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Monday: The Book Klatch

Short stories are the unsung glories of literary fiction: They rarely sell well, nor do they make their authors famous or ensnare legions of fans. And yet, and yet, and yet: every student of writing teethes on them, thrills at … Read More

By / December 4, 2006

Short stories are the unsung glories of literary fiction: They rarely sell well, nor do they make their authors famous or ensnare legions of fans. And yet, and yet, and yet: every student of writing teethes on them, thrills at them, and worships the greats; publishers continue to let the debut collection slip into traditional two-book first-novel contracts; and the indie cred involved in scouting exciting new writers via scores of thriving literary magazines and journals remains the uncorrupted joy of many a lit-hipster.

These four young writers have authored spectacular collections of contemporary fiction. Anyone looking for what can be altogether smashing, fresh, and relevant about a couple dozen pages spent in the company of made up people would do well to check out these collections as worthy primers.

We chatted via email in the heat of late August, and what do you know? Became buddies and ardent supporters. Snarkiness? Competitiveness? Petty jealousies? So 2005. Eavesdrop, why don’t you…

 

BOOK KLATCHERS

Aaron Hamburger (The View from Stalin’s Head and Faith for Beginners, both Random House, 2004 and 2005)

Angela Pneuman (Home Remedies, Harcourt, 2007)

Stacey Richter (My Date with Satan, Scribner, 1999)

Karen Russell (St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Knopf 2006)

Moderated by Elisa Albert (How This Night Is Different, Free Press, 2006)

 

MONDAY

From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Hey! We're a Book Klatch!

Stacey, Aaron, Karen, and Angela: meet Aaron, Karen, Angela, and Stacey. We can talk about whatever we want. We can become e-buddies. Or not. Feel free to say whatever you want, however you want. By Friday we'll have a lovely chat and have all learned a lot about life/writing/each other.

OKAY. What’s your Achilles heel as a writer? What’s the one thing you wish you could do but can’t seem to crack?

From: Aaron Hamburger To: Elisa Albert, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Just one?

There’re so many things I want to do that I haven’t done yet. My biggest ambition is to write a dense, tightly packed 200-page novel, something like one of Graham Greene’s deeply sad masterpieces in miniature. Still, I haven’t managed it. It always seems that I have so much to say.

Conversely, after 9/11, and after reading some big books with an epic scope like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Platform by Michel Houellebecq, and Three Cities by Sholem Asch, I’ve been tempted to write a grand social novel with large ambitions about the way we live now. But I find that I want to tell smaller, more intimate stories about the traces left by history on everyday lives.

I think I know why I haven’t managed the epic. I’m susceptible to this age’s mistrust of the omniscient imperial point of view (POV) necessary for Tolstoy, Dickens, or George Eliot. As for the short novel, I’m getting there. My first novel clocked in at a bit over 300. This new one I’m working on seems to be hovering around 250.

From: Angela Pneuman To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: It IS hard to pick just one Achilles heel

For me there’s the writing itself, which I put off and put off, until I have to devise little tricks like word counts, or pages-a-day, etc. Or there’s going to parties and realizing you’ve spent so much time at your desk that you’ve lost your funny bone but not, somehow, your compulsive tendency for an inappropriate comment.

BTW, I think the omniscient POV is back, born again, or should be, since there’s really no avoiding the imperialist tendencies of narrative in general—the coercion activated by identification with character, or by the trajectory implied by plot. Plato threw poets out of the republic for this kind of power, no?

So the only narratives that can be “trusted” are the ones that always reveal their own disruption—which is sometimes interesting but never complete (and never should be). So, what I mean to say is that I’m enchanted by the freedom in not trusting anything. And so I like the idea of a response to that that presents an alternative to the popular explicit emphasis on the eternally collapsible narrative—so that I like the resources of POV à la 19th century in this day and age, which Aaron made me think of. I’m trying to think of who does that right now.

Speaking of earlier times, I am off for one night with the girls at Wiawaka, on Lake George in upstate New York, where I’ve never been. It’s a former women’s suffrage camp, formerly a freebie for women mill workers, I think, but these days, a night and three meals goes for $50. Not bad.

From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: If it's not experimental, it's CRAP!

Whoa, Angela. Have you been hanging out with scary academic types who insist that (Mike Myers’ Fat Scottish Guy voice, if you please) “If it’s not experimental, it’s CRAAAAAP”? (By which I mean wow: you’re smart.)

Really, I wonder if “the omniscient” even exists. It’s like a certain kind of sex act—people talk about it as if it’s a given, as though we’ve all experienced it or will, at some point, but I have this sneaking suspicion it’s mythological. Tolstoy’s not really omniscient, he just changes perspectives. And he’s better at some than at others (I’m partial to Levin and Kitty; Anna can die for all I care). I mean, actual omniscience would be crazy boring, wouldn’t it? No investment in any one POV at any given time? Bird’s-eye reportage? Or maybe I just want to believe that because I’m incapable of staying neutral where my characters are concerned. There are some I’m identifying with and some who challenge my identification. I get a lot of shit for that, but call me crazy. It’s more fun to write and it’s more fun to read.

Re: small stories telling larger ones about how we live now, I’m almost done with McEwan’s Saturday, which I think does a lovely job of that (although I could definitely have done without the absurd climactic poem-as-rape-diversion thing).

