Saturday, August 24, 2013

Deborah Levy's "Black Vodka"

Among the many ways that folks dismiss short stories, one that always irritates me (hell, they all irritate me!) is that the form is mostly good for experimenting with stuff that one can use later in the really important work, like the novel. Another irritating notion is that short stories are primarily good for exploring “ideas.”
In an interview on Booktrust, Deborah Levy, whose collection Black Vodka was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize, says the short story “is a good form for writers to experiment with techniques to achieve their ideas.” Ouch! 

Levy opines:
Stories are a place to experiment with how time passes, to explore strategies for digressions and point of view, to create places and traces, to ask all the big and small questions—life, death, and taking out the garbage.
She adds:

All fiction that matter tends to fly quite close to philosophy, politics, and economics, whilst being in conversation with the literary equivalent of air traffic control—so a short story is a manageable place to begin that conversation.
Perhaps we should be glad that now Levy has engaged in her little experiments with short fiction in the uneven Black Vodka, she can get back to what she seems to consider real work with her next novel (Her most recent, Swimming Home was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize).
Many writers do admit that the short story is a great training ground, but they are not so willing to concede that short stories train one to write a novel.  Isabel Allende has noted, “People think if they can write a short story, then eventually they will be able to write a novel.  It’s actually the other way around.  If you are able to write a novel, someday with a lot of work and luck you may be able to write a good short story.” And Annie Proulx wisely adds:  I sometimes think it would be better in creative-writing programs if students cut their writing teeth on novels instead of short stories. Short stories are often very difficult and demanding,” concluding that the reading public, however, has no idea what goes into a short story because its shortness can give the “impression that the writer sat down and rattled the thing out in an hour or two.”

In her review of Levy’s novel Swimming Home (which I admit I have not read), Francine Prose says:
Its originality lies in its ellipses, its patterns and repetitions, in what it discloses and reveals, and in the peculiar curio cabinet Levy has constructed: a collection of objects and details that disclose more about these fictional men and women than they are willing, or able, to tell us about themselves.
Alex Clark in The Guardian also notes the elliptical nature of levy’s fiction, saying her stories do not “give up their secrets easily, although they are by no means difficult to understand.  But they are powerful because they are fragmentary, elliptical, because they interrupt and disrupt themselves and refuse to settle down into something immediately recognisable.”
Well, I have read Black Vodka three times now and I keep bouncing back and forth between the polar terms “sophisticated” and “pretentious.”  If I like these stories, am I being high class?  If I don’t like them, am I being a clod?

This is a thin book.  Of the 125 pages of text, thirty are blank page separators. That leaves 95 pages with wide margins, a large font, and 1 ½ spaces between lines.  You can read the whole book in an hour or two.  Of course, I am not saying that brief is bad.  But if you are going to write such short porous stories, it seems to me that the brevity should be significant. Some of Levy’s stories seem to be significant; some seem to be merely meaningless sketches or stylistic exercises. Can there be such a thing as “surfaces significance.”

“Shining a Light” follows the minor adventures of a young English woman who arrives in Prague sans her luggage. When she goes to a showing of Martin Scorsese’s documentary of The Rolling Stones, Shine a Light, (thus the title of the story) she meets two Serbian women and their boyfriends, who invite her to go swimming the next day with them and a male friend named Alex. When the Serbians talk about a philosopher who has a beautiful wife that he often must leave to give lectures all over the world, they imagine that when she talks to him on the phone, she says that he will have to kiss himself goodnight tonight and she will kiss herself goodnight.
Alice feels lonely and “out of the loop.” When she goes for a walk in the woods with Alex, she thinks that the Serbian women have been hurt in ways she has not been, and she wonders if there are people hiding because they have lost their country. This seems to be the thematic heart of the story—the contrast between the trivial displacement of a stranger in a strange land because the airlines lost her luggage and the genuine displacement experienced by the Serbian women because of racial and political conflict. But the story is just too thin to carry the weight of this kind of social theme. Unless the reader supplies the thematic context for the story, it seems to mean nothing at all.  The thin, elliptical porousness of the story leaves it very much on the surface.

The social theme has an even lighter vehicle in “Vienna,” which recounts a sexual encounter between a divorced man and a married woman. The man’s nationality is not disclosed although his heritage is Russian.  He refers to the woman, who dismisses him after sex, as “middle Europe.” In a central paragraph in the story he thinks of her as Vienna, Austria, cream, schnapps, strudel, leather, fur, gold. The following sentence requires a leap for the reader to accept it: “He holds out his arms, inviting her back to her own bed, inviting middle Europe to share her wealth, to let him steal some of her silver, to let him make footprints across her snow and drink her schnapps.” 
The story ends with the man walking to the tube station and Levy risking the following ponderous sentence: “He thinks about feeling used, teased, abused and mocked by middle Europe, whose legs were wrapped around his appallingly grateful body ten minutes ago, and he thinks about the twentieth century that ended at the same time as his marriage.” Once again, a relatively superficial story is asked, unsuccessfully, to carry the weight of a heavy social theme.

