May 14, 2013
Yesterday I was doing some research into the theory of “flash fiction” or “microfiction” for an upcoming event at Musehouse. I spent at least half an hour at it—the most research I’ve done in decades, and it was exhausting. My principal discovery was that theory about microfiction renders me as drowsy as other literary theory. Beyond that, however, meticulous googling did turn up a couple of interesting tidbits from a journal called Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. Both items are from the 2011 inaugural issue, which is offered for free online. (There’s no need to waste croissant money on research.)
One notable idea comes from Ailsa Cox in the journal’s introductory editorial:
“Short story theory is unique in that it emanates almost entirely from its practitioners.”
I’m not sure I believe that—there’s still a large element of “those who can’t do, theorize” in academic literature departments—but if it’s true, it’s a nice trend. Yet if writers are indeed developing “a more sophisticated awareness of the methodologies available to practice-led research,”* as Cox believes, I hope they’ll use livelier language to explain their discoveries.
The other item of note comes from an essay by Ursula Hurley that focuses on Joyce’s Dubliners. She argues, citing Joyce Carol Oates, that short fiction differs from longer work in that it requires the “active participation of the reader.”
“What I am getting at here is that the genre itself, the very nature of the short story, means that the three-dimensional wrap-around fictional dream of the realist narrative is much less likely to occur. Short fiction gives us glimpses and fragments of fictional realities, where the reader uses their own resources** to reconstitute a richly detailed world from the concentrated stock that the narrative provides.”
If Hurley’s observation is true of short stories in general, it must be ultra-true of flash fiction, which, to achieve its brevity, may leave out information usually considered essential—place, time, ages of the characters, even the characters’ names. But does the reader necessarily “reconstitute a richly detailed world” from the condensed version, or does the reader accept the author’s floating, unanchored world for what it is? In reading Curtis Smith’s recent microfiction in the fine collection Beasts & Men, I found that I wasn’t filling in missing details; rather, in the best of the stories, the characters became archetypes of the human condition who existed in a fairy-tale-like place of their own—a parallel dimension, you might call it. Instead of making up particulars for their lives, I was content to meet them in that dreamspace where specifics are less important than the overall atmosphere. And maybe that matches a deep sense of the unknowable world embedded in our psyches. My psyche, anyway, because I’m often aware of how little I understand of what’s happening around me.
Roughly, then, my notion of flash fiction is that, like all other fiction, it can be anything the author and reader want it to be. Such is my exhaustively researched antitheory. However, for those who want to pursue these ideas further, two good starting points are the sites maintained by Randall Brown of Rosemont College: Matter Press and FlashFiction.net.
Snarky, impolite footnotes:
*“practice-led research”: As always, we should thank educators and social scientists for sharing their jargon with us literary types. But, to be official, this concept needs an acronym, PLR, and a peer-reviewed journal known by those initials.
**“the reader … their”: OK, I’m old-fashioned, but this still grates on my ears. A pronoun ought to agree with her antecedent. I’ll pass over the loose use of “where” in a context where there’s no clear where there.
April 15, 2013
As I was reading J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace recently—only 14 years after its publication, and 10 years since he won the Nobel Prize, so I must be catching up—a sentence struck me with enough force that I made a note to come back to it. And thus (after several weeks of forgetting my note, which I emailed to myself) I’ve done so. This is the sentence, written from the point of view of the middle-aged protagonist:
Again the feeling washes over him: listlessness, indifference, but also weightlessness, as if he has been eaten away from inside and only the eroded shell of his heart remains. (Chapter 18)
These words appealed to me as the quintessential expression of the postmodern character, one emptied of true emotion. Add a thick layer of irony as the outer lining of that eroded shell and you have the universal human that Western social evolution has produced.
At least one would suppose so from reading much contemporary fiction. In my own writing, too, the default fictional character seems to be psychologically worn out, spiritually moribund. But, oddly, I don’t feel that way myself most of the time—tired maybe, frazzled, but not listless or indifferent, and certainly not weightless. I’m still romantic at heart. Hopeful and fearful in equal measure. Appallingly juvenile in the imagination.
Most of my stories that begin with that default listless character turn out to be failures, and I discard them. Because real people, and in particular the ones I want to write about, aren’t like that. But it’s hard to change the default setting; I tend to begin with emptiness and then ponder what might fill it.
I wonder how much that has to do with our culture, the profusion of irony, the unwillingness to admit that we believe in and care deeply for certain values. We don’t dare appear foolish.
