Stories With An Arkansas Sensibility



Collected Stories, by Raymond Carver

Continuing my focus on the short story:

Without realizing their liaison, I met Carver’s wife in Atlanta in the eighties. As with most writing wannabes (I was only beginning to understand this art in my makeup), I sought her out at a book launch of hers and probably said too many silly and unwashed things to her. I do remember, though, telling her I had my own passion for poetry, but that I was already dabbling in fiction. Like most writers in such circumstances, she was a class act. She listened and nodded and said some now forgotten encouraging thing. But I do remember, at the mention of fiction’s seed in my soul, she gave me a wary look. Later, as I grew familiar with Carver, I understood where that wariness had its impetus. I digress, and I’ve barely started.


To my mind, these stories sit astride the likes of Hemingway and Steinbeck, but without Papa’s elevated style and Steinbeck’s literary mysticism. Carver’s stories seem more calibrated to the short form’s length and his style is more homespun and located in the style of Cormac McCarthy. There’s an element of humor here too, a taste of wild abandon that surely comes from his rural Arkansas background.

These are stories that I learn from. Not so much in an instructional way; rather in remembering my own rural Southern past and chasing it into fiction.

My rating: 19 of 20 stars


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Writing The Big Review




There are tons of source material for writing book reviews, from those by pros in glossy magazines to the smallest, most humble blog. In my last post I offered one way to write the review in short form, i.e., a review you might write for a book on Amazon. And I promised to give you one way a more complete review might be written. My method here is something of a mixture of reviews I’ve seen on the best blogs and those by the pros. So here goes.

  • The preamble – begin with a “hook,” or some curious or interesting connection between your impression of the book and some generality regarding the subject at hand, an outside thing or event. For instance: “Baseball is being sped up; it’s not the same game it was forty years ago. But in this biography of Yogi Berra we see a player who could bridge…”
  • The synopsis – the better reviews provide a segue here to transition to a paragraph or so which synopsizes the book’s high – and possibly low – points. Yes, even this is subjective, at least to a degree, but that’s what’s valuable here: the parts of the book that seem most important to a potential reader.
  • Style – this can be incorporated in the synopsis, but I like to have a few separate statements on the the writer’s voice, his/her style of writing, and how that worked with the story being told.
  • Summary – here, I like to include any generalized impression I haven’t provided in one of the above subsets. This can include a flat statement of whether or not you enjoyed the book, what you gained from it, whether or not you would recommend it to other readers, and why.


Books, as is all art forms, are meant to both inform and entertain. The above format will generally do a decent job of depicting how well the writer did on both counts. But the primary purpose of reviews is for the author and his/her growth as a writer: to identify things done well, weaknesses the book might contain, and (possibly) how those weaknesses might be rectified. So be honest regarding your impressions of the book. Don’t be cruel, just honest – as you see it.

Short Stuff Makes It More Difficult

The River Swimmer, by Jim Harrison



The novella as a literary form has been around for a long while; it remains as popular in Great Britain and Europe as it has been in the first half of the U.S.’s twentieth century. For readers, the popularity stems from its abbreviated length, its compact style that some writers and editors compare with the longer short stories. The difficulty for writers is two-fold, I think: you’re tempted to let the piece be static in structure, or you find yourself leaving great gaps in characterization or story line, gaps that would be filled in if the piece were of, say, sixty thousand words or more, i.e., of novel length.So one must write a tightly controlled story, not littered with too-many subplots and long, drawn out characterizations.

And for the publisher in this day, the book of dual novellas seems the only feasible mode of publication, as many publishers resist putting money into a short book that they can only sell for minimal price.

Thus we have two novellas from Harrison here, The first and least satisfying being The Land of Unlikeness. In it, an aging and still-struggling artist named Clive returns home to Ypsilanti, Michigan, and finds renewed fascination in reliving his younger years there, including high school romances. Harrison seems to want us to understand that creative fame is more or less accidental, but that one can still find fulfillment there once ego and pursuit of fame are abandoned. The writing here is uneven, dropping in erudite commentaries on painting and artistic styling, while giving us a story that could have been accomplished at short story length.


In The River Swimmer, however, Harrison’s talent begins to shine through. He dabbles with Magical Realism as he coaxes the central character, Thad, through a nasty conflict with a girl’s father, then various self-actualizing exercises that he would just as well not put himself though. Through all this, the young man finds his only contentment in swimming the midwest’s rivers or, as Harrison writes in the final page, “ If there was a body of swimmable water nearby he would enter it. It was his nature.”

Harrison’s style and voice in these two novellas is offhand, leaving the reader to wonder whether Harrison would just as soon not have written the pieces, or whether he’s doing extra duty in erasing himself  from his readers’ minds.