“Pillow Talk,” is about a man who goes to Dublin for a job interview and has a one-night stand with another woman.  The most consequential paragraph in the story, indeed the only consequential paragraph in the story, provides the national background of Pavel and his girlfriend Ella, i.e. that he has two passports; she was born in Jamaica and has a British passport.  If the airport official asks them where they are from, “What would they say? ‘A bit from here, a bit from there.’” This “man and woman without a country” theme is just not developed or even successfully suggested in the story.
The story “Placing a Call” is little more than a sketch, while “Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts” is a bit of a hodgepodge with a number of questionable sentences that are more embarrassing than revealing, e.g.:

“Small voltages spread through their limbs.”
“He knew that her lips were the only country he wanted to be in.”

“Her eyes were like spark plugs shining in the dark.”

“Caroline Joseph was so perfect she looked like she’d just stepped off the assembly line of a factory in Germany.”
The most successfully developed story in the collection, in my opinion, is the title story, perhaps because it depends less on political context and social theme and more on personal empathy and identification with the other.  It is also the story that seems most illustrative of what Frank O’Connor in The Lonely Voice says is the short story’s most characteristic theme. The central character has a small hump on his back, and he knows that people often stare at him and “try to work out the difference between themselves and me.”  He says, “I was instructed in the art of Not Belonging from a very tender age.”

O’Connor says in a central passage in The Lonely Voice:
“Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society… As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.”

I think it is unfortunate that Levy did not focus more of her stories on this universal human solipsism and less on experiments with surface situations about social ideas.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Music and Mystery of Poetry and the Short Story: What Short Story Writers Say

Dorothy Johnston, on whose new book Eight Pieces on Prostitution I have posted a recent blog, has contributed an interesting comment on Tim Horvath’s new collection Afterstories, about which I have also posted a recent blog. Dorothy says my reference to Poe and realism in the post has reminded her of her recent reading of T. S. Eliot’s essay, “The Music of Poetry,” suggesting that some of the things Eliot says about poetry seem “germane to the discussion about the dimensions of the short story form, those aspects which escape categorisation by such terms as 'plot' or 'realism'. Eliot talks about the poet being 'occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist'. Although I will always be a prose writer and never a poet,” Dorothy says,”this seems apt to me”
I agree with Dorothy and revisited Eliot’s essay on the music of poetry to see what relation his ideas have toward the way short stories mean. Perhaps echoing Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Eliot says: “the music of poetry is not something which exists apart from the meaning.  Otherwise, we could have poetry of great musical beauty which made no sense, and I have never come across such poetry.”
 Several prose writers have praised the musical beauty of the short story as well. Indeed, one of the most common judgments authors have made about the short story over the years is that it is next to the poem in artistic challenge and excellence.  Poe was the first to say so, proclaiming: “The tale proper, in our opinion, affords unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose.” 

After Poe, perhaps the most oft quoted poem/short story comparison is William Faulkner’s flat-out assertion, "A short story is the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry,” or Herbert Gold’s insistence that the short story must “strike hot like the lyric poem.”  The most common characteristic the short story shares with the lyric poem, Gold argues, is that they both tend to “control and formalize experience.”  However, this very characteristic, according to British writer James Lasdun, is one of the reasons many readers don’t care for the short story. Lasdun suggests that short stories do not sell well because the genre demands an interest in form more than the novel does, and “people do not seem so interested in form these days.”
Echoing Poe’s emphasis on the formal unity of  the literary art work, Eliot sys the music of verse is ” not a line by line matter, but a question of the whole poem.” The work of art, argues Eliot, depends on its overall structure or form.  He says, for example, “A play of Shakespeare is a very complex musical structure…”

Eliot believes that a poet may gain much from the study of music. ”I believe that the properties in which music concerns the poet most nearly, are the sense of rhythm and the sense of structure…. A poem, or a passage of a poem, may tend to realize itself first as a particular rhythm before it reaches expression in words, and that this rhythm may bring to birth the idea and the image…:
Prose writers have said much the same about the short story.  For example, Harold Brodkey says, “The music of language carries more of the real meaning [in the short story] than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.” American author Charles D’Ambrosio agrees, chiming in that, “It’s the musical nature of sentences, where you actually hear the sound in a meaningful way, and those sounds have meaning and nuances as important as any of the content.” “I love that aspect of the short story, says D’Ambrosio; it’s almost like reading a poem.” Short story writer Amy Hempel says that when she starts a story, she often knows the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, without knowing what the words are. “I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again,” she says, “and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”

Hempel’s fellow short story writer, Deborah Eisenberg concurs, noting that in her stories, “Sometimes there’s a kind of tonality that I want, almost as if I were writing a piece of music.”  And short story master David Means says about his experience writing the short story: “You listen to a song and get a bit of narrative along with beat and tone and sound and images, then the song fades out, or hits that final beat, and you’re left with something that’s tangible and also deeply mysterious.” This deeply mysterious, yet tangible something—what Donald Barthelme calls “rigorous truth”—is related to the formal nature of the short story, which communicates by pattern rather  than by explanation or by mimesis.