Coetzee’s protagonist, I should note, doesn’t start out emotionally dead. Though his life is rather barren, he at least keeps himself entertained (mainly with sexual pursuits) until a series of traumas, including the “disgrace” mentioned in the title, drop him to his nadir. The author then carries him through to a curious and bemusing sort of redemption.
My point, if I have any, is that it’s time to change the default setting—to be foolish enough to admit we care about some things, and to write about characters who care.
December 26, 2012
After seeing the Joe Wright/Tom Stoppard film version of Anna Karenina a few weeks ago, I was reflecting about the way we approach classic tragedies. The film heaps multiple layers of artificiality on Tolstoy’s master work. It places the tale on a stage set and, even when venturing into the outer world, shatters any semblance of reality with devices like obviously fake snow (worse than you get from a spray can) and movements choreographed to resemble high school dance routines. It’s all very clever, but Anna’s ultimate tragedy failed to affect me, and I was reminded of recent stage adaptations of Cyrano and Romeo and Juliet in which the amped-up comedy worked well and the tragedy fizzled.
It seems that we no longer trust tragedy enough to play it straight. We have to skew it to suit our ironic, sophisticated sensibilities—and the result is that the tragedy itself has no impact.
One recent exception was Inis Nua’s highly artificial stage drama Dublin by Lamplight, which provided a surprising jolt of tragic loss after an evening of gags. In an earlier post I reflected about what made that particular stylization work when so many others fail, and my tepid response to Anna Karenina sent me back to similar musings.
While I was meditating about this aesthetic problem—and whether we should even bother staging, filming, or writing tragedies if we don’t believe in their premise—the gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Twenty young children slaughtered, plus six educators, plus the shooter and his mother. The outpouring of grief and outrage was immediate and nationwide, and my thoughts about literary tragedy seemed insipid and irrelevant.
“There are degrees of tragedy, and this is the highest degree,” said local resident Dan Zimmerman (as quoted by the Associated Press). But technically, in the classical sense, Sandy Hook is not a tragedy; it’s something worse. As Jay Heinrichs argues in his blog about language,
“Don’t call it a tragedy. ‘Tragedy’ implies an act of the gods, something terribly sad but inevitable. Instead, call it a massacre. A massacre is the most violent kind of crime, and it implies that more than one person was involved.”
Whatever term we use for Sandy Hook and other mass murders, it’s good to know that our campy culture can still respond with deep emotion. But, after the initial shock passed, I came back to pondering why occasional stories tap this feeling while so many leave us unmoved. The easy answer is that the Sandy Hook bloodbath was real, whereas Anna Karenina and Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers are merely characters in stories. But this ignores the fact that all disasters except the ones we experience personally come to us as stories. And there are plenty of reality-based narratives that bounce daily off the shell of our indifference: Fatal expressway crash detailed on the evening news, with the reporter standing by the skid marks—yawn. Assassination of courageous reform leader in Wherezatistan, the last great hope for his nation—yeah, what did you expect from those people?
Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal points out that stories have always been central to human cognition, a primary way we give shape and meaning to our world. Yet, in our current culture, what does it take for a painful story to make an impact?
It does seem that size matters—sheer numbers make us pay attention. Any one of those little kids in Sandy Hook would have made an affecting story, but one or two would not have drawn the visceral response we gave to twenty.
Youth and innocence also count for a lot. If the victims are young and blameless—too pure to have the traditional “tragic flaws” or to be held responsible for their fate—we’re much more likely to care. As for a guilty person like Anna K., well, maybe she had it coming, maybe she didn’t, but evil happens to everyone. Classical tragedy no longer creates enough shock to the system. After what the world has been through in the past century, I suppose this is not surprising.
Further, inexplicability helps. If we can rationalize away a dark incident, we forget it. If it’s inconceivable that such an awful thing could happen, then we’re stirred.
A well-known quote from Donald Barthelme goes like this:
“The loss of experience is a major 20th-century theme. One makes love with The Joy of Sex hanging over one’s head, and so on.…Unmediated experience is hard to come by, is probably reserved, in our time, to as yet undiscovered tribes sweltering in the jungles of Bahuvrihi.” [A thoughtful comment that ends in a joke, since bahuvrihi is not a place but a type of compound word.]
I’d argue that wherever human beings have culture, experience is never unmediated. We interpret in terms of the categories we know. But there’s a difference between a 13th-century peasant whose mediators are confined to parents, other family members, neighbors, and the village priest and us modern hyper-connected techies with cultural referents bombarding us via TV, Internet, movies, music, books, magazines, etc. We have too many stories colliding in our heads. We’re also ultra-aware of possible fakery, from the tricks of Photoshop to the lies of politicians to the distortions of hurried or irresponsible journalists. Only a truly real story breaks through the layers of mediation. And to be counted as real it must be BIG, SHOCKING, SCARY.
