Sunday, December 3, 2017


Let’s see if I’ve got this right. The Russians finagled with our elections and got Trump elected. Check. The Russians doped up the Olympics and won all the best medals. Check. The Russians conspired with meany old Assad in Syria, beat ISIS, and foiled our plans for “regime change” and “bringing American democracy to the people of the Middle East.” Check.

The Russians arranged for wackos with assault rifles to shoot up our schools and malls, then fiddled with the climate, and that’s why Miami floods every time it rains. Check. The Russians are responsible for the citrus greening disease that is devastating the orange industry in Florida. Naturally.

Canny Putin is the baddest of bad guys on all the earth, the enemy of worldwide nicey-nice. And he’s SMART. What chance do we poor dumb blameless Americans have against nefarious Russian machinations? None. Check.

Thursday, November 9, 2017


I sometimes think that Mikhail Lermontov's most beautiful poem is not his; it is his translation of a poem by Goethe: "Nightsong of a Wanderer, II." 

Recently, in "The New Yorker" (Nov. 13, 2017) the American poet Rita Dove took a stab at that same poem:

                                                   ABOVE THE MOUNTAINTOPS

Above the mountaintops
all is still.
Among the treetops
you can feel
barely a breath--
birds in the forest, stripped of song.
Just wait: before long
you, too, shall rest.

Here's the original German, side by side with D. Smirnov-Sadovsky's translation into Russian:

Ночная песня странника II

На вершине горной
Зефир проворный
В лес густой
Бег не стремит.
Птиц смолкли игривые споры,
И нас уж скоро
Сон осенит.
<22 декабря 2006>

Wanderers Nachtlied II

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

And here is the Lermontov free translation from 1840:


Горные вершины
Спят во тьме ночной;
Тихие долины
Полны свежей мглой;
Не пылит дорога,
Не дрожат листы...
Подожди немного,
Отдохнешь и ты.


Rita Dove's translation, for me, is barely even poetry. Lermontov's somewhat free translation is wonderful beyond words, probably even better than the original. Goethe's poem is rhymed; so are  Lermontov's and Smirnov-Sadovsky's. Modern poets often assume they need never use rhyme, that rhyme and meter are dated devices. But is that always true? No.

Age-old arguments about literary translation come to mind. Just how close is the translator obliged to stay with the original? When translating rhymed and metered poetry, should you strive for a rhymed and metered poem in the target language? While straining to maintain meter and rhyme, how does the translator avoid awkward passages in the target language? Etc.

Here's a literal translation of the Lermontov free translation from Goethe:

Mountain peaks,
Sleep in the dark of night.
Quiet meadowlands (valleys)
Full of fresh haze (mist).
No dust rises from the road,
The leaves do not shake. 
Wait just a moment,
You, too, will rest.

Here is Smirnov-Sadovsky's near-literal translation into English of the Lermontov:

The mountain heights
Sleep in the darkness of night.
The quiet valleys
Are filled with a dewy haze.
The road has no dust,
The leaves do not shake…
Wait awhile
And you will have rest.
1840 (Transl. 14 March 2008, St Albans)

And here is U.R. Bowie's attempt to do, roughly, with Lermontov what Lermontov did with Goethe:

Alpine peaks quiescent
Sleep in the murk of night.
Meadow vapors deliquescent,
Bathed in mute moonlight.
Air on roads devoid of dust,
Leaves to silence acquiesced.
Hang on, ye of rot and lust,
Soon you, too, can rest.

                         February 6, 2018, Gainesville, Florida

Romance sung by Boris Gmyrya

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Vladimir Nabokov was 44 years old when he had all his teeth pulled. His brilliant mind marinated the experience for years, then came up with a wonderful expanded metaphor.


"Dear Bunny, some of them had little red cherries--abscesses--and the man in white was pleased when they came out whole, together with the crimson ivory. My tongue feels like somebody coming home and finding his furniture gone. The plate will be ready only next week--and I am orally a cripple."


In his novel "Pnin" he gave the experience to his central character:

"Two hours later he was trudging back, leaning on his cane and not looking at anything. A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth. After that, during a few days [note the not-quite native English here, even after years of writing in English; should be something like, "For a few days afterward"] he was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate."

Great stuff, huh?

Saturday, October 28, 2017

BOOK REVIEW ARTICLE Michael Frayn, "The Trick of It"

Michael Frayn, The Trick of It (Viking, 1989)

Two professors of literature, old friends, one in England (RD, our narrator), one having emigrated to Australia (R), are writing letters to each other. This suggests one of the many metaphors in The Trick of It: “Forgotten questions and meaningless answers passing each other somewhere over the Indian Ocean at thirty thousand feet—an image of human communication. Of love and literature and life” (57-8). So is this an old-fashioned epistolary novel? Far from it. The Trick of It is a marvelous, sparkling-new one-way-epistolary and modern piece of fiction.

This book is about a book written (brilliantly) by a literary critic who never quite figures out how talented he is as writer of fiction. The narrator, RD, Richard Dunnit—as in Who Done It? He done it, but he never knows he done it—has devoted his professional life to researching the works of a woman writer, JL. Then he invites her to speak on campus. She comes up from London, he meets her, sleeps with her. He has opened a huge can of worms, and only much later does he realize that the story of his entire subsequent life has begun. With the invitation he has set in motion the plot.

He writes to his friend R, “The fearful truth is that I am in love. Possibly. Or possibly not. I am in something” (31). What he is in is literature. His life, which, previous to his first encounter with JL in the flesh, was his own, ostensibly real life, becomes immersed now in a fiction—and will continue so immersed for the remainder of the action of this novel.

Much later he looks back on the day his life changed. “This whole strange painful thing, as I now see it, is in a sense my creation. I wrote the first sentence, just as she might write the first sentence in a novel. I invited her to come and be talked to, and from that everything followed” (70). All through the subsequent narrative he is dimly aware of what is going on. “It’s me doing what she does,” he thinks (71). “Not in ink [he adds], but in breath and in skin.” And yes, ultimately, in ink as well. 

Soon after their first meeting he marries JL, goes on studying and teaching her works, while, simultaneously, studying her in the flesh, trying to figure out the secret of her creative talent: the “trick of” writing fiction. She is aged 44 when they marry, he is 32. Fifty pages later in this short novel she has made it almost to 48, and by that time their marriage in on the rocks.

We never learn JL’s real name, although the narrator, who “loves the ludic touch,” refers to her by various nicknames, all infused with light irony. As the story goes on the names seem more sarcastic than ironic: MajWOOT (major writer of our time), Her Maj, Her Majesty, HM. Little by little we learn the titles of her novels; at the beginning they are just letter abbreviations, but halfway through the book (99) there is a listing of them all: The Book of Angels’ Dreams, The Sunday Runners, Falling Down Duke Street, Scatterbrain, Whistling Woman.

Not much is quoted from JL’s works, but RD makes them sound fascinating. They are replete with bizarre incidents and personages: a psychic lemur, a superstitious dog. A family refrigerator suddenly bursts into flames, the sky rains down cornflakes (and later gooseberries). In JL’s most recent novel, written after her marriage to RD, we have “aircraft tumbling out of the sky, a dog eating half an old-age pensioner, a girl raped on a runaway Underground train by a group of marauding Centaurs” (101-102).