From: Aaron Hamburger To: Elisa Albert, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Ruling the universe with an iron hand

Yes, Tolstoy’s a different sort of omniscient than that wonderfully imperious oh-so-British Dickens/Eliot/James omniscient, where the narrator speaks to you as if he or she rules the universe with an iron hand and knows every corner of it. Maybe even has a personal back-channel to God. After reading War and Peace, however, I feel as if Tolstoy really does know almost every corner of the universe, and maybe he really does have some personal communication with God.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee is another stellar example of a small story drawing a larger-scope picture of who and where we are. I read it when it came out and recently reread it and was astounded by how good it was.

From: Stacey Richter To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Karen Russell Subject: Too much to-ing and fro-ing

I guess that personally I find the omniscient narrator intrusive enough (at least in the 21st century) that I’d be unlikely to use it in my own work. Unless I happen to be writing in the form where it’s still in common use—books for children. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like it in someone else’s writing, only that I have a tendency to go overboard with narrative devices.

In fact I have to watch myself so that I don’t end up using device after device to cover up my own Achilles heel, which is moving characters from place to place. “Jane walked out the door and across the asphalt, which was shimmering in the heat. She liked driving, even at rush hour, and sang along to the radio at the top of her lungs until she arrived at the beach house.” Ok, that pretty much sucks, and it took me fifteen minutes to write. One of the reasons I tend to make my characters take lots of drugs is that then I can basically eliminate (warp? obliterate?) the niceties of time and space.

Even though I hate writing those kinds of passages, I keep working on it because I truly enjoy reading well-paced novels with characters who change location without getting shit-faced. I can also get overloaded with all the to-ing and fro-ing at times (Ian McEwan, I’m talking to you).

From: Karen Russell To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter Subject: Better than spam!

Wow, it’s so exciting to find you guys in my inbox! What a nice change from all the “get out of debt” spam! Although if anybody wants to swap get-out-of-debt ideas later (Herbalife? Emu ranching?), you’ve got my contact info…

I’m glad to hear that other people have POV problems, too. I admire the big-spirited, panoramic third person, but I find it personally terrifying. It’s enough of a stretch for me to imaginatively inhabit one other body, much less a big Cheers-like ensemble cast. But I find that I waffle a lot between the first-person “I” and a close third.

Right now, I’m really struggling with the first draft of a novel. I’ve drafted chapters in the voice of the protagonist, then switched to a bird’s-eye third, and then gone swooping back into first again. Maybe my Achilles heel is my total distrust of my own narrative instincts. I’m greedy for anybody else’s opinion. A schizophrenic man could tell me that I should write the novel from the point of view of a sentient, omniscient gator, and I’d seriously consider it.

I like Steinbeck and Nabokov a lot, because they can get away with a sly and seemingly impossible compromise between first and third. I just finished East of Eden, where there’s this wise, audacious third person narration that’s suddenly punctuated with observations coming from a mysterious “I,” ostensibly a character in the novel who sounds a heck of a lot like old Johnnie S. himself. Then there’s a book like Pnin, where we get narration that appears to be a storyteller third and then, surprise, guess who shows up several pages in? That “I” again, a direct address that I always find weirdly comforting. It’s like Nabokov lowers his newspaper on the train seat next to you and winks or something. This is unrelated, but wouldn’t it also be great to be ballsy enough to write convincingly from the point of view of someone from a different race or historical period? And to write a love scene that didn’t make you feel cringy inside?

Hope you guys are having terrific days, I’m really enjoying these emails.

From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Cooking with gas

Now we’re cooking with gas, people! Yeah!

So, to sum up: We're agreed that Disgrace is perfection.

Funny that Aaron feels like Tolstoy may have an in with the Big Guy, given that Tolstoy totally had a religious awakening/rebirth and became something of a hard-core Christian. Perceived ownership of “god”: related to his omniscient powers or not? Discuss.

I love that we’ve all come around to a central and somewhat common weakness, here. What is it about not trusting our own “narrative instincts” (as Karen put it)? I’m so freaking glad that Stacey has her characters take a lot of drugs to sidestep her lack of patience for the “to-ing and fro-ing,” because that leads to stories that are warped and hilarious and unlike anything else I’ve read. If she were great at the to-ing and fro-ing, I, for one, would miss out on that. Not to get all “Free to Be…You and Me” on y’all, but must we all write the same books?

Karen, you should innovate a new perspective for your novel: a cacophony of close-thirds, masquerading as omniscient. How about that?

How was Wiawaka, Angela? And why has no celebrity yet snagged that for a baby name?

From: Aaron Hamburger To: Elisa Albert, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: The third person limited rocks

I agree with Stacey (I think it was her) that third person limited rocks, and for all the reasons she said. I’ve just finished a novel that I attempted to write in first person and the voice was so cloying and the narrative lens so limited, I had to cut it out and retreat back to third.

I’ve never written from the point of view of another race, but I tend to write from a woman’s point of view a lot and I like it, feel pretty comfortable with it, sometimes more comfortable than with a man’s point of view, even if it’s a gay man. Sometimes I have to check in with female friends of mine about certain facts of life I don’t know about, but in general, people are people.

For my next novel, however, I’d like to write from the point of view of a Chinese man, so I guess I’ll get to try Karen’s suggestion then.

 

Next round: "I started writing short stories because I didn't have the chops to write a novel."

 

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