Which leads to the question of which is scarier: the fact that we need major catastrophes to register such pain, or that our civilization presents us with these events with such reliable frequency.
December 4, 2012
It’s the time of year when we Americans like to sentimentalize about domestic traditions. While it’s dark and cold beyond the walls, we fondly picture cozy family times with holiday lights, hot food, cuddly kids, shaggy collies. We revel in images of items so antique we may never have seen them in use: sleighs, carriages, top hats, roaring hearths with real logs. We long for drinks with the ancient names: nogs, grogs, toddies.
In that spirit, I was pleased to come across the scene pictured above, though it has nothing to do with winter holidays. Those blue patches represent what is now a rarity in our yuppifying city—laundry hung out to dry. The sight is so unusual in the middle-class districts that young tourists probably don’t know what Claes Oldenburg’s monumental Clothespin imitates.
Though many folks raised with electric or gas dryers consider clothes on a line sloppy, faintly embarrassing or even squalid, I find the old-fashioned practice appealing. I like homey items in general: well-worn rugs, cottage-style houses, women in flannel nightgowns. Such things speak of humanity. They are sturdy and unpretentious. Also, in practical terms, a woman under a flannel nightgown is a heck of a lot warmer on a winter night than one who’s been prancing around in a silk negligée.
I have to admit, though, that the admirable lineup of jeans shown above is nontraditional in one important respect. Look at the size of those waistbands—truly 21st century. Our ancestors could have fit a family in one pair, even after turkey, stuffing and multiple toddies.
October 5, 2012
Having ignored the political conventions this year, I felt a tiny obligation to subject my ears to the first presidential debate. To build motivation, I set up a project: jot down phrases from the candidates and use them to make a sort of “found” poem, like a sculpture of found objects. Of course I’m not a poet, but incompetence never stopped any writer worth his pint of lager.
As I arranged the phrases yesterday, drawing more or less equally from Obama and Romney, a couple of things surprised me. Almost by chance, the poem came out with each stanza one line longer than the previous—kind of like the way politicians grow windier as they ramble on. (Is there a name for that poetic structure?) More important, some nonsensical sense seemed to emerge from the jabberwocky, and maybe—dare I say it?—an element of hope.
I’m curious to know what anyone else makes of it. Here it is:
A Very Tender Topic
A very tender topic, it’s on the brink of collapse,
and the reason is, is because
there’s a reason that indicates the degree
to which there may not be as much of
a focus on the fact that the path
we’re on has been unsuccessful.
See, there is no better way of dealing with
a fight we needed to have
and this is an example of where
those people who are less fortunate
can make a difference because
to promote and protect those principles
occasionally you gotta say no.
The proof of that is that
you can look at the record,
people are really hurting today,
and what ends up happening
is some people end up not,
and if the determination of the American people
has not displayed that willingness to say no,
that’s how we’re gonna wind down.
The question here tonight is not
where we’ve been but where we’re going.
So let’s get all the doctors together at once,
because we’ve seen progress even when
we were fighting about whether or not
to create frameworks where
we care for those that have difficulties,
at a time when it’s vitally important
to pursue their dreams.
Math, common sense, and our history,
we all know that that doesn’t get the job done.
What’s happening is, America
may not be the place to clear up
the record, where everybody’s playing
by the same rules. Let’s grade them,
I propose we grade the creativity and innovation
that exists in the American people, picking
winners and losers, the vitality we can
step in and see, a whole different way of life.
Thank you for tuning in, I have no idea
what you’re talking about, but there’s
still a problem as Abraham Lincoln
understood, endowed by our Creator.
Let me give you an example: Gas in the U.S.
is up under any circumstances, the biggest kiss
that’s been given to a baby out of work
since May. Can you help us? At the mercy
of your policies, it’s simply not moral—
the course of America, the great experience,
the burden paid, the bottom line.
September 9, 2012
One thing I did while not watching the political conventions was to read a fine book by William Styron, a collection of three long, semiautobiographical stories called A Tidewater Morning. Though I read other major books of his long ago, I have little memory of their details—likely a result of my failings rather than his. Maybe the controversial nature of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice overshadowed the actual books, or perhaps it was Meryl Streep in the movie role of Sophie. Or maybe I had to grow sufficiently old and disillusioned to appreciate Styron’s unique blend of realism, strong convictions and subtle romanticism. It also helped that, when I picked up A Tidewater Morning, I had just returned from a Tidewater vacation at a place I affectionately call Mosquitoland USA.
