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.