A Thin Veil Over Self

 The Last Worthless Evening: Four Novellas and Two Short Stories, by Andre Dubus

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 image via jhbooks.com

Andre Dubus has been billed for years as the U.S.’s premier short story writer, and I certainly see evidence of such talent in this collection. But the trap our preeminent writers sometimes seem to fall into as their reputation grows is to allow their talent to drift into stories in which shortcomings settle, take seed, and grow. And I see evidence of that in this collection.

 The stories here are on the surface a mixed bag: racism in the ‘50s U.S. Navy. A fatally sick Hispanic baseball player. Irish-American war veterans. Greek families. Teen coming of age (sexually). Domestic violence.

What’s the common denominator here? A gritty view of American life in its lower social strata. There’s no stylizing here – except possibly in Dubus’ varied structure for these pieces. His dialogue often sizzles, and his characterizations are paramount, some of the best you’ll find in contemporary writing. He gives us stories through an unflinching, pull-no-punches voice. Still, I’m troubled, not by the impact these stories leave, but with something else.

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image via openroadmedia.com

There’s little in the way of arc to these pieces. Dubus may have wished to imply things his stories didn’t contain, but these six pieces each left me wanting. They’re really more detailed character sketches than stories; each drawing lives, or multiple lives, in excruciating detail, these taking the reader nowhere. This approach works magnificently in his two short stories, which condense and distill characters to a moment. But in the longer pieces, this preoccupation fails to lead the reader to answer broader question about American life. As a result, they’re extended snapshots, telling us much, but not enough.

Too, I grew to feel bludgeoned by his first person approach to these stories, so many depicting drugs, drinking, gratuitous sex, concern with looks and weight. It’s as if Dubus himself is thinly veiled by his narrators, who are most vividly women – whatever that says about Dubus. And all too often his narrative goes on and on in these longer pieces, giving the reader minutiae, not panorama.

There’s certainly no doubt about Dubus’ talent. But some writers are born to the short story, others to the novel, while still others manage both. But those who juggle long and short fiction successfully play each by different sets of rules, something I don’t think Dubus could bring himself to realize.

 

 

My rating 15 of 20 stars

 

 

 

What of 2011?

I keep thinking back to the first months of this year – how they led me, and time rolled on, to new things: new, new new.

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image via getjanet.com

Much of what's happened around me has affected my reading habits, my writing, the publishing industry. Often history happens without a notice in the present – only in retrospect do we see the significance of the ride. Here are a few high points of the year for me. 

  • The year began with print publication of a novella of mine, The Blue Bicycle, already on Kindle. I found that readers have been much more open to the Kindle version than the print one so far. The book is written in four parts, each in a different point of view, about one man's difficult life. A New York agent had seen the mss, had liked it, but claimed that because of the short length and the variation in points of view, he couldn't sell it. So, after some months of concern about its future, I self-published. The tough part now, of course, is being noticed in the crowd.
  • I began the year deeply involved with the Appalachian Author's Guild, headquartered in Abingdon, VA. The Guild was preparing to become a chapter of the Virginia Writers Club, and we reworked the Guild to properly fit VWC. That mean a new set of by-laws and, thanks in large part to president Darrell Fleming, the Guild became less Board centric, more member-oriented. I decided during the fall to leave an active role in the Guild and work with writers near my North Carolina home.
  • I finished a collection of connected short stories, having something of a promise of publication by a small northern publishing house. At the moment, the collection is lying fallow, but I still have the opportunity to pursue publication of the stories individually. As of today, three have been accepted in some form for publication.
  • I began reading on a Kindle, some 20 books to date. I like the digital approach and, while the Kindle has handicaps, I'm comfortable with it.
  • Late in the year I began work on a memoir, segmental pieces about family members. I've blogged about that here already, so I won't repeat myself. Now, I'm entering some of the pieces in contests and submitting to litmags. My writing pal, Lyn, will see some of them soon, for her sharp eye toward fine tuning.
  • I've recently allowed two of my Kindle mss to be included in Kindle's Lending Library. Already, some are reading.
  • I've finished research on a historical novel, which takes place in  and around the year 1000. I'll begin writing in about a month. 
  • In the meantime, the iPad, the Nook, and the Kindle Fire are selling madly, and some authors are leving print behind altogether.
  • And a late-year talk with a NY agent demonstrated how tied to old mindsets the pub biz remains.

All in all the year has been one of slow, interesting change, for writing, for publishing – and for me. We'll see what it sets in 2012's lap.

Gridley’s Sweet Sixteen of 2011

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image via pastemagazine.com

Here's my fave eight fiction and eight nonfiction reads of the year. To my eyes, American fiction has made a comeback, and the best nonfiction continues to be well written.

My lists here are in no particular order, and most have posts on the blog – a couple will soon appear. If you're curious, check out how I see 'em.

Fiction

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert – translation by Lydia Davis

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

Age of Iron, by J.M. Coetzee

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy – translation by Pevear & Volokhonsky

Stiltsville, by Susanna Daniel

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Zaat, by Sonallah Ibrahim

Nonfiction

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, by Toby Wilkinson

Play Their Hearts Out, by George Dohrmann

The Abacus and the Cross, by Nancy Marie Brown

Becoming Animal, by David Abrahm

Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, by Judy Collins

A.D. 1000, byRichard Erdoes

Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Hemingway's Boat, by Paul Hendrickson

The Mysteries of Character

An agent recently told me during a face-to-face, and concerning a manuscript of mine he was looking at, "You're telling too much at the beginning. It's an information dump. Spread out the back ground stuff, maybe over something like the first fifty pages."

