Reading: Tedium Is the Message | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Tedium Is the Message 

OK, so life is tedious, and people are inarticulate. Does it follow that short stories must be boring and inexpressive?

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Ann Beattie's introduction to this year's Best American Short Stories is a piece of writing to puzzle over--to browse through uncomprehendingly on first reading, to reread with growing bafflement after finishing the collection, and finally to scratch one's head over in utter confusion several days later. A longtime practitioner of the passive, elliptical style that seems to be becoming ever more popular among contemporary American short story writers, Beattie has truly topped herself in this introduction, which attempts to say everything and finally ends up saying nothing much at all about that most elegant and succinct of literary forms, the short story. Listen to one passage:

"For the writer, finding a theme is one thing (it requires patience, originality, and faith), and presenting it compellingly and convincingly is another. Beyond our vision, what we have is language--the written word. The right word can provide enormous resonance or succinctly suggest any number of complexities. . . . Yet the writer has to be extremely precise as well as innovative: it is necessary to be careful because people are resistant; they encounter a barrage of language every day. Some of it is self-inflicted. (We can turn some of it off; apparently the average American is as dedicated to his remote control switch as cavemen were to their clubs.) Much of the rest of the noise has to do with the current belief that everything and everyone needs discussion. Poets and fiction writers, as far as I know, don't feel this way. They realize that what they are providing is extraneous to matters of absolute survival; they know that they have to deliver things sneakily or they will not arrive at all; they have no grand point to make, or they would have written an essay in the first place. They want to persuade. They want to get their way. They are grown-up children, with greater skills."

What exactly is Beattie driving at? The first few sentences seem to be leading up to some observation about stories and their use of language, only to trail off into a series of disjointed observations that culminate in a curious comparison between writers and kids. The absolute conviction of Beattie's tone in this passage--in fact throughout the introduction--constantly promises that she'll get to some kind of point, that if only we can wade through one more parenthetical remark or a few more confidential asides, we will finally come to some insight about why writers write or why readers read short stories. Yet one emerges from this introduction little more enlightened than one went into it, equipped merely with the knowledge that Ann Beattie's nonfictional writing relies to a rather surprising extent on television metaphors. Provided with eight pages in one of the best-read collections of short stories in America, in which she could have said anything she pleased about her chosen form, Beattie offers us an essay that reveals nothing but a few scattered observations, several vague tidbits of opinion, and the apparently accidental insight that she certainly seems to spend an awful lot of her time watching TV.

It is only fair at this point to confess that I have never been a fan of the Best American Short Stories series, although I am a longtime fan of the short story. Given a choice between short story compilations, I infinitely prefer the annual O. Henry Award collection, a slim volume that comes out every year a month or two after the latest Best American installment. It generally does a far more credible job of picking the 20 or so stories that could conceivably be regarded as that year's best. If nothing else, the O. Henry collection, under the steady editorship of William Abrahams, has managed to maintain an impressive openness of mind about the myriad forms of the short story. This has given its annual picks a range of subject, tone, and style rarely found anywhere else.

That kind of range is precisely what has been missing from the Best American Short Stories for the last ten years, which is ironic since, starting in 1978, the collection has been guest edited by a different writer every year. Past guest editors have included Joyce Carol Oates (1979), Stanley Elkin (1980), Anne Tyler (1983), John Updike (1984), and Raymond Carver (1986), yet oddly enough the stories in the collection become more alike with every volume, as though each editor added a gloss of his or her basically similar taste to some preexisting mix. In fairness to the guest editors, it's worth adding that the series has a general editor, a woman with the melodious name of Shannon Ravenel, who makes a "preliminary selection" of 120 stories for each guest editor's perusal. The guest editor then narrows the field down to his or her 20 best, and the rest of the stories are listed in the back, under the heading "100 Other Distinguished Short Stories."

Yet the ghostly presence of Shannon Ravenel can't be enough to explain the generally disappointing quality of this collection. The occasional story with a spark of life does manage to slip through from time to time, and in any case, it's difficult to find fault with a woman who, according to an interview she gave two years ago in the Short Story Review, regularly reads 175 periodicals in search of candidates for that year's crop of best short stories. No, the responsibility for the depressing sameness of this collection year after year must lie squarely in the hands of the guest editors, who are responsible in a way that the valiant Shannon Ravenel is not for the standards by which we have come to judge short story writing. It is these writers themselves--Beattie, Carver, and their younger colleagues--who have excelled at turning out the colorless stories that are held up as today's examples, the peaks of achievement toward which each successive crop of graduates of the Iowa and Stanford writing programs learns to aspire.

The strange thing about the typical Best American short story is not--or at least not merely--that in these stories not much actually happens. As Henry James pointed out a century ago, the image of a woman pausing on a staircase, properly handled, can be the stuff of high drama. The characters in these stories do more than merely pause on staircases--they feed their children, they look for new apartments, they jump into swimming pools and learn to drive. But in the hands of most of the writers featured in recent Best American collections, even the most acrobatic maneuvers around a kitchen or in a swimming pool have conveyed less drama than a woman on a staircase fast asleep. In "Janus," a story by Ann Beattie that made it into last year's collection, a real estate agent carries a bowl around to the houses she's trying to sell because she sees the bowl as some kind of ideal of perfection. How has this strange attachment evolved in the woman's mind? We have no idea. Beattie never dramatizes the woman's thoughts about the bowl or shows us a particular incident that reveals why she happened to fixate on the bowl; Beattie just tells us the woman has fixated and ends the story. The character, Beattie implies, is this way because that's the way Beattie says she is; in the absence of any dramatization, we simply have to take the narrator on faith.

