Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tobias Wolff: "Powder" and "Bullet in the Brain"

At this point of the semester when you're all workshopping your own work, let's hear from Tobias Wolff on how he responds to the question: "Who do you show your work to, and at what stage?"  This is from the Paris Review, an interview which you may read the entirety of here.

Wolff: "I don’t talk about my work, and I don’t show it to anybody until I’ve brought it along as far as I am able. I show my work to my wife, Catherine, first. She knows me better than anyone else and has a good instinct for the kind of thing I’m hoping to write, so can see where I failed to get it down. When Ray Carver was alive we sometimes traded manuscripts back and forth, though I have to say that my own stories profited much more from those readings than his; I can’t join the army of those who claim to have written his work or brought it to perfection. And my brother Geoffrey—when we were younger we used to exchange manuscripts and really mark each other’s work up. Then there’s the process of getting things into print. I’ve always had very good experiences with my editors, Gary Fisketjon especially; I find it immensely helpful to be given different ways of looking at something I’ve done. And though she doesn’t edit my manuscripts, Amanda Urban has given me twenty-five years’ worth of advice and encouragement, and done her damnednest to get my work out in the world. I guess the point is, as you go on in this life you become aware of the folly of thinking you did something all by yourself. We’re held up by others all along the way."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Richard Ford: "Rock Springs" and "Great Falls"

The last line of "Rock Springs" lifts the story from a well-told anecdote, complete with internal anecdotes and meaningful nods, to a story rife with unfinished business because the business is yours. It is upon you to decide what Earl does and whether he is "anybody like you." This story has always struck me for its internal stories and minor characters: Edna and the monkey, Terrel and his grandmother, the cabdriver. The narrator interprets everyone as searching for meaning, and we are likewise involved. 

"Great Falls" is a picture of the horror of constant restraint. From the "double row of Russian olive trees" outside the "plain, two-story house" with "no place for the cars," we  get the sense of the mother's captivity, which is a metaphor for the whole family's captivity. They cannot escape their confines and end up behaving terribly toward each other, failing to pull together in bleak times.

In both both stories, notice how Ford employs contradictory thoughts and actions to undermine and complicate his characters.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Wideman: "Doc's Story" and "Presents"

Can stories fix our lives?  Can they heal wounds?  Can they save us?

Through the heartsick protagonist of "Doc's Story," Wideman raises these questions and refuses to answer.  Even in the story-within-the-story of the blind basketball-playing university professor, we hear about both magic and failure.  Shooting fouls is a good metaphor for stories and the art of telling stories.  If you practice you can "swish," even if you're blind; however, even if you practice and mostly "swish," sometimes you shoot way wide.  Is this story's plot like the arc of a basketball?  Does it go through the hoop?  Does Wideman want it to?

In "Presents" we again see that what goes up must come down.  Big Mama serves as the font of truth, prophesying what will happen for her grandson: "He'll rise in the world, sing for kings and queens, but his gift for music will also drag him down to the depths of hell."  The boy's acquisition of music is fated to him as kingship was fated to Arthur: "The music's in the box like the sword in the stone."  Wideman "presents" us with "a simple story" that should remind you that stories are old and they are necessary and that we recycle them in order to fix our lives.  The protagonist's story is "Easy to tell to a stranger at the bar who will buy you a drink.  Young boy and old woman.  Christmastime.  Reading each other's minds.  Exchanging gifts of song.  His fortune told.  The brief, bright time of his music.  How far it took him, how quickly gone."  The stranger buys him a drink for his story--a pattern as old as the tradition of bards--and then the storyteller, again alone, wishes for salvation.

I write about family, about the sketchy salvation of storytelling.  I'm claiming Wideman for my family.  I hope he can teach me more about voice.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Oates: "Tick" and "The Abduction"

Alex Guarco, I hope you enjoy this follow-up to "The Brother."  Is Joyce Carol Oates's minimally-punctuated story more or less effective than Coover's?  More or less reader-friendly?

"The Tick" grosses me out.  But I respect it.  Both of these stories remind me of Ernest Hemingway's famous iceberg theory, as expressed in his interview with the Paris Review and quoted by Burroway: "There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.  Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.  It is the part that doesn't show."  What Burroway doesn't quote is the rest of the remark:  "If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story."

I think that Oates knows what she's omitting from these stories.

Carver: "The Bath" and "A Small, Good Thing"

In case you skipped T. C. Boyle's introduction (shame on you! go back and read it!), this pairing of stories appears to be a creative writing prof's dreamscape.  And it fits perfectly into the topic of this class: Carver appears to have evolved from one story to the next, his aesthetics and personal philosophy manifested so  differently in "The Bath," published in 1981, and "A Small, Good Thing," appearing 1983.  Can you articulate what is different?  For me, I love how the "A Small, Good Thing" is a survival story: "Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this."

To complicate matters, however, in a 2009 interview, Carver's widow Tess Gallagher asserts that "A Small, Good Thing" is actually the earlier version of the story.  "The Bath" is in fact a version heavily edited by the famous Gordon Lish--the interviewer writes that "[Carver's] editor and mentor Gordon Lish revised every story, in some cases rewriting or deleting more than half the original text."  Tess Gallagher is trying to publish an entirely new version of Carver's 1981 book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love to be titled Beginners.

On other topics, here's a brief and interesting personal essay discussing Carver and the "dirty realists" and comparing Carver with some of his contemporaries (Richard Ford, Richard Bausch, Tobias Wolff, Jayne Anne Phillips).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Coover: "the convention" and "The Brother"

Robert Coover was born in 1932 and teaches at Brown University.  You do the math.  This past February, I saw him at AWP give a reading of his stunning story, "Going for a Beer," which you can read in its entirety online.  It's as fresh and experimental as anything T. C. Boyle shares in his anthology.

To supplement your reading, I ask you to read this recent article published in the Guardian in which author Hari Kunzru discusses, among other things, Coover and his interest in "the possibility of non-linear narrative architecture."  Characterization is important to Coover, but it works in the service of epistemological and ontological goals.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

O'Connor: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "Good Country People"

Goodness!  O'Connor obsesses over it, teases it and twists it.  In the end of these two stories she leaves us with a murderer and a seducer teaching hard-won lessons to women who'd believed they had it all figured out.

All writers have obsessions.  O'Connor bring her characters to life through their appearance, action, dialogue, and thought; and every bit of direct characterization is in service to her obsessions with morality.  One of my favorite passages from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" sneaks in under the radar as one of the Grandmother's bits of unwanted advice.  Think about this: she "cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down."  Oh, sneaky rulekeepers!  How dare they hide in order to catch you misbehaving.  Watch out for the judges who hide among you!  If you're sure you can get away with it, speed on!

When the Misfit is there to catch Grandmother misbehaving, she reforms.  O'Connor seems to be asking whether threat is the only way to salvation.

In "Good Country People," nasty Hulga maintains her position of intellectual superiority up until she is brought to mortification.  Will this moment ironically save her from herself?  Why does the story start and end with Mrs. Freeman?  Maybe it shows the unreliability of the narrator....  This will lead us to a discussion of direct characterization versus authorial interpretation, as explored in the next chapter of Burroway.  At the beginning the narrator tells us: "Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings."  By the end, the narrator has faded and we get Mrs. Freeman herself: "Some can't be that simple," she said.  "I know I never could."  Whom do we believe?

If all writers have obsessions, what are yours?