Here is a citation from one of her early works, The Sunday Runners: “The train stopped in a small grey town full of chapels and boarded-up warehouses. She could not see the name of the station. The only words visible were on small shops in the street outside. Fags ‘n mags, said one of them. Cash in a flash, said another. An old man in a ragged overcoat walked slowly down the street pushing a pram with a dog sitting in it [the superstitious one?]. No one got out of the train, no one got in. Discouraged, it began to move out of the station. The old man in the ragged overcoat stopped to wipe the drip from the end of his nose on his long woolen scarf. ‘Here,’ she thought suddenly. She dragged her suitcase down from the rack, opened the door and jumped down on to the slowly withdrawing platform. ‘Here is where I will start my life’”(70-71). Like everything else we learn about JL, this citation is filtered through the imagination of her husband RD, who quotes the passage from memory.

Although the reader’s take on RD is mixed, and ever more negative as the book progresses, JL is presented consistently as a highly positive character. Although devoted to her writing, she is not obsessed with literary art to the exclusion of all else and all others. At one point she takes an interest in RD’s poormouth West Yorkshire relatives: “they think she’s wonderful.” Later she nurses RD’s mother in the final days of her life, treats her as a real daughter would, while son RD largely ignores poor old mum. JL never makes an independent appearance on the page until way late in the book, but what becomes the ordeal of her marriage makes her ever more sympathetic.

Before he even meets JL the self-obsessed RD assumes that he knows everything about her, knows her even better than she knows herself. How? Through study and teaching of her fiction. But the entire book is a refutation of this smug assumption. What RD knows about her is only his own invention—his imaginative re-creation of her in his mind through blowing on her fictive sparks until a fire flares up: largely his own private conflagration. After they are married she writes another novel, and this time the critic RD—assuming that he knows best how her novels should be written—begins hounding her to change it according to his own specifications.

His wish to tell her how to write is grounded, of course, in an inferiority complex. Like so many literary critics and teachers of literature RD has a secret wish to write fiction himself. After he sleeps with JL the first time, adding actual physical intercourse to the mental copulation he has engaged in for years, RD exults in what he sees as his equality: “I couldn’t help thinking that this was a revenge for all those long years when she had been up there, oblivious of me, and I had been down here gazing so intently up at her. Because here she was gazing no less intently up at me; and for that short time she knew me. She knew me as I knew her, and we were equal” (29).

Revenge. Not a good way to begin a courtship. But after their marriage they are still far from equal. She who knows “the trick of it,” the secret code of fiction writing, is still up there and RD is still down here. The ignominious life of the literary critic, in RD’s view, has him constantly writing not on the genuine front side of paper, but on the backside of something with writing already on the front; using not one’s own sui generis ideas, but the ideas and imagination of others, “other people’s books, other people’s imaginations, other people’s lives” (54). Meanwhile, JL has read not a word of what he has written about her in his articles.

Here is what RD writes to R on the eve of his wedding to JL, and it certainly bodes ill for the fortunes of his marriage: “I thought I’d end up married all right—married to the wife of one of the major writers of our time” (84). At the very start, therefore, the reader anticipates that the marriage is doomed; RD, with his corrosive envy, will be “the bump in the road that brought the whole rickety load tumbling off the back of the lorry” (83). 

In his persistent efforts to dominate his wife, and to keep her isolated from the world, RD moves her twice, first out of London to his provincial university town, then to the Persian Gulf, where he takes a position as professor. Meanwhile, he goes on mindlessly destroying their life together, while convincing himself that his intentions are benign: “I merely want to help her to locate the true shape and nature of the book [her new novel, The Invisible Banquet], to discover what is still hidden inside herself” (121).

All that I’ve written above—about the struggle of a would-be author and literary critic to assert his ego, while deflating the ego of his wife, who is a genuine author—sounds like a grim business. It is nothing of the sort, because The Trick of It sparkles with wit. The book is FUNNY. Take the narrator’s view of his rivals, fellow researchers on JL, fellow university professors in the U.S. One of them is “my esteemed colleague Vlad the Impaler,” who is “always masterfully sweeping his specimens off on joint family holidays in Tuscany before he puts them into the killing bottle and pins them into his collection” (7). Only on p. 146 do we finally find out Vlad’s real name, Vladimir Katc. Another is Dr. Swoff, or Spoff, or Snoff, or Sloff, a woman who RD imagines ingratiating herself with JL by visiting from abroad, “bearing little jars of home-made-arse-salve” (7). Later on (119) RD reveals with a smirk that Dr. Sloff is not a real woman at all, but “a humorous personification of the Society for the Propagation of Feminist Fiction.”

Also hilarious is the description of RD’s “seduction” of JL, at which event he discovers “an appalling solecism”: her underwear “dsntmtch.” At first he is too embarrassed to write the actual words down on paper: “doesn’t match.” Then he experiences “the sense of outraging a divine sanction . . . “a taboo against intercourse with an author on your own reading list” (25-26). Rife with hilarity, The Trick of It has a belly laugh or two on practically every page.

There are several main characters in the novel, but there is really only one: the solipsistic RD. Early on (10) RD asks R, his correspondent from Australia, “You are keeping these letters, aren’t you?” The narrator makes it clear that he wants his letters to be published some day. He’s thinking at first of a critical study, later of some kind of biographical account. We the readers are aware of what he never learns: that we have in our hands a scintillating work of fiction, a one-way epistolary novel.

How and why is it “one-way”? Let’s say a few words now about the other end of the correspondence, Prof. R. He teaches German literature in Australia, specializing in the romantic poet, Eduard Mörike (1804-1875). We are not privileged to read R’s responses to RD’s letters, but from what we learn of him it appears that he lives a normal life, with love affairs and, eventually, a marriage and children. This while, simultaneously, RD marries a writer and begins living a life in literature, becoming, as it so turns out, more a character in a novel than a real person.

RD says the following in reference to letters he wrote and never sent to JL shortly after they first met, but this passage looms large in the context of the book as a whole: “It was all a dream. A fiction. A private video inside my head to keep me going on the long ride from here to nowhere” (58). This, in fact, could serve as an epigraph for The Trick of It.

Since everything in the book is mediated through the consciousness of RD, R himself is less at times a real person than a fictive correspondent of RD, who invents his responses in order to have a conversation in his mind. On the eve of his wedding he holds a solitary “stag night,” drinking malt liquor while pretending that R is drinking along with him and they are getting lachrymose (76). Again and again the principal irony of the whole book is emphasized: that RD, who thinks he doesn’t know how to write fiction, is writing it all the time, making up facts and personages.

All through the book RD invents R’s response to something he has revealed to R, then argues with that response. This is the rhetorical device known as prolepsis. See, e.g., p. 143, where he complains about R’s “ill-concealed scorn” (invented by RD), then goes on to say, “I’m not going to say anything more about it to you, for that matter, since you’ve taken it the way you have.” The real R has not taken what he has been told in any way, since he has not yet received this letter in progress. Again and again RD invents imaginary dialogues between himself and R. See, e.g., p. 21-24, a long back and forth, in which RD concocts his own responses to objections raised by an imaginary R (on the subject of RD’s first night with JL).

