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.”
“The man is the head of the family, but the woman is the neck, and she can make the head turn in whatever direction she chooses.” My sister told me this quote recently–she said it was from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I don’t normally take advice from the movies, but these words came back to me when I re-read Mohan Sikka’s “Uncle Musto Takes a Mistress.” The men make the decisions here. But it is the women who drive the emotional truth of the narrative. Aunty Neeta brings an interesting new take on the cuckolded wife, but the true horns that are locked are those of Grandma and Rose. In one corner is Grandma, an unbeatable character. In the other is Rose, with her little mermaid hairpins. Their social standing is unequal, and by the end they’ve changed places. And yet somehow, Mohan Sikka is able to keep our hearts with both. Check out the Q&A to find out more about this talented new writer.
One Story staffers Andrew Crocker and Marie Bertino
Thanks to everyone who came out for One Story’s reading and cocktail hour on Friday. Dalia Sofer gave a remarkable reading, and the pernod martinis were strong enough to light on fire. If you missed it, you can still listen in! Go here to visit our audio archive, dowload it to your ipod, or simply hear it online.
“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.
“[A] delightfully dark story of Sam Pulsifer, the ‘accidental arsonist and murderer’ narrator who leads readers through a multilayered, flame-filled adventure about literature, lies, love and life…. Sam is equal parts fall guy and tour guide in this bighearted and wily jolt to the American literary legacy.”
As the editor of One Story, I read hundreds of manuscripts each week, swimming through piles of paper, looking for a story that will fit in these pages. When I find a piece that works, it’s a bit like falling in love. A real gut feeling, letting me know that it’s right. Almost always this is due to the strength of the language, and in “Meeting Elise”, Nam Le’s is impeccable. It isn’t easy to write from the point of view of a character like Henry Luff–a letch, an artist, a drunk, an absent and anguished father, and most important of all, a dying man. But even his name, “Luff”, is perfect–being the action that a sail takes when a boat tacks, moving closer to the wind. There is something in that moment where the canvas flaps back and forth, a brief bit of uncertainty and chaos, that resonates throughout this story. And so when Henry sees Olivia at the end, the reader can feel the turmoil pass, the sail filling again with air, and Henry charting a new course. Nam gives some great insights in his Q&A. I suggest you follow the link and find out more about this promising new writer.