You always give the agent the benefit of the doubt, right? He or she knows more than you about how to structure a saleable story, right? I recently read another article in The Writer's Chronicle that made me think long and hard about that. As a result, I came to the conclusion that this well-intentioned agent was wrong, or at the very least, his comments were irrelevant.

He was treating my story (from the first 30 or so pages  he saw) as if it were a puzzle to be solved, as one might in a conventional mystery, or as what's often done in some suspense novels. Where he was right was in cases where plot prevails over character. That is, each bit of external information doled out gives the reader a clue to anticipating the plot's next big surprise.

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image via writersbreak.com  

But my story is one of character clothed in a suspense plot. Meaning, these external bits of data are essentially a "cloud" about the characters, nothing more than pin pricks to stir the characters to interact. It's the story of two old friends caught up in a terroristic plot, the two seeming on opposite sides of the law. But that's not really the case; as far as these two are concerned, the terror plot simply complicates their friendship. There's ideology involved, sure, but it's way second banana to their trying to manage a difficult friendship. 

And that's what Steven Schwartz is driving at in the article I mentioned, "The Absence of Their Presence." Whether you choose a first- or a third-person narrator to spin your yarn – and Schwartz gives examples from the works of authors ranging from Joseph Conrad to Tim O'Brien that – and I'm quoting O'Brien – "The object is not to 'solve' a character – to expose some hidden secret – but instead to deepen and enlarge the riddle itself." In my case, and in the case of virtually all character-driven works, the riddle is the characters and their relationship.

Have you ever had a somewhat difficult friendship – or a marriage – in which some rising action resulted in a crisis moment in which the relationship was resolved – forever and a day? No? Didn't think so.

In my story's case, I could, as the agent suggested, dole out informative background bits over a greater number of pages, but as long as I don't let the "info dump" bog down the flow of action or lead it into a digression, I'm probably okay. In other words, after four hundred words of text, it wouldn't've mattered how I sprayed background over my characters (yes, given that the action gently rises to a climax, and briefly falls after that), because the project is to portray characters in all their inconsistency, their mystery.

It's a postmodern chestnut to leave a story with an incomplete, muddy ending, allowing the reader to participate. But in real life, that's the way it always is with characters. Your job as a writer – and yours, too, dear reader – is to note the depth and range of the characters' personalities, some of that spelled out in the story, but much, much more left in the literary cloud of unknowing, but appreciated nonetheless.

Crossing the Border

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End of the year magazine issues tend to be retrospectives, or the content seems more strained than usual. The January 2012 issue of Harper's Magazine seem to fall in line with the latter. However, there's one curious juxtaposition:

A piece of first person reportage by Cecelia Balli, "Calderon's War," exposes the way the war on drugs leaves the average Mexican citizen caught, if not in the well-reported crossfire between soldiers and drug gangs, then at least at the mercy of both in other ways. In a country as corrupt as Mexico has been, says Balli, reform and stability of the Law and Order variety is slow, but it's happening. Of course, this slowly fructifying stability will affect the U.S.in a positive way if it takes root.

Whech brings us to a memoir/essay by Alexandra Fuller, "Her Heart Inform Her Tongue." Fuller is from Rhodesia, a British colony of yesteryear that more or less assumed its independence sometime between 1965 and 1979, and she wrote this piece about a trip she and her daughter made to Mexico, ostensibly to learn Spanish. On the way to that, her thoughts returned to the conditions, the bloody days that fomented the move to Rhodesian independence. Why? She saw so much of that in Mexico.  

Both articles are, in a way, object lessons for us of the U.S. We're precariously perched on, hopefully, the other side of economic apocalypse, but there are predators all around us, who could send us backsliding. Just knowing how bad conditions have been and, for the most part, still are with our neighbor to the south, should make us work harder to maintain a middle class, to revive our egalitarian ethos, to basically live up to our ideals. And that will take honest pragmatism, not ideology-cloaking elitism, racism, and whatever other isms brought us to this place.

Thinking About The Novella

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image via dwell.com

There's a fascinating article (one every writer should read) in the December 2011 issue of The Writer's Chronicle by Kyle Semmel, "Revaluing the Novella." Semmel bemoans the short shrift the novella gets in the book marketing game these days, and he lays out some misconceptions and truths about the novella.

The novella is in part the piece of fiction with a length greater than a short story but shorter than a novel. But that's not what sets the novella apart from its literary bookends. I won't reproduce what Semmel has to say about structuring a novella, but its characteristics are significantly different from the novel, and even the short story. 

Two things about the novella that bear signifying here:

  • There have been many respected novellas; Beyond those in the above image there are these: Hemingway's, The Old Man and the Sea won a Pulitzer. Probably half of Steinbeck's literary output can be classified as novellas, and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a novella. But the novella isn't an antiquated form, either. William Styron, Doris Lessing, and Joyce Carol Oates have all written significant novellas in modern times.
  • I've written several novellas (one has been self-published), so I understand the lack of interest from the pub houses in marketing this form. I write them largely for one reason (besides an interest in getting to know the novella form): Men have almost stopped reading fiction, for various reasons, and I won't try to list them here – but one complaint from men is the time and energy it takes in plowing into a literary novel. Thus, the novella should be a solution; it's short, usually less complex than the best novels, and yet it has enough depth to enthrall. That's part of my mission as a writer – getting me to read fiction again – and the novella should be part of the solution.