The real R makes an actual appearance in the book, when he, his wife and child, visiting England from Australia, drop in on RD and JL. But, once again, we are not shown that scene in a straightforward way. Like everything else in the book it is mediated through RD’s mind in his letters. A telling detail is this: the two old friends do not get on very well when they meet again in the flesh. By this time RD prefers the R he has created in his own imaginary dialogues: “I’ve had better conversations with my fictitious version of you in one of these letters” (118).

This is a book full of metaphors, good metaphors, extended metaphors. Take this early passage (17): “I will write a long letter to my old mucker in Melbourne, I thought, and kill two birds with one tome. I’ll get it all off my chest (does this poor exhausted metaphor refer to some mysterious weight pressing on the outside or to bronchitic lungs full of phlegm within?), and at the same time relieve the dreariness of his Australian exile by providing an opportunity for jealousy, irritation, disapproval and condescension. So here we are off my chest and on to yours—a great gob of narrative phlegm, spat ten thousand miles down the airways by your fellow-toiler in the vineyard of knowledge.”

This is a good sample of the way that RD writes. Note the sheer literariness of his style and the tongue in cheek. Note, e.g., the way he “kills two birds with one stone” by rejuvenating two tired clichés in one passage. Note, especially, the irony, what he calls the “light ludic touch.” Several times he mentions that the perpetually serious JL, who “never laughs,” has not one iota of the ludic. In fact, the big fight between husband and wife over her most recent novel, The Invisible Banquet, involves largely RD’s insistence on her making the novel into something with touches of light irony. JL, he writes, has “lost her taste for the ludic possibilities of fiction, when some of us have committed our lives to them” (159). But she cannot have lost what she never had.

More metaphors. Extended metaphors. Sometimes whole chapters are built around highly developed metaphors, as the one beginning, “I’ve suddenly discovered the joys of free-fall parachuting” (127). RD has rashly rebelled against prospective changes in his department and resigned from his university position. The metaphor continues. “You may, it occurs to me, think I left the plane rather precipitately. A routine announcement from the captain about diverting to a slightly different destination, and I was out the door, taking the quick way home” (129). And continues. “So there I am, falling down the empty sky. That’s why I’m writing. To say PLEASE SEND PARACHUTE. Because it occurred to me only when I reached to open it that I had omitted before leaving the plane to provide myself with this obvious and elementary requisite for the sport” (130-31).

Why mention all the metaphors? Primarily because this is good, good writing. Repeatedly, over the course of this short novel, the reader is reminded that RD is a brilliant writer of comic fiction. Does he realize that he is? No. Time and again he bemoans his lowly status as writer of litcrit, envies his wife the author, puzzles over “whatever it is these people [fiction writers] do, what it is the buggers do” (9). He despairs of ever finding “the trick.”

After a desperate move to the Persian Gulf, taking in tow his long-suffering wife, JL, he makes the logical decision: RD decides to become a fiction writer himself. After all, “it’s a trade, writing, that anyone can learn, not a Masonic mystery. Part of my aim is to demonstrate that any bloody fool can do it.” This novel is an account of a man who relinquishes all his scruples [see p. 29: “little white scruples scrupling in the wind”], destroys his wife’s peace of mind and ruins his own life in order to find the trick. But then, in the midst of wrecking for all time his marriage he still cannot find it. First, “I believe I can see how it’s done . . . I believe I can see the trick . . . Anyone can do it, even me” (144, 147). Then, finally, “After all these years I still had not the slightest idea how the conjuring trick was done” (163). RD gives up on the “something-or-other” that he has been toiling over, a work of fiction, and throws it in the dustbin.

At this point the novel is making its way into the place that any great comic novel eventually comes to. The “light ludic touch” fades, and we are into serious pathos. Adrift in the desolation of the Persian Gulf, the ever-more-desperate RD describes how JL, whom he has tried to bully into changing her new novel, has nursed his mother in the end. “She was the one who coaxed her into the local hospital, and washed her nightdresses, and sat with her every afternoon while she was still conscious. . . Did I tell you my mother had died? Last November. Secondaries in the bowel. Perhaps I didn’t even tell you she had cancer. . . Or how much I loved her. . . I’m not sure I’ve even told you how much I love JL, for that matter. In spite of what you might think. . . But then men don’t talk about these things” (126).

Soon after this we come upon practically the only time in the book that we hear JL speak in her own voice, not mediated through the narrative of the importunate RD: “You have led me into a desolate and stony place,” she said, “and things are very bad between us. You hedge me about, you cage me and patrol me, and take all the ground and the air from around me. But you don’t own the words I say or the thoughts I think, and you never will, and you never can” (155-56). So speaks the most decent character in the book, but one whom we never get to see entirely in the clear light of day, as RD consistently throws his own oppressive narrative shadow over her.

The supreme irony of the whole novel, or course, Michael Frayn’s practical joke, the ultimate “trick of it” is that RD is a great writer. He doesn’t think he knows the trick, but some neurons deep inside him are totally confident; they know how to write a comic novel. They know not only the ludic, but also even the time to temper the ludic with pathos. This is especially salient, given the hints that JL’s star is fading in academia. Her poor bedraggled husband, her tormentor may end up being a better writer of fiction than she is.

Driving back from work one day in the desert, RD brakes for a man on a motorcycle. The man is carrying a can of water, which spills all over the road. “By the time the crowd had dispersed, and the motorcyclist had dusted himself down, the wet patch on the road had ceased to exist. In those few minutes under the noonday sun it had lost first its gloss and then its dark wetness. It had become nothing but a faintly coastlined whiteness in the whiteness all around. And suddenly I thought, that’s not just a story about water. That’s a story about me. I could disappear off the face of the earth here just as easily, and leave little trace behind” (152). A metaphor for the transience of a human life.

“You suddenly see yourself as one of those tedious, bumbling characters in an old-fashioned detective story who turn out at the end to have solved the problem” (34). Except that RD turns out NOT to have solved the problem (“the trick of it”), except again that, paradoxically, the book he ends up writing HAS solved that problem.

In the end, dimly aware that his letters to R constitute a brilliant comic novel, RD pleads with him to preserve the letters at all cost. R sends him a cable: “Letters Lost.” It might be a good title for this book, were the book not about “the trick of it,” which, unbeknownst to the narrator, is not lost at all. The very novel itself is a demonstration that RD knows the trick. Of course, if the letters were lost how did they make their way onto the pages of this luminous and dazzling comic novel? Only Michael Frayn knows that trick.

Saturday, August 19, 2017



George Saunders, Tenth of December (Random House, 2013, 272pp.)

In a recent rant I wrote on the sad state of the contemporary American short story, I railed against what is sometimes known as ‘The New Yorker story,’ that all-too-common pedestrian thing called “domestic literary fiction.” Happily, there are always exceptions to egregious trends, and George Saunders, who is a contributor to The New Yorker, is a big one. Exception, that is.

How is his fiction different from the normal, run-of-the-mill domestic stuff—the kind of fiction I can’t stand? A good place to begin would be with a comparison between his Tenth of December and another book of short stories recently published, The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I picked up Nguyen’s book with high expectations, having read his novel, The Sympathizer, which has great writing, wonderful sentences on every page.