Perhaps the most provocative and most difficult to prove statement Eliot makes about poetry is similar to statements made about the most challenging short stories by such writers as Chekhov, Hemingway, Malamud, Carver, Trevor, and Alice Munro: “If, as we are aware, only a part of the meaning can be conveyed by paraphrase, that is because the poet is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.” Eliot adds, “There may be much more in a poem than the author was aware of.”

That greatest of all short-story writers, Alice Munro, has said, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.”  Munro used the term “feeling” again when an interviewer asked her if the meaning of a story is more important to her than the event. “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well. There has to be a feeling in the story.” Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood.” When Munro was asked about intent in her stories, she said, “What I like is not to really know what the story is all about. And for me to keep trying to find out.” What makes a story interesting, she says, is the “thing that I don’t know and that I will discover as I go along.”
Eliot’s suggestion about frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail echo Eudora Welty’s claim, "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful." Flannery O'Connor says "The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery."

The lyric nature of the short story has led some critics, such as Sister Mary Joselyn, to argue that although all stories have a mimetic base, many have additional elements that we usually associate with poetry. Some of these poetic elements she notes are: "(1) marked deviation from chronological sequence, (2) exploitation of purely verbal resources such as tone and imagery, (3) a concentration upon increased awareness rather than upon a completed action, and (4) a high degree of suggestiveness, emotional intensity, achieved with a minimum of means." Sister Mary Joselyn says that the lyric story often has a dual action: a syllogistic plot that rests on the onward flow of time, and a secondary action that expresses "man's attempt to isolate certain happenings from the flux of time, to hold them static, to probe to their inwardness and grasp their meaning"

From its beginnings as a separately recognized literary form, the short story has always been more closely associated with lyric poetry than with its overgrown narrative neighbor, the novel. Regardless of whether short fiction has clung to the legendary tale form of its early ancestry, as practiced by Hawthorne, or whether it has moved toward the presentation of the single event, as innovated by Chekhov, the form has always been a "much in little" proposition that conceals more than it reveals and leaves much unsaid.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Why I am Self-Publishing "I Am Your Brother": Short Story Studies"

The book I have just completed, “I Am Your Brother” Short Story Studies, is not the book I announced I was working on a year or so ago. I am still working on that book, tentatively titled Reading Short Stories or How to Read Short Stories (I haven’t decided yet.)  This book is a study of the short story form that I have been developing throughout my career and is largely made up of revised essays I have previously published.  I just thought it was time to revisit these pieces and see if they indeed had a unifying theme sufficient to make a book.

Why am I self-publishing this book using Amazon’s Createspace?  For the following reasons:

I have been retired now for seven years.  I obviously do not need credits on my resume to support advancement and promotion that juried publication by a commercial or university press might bring.
If I were to try to get this book published by a commercial or university press, I would have to undergo the tedious process of sending out proposals and getting rejection, and then sending them out again until I found a publisher that might be interested.  I am well aware that university presses are being financial squeezed these days, and I know that the short story form does not have academic interest among university faculty that still seem to favor cultural studies, social studies, and political studies of the novel.

Furthermore, even if the manuscript were accepted by a university press, it would take a year or more to see publication.  Then the press would only publish a few hundred copies and probably charge $60.00 or more per copy, sell it only to a few libraries, not have enough money to promote it, and pay me about 10 % royalties, that is, once they had sold enough copies to recoup their publication expenses.

By self-publishing this book with Amazon/Createspace, I can charge a nominal price--$9.99—making it quite affordable to my readers while still earning me a modest royalty. I can promote it myself by announcing it on my blog, Facebook, and Twitter.  It can be made available on Amazon on my author page within a few days of submission and format approval. The book will be what is known as a POD—publish-on-demand, which simply means that once Amazon has it on their data base, they can immediately publish, bind, and ship a copy as soon as it is ordered, and not before.  Thus there is no stocking, no returns, no discounted remainders, etc. A little later, I can easily convert it to an ebook version available on Kindle and other places.

There are some downsides to this decision to self-publish, as well as some unknowns. First, I had to learn features of Microsoft Word that I was not familiar with.  Second, I have to follow specific formatting procedures that will make the book acceptable for publication by Createspace, procedures which are still giving me fits when things don’t turn out the way I expect. 

 I have had to design my own cover, and I am still not sure how it will look when it is printed. I have to do my own promotion, which, in spite of the interest shown in my blog, may not be sufficient to get the word out to teachers, professors, students, and general readers who might be interested in the short story, but not familiar with my blog. I have no effective way to distribute review copies to academic journals, magazines, and websites, and I will have to bear the expense of review copy distribution myself. Furthermore, I have no way to make the book available to bookstores, other than Amazon, or to libraries.

As soon as I finish the final editing and indexing and submit it successfully to Createspace, I will provide more information here on what the book covers, complete with a table of contents and brief summaries. The book is not based on material I have posted on this blog, but rather on my essays and articles that are not easily available elsewhere.

If anyone has any cautionary tales about self-publishing with Createspace, Smashwords, or other companies, I would appreciate hearing them.  Suggestions about getting the word out about the book to interested readers would be most appreciated. Expressions of interest would also be encouraging as I labor to complete the final editing in the appropriate format that will make this a useful and professional contribution to the study of the short story.