My rating: 15 of 20 stars

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The Self as Enemy


The Antagonist, By Lynn Coady

This book is on the surface a rant by a hard-luck fellow, Gordon Rankin, Jr. (Rank), via e-mail, caused by an old college acquaintance’s novel, in which Rank finds himself the very apparent subject. Beneath the superficial rant, though, the book concerns many things:

  • A mirror in which Rank sees himself as the cause of his own problems
  • A look at the male athlete’s lingering hold on youth
  • Religion as a failing arbiter of morality
  • The weaknesses of the modern family
  • The roots of alienation
  • The neutrality of the novel as cultural portrayer

But to the story:

Rank is a large child-man who can’t resist the lure of things and opportunities that lead to trouble. His father, a small man, enlists Rank’s help in keeping “punks” away from his ice cream store, resulting in Ranks’ beating of one boy (Why? Because he can). From that point on, Rank’s life is a series of misadventures, making of that life a poignant, unfulfilled, empty shell.

But there is no epiphany here; in the end, Rank seems simply to tire of his rage at Adam, the old friend who wrote the novel:

“I told you what I had to tell you, and you told me something back, and that’s our story, isn’t it, Adam?”

In other words, as in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man,” all the cultural devices meant to nurture and mature young men have failed Rank. He must then rely only on himself for redemption.


This is a difficult novel to read, and I found myself constantly flipping back to earlier references in order to have passages make sense. In that manner, the book is too abstract; it relies too heavily on ideas, pronounced or alluded to, and too little on embodying those ideas in the formation and presentation of the characters – principally Rank.

Still, Coady is a formidable, adventurous writer, and one shouldn’t allow oneself to be thrown too far off track by her experimentation with style. The vision of her work here is much too important for that.

My rating 16 of 20 stars



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I Need Your Help With This Story

image via


A story of mine is in contention for a prize, and you can read and comment on it here. I won't comment on it here myself, other than to say it's written in a style in which the reader is "eavesdropping" on a conversation, and certain things must be inferred. It should be fun to figure these things out.

I hope you like it, and please leave comments – they may nudge the judges.

“My Chivalric Fiasco” Is, Sadly, One

image via Harper's Magazine

I'm always leery of stories, or novels, written in what's purported to be "a daring break from old-fashioned literary stylism," or "a new stylistic voice," and this is why:

All too often, one of two things happen in such stories –

  1. The style isn't thought through well enough to coherently complement story, or
  2. Said style overwhelms said story.

The September 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine carries a story, "My Chivalric Fiasco" by George Saunders, a story that obviously projects such a "daring new style." The story is a simple one, perhaps only a vignette; it's beside the point here, so I won't dwell on that.

"Fiasco" starts inventively enough – and entertainingly enough – in a style similar to the text of a play, and in the voice of a bleary-eyed totally radical duuude.  This works extremely well in scene, but when Saunders takes us to his form of narrative, the style quickly flounders. 

Then his primary character, protagonist, in this case, takes a chivalric pill of some sort. His voice enters a mental vortex for a moment and then takes on a faux-Shakespearean tone, which to this reader hardly works at all, i.e., the story becomes completely lost in Saunders' wordplay. This morphing of voice and style is clearly premeditated to play up the chivalric aspect of the story, but I have to wonder why the author chose this strategy over a stylistic one that worked so well at story's onset. 

And finally, the author goes on to more or less explain his story, and at this point the medieval style bcomes a complete shambles as the voice of a hyper-cynical, hard-bitten twenty-something takes over to carry us to the finish line. 

It's well and good for a writer to showcase his/her chops in a newly devised mode of storytelling, but I don't think it's overly conservative thinking to expect coherence of style in support of story. And I'm flexible enough to follow along as a style within a story changes radically, but it should (once again) be donein a viable way in the context of story. Further, it's to the beneficience of literature for writers to experiment, but all too often stories such as "Fiasco," become exactly that – because style isn't the thing – story is.

Cliches and Biases in Nonfiction and Fiction

I've just finished reading the August 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine, and as usual, I pay special attention to the fiction. In this issue, too, there's a memoir, and in these two pieces I see a difference in style based, I suspect, on reader expectation.

Imagesimage via

The memoir, "Summer People," by Justin Kaplan, involves the author's reflections of Russian emigires settled into the northeast U.S., along the Atlantic coast. His story, about the way class distinctions remained for these emigires, despite their new egalitarian environment, is told totally in narrative. True, the depiction of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter scrubbing floors, works perfectly in narrative as an example of the incongruencies of these Russian transplants' new life in the U.S.

But a rather snobbish reaction by some of these people to motorcycles roaring through the nearby woods, compelled the author to put the segment in quotes, a segment that might have worked even better as a scene with proper dialogue.

This is, I think, a bias of nonfiction – that the distancing effect of narrative is the proper conveyance for such reflections, particularly memoir.

Compare that, then, to Bonnie Nadzam's short story, "The Losing End," which, after a few paragraphs of narrative, drops into the moment-by-moment effect of scenic dialogue until near the end. Nazdam's story is part of a novel being written, so it's somewhat unfair to critique it by itself, but the main character, Lamb, acts oddly toward a trollop-girl. Admittedly, the style here is of the page-turner sort, waiting paragraph after paragraph to understand Lamb.

We do understand him by story's end, by inference, but I always wonder what I've missed in such inferences. A couple of "drop-backs" into narrative during this poignant scenic story might've dispelled that concern. But the scene is the staple of modern story, as it attempts to mime cinema.

In the story's case, as well as the memoir, we expect certain cliched styles, and both authors were astute enough to give us that.