I found one good sentence in the whole of The Refugees, “his beautiful and heartrending new story collection” [Joyce Carol Oates editorial review in The New Yorker; beware, beware, o ye readers, the editorial review].  Here is the one good sentence: “Floating in his teacup on the patio table was a curled petal from a bougainvillea, shuttling back and forth.” Why would Nguyen, who is certainly capable of writing good, literary sentences, decide that such sentences are unnecessary in his short stories, that he can get away with the pedestrian and insipid style of The Refugees

Probably because his proximity to the great American boondoggle of the creative writing industry [he is Professor of English at the University of Southern California] has conditioned him to believe that stories need no stylistic verve or panache. “Just the humdrum, dreary facts, ma’am.” As for me, I believe that short story collections, like products in a grocery store, should have expiration dates. For me, The Refugees has already expired.

Not so the spectacular stuff of George Saunders, a writer who, while immersed in the literary establishment and the gruesome creative writing racket—he teaches creative writing at Syracuse University—apparently is of the opinion that a short story should be not dull, not pedestrian, but lively with creative effects and stylistic panache. Okay, so he does write “domestic fiction,” in the sense that his stories tell of ordinary Americans mired in ordinary American problems. But the big difference lies in HOW he tells his tales.

Saunders has a knack for getting into the heads of children or adolescents, taking the reader into that head and showing its inner workings. In the first story in his collection, “Victory Lap,” Alison Pope, 14, is reveling in life, dead sure of the spectacular festival that will be her future. She loves everyone at her school; loves the whole town. “Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday,” she is at home alone, entertaining herself with her own imagination. Bad, bad things are about to happen to her. Setting up for a change in point of view, the author has Alison taking note of Kyle Boot—fellow adolescent and next-door neighbor, a nerdy kid “whose mom and dad didn’t let him do squat”—on his return from cross-country practice.

Next we the reader are in Kyle’s head, and like Alison’s, it is a fine American head to be in. One thing about Saunders’ characters: although they may have their faults, may be roiling in life’s adversities, they are most often good people. But the character who next enters the narrative in “Victory Lap” is by no means a very good person. He apparently is Russian, and in America, be we in Hollywood, be we in the mind of anyone writing fiction, being Russian is almost automatically being the bad guy. Take Putin. Is there anybody badder or meaner on earth? Of course not.

We see things for a time from this lowlife character’s point of view. Saunders loves this switching about in POV when telling a story. What happens next is ACTION. Here again, we have a big difference from the standard boring story of domestic literary fiction, which most often has people agonizing, perhaps whining quite a bit, but not doing very much. In Saunders’ stories people do things.

Meanwhile, all the while the style of the Saunders story is throwing together bits and pieces of stylistic and structural panache. NB TO WRITERS HOPING TO MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION WHILE WRITING SHORT STORIES: a story purporting to be LITERARY fiction must have stylistic and structural PANACHE. Near the end of “Victory Lap” Kyle smashes a bad guy in the head with a rock, killing him. “Then his body tumped over and Kyle turned to her [Alison] with this heartbroken look of My life is over. I killed a guy.”

Except, we soon learn, that this is what happens in Alison’s recurrent nightmares. In real life, after escaping, with the help of Kyle, from the Russian who intends to rape and kill her, she yells to Kyle not to bring the rock down. Saunders leaves a lot, as a good writer knows how to do, to the creative imagination of his reader. At the end of “Victory Lap” we have a scene describing Alison’s parents talking to her, telling her how well she and Kyle reacted to “a bad thing” that “happened to you kids.” We are not told whether or how Alison’s view on human beings (“Each of us is a rainbow.”) has changed. Nor do we get any inkling of how the violent episode affected Kyle, or how his overprotective parents have reacted to what he did.

In the title story, “Tenth of December,” another story with plot, we are taken into the mind of a boy, Robin, who is bullied at school. He spends a lot of time alone, and like many lonely children, he lives a rich imaginative life. Here we have another highly positive protagonist. His naivety is suggested by this passage: “Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?/ Is there icing on it? he’d said.” 

Another thing about the Saunders story: even in the saddest of situations the narrative is leavened with humor. Often quirky humor. So it turns out Dad and Kip Flemish had first traded spouses, then abandoned the spouses and fled together to California: gay swingers.

Here is Alison again, on dreams: “Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up and brush the shards off its pads but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head.” After the interval of one very short story—a poignant one-page masterpiece titled “Sticks,” about a sad, confused man—we come to the next story and it is called “Puppy.”

Saunders is great at portraying everyday people in today’s America. In “Puppy” we meet Marie, another overprotective, gee-whiz-I’m-trying-my-best-to-be-an-ideal-mom American middle class mother. Marie strives to create a perfect life for her children, to make up for her own far-less-than-perfect childhood. She has a great middle-class husband named Robert the Jolly, who, whenever she brings home another exotic pet—such as an iguana that ends up biting him—never gets irritated; Robert just says “Ho Ho.”

Marie is another lover of life, like Alison in “Victory Lap,” but she is really more like somebody trying hard to show everyone what a lover of life she is: “Oh, God, what a beautiful world! . . . . Thank you, Lord, she thought, as the Lexus flew through the cornfield. You have given me so much: struggles and the strength to overcome them; grace, and new chances every day to spread that grace around. And in her mind she sang out, as she sometimes did when feeling that the world was good, and she had at last found her place in it, Ho Ho, ho HO!” Saunders writes with a touch of light irony. He may be somewhat critical of modern American mores. He certainly is critical of Marie the do-gooder, who ends up being the villain of this story. But he does not shout out his anger in heavy-handed satire. He whispers in light irony.

George Saunders frequently sets up dichotomies/contrasts. In “Puppy” we have the dichotomy of (1) self-righteous upper-middle-class Marie vs. (2) underclass-trailer-trash Callie, the owner of the puppy. The two meet when Marie comes with her children to see the puppy advertised for sale. Marie the Fastidious is shocked by the condition of the house: “the filth, the mildew smell, the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the pasta pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it . . . the spare tire on the dining room table.” More humor.

The puppy in the underclass home is adorable; the children want to take it. “Okay, then, all right [thinks Marie], they would adopt a white-trash dog. Ha-ha. They could name it Zeke, buy it a little corncob pipe and a straw hat. She imagined the puppy, having crapped on the rug, looking up at her, going, Caint hep it. But no. Had she come from a perfect place? Everything was transmutable. She imagined the puppy grown up, entertaining some friends, speaking to them in a British accent: My family of origin was, um, rather not, shall we say, of the most respectable . . .”

But then comes the climax of the story. Marie looks out in the back yard and sees a retarded boy, Bo, chained up like a dog, even apparently drinking from a dog’s dish. She is horrified. Now they will not adopt the ill-fated puppy. They will immediately depart this sordid scene, which her poor vulnerable children have had to see and may be scarred by the experience. Furthermore, later that day [thinks judgmental Marie] she will call Child Welfare, “where she knew Linda Berling, a very no-nonsense lady who would snatch this poor kid away so fast it would make that fat mother’s thick head spin.”