Although none of the stories in this year's collection manages to achieve quite the same level of static passivity as "Janus," Beattie has nevertheless chosen a group of stories that leaves one waiting with impatience for a war, a major earthquake, a fight between some cowboys and Indians--anything that would shake these characters out of their torpid stupor. For it's not merely that nothing much ever takes place in these stories, but that the authors describe what does happen in such passive, cliche-ridden, and spiritless prose that what little action there is takes on all the narrative power of a broken-down Mack truck. Here is a typical passage from Raymond Carver's "Boxes":

"The crows fly off, back to their wire. Jill picks at a fingernail. My mother is saying that the secondhand-furniture dealer is coming around the next morning to collect the things that she isn't going to send on the bus or carry with her in the car. The table and chairs, TV, sofa, and bed are going with the dealer. But he's told her he doesn't have any use for the card table, so my mother is going to throw it away unless we want it."

Where is the drama of watching a woman decide what to do with her old furniture? In the hands of the proper writer this might be material for a veritable opera, but the contemporary American short story writer seems to revel in creating scenes that remain absolutely static, in watching characters cope with not a lot and say not much. Which would be fine if the writers had something to say about their characters not saying much--Pinter, for example, has plenty of observations to offer about the characters who sit around amidst pregnant silences in his plays. But these writers regard their characters with precious little authorial distance, ultimately sharing their characters' predilection for watching life go by with a minimum of comment.

Eight of the 20 stories in this year's collection are told by first-person narrators; five stories are recounted in the present tense, a convention that has become increasingly prevalent not just in short stories but in novels. Although neither telling a story in the present tense nor using a first-person narrator necessarily implies anything about the story's tone, both devices--unless they are used with some irony--tend to diminish the distance between author and character. In these stories the identification between author and character is often so total that even the most skeptical reader might end up thinking that Raymond Carver has been genuinely worried about whether to ask for his mother's card table before she leaves town.

The question that has long puzzled me about stories of this kind is whether the authors of them truly believe that readers will manage to generate any enthusiasm for these kinds of dilemmas. Although it's undeniable that some of the stories are trying to convey a legitimate message (why else focus on the tedious and difficult details of characters' daily lives, if not to point out that daily life is tedious and difficult?), the fact remains that the stories are often so tedious themselves that we're likely to stop reading them before the message has registered. Surely contemporary fiction writers, if they're going to choose domestic life as their main territory, can manage to come up with slightly more powerful ways to depict the inevitable discussions about used furniture. It is as if short story writers, having decided to focus on inarticulate people, have concluded that they themselves don't have to take the trouble to be articulate--that it is enough to wring one's hands and show that one is pained by the difficulty of putting things into words. As Joy Williams, one of the writers included in this year's collection, points out insightfully in her contributor's note, "It's bad enough we only have words to work with."

Yet for a writer, it seems to me, having words to work with is precisely the point: one writes because, paradoxically, one believes in the power of language to articulate what one realizes cannot be said. These writers give up the fight before they have even started--instead of working to create a narrative that dramatizes the dilemma of having only words to work with, they shrug their shoulders and permit themselves to remain inarticulate.

The most depressing thing about Beattie's introduction to the collection is to realize that even as a nonfiction writer she's inarticulate, that she simply doesn't have anything coherent to say about short stories. "The ongoing state of things," she writes at one point, "is such that as soon as we arrive in one place, something necessitates our moving on to another. Parking meters are profitable for this reason." Can Beattie truly come up with no more suggestive metaphor for anxiety? Finding metaphors that work is the point of all good writing; Beattie and most of her chosen writers simply scan the street and grab the first image that comes to mind. The inevitable result is that their metaphors--not to mention their stories--end up having about as much life and color as, well, a parking meter.

What's perhaps most disappointing about this collection is that, as near as I can calculate, it is the youngest writers who seem to be producing the most tedious stories. There are three stories that stand out this year because they actually work successfully as short stories (they create a world, people it, and draw conclusions from it), and all of them were written by authors who could be regarded as elder statesmen of short fiction: Susan Sontag, John Updike, and Mavis Gallant. Sontag has written an elegant and inventive story about life in the age of AIDS, and Updike and Gallant have contributed two very different but equally moving elegies to the drama of aging and losing one's sense of place. Although it may be a mere coincidence that all three writers focus on themes relating to death, one finds oneself wondering whether it takes a sense of approaching mortality for contemporary writers to invest their short stories with a bit of weight. Are we going to have to wait for another 20 years, until all of these young writers are in their fifties, for a Best American Short Stories collection that attempts to tackle the world beyond used furniture?

The Best American Short Stories 1987 edited by Ann Beattie with Shannon Ravenel, Houghton Mifflin, $8.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Troy Thomas.

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