Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On stories; Lasdun; Lloyd; my stuff

I was disappointed to see, in a book on literary terms I’ll be using with the AP Lit. students, that the opening attempt to describe short stories harks back to Poe’s language about “total effect.” It’s not that I disagree with that definition per se (though it’s only applicable to a certain kind of story, perhaps), it’s just odd that we haven’t moved farther in our thinking—especially given Poe’s unreliability as an authority on, well, anything.

In any case, quite often when I read a collection of short stories, I think, “Really? That’s a short story?” There might be that total, unified effect, but it’s subtle. Or it doesn’t add up to anything. It seems to me that, at the very least, you need an entire story.

With this in mind, I read, some weeks ago, two stories in James Lasdun’s latest collection, It’s Beginning to Hurt. The stories seemed to end either too soon or too vaguely, but a friend of my oldest daughter’s told me she’d taken a class with Lasdun and that I should keep reading. I did, eventually increasing my pace until I finished the whole thing (a rarity for me with new fiction collections). I can report it’s a terrific book. Most of the stories really are stories and set us up for some small adventure on the part of the protagonist. A large majority involve infidelity. They all have the same tone of the sadness of middle age and heaps of regret and a kind of amoral inactivity with regards to the world. No one is particularly likeable, though that doesn’t bother me. There’s a light touch, a good way with the prose, and a somewhat bitter humor throughout. The one stylistic problem I have is that Lasdun, in nearly every story, takes on the voice of a teller of a tale, giving me background information in a solid paragraph or—as an approach that accomplishes much the same via different means—has a character reflect overlong in too detailed a way. The tale-teller voice is simply a matter of taste; I don’t care for it at the start of a story, but I got used to it in Lasdun’s stories, even as I felt he often didn’t need it.

A disappointing collection, which I did not finish, is David Lloyd’s Boys (I had ordered it from the library because Lloyd directs the writing program at nearby LeMoyne College; I was curious). The book is, purportedly “Stories and a Novella,” but the dozen stories are all placed under a single heading, and few of them are intact stories. They're vignettes. Only one, as I recall, truly gave us a complete “gesture,” and even there, I wanted much more. What Lloyd has done seems easy. The writing is fine, but a story is a hard thing. I did not read the novella, as I was worn out with being thwarted by the other bits.

As for my own writing, yesterday I finished a draft of “Not What They Imagined,” a piece of realistic fiction. A friend provided a good critique of it today, so I have a good sense of what I need to change. It feels fixable.

I also wrote a little on my next “old man” story. I’ve begun reading One Hundred Years of Solitude (yet another insanely good book, following on the heels of Wuthering Heights) and the novel suggested to me a solution to one of the problems with my story. Thank you, Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


In the midst of reading Wuthering Heights, Entering the Stone (see the Shelfari link at right), and slices of various other things (gave up on Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit about a quarter of the way in: though I agreed at the start with her thesis that a liberal arts education is necessary for a vibrant democracy, she made broad statements that kept returning to the same details for support, jumping back and forth between Dewey and India's Tagore for her sole touchstones, so the whole thing felt like a weak undergraduate paper), I'm reading large pieces of William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies (was there ever a worse subtitle?), a new work by John Carey.

I read most of what there was about Golding's childhood and his teaching career, but none of the chapter about the war years, being more interested in how his writing career took off. Lord of the Flies is a testament, it turns out, to having a terrific editor. Charles Montieth happened to see Golding's novel in the rejection pile at Faber & Faber, and he became a champion for the book. He had Golding strip away several sections that weren't in Golding's first manuscript but that Golding had added (the set-up for the novel; an air battle at the halfway point; a naval battle at the end); he actually removed much of the explicit religious and theological weight of the novel (mostly centered on Simon) so that the book had a more realistic core and understandable motivations on the part of its characters; he helped Golding tighten the writing.

Golding took those lessons about writing into his next two books, The Inheritors and Pincher Martin, both of which I've read and both of which are marvelous. Now I want to read more Golding. The more I come to know of him, the more I appreciate his work. His Nobel lecture, here, reshaped my view of Lord of the Flies, expanding it to see a greater soul than I'd realized behind the work.

As I work on my latest short story, I'm also emboldened to push the narrative into odder places. Its ordinariness had been bothering me in any case. Hopefully I've come upon a stronger structure and story engine.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Story sold; book read

"Clockworks" has been sold. It should appear in Asimov's in the late winter or early spring, about a year after my last Asimov's publication.

Gotta pick up the pace on those. The next one in the sequence (also a prequel) is stalled because a) I've been working on another story and b) I have quite a few questions about both the plot and the physical details. It's a challenge.

I finished The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald's Booker Prize–winning novel. I hadn't read Fitzgerald before. I have a novel (unread) of hers that I picked up at a library book sale, and I've seen her name listed often enough among the great English writers. She came to writing late, it seems.

I knew nothing about the novel before getting it from the library except that it was highly recommended. (I'm looking for contemporary novels to add to my AP Lit. class.) Had I known the plot, I'd have probably balked; knowing nothing (which is how I like to approach a book), I instead was drawn in by the story and the voice, having no idea where the thing was headed. It's the story of Fritz von Hartenburg, a real-life German poet of the late 18th century; he took the name "Novalis" as his pen name. Rather than a description of his career, it's the tale of his first love. It's also the story of the people around Fritz, family and friends who are mystified by his attraction to young Sophie ("my Philosophy," as he comes to call her); in addition, it's a vivid rendering of a time and place, the era of Goethe (who puts in a brief appearance) and a time of civil upheaval. It's a wonderful novel that defies categorization.