Saunders is apparently aware of how desperate situations can often be for well-meaning people and their children, when “very no-nonsense” authoritarian persons show up at their home and take the children away into foster care. Cases in which the children, not allowed even to say good-bye to their parents, are often terrified, where the burden of proof that they have NOT abused their children is placed on the parents. And you cannot get angry when they do this to you. If you show your anger this proves the fact of your mental instability. This is the way modern America—obsessed with doing good—often does very bad things.

The poignancy of “Puppy” lies in our knowledge that underclass Callie is not a bad parent, that she loves her boy Bo, and that he himself, quite a handful, does not resent being chained up for part of the day. He rather enjoys running the length of the chain. Then again there is the fate of the puppy, rejected by despicable Marie. Callie abandons it in a cornfield, so that her husband Jimmy will not have to kill it, as he has drowned kittens in the past. 

The story ends with Callie imagining a bright future for Bo, but the reader knows better. “Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him?” thinks Callie, whose son will soon be taken from her.

One critic in the London Review of Books speaks of “George Saunders’ dystopian workplace tragicomedies.” Some of Saunders’ stories remind you of the plots in the TV series “Black Mirror.” The action takes place in only-a-few-years-distant future, but technology and drugs have made their mark. In “Escape from Spiderhead” some future U.S. government has sent those convicted of crimes to an experimental institution, where they are dosed with various drugs to study their reactions. It is proven, for example, that the emotion of love between men and women is a factor of certain chemical combinations in the brain, nothing more than that.

The narrator Jeff, convicted of murdering an acquaintance in a moment of passion, is dosed with the love drug twice in the same day. He falls in “love” with two different women, and both of them (also drugged) passionately return his feelings. Later in the same day, after the drugs have worn off, “no trace of either of those great loves remains.”

“Escape from Spiderhead” is a kind of allegory. In human life you are not necessarily in love with two different women on the same day, but quite often you find yourself looking back on some grand passion of the past, wondering—as Jeff wonders after the drugs wear off—now, what was that all about?

Saunders has a way of showing the basic goodness in human beings. Although all of the subjects at the institute have committed crimes, most often murder, nobody wants to see another inmate receive a gratuitous dose of the feel-bad drug Darkenfloxx, which can be fatal. Furthermore, the narrator Jeff—to whom it has been proven in the experiments definitively that he does not love Rachel, in fact, has no feelings for her—Jeff ends up taking the Darkenfloxx himself, in effect dying to save Rachel’s life. We are reminded of Ukrainians during the German occupation of WWII. Many cooperated with the Nazis, sending innocent Jews to their deaths. But there were other Ukrainians who—risking their own lives and the lives of their children—hid away Jews and protected them. Saunders likes to write about the latter kind of Ukrainian (American).

“My Chivalric Fiasco” is set in another dystopian twilight zone, where the characters all work in some kind of medieval-themed amusement park attraction—with fake pigs and fake slop and even fake poop. The narrator Ted supports his whole family: Mom is sick, Beth is shy, and Dad has cracked his spine. Drugs once again play a big role in the action of the story. The whole plot revolves around Ted’s failure to keep a co-worker’s secret, as he is high on some drug that makes him super-self-righteous.

Saunders also has a good feel for the way things work in the American world of business. “Exhortation” is a pep-talk monologue/memorandum voiced by a typical “muddle management” type—Todd Birnie, Divisional Director. It grades off occasionally into the tale of Andy, a depressive co-worker. Saunders never fails to be entertaining. “Say we need to clean a shelf. Let’s use that example. If we spend the hour before the shelf-cleaning talking down the process of cleaning the shelf, complaining about it, dreading it, investigating the moral niceties of cleaning the shelf, whatever, then what happens is we make the process of cleaning the shelf more difficult than it really is. . . . Do I want to clean it happy, or do I want to clean it sad? Which would be more effective? For me? Which would accomplish my purpose more efficiently?” And so on. And on.

“Al Roosten” presents the title character in a state of crisis, as Saunders’ middle class well-meaning citizens often are. When Al appears in a voluntary charity auction, auctioning off his own talents and making a fool of himself in the process, “the room made the sound a room makes when attempting not to laugh.” Saunders zeros in on a typical, but seldom described American emotion. When Al walks out the audience is pulled in two directions, toward open mockery of this idiot grading off into shouts of good will, described as “pity whoops” and “mercy cheers.”

Saunders himself is often a kind of pity whooper in regard to his characters. He writes about average Americans, most of them likable, striving to wend their way through the mine field that is their life. Al Roosten runs a bric-a-brac shop called Bygone Daze, a near bankrupt enterprise whose bygone days were probably never that good to begin with. Typical of the Saunders lead protagonists, Al is burdened by a family he must support, and the money is never quite enough. The story of Al’s life: “People were always seeing through him and frying his ass.”

Saunders frequently writes of the class pretensions of the average American family. Al Roosten hates Larry Donfrey of Donfrey Realty, another participant in the charity auction, because Donfrey leads a more successful life, appears to have a striking wife and wonderful children. The Donfrey family once came into his shop and seemed to take a patronizing view of Al’s merchandise. In a typical Saunders twist of plot, however, Al learns by chance that one of Donfrey’s children has a crippled leg, and immediately all his rancor dissipates.

In another of the author’s dystopian tragicomedies of the American quotidian, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” another middle-class paterfamilias and loser is the narrator. Trying to keep up with their class peers in prestige, American families acquire girls from third-world countries (the SGs), and hang them out as beautiful displays from the trees in their yards (“Black Mirror” again).

Having just turned forty, the narrator/loser, who (like all Saunders protagonists) loves his family, gets the bright idea of writing a diary for future readers, so that they can learn what American life was like in the twenty-first century. He wonders, for example, if people of the future will know the sound of planes passing overhead in the night, since some day there will be no more planes. He wonders if they will know the sound of caterwauling cats in the night. The story runs for only two months of that diary, a time in which things go from bad to worse for the narrator’s family.

Great writing abounds in “The SG Girl Diaries,” and, as usual, the travails of the lead character are touching. Saunders always has a feel for workplace realities. For example, there is the scene in which “red-faced men in ties,” in an elevator are coming back from what is termed the Fall Fling, “making jokes about enough Fall Flinging, the Fall Fling has been Flung, etc., etc. Then the embarrassed silence as we, in our minds, resaid the things we had just enthusiastically heatedly said, as if vying for some sort of Stupid Utterance Prize.” Yes, perfect.

Next they all look up at the mirrored ceiling of the elevator, and Anders remarks, “I must appear pretty weird to birds.” After that nobody laughed, but they all made that grunting sound that stands in for laughter, “so Anders wouldn’t feel bad, as his mother has recently passed away.” Nice.

Once again, “The SG Girl Diaries” revolves around American parents who love their children, trying to be good parents for their kids, better parents than their own parents were for them, but usually failing. Money, or the lack thereof, looms large in much of what Saunders writes. His characters are always hard up; if only their sympathetic author, the reader thinks, could find a way to smuggle them some hard cash into the lines of the story. Saunders actually does play this almost deus ex machina role in “SG,” when the narrator wins the lottery and is on cloud nine. But just as in the old TV series, “The Millionaire,” coming into money makes for only very short-term happiness.

