver. If we place the editor in a god position, then we assume the writer is arbitrary. The editor becomes a vessel for genius, able to work with any matter and turn it into gold. If every editor were able to do that why would every editor not be able to, ahem, write? As my big brother would say, you can put as much perfume as you want on a pig, it’s still a pig. If the initial offering isn’t capable of withstanding vigorous editing, then you can edit all you want, it’s still a pig.

The New York Times presents the two voices in this room of Carver’s intent as editor and widow, both of whose roles contain a specific angle into the knowledge of the man. I would be fascinated to hear another voice, perhaps Tobias Wolff, who I would imagine would also have a keen insight, as he was a friend of Raymond Carver, and a fellow writer whose work has also been filed under the umbrella term “minimalist.”

Particularly when reading the side by side versions of the ending to “I Could See the Smallest Things,” I found I didn’t prefer Lish’s take, which culled a few sentences from Carver’s five paragraphs and left it at that. It strikes me (no, I have no right to say this. But, I am a reader, so here is my ticket) that the ending would probably have been more effective had another editor taken Carver’s vision and condensed it only a bit, working with what was already there.

Another interesting thought: Carver influenced a generation of young writers who have patterned their sense of what does and does not belong in a story on his example. If we find out the work that shaped us bore a heavy influence by an editor, then do we become like the generation of folk singers who patterned their writing and stage personas on an ailing Woody Guthrie, whose ticks and affectations were due to the onset of Huntington’s Disease? In that way, we are gleaning tips from a compromised and false source. And yet, that source, no matter how it was generated, exists on the page as real and true, and has withstood the test of time. So, does it matter how the stories were generated, as long as they were?

One thing these so called exposes about the Carver/Lish partnership do is subject imagination and creativity to the yard sticks of math and law. They attempt to classify a quality that is, by its nature, unclassifiable. And should be. I confess to exhaustion after endless literary analysis, likening it to dissecting a magic trick. Art is too important to cowtow to mortal rationale. Carver is one of the masters because when you read him, he makes you feel like writing is a thing you can actually do. It is only when you try it that you realize how difficult what he accomplished is.

This is an immensely tricky subject. Do I care that the Carver works I love may not have come from the direct source? How much would it matter to me if I came to find out the ending to “Why Don’t You Dance” was written by Lish, not Carver? One only has to count the number of question marks in this piece to know I have come up with no real conclusion. For many years, I preferred to stick my head in the sand and ignore the overwhelming evidence that Carver’s work was shaped dramatically by Lish, preferring to just read him and enjoy. In that way, I defer to Walt Whitman’s “When I heard the Learned Astronomer.” We can spend our entire lives charting the universe, but sometimes we do better to go outside and gaze at the stars.

Stephen King wants to SAVE THE SHORT STORY

In his introduction to the recently published 2007 Best American Short Stories, Stephen King has a lot to say about the current state of affairs surrounding the short story. After a folksy anecdote about crawling on a bookstore floor to find Tin House, and the first instance I can remember of a BASS editor using the phrase “with my ass in the air and my nose to the carpet,” (way to choke, Chabon), the crux of King’s feeling boils down to: short stories still matter, but he doesn’t want them to suck. Stevie, we are with you, you strange, wonderful Red Sox fan. Here are some excerpts from his colorful introduction…

“The American short story is alive and well. Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were actually true…let us consider what the bottom shelf does to creative writers–especially the young on…who still care, sometimes passionately, about the short story. What happens to a writer when he or she realizes that his or her audience is shrinking almost daily? Well, if the writer is worth his or her salt, he or she continues on nevertheless–because it’s what god or genetics (possibly they are the same) has decreed, or out of sheer stubbornness, or maybe because it’s such a kick to spin tales…It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience of readers-for-pure-pleasure. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse on Saturday night, and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ-When circulation-falters, the air in the room gets stale…What I want to start with is something that comes at me full-bore, like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky…I certainly don’t want some fraidy-cat’s writing school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream-of-consciousness bullshit about what Bob Dylan once called ‘the true meaning of a peach.’ So, American short story alive? Check. American short story well? Sorry, no, can’t say so. Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead. Measures to be taken? I would suggest you start by reading these stories, part of a series that is still popular and discussed. They show how vital short stories can be when they are done with heart, mind and soul by people who care about them and think they still matter. They do still matter.”

Another Loss: Madeleine L’Engle


“Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith. Faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”–Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007)

More bad news on the fiction front. I just got word that Madeleine L’Engle has died. Her website has not made an announcement yet, but The New York Times ran an obituary today. A Wrinkle in Time blew my mind when I read it as little girl. It was great to have a book with a female heronie–Meg Murry–with glasses and braces who beats up boys and is good at math and saves the world and gets the guy in the end. And who can forget that giant pulsating brain? Or Aunt Beast? Or Charles Wallace, the super intelligent five year old? Or Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which? I re-read the book a few months ago, to get some idea of how L’Engle structured her plot, and was amazed at how forward thinking the language is. The book was written in 1962, but it still feels very modern. Years ago I met her at a reading, and she signed in my copy “Tesser Well.” I hope she is off tessering somewhere, slipping from planet to planet. Her books are an inspiration, and have brought enormous solace to geeks across the world.