In this collection Styron builds riveting stories on minimal plots. The style mixes the relaxed, leisurely, cultured tone of a Virginia gentleman with postwar explicitness:
Mr. Dabney—at this time, I imagine he was in his forties—was a runty, hyperactive entrepreneur with a sourly intense, purse-lipped, preoccupied air and a sometimes rampaging temper. He also had a ridiculously foul mouth, from which I learned my first dirty words.… His blasphemies and obscenities, far from scaring me, caused me to shiver with their splendor. I practiced his words in secret, deriving from their amalgamated filth what, in a dim pediatric way, I could perceive was erotic inflammation: “Son of a bitch whorehouse bat shit Jesus Christ pisspot asshole!” I would screech into an empty closet, and feel my little ten-year-old pecker rise.
Amalgamated filth—what a phrase! Styron achieves a light, detached irony that doesn’t preclude empathy with his characters. In the story quoted above, “Shadrach,” a superannuated black man trudges from the Deep South with the goal of dying on what is left of the Dabney estate, where he was once a slave. Here is Styron’s description of the reaction by the present Dabney patriarch, whose main line is bootlegging:
Mr. Dabney was by no means an ill-spirited or ungenerous man (despite his runaway temper), but was a soul nonetheless beset by many woes in the dingy threadbare year 1935, being hard pressed not merely for dollars but for dimes and quarters, crushed beneath an elephantine and inebriate wife, along with three generally shiftless sons and two knocked-up daughters, plus two more likely to be so, and living with the abiding threat of revenue agents swooping down to terminate his livelihood and, perhaps, get him sent to the Atlanta penitentiary for five or six years. He needed no more cares or burdens, and now in the hot katydid-shrill hours of summer night I saw him gaze down at the leathery old dying black face with an expression that mingled compassion and bewilderment and stoppered-up rage and desperation, and then whisper to himself: “He wants to die on Dabney ground! Well, kiss my ass, just kiss my ass!”
The way Styron has suddenly returned to my consciousness, I feel a bit of Mr. Dabney’s astonishment.
September 6, 2012
My fellow Americans (and others who find Americans amusing),
I hear there have been political conventions in the past couple of weeks. Unlike my family and friends, I haven’t been watching or listening, and before that I similarly ignored the Olympics, to the point of avoiding any room with a tuned-in television.
Yet I like sports and care deeply about American politics. Why such deliberate dodging of the media blitz?
- Empty spectacle offends me with its soullessness, especially high-tech razzle-dazzle created for TV. Probably the Olympics are worse in this respect than the conventions—those increasingly absurd closing ceremonies! As for political candidates, what does it matter whether the stage set behind them offers Greek columns, American flags, Mount Rushmore or naked belly dancers? Why do we need to be dazzled? Isn’t anyone else suspicious of the trend to make everything a glitzy extravaganza?
- I hate sappy stories. How such and such an athlete trained so hard for so many years, overcoming adversity, setting his or her heart on the one big goal. How such and such a small businessperson/immigrant labored so hard for so many years, overcoming adversity, setting his or her heart on the one big goal. Bleaaah!
And since I work with words daily, there’s the extra pain of hearing the language mangled by sports announcers and politicians. Now, for a few favorite sports, such as baseball, I’ve developed a trained indifference to subject-verb disagreement, mismatched tenses, standardized platitudes and modifiers so dangling that their referent inhabits a different zip code. For some reason, though, I’ve never reached that level of tolerance for political jargon; maybe because it’s more important, it’s more deeply offensive?
It’s not that politicians are clumsy and ungrammatical, though they certainly can be. What I find so painful is the knowledge that every phrase was crafted, reviewed, tweaked, vetted to touch a particular nerve in a certain set of voters. I wish I had Jay Heinrichs’ appreciation for the way politicians use the tricks and tropes of rhetoric (see his Figures of Speech blog for his humorous insights). Instead, political verbiage has the same effect on me as a whiff of rancid tuna. Even Barack Obama, one of the finest political speakers in recent memory, appalls me with stock phrases and applause lines. I’ll vote for him but I won’t listen.
Perhaps there’s some depression at work, too, in my political reactions. For my whole adult life, politicians have managed to trick huge numbers of Americans into voting against their own interests—or convinced them that a trip to the polls isn’t worth the effort. If our citizens are so profoundly stupid or indifferent, is the country worth saving?
I will admit, though, that when a bit of news or imagery sneaks past my media blockade, it can be fascinating. The dress Michelle Obama wore for her speech—I saw it on Facebook—so cooooool! Can we imagine Barbara Bush dressed that way?