“Home” features a young man, Mike, just back from military service in Iraq or Afghanistan, dealing simultaneously with the chaos and STPD in his head and the chaos of his underclass family. Once again, the story is hilarious, while, at the same, time deeply sad. It features comic underclass Ma, who, in an attempt to rein in her potty mouth, says beep for all obscenities. “’Beep you’, she said. ‘They been on my case at work.’” Her slovenly boyfriend Harris (“he makes up crazy beep about me all the time”) is another hoot.

Mike’s sister Renee has married somewhat higher than her class, to Ryan. But, as usual in America, class distinctions are dependent largely on money. “Ryan’s parents had sonorous confident voices that seemed to have been fabricated out of previous, less sonorous/confident voices by means of sudden money.” 

Mike wanders about, aloft on his PTSD: “A plan would start flowing directly down to my hands and feet . . . . My face would go hot and I’d feel sort of like, Go, go, go.” The most poignant line in the story is his thought directed at all those around him: “You sent me there; now bring me back.” Everyone he comes across, however, has little more to say to him than the standard (automatic and insincere), “Thank you for your service.”

This is a great collection of stories, George Saunders. Thank you for your service in writing such exemplary fiction in the genre of the creative short story.

Friday, August 18, 2017


The Great Nabacocoa

(The Sad State of the American Short Story)

The situation has been the same for years. Nothing ever seems to change and practically no one deems it necessary even to talk about it. Almost forty years ago a colleague at the university where I taught, a lifelong reader of The New Yorker and a person whose intelligence I respect, said to me, “I love The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. ‘The New Yorker story’ does not appeal to me.” In a visit to my general practitioner a month ago, the doctor, an avid reader of classical literary fiction—the canonical literary works of the world—remarked, “I love the articles in The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. Most of it is a total bore.” Over a period of forty years how many other intelligent readers of fiction have said the same thing? Repeatedly. Why is nobody listening?

Over the past ten years I have subscribed to a variety of American literary journals. Someone advised me to try reading Agni, where, so they said, some of the best fiction in the country was being published. I subscribed to Agni for two years and never found a single short story of genuine literary merit. With few exceptions the same was true of the other “literary” journals I read.

At times I was simply astonished by the winners of literary prizes. I would read the whole story and gasp with amazement. That story won a prize? That’s a story not even worth publishing. I also subscribed to One Story for a couple of years. Here, once again, since they publish only one story in each issue, you’d think their standards for what they accept would be high. Alas, their standards are low, and most of what they publish is hardly worth reading.

Sometimes I thought that part of the problem was me. I taught Russian literature for thirty years, so I cut my literary teeth on some of the best fiction ever published. Do modern writers publishing in the U.S. today simply have lower standards? Is it no longer cool to be ambitious, to want to write fiction with verve and panache, to aim for something entirely new and unique?

The standard pedestrian story, the kind of thing I cannot stand, is in the genre of what has come to be called “domestic literary fiction.” The characters are often middle-class Americans, caught up in their daily dramas of adultery or psychological trauma. The style is bland, straight realism, with few or no stylistic embellishments. The structure is often lax, with few narrative arcs, without a clear beginning, middle and end. There is no LITERATURE in these stories, and maybe I would be less offended by their omnipresence in every American journal I come across if they would just change the name: domestic fiction. Leave the ‘literary’ out. The stories would still be as egregiously dull and unimaginative, but at least they would no longer pretend to be literature.

I have subscribed to The New Yorker for forty years. I have not done a survey, but I suspect that at least half the stories published there are in the category of “domestic literary fiction.” Maybe it’s more like two thirds. In other words, the magazine widely considered the best repository of quality fiction in the whole country is publishing more dreck than good fiction. How many different fiction editors has the magazine gone through over that long time period? Wasn’t there a single one of them who could read fiction creatively? Lovers of literature should be up in arms and marching on New York, but nobody is. WHY NOT?

In the late eighties or early nineties The New Yorker started coming out with an annual “fiction edition.” For the first couple of times the yearly issue was wonderful, packed with interesting creative writing. John Updike, a survivor from the time period before the mass deterioration in fictional quality, was still publishing his stuff back then. But quite rapidly the business of the “fiction edition” went into decline. Look at this year’s offerings and you’ll find very little fiction. In lieu of fiction the regular contributors now write little autobiographical pieces about how they spent their vacations on beaches catching crabs as children.

Let’s take a couple of concrete examples to illustrate my point. Here is the beginning of a recent story in The New Yorker: “Close to five hours on the train. And then twenty minutes by taxi from the station to the school. He would have time to call the lawyer, work through the options. He had the number of a consultant, in case Rowan needed to apply somewhere else. Maybe the school legally had to contact the college he’d got into, but Richard wasn’t sure. And maybe it wouldn’t come to that. The school wouldn’t want to make anything public. The thought calmed him—good, good. They were on his side, even if they had not said so in so many words: they weren’t stupid.”

Is there anything about this lead paragraph that makes the reader want to read on? I see practically nothing. Is there even a faint taint of literature here? None. So where was the appeal for the fiction editor of The New Yorker who decided to publish this? Does the story get better later on? Hardly. This is exactly the kind of fiction that my literature- loving doctor is not going to read.

In recent years foreign writers of English-language fiction have been frequently published in American literary journals. These are sometimes persons born abroad, sometimes persons born in the U.S. of recently immigrated parents. You might think, Well wonderful. Stories set in other countries, based on exotic foreign cultures, will bring novel and exiting verve to the American short story. Alas, it appears that large numbers of such writers have bought into the gruesome American tradition of mediocrity. Their characters may be African or Indonesian, but they are fully as humdrum as the American characters mired in “domestic literary fiction.”

Another recent story in The New Yorker, written by a Chinese-American writer, is set in China. It begins with three Americans, Adrian, Peter (Adrian’s boyfriend) and Bella standing outside a restaurant “famous for its Peking duck.” We have the beginnings of a story in which, perhaps, something will happen. Then nothing does. Adrian and Peter fly back to the States, and for the whole rest of the story the Chinese-American Bella agonizes over her past. As if creative writing courses have neglected altogether the idea of STRUCTURE in short fiction, the whole first page of the story goes wandering around in the pluperfect tense.

“Bella had known Peter for twenty-five years. They had shared a place with two other housemates in Boston when they were in law school, and for as long as they had been friends they had been talking about visiting China together.” Why bother telling us this, since the visit to China together is already done (Peter has flown back to the U.S.)? The story is not about him; it is solely about hangdog Bella.

“Adrian was a writer, and he was working on ‘a multigenerational and intercontinental epic,’ based on his family history, and during the past two weeks the three of them had toured a number of towns on the East China Sea, sifting through local archives, tracing the untraceable.” Once again, if we are to have a story with Adrian in it, then write that story. As it is, all of this pluperfect summing up of things about Adrian serves no purpose. If you want a story about Bella’s tribulations why not just eliminate the whole first page? Thank God that at least we the readers are not forced to delve into Adrian’s “intercontinental epic.” This story about the divagations of Bella’s mind, however—even after we get rid of Peter and Adrian—goes nowhere and does nothing. Why did The New Yorker publish it?

And mind you, The New Yorker publishes fiction only from agented writers. If Lev Tolstoy or Anton Chekhov sent in their very best fiction unsolicited, it would receive zero consideration. So behind these writers and these stories there are literary agents, there is a history of grooming in some creative writing program at a university. You check out the author’s website on the internet, and, sure enough, she has a background in a creative writing program, in fact one of the most famous; she is a highly regarded writer who has won awards for her fiction. 