Grace Paley, master story teller dies


Grace Paley (1922-2007)

Master short story writer and political activist Grace Paley died of breast cancer yesterday, at her home in Vermont. This is a huge loss for the short story community.

I met Grace Paley once when I was a student at NYU, and she came to talk to a craft class I was taking with Paule Marshall. The students had prepared lists of complex questions to ask her, about how she created her characters, how she crafted her sentences, how she did all the magical things she accomplished on the page. To every question she simply answered, “I just do it.” I remember that some of the students became annoyed, but I left that room feeling completely enlightened. What had seemed like a complicated, impossible-to-enter world had been made simple. She had opened the door. You can not second guess yourself or try to plan or over analyze. All that has to come later in the process. While creating, the most important thing is to stop thinking and just do it. Just write. For years I’ve had that quote tacked over my desk. And I’ve always kept her collected stories nearby, next to Flannery O’Connor and Amy Hempel.

One of my favorites of hers is “A Conversation with My Father”, a great piece about storytelling. Also “Wants”, which has this incredible beginning:

“I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
I said, O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.
The librarian said $32 and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had these books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.”

We owe Grace Paley much. Her humor, her good sense, and her spirit will be greatly missed.

Happy Birthday, Hemingway. Love, cats everywhere

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” from George Plimpton, “Interview with Ernest Hemingway,” The Paris Review 18. Spring, 1958.

Today is the birthday of sun and light and yes. Ernest Hemingway turns 108 today. Source of the stereotype that writers are mad as snakes and thousands of ill-advised beards, Papa Hemingway is also the voice in my head that complains I am not doing enough. Here, it is already noon and I haven’t yet shot a rhinoceros.

Ernest Hemingway is the patron saint of earnest small business owners who in pre-dawn hours brick-wall into the question: what should we name this bookstore? A Clean Well-Lighted Place in San Francisco (RIP), Hemingway’s Books in Canada, and The Lost Generation bookstore in cyberspace are three of many named for the bearded writer. Hemingway also lends his enigma to the annual look alike contest in Key West. But you don’t need to leave New York to visit a namesake: I have on good authority that a cat living in our very own Williamsburg is named Mr. Bumby after a character in A Moveable Feast.

Which brings us to Hemingway’s area of greatest contribution; the world of cats. A lifelong feline enthusiast, Hemingway and his wife Mary at one time owned 34 cats. The next time you are in Key West, stumble drunkenly to Hemingway’s House and Museum. There your ankles will be encircled by several of Hemingway’s feline descendants, who sport more toes than necessary and bear unforgivably literary names.

“I like to have Gertrude Stein bawl me out because it keeps one’s opinion of oneself down–way down–she liked the book very much she said–but what I wanted to hear about was what she didn’t like and why–she thinks the parts that fail are when I remember visually rather than make up…” –To F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1929

As a writer who is also a lady, I’ve been told I am not supposed to like Hemingway but I do I do I do. The rarely stocked book Ernest Hemingway On Writing, contains the best advice/musings on writing ever collected (you can keep your Letters to a Young Poet). The book is slim and hard to find; slim because Hemingway did not like to talk about writing, saying it “takes off whatever butterflies have on their wings,” hard to find because for the past 15 years I have bought every copy I’ve come across to garnish shower gifts, shove into the backpacks of beloved friends, and send to prisoners.

Over the years, Hemingway’s enigma has been shined up and exaggerated, but some facts remain consistent: he was between 7 and 8 feet tall, weighed 650 pounds and had his heart surgically replaced with a Magic 8 Ball that always read Ask Again Later.

Hemingway commonly spoke of other writers as boxing opponents. On Writing also documents some of Hemingway’s infamous opinions on other writers.

“I wouldn’t fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because I know he would knock my ears off…If I can live to 60 I can beat him (MAYBE). I tried for Mr. Turgenieff first and it wasn’t too hard. Tried for Mr. Maupaussant and it took four of the best stories to beat him…Mr. Henry James I would just thumb him once the first time he grabbed and then hit him once where he had no balls and ask the referee to stop it.”

“There are some guys nobody could ever beat like Mr. Shakespeare (The Champion) and Mr. Anonymous.”

“I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short story writer, even a great short story writer, but trying to read her after Chekov was like hearing the carefully artificial tales of a young old-maid compared to those of an articulate and knowing physician who was a good and simple writer. Mansfield was like near-beer. It was better to drink water.”

Mansfield to Hemingway: No, you dit-n’t.

In addition to “boxing” with his fellow writers, Hemingway also seemed to have a lifelong grudge match with God, who tried to KO Hemingway several times in two wars, four marriages, two consecutive plane crashes, even resorting to a brush fire which, while it debilitated Hemingway enough that he could not personally accept his Nobel Prize, did not succeed in killing him. Ultimately, Hemingway had to do that himself.

To appropriately celebrate this glorious day, run with the bulls, book a safari, write a helpful but vaguely condescending letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, grow a beard or try out a “Papa Doble,” the drink Hemingway was rumored to have invented at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West: two ounces of white or light rum, the juice from two limes, the juice from half a grapefruit, Maraschino liqueur floating on the top, served over crushed ice. Or just down a quart of scotch. He liked that, too.