Why does this not surprise me? Well, it would have, back before I was aware of the present-day standards in mediocrity that are widely accepted all over the publishing world. All along the line there must be people who have encouraged and continue to encourage this kind of stagnant, dead writing. But WHY?

Once at a public reading a few years ago, a successful writer of short stories, quite well known, remarked, “When I was in an MFA program the only thing they allowed us to write was ‘domestic literary fiction.’” When I heard him say this I nearly rose up in rebellion and marched upon the proscenium where he stood. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that the problem of the American short story has its origins largely in the creative writing racket that flourishes all over American universities. 

Instructors in creative writing programs must publish their fiction in order to perpetuate their careers. Many of them write in the gruesome and unforgivable genre of “domestic literary fiction.” They make names for themselves, they publish their stuff in the “literary” journals. They win awards for the dreck they publish. Even worse, they perpetuate the problem by encouraging their creative writing students to write the same way. How did they win the awards? Because the prizes are given out by other hopelessly mind-numbing writer/judges who write the same crap.

In other words, everyone—creative writing instructors, agents, publishers, arbiters of literary taste, and most readers—everyone has agreed to look at the king with no clothes on and not notice his nakedness. Why, I keep asking why, and I have already provided a few answers. Here is another: publishers still want to make money, and High Art has never been much for making money. What few readers of fiction that remain in the U.S. today are, largely, readers of the pap of which I speak. Probably a lot of them think that this is what real fiction is. As Donald Trump would say—if Trump were a reader of good fiction, or even a reader of anything—SAD.

The narrator of a recent novel by the Chinese émigré writer Ha Jin, The Boat Rocker, has this to say about restrictions on the Chinese writer of fiction in Red China: “those writers, every one of them, were talented but had to toe the line, not only on the page but also in their imaginations, because they received salaries from the state and could not afford to jeopardize their livelihoods.” You say, Yeah, that’s China, but there is no censorship in America. But haven’t writers of U.S. fiction, intent on making careers, sold out their imaginations in similar ways? Not sold out to the political pressures of the ruling government, but to the pressures of the ruling trends in mediocre writing.

I sometimes think that most people, deep, deep down, are most comfortable with mediocrity. Human nature is such that in any life’s endeavor things are so set up as to find a common denominator in the pedestrian. One amazing discovery that I made while a member of American Academia is that university professors are often little interested in creativity. While professing to be great lovers of the liberal viewpoint politically, many of them are pompously pedantic arch-reactionaries at the core. Don’t try to make things better by suggesting radical new ways of doing things in Academia; they will fight you tooth and nail.

Then again, take a look at the American “free press.” Why is it that U.S. media networks all run the same news on a given evening, and all with basically the same slant? Who is the backdoor operator organizing this everyday conformity of opinion? Why, for example, is there not a single news outlet giving us, say, the Russian view of the brouhaha concerning so-called “Russian interference” in the recent U.S. presidential election? Because the Russians are assumed automatically to be guilty, since the Russians are always the bad guys. Americans take psychological comfort in knowing there are always Russians around, to bear the brunt of all the badness. With the collapse of the Soviet Union Hollywood was in a quandary for a time: who will be the bad guys in our movies now? Then they found the easy solution: although Russians aren’t communists anymore, they still are bad.

Why, to take another example, did not a single news commentator anywhere question the veracity of reporting on the most recent gas attack in Syria (April, 2017)? President Trump sent in Cruise missiles to punish our favorite bad guy, Assad, but nobody stopped to think: you know, it simply makes no sense that Assad, or his Russian allies would be behind that attack on civilians. Just at the point when our new president was prepared to consider a new approach to Assad, BAM, another use of poison gas on civilians. It’s simply not believable, but, once again, it’s a comfort for Americans, who always prefer simple answers to complicated questions. 

And mediocrity. Take American beers, all brewed for beer drinkers with absolutely no taste, and all selling voluminously. Beer drinkers in Germany, Holland, England, etc., etc., take a taste of such a beer and say, “What? Americans drink this? And elect Trump as our President. And watch movies made by Woody Allen. Anyone with brains is aware that these days Woody Allen's movies are terrible; he should have stopped making movies twenty years ago. But everyone goes on pretending that his films are worth watching. A recent article in The Atlantic said as much.

As for The New Yorker, luckily there are a few bright spots in the fiction offerings. Offhand I’d say the magazine has five or six stories a year worth reading. This year I have appreciated Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story with its origins in The Lives of the Saints, “Christina the Astonishing,” and a story by Etgar Keret, “Fly Already”—true, this one is not by an American writer; it is translated from the Hebrew, but at least they published it. 

Acknowledged masters of American fiction make their way occasionally into the pages of The New Yorker. A recent issue featured “The Itch” by Don DeLillo, about a man caught up in the typical DeLillo malaise: “He was forty-four years old, trapped in his body. Arms, legs, torso. Face did not itch. Scalp developed something that a doctor gave a name to, but it itched only rarely, then not at all, so the name didn’t matter.” And so on, in the same vein. If you’re looking for the very best in DeLillo, try his magnificent comic novel, White Noise, one of the best pieces of American fiction of the twentieth century.

Another big exception is the writer George Saunders, who is also a contributor to The New Yorker and a participant in the grand boondoggle of the creative writing racket—he teaches creative writing at Syracuse University. The most recent of his stories I have read in The New Yorker is “Mother’s Day” (Feb., 2016), and it, once again, is wonderful, full of great humor and stylistic panache. Someone as creative as Saunders is certainly aware of the sad state of the modern short story, so why doesn’t he come out and say something about it? Well, why should he jeopardize his position in the pantheon by accusing his fellow writers of insipidity and phoniness? That would make him appear ungrateful and arrogant.

In the same issue of The New Yorker containing the story of Bella, there is an article about the well-known writer of short fiction, Grace Paley, a writer of the domestic quotidian. “Paley initially suspected that her work would be considered ‘trivial, stupid, boring, domestic, and not interesting,’ but she couldn’t help it: ‘Everyday life, kitchen life, children life had been handed to me.’”

What is the difference between Paley’s domestic fiction and the stifling domestic fiction that is rampant today? The main difference is that Paley’s fiction is WRITTEN. What does that mean? Take this example from one of her stories, “A Conversation with My Father,” a tale in which the eighty-six-year-old father of the narrator, sick in bed, asks her to entertain him with a story about “simple people.” Here is what she comes up with at first, a story that is NOT WRITTEN.

“Once in my time there was a woman and she had a son. They lived nicely, in a small apartment in Manhattan. The boy at about fifteen became a junkie, which is not unusual in our neighborhood. In order to maintain her close friendship with him, she became a junkie too. She said it was part of the youth culture, with which she felt so much at home. After a while, for a number of reasons, the boy gave it all up and left the city and his mother in disgust. Hopeless and alone, she grieved. We all visit her.”

The narrator’s old father then complains that she has left everything out of the story. How did the woman look? Who were her parents that she should end up like this? The next attempt by the narrator is WRITTEN. What makes it WRITTEN? See the passages I have italicized below.

“Once, across the street from us, there was a fine handsome woman, our neighbor. She had a son whom she loved because she’d known him since birth (in helpless chubby infancy, and in the wrestling, hugging ages, seven to ten, as well as earlier and later). This boy, when he fell into the fist of adolescence, became a junkie. He was not a hopeless one. He was in fact hopeful, an ideologue and successful converter. With his busy brilliance, he wrote persuasive articles for his high-school newspaper. Seeking a wider audience, using important connections, he drummed into Lower Manhattan newsstand distribution a periodical called ‘Oh! Golden Horse!’

“In order to keep him from feeling guilty (because guilt is the stony heart of nine-tenths of all clinically diagnosed cancers in America today, she said), and because she had always believed in giving bad habits a home where one could keep an eye on them, she too became a junkie. . . .”

The writer of the article Alexandra Schwartz goes on to say the following: “On the branches of the bare first draft, life begins to bud. Before the woman seemed delusional, pathetic. Now we see her goodness, her confused optimism, her protective love for her son. The narrator’s tone turns rueful, tender; a piece of gossip has become literature” (New Yorker, May 8, 2017, p. 67-68). Well, maybe not high art, but yes, literature, and why? Because it is WRITTEN.

Oh, that only Vladimir Nabokov were still around, with his high standards for what is good literature and his hound dog’s instinct for frauds and literary trash. I would advocate forcing the fiction editor of The New Yorker, plus the fiction editors of all the American “literary” journals—before they accept for publication another single story—to read all of Grace Paley’s fiction. If they don’t have time for that, let them read one story published in The New Yorker back before the advent of the Age of Egregious: Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” Here we have a mere five pages of sheer aching loveliness. Well, it too features an American domestic scene, describing an old Russian Jewish émigré couple; they live in an American city and have a grown son who is mentally ill.

But what a difference between Nabokov’s story and the pap/dreck that has long since become the new normal. What a plethora of lovely lines, what an amplitude of emotion! Read just this one story, modern-day writer of American fiction, and try to get at least a little bit ambitious! Forget everything they’ve told you back in those dismal creative writing courses.

Write something new and unique, try for something original. Then don’t send it anywhere until you’ve revised and polished it eight, ten, twenty fifty times—until it coruscates and gleams like a precious gem of lapis lazuli. Okay, we cannot all be Nabokov, but we can at least make an effort to transcend the dreck. Not interested in writing LITERATURE? Fine. Good. Go on writing the stultifying stuff, but don’t pretend that it’s literary.

The American Literary Establishment has recently been shaken up by the power of Amazon, frightened to the core by that power. I say good for Amazon, which does not have to indulge in the fakery of The Establishment. Amazon has done some highly positive things for American Letters. Take, for one example, the thing of the editorial review. Amazon customer reviews now cut into the reprehensible practice of having establishment literary figures write automatic positive reviews for any writer who is already IN. This often makes for an interesting contrast. We no longer have to trust the editorial reviews, when on Amazon we can read often highly intelligent customer reviews of the same books. The editorial reviews for established writers, were they to give stars, would all be starred at 4.5 and 5.0. When the customer reviews for the same book are at 3.0, we suspect that the writer of the editorial review has been engaged in meretricious fakery.

Herein appended is the final section of a recent review I wrote of a novel by Elif Batuman, The Idiot. My jeremiad here resembles, in some respects, that above, repeats some of the same points, but comes at the discussion from a slightly different viewpoint.

Although Elif Batuman has published only two books, both relatively recently, she has already made it big time in the Eastern Literary Establishment. Many American writers would give their right writing hand to be where she already is. Ms. Batuman has a literary agent in the most prestigious agency in New York, she is a contributor/staff writer for The New Yorker. She has hotshot editors on high, and her books are reviewed at the highest levels: The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, etc. No matter how good or bad her next novel is, it will without doubt be favorably reviewed at the same high levels as The Idiot—not really a very good novel—has just been reviewed. That’s the way the game works, after you are accepted into the IN crowd.

So what Ms. Batuman needs to do at this point is stop listening to the hotshot establishment agents and editors and write something that is real literature. Unlike so many modern American writers, those who have come out of creative writing programs, she has taken the time to read the great writers; she knows what literature is. For her first novel I can imagine the agent telling her, “Stick to the timeworn pattern, don’t get far away from realism, describe the everyday life of a girl who resembles yourself. Write ‘domestic literary fiction,’ for this is what sells in America. Don’t get too cute in your first published work. Nobody needs too much creativity.” So she wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about her days at Harvard. Okay, she has listened to that spiel once, but now that she is in with the in crowd, she can write whatever kind of fiction she likes. She should.

Elif Batuman is aware of the vast wasteland that is the creative writing industry in the U.S. How do I know? Because in her nonfiction work, The Possessed (something of a companion work to The Idiot), she expresses strong opinions about that puerile racket. Just beginning her creative life, she drops in on a writing workshop on Cape Cod, where the lead guru tells her, “If you want to be an academic, go to graduate school; if you want to be a writer come here.” The implication is that you need not even read and discuss the great writers of the past. Instead you sit around reading and critiquing short stories by pedestrian writers who have read, largely, other pedestrian writers. Who, furthermore, buy into deadening trends like “political correctness” in fiction. Who actually worry about offending people. Great writers are often eager to offend people.

Here's what Franz Kafka said on that subject. “We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? . . . We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply . . . . A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” He’s talking LITERATURE, fellow Homosapien. And AMBITIOUS writing.

“For many years [goes on Elif Batuman], I gave little thought to the choice I had made between creative writing and literary criticism. In 2006, n + I magazine asked me to write about the state of the American short story, using the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005 as data. Only then, as I turned the pages in the name of science, did I find myself remembering the emptiness I had felt on that rainy day on Cape Cod” (The Possessed).

“I remembered then the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of ‘craft.’ . . . . I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns.”
This critique of the modern American short story goes on for two more pages and concludes as follows: “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.” Domestic literary realism. Urggh.

This revelation—that the “best stories” written in the U.S. in 2004 and 2005 (and, alas, any other recent year) are bad stories—should open the eyes of the writing world. But given that the whole writing industry and publishing enterprise prefers to proceed with eyes shut, nothing essentially will be changed. In creative writing programs all over the U.S. “creative writers” teach their students to value the same twaddle. After which the students graduate, get positions as creative writing instructors, and perpetuate the problem. The best solution would be to abolish all creative writing departments in every university in the country. Then ban the genre of “domestic literary fiction.” 

When I am elected President, I will issue an executive order to that effect. Dream on.

But what about the good writers? you may ask. Some good writers come out of creative writing programs. Fine, but we need not worry about the good ones. They will find their own way; they have no need of people encouraging mediocrity and feeding them platitudes: “show, don’t tell,” and “you can’t use adverbs.”

As is obvious, however, Elif Batuman is already aware of the Vast Egregious Boondoggle that is the contemporary American short story. I’m sure she is also aware that the people interested in selling books—her agent, her editors, all of the establishment literary world—would prefer that her next novel stay with realistic characters and pedestrian plots. She is in a position now to defy those agents and editors. Write something new, vivid, vital now, Elif. Something ambitious, something with literary panache. Write us a piece of LITERATURE.