Bad Bet

Narrative magazine’s Web site has an essay by Joyce Carol Oates on her literary mentors—a lengthy piece, considering her argument is that she’s had few such people in her life. (Even her first husband, Raymond Smith, read almost none of her fiction.) She’s had childhood guides, yes, like her grandmother; and she’s had sparring partners like John Gardner, with whom she had extended debates in the 70s about whether writing fiction is or should be moral. But people who guided her writing and career with a mind to support and improve it? Nary a one—and though she doesn’t quite come out and say it, such is the fate of many writers who grow up in hardscrabble communities, where literary support systems are hard to come by. You’re not sui generis because you’re arrogant; you’re that way because there’s nobody around to set a path for you.

To that end Oates gets in an interesting story about her relationship with Donald Barthelme, who appears in this anecdote to eagerly flay himself over sales. The suggestion being that this is what you get when you care too much about what others think:

No sooner had my husband and I been welcomed into the Barthelmes’ brownstone apartment—no sooner had I congratulated Don on what I’d believed to be the very positive reviews and bestseller status of his new book of stories, Amateurs —than he corrected me with a sneering smile, informing me that Amateurs wasn’t a bestseller, and that no book of his had ever been a bestseller; his book sales were “nothing like” mine; if I doubted this, we could make a bet—for $100—and check the facts. Quickly I backed down, I declined the bet—no doubt in my usual embarrassed and conciliatory way, hoping to change the subject.

But Don wasn’t in the mood to change the subject just yet. To everyone’s embarrassment—Ray’s, mine, his wife’s—Don picked up a phone receiver, dialed a number, and handed the receiver to me with the request to speak to his editor—he’d called Roger Straus at Farrar, Straus & Giroux—and ask if in fact Donald Barthelme had ever had a bestseller; and so, trying to fall in with the joke, which seemed to me to have gone a little further than necessary, I asked Roger Straus—whom I didn’t know, had scarcely heard of at this time in my life—if Don had ever had a bestseller, and was told no, he had not.

Plaintively I asked, “He hasn’t? Not ever? I thought . . .”

The individual at the other end of the line, whom I would meet years later, the legendary Roger Straus of one of the most distinguished publishing firms in New York, said coolly, “No. He has not. Put Don on the phone, please, I want to talk to him.”

(h/t Edan Lepucki)

Short Shrift

“If it happens three times, it’s a trend,” goes the thinking at a lot of publications, so it’s easy to see how A.O. Scott‘s essay in the New York Times on the revival of the short story came to be. There are new biographies out about Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Donald Barthelme; all three made their reputations on their short stories; hence, there must be some newfound interest in reading short stories. “[I]f the golden age of American magazines is long gone, the short story itself has shown remarkable durability, and may even be poised for a resurgence,” Scott writes. (Note that “may,” always a useful hedge in a trend piece.)

Imagine the harm to Scott’s thesis had Brad Gooch figured he’d needed another year to work on his O’Connor biography. That’s the problem; the alleged trend is really just an accident of timing. Calling out Wells Tower‘s new collection as a special example of the power of the short story doesn’t help the argument; after all, no matter how poor the financial prospects of the short story are, every year brings a much-praised story collection. Indeed, wouldn’t the timing for this piece have been better a year ago, when Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth topped the New York Times bestseller list?

Maybe, but back then no editor would’ve wanted to hear it. A year ago critics were engrossed in Richard Price‘s Lush Life, and the kind of people who write trend pieces were talking about the revival of the big, ambitious novel about life in the big city. Scott is a very smart critic, and he’s not so foolish as to suggest that the novel is going to be completely supplanted by the short story—even if he does suggest, glibly, that “the death of the novel is yesterday’s news.” But his notion that the Kindle might revive the short story sounds off, an effortful statement shoved into the piece in order to give it some heft. (And anyway, isn’t the point of the Kindle that it can contain dozens of epics?) Even if a publisher did come up with some kind of dollar-a-story payment scheme for short fiction, the sort of quick-hit storytelling that Scott imagines we crave—a “handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention”—only really exists in flash fiction, and though many have tried, enthusiasm for that form is limited. Ultimately, readers care more about the quality of the narrative than the length of it. After all, no serious person ever recommended Raymond Carver‘s “A Small, Good Thing” to somebody simply because it’s short.

New in Bookforum

Lots of great stuff in the Feb./March issue of Bookforum, free online. In particular, James Wolcott writes about Donald Barthelme, putting the writer’s thoughtful/reckless fiction into context. Barthelme’s experimental fiction, Wolcott writes, was an important counterweight to the prim, just-so stories the New Yorker usually preferred to publish, and influenced the magazine’s style in years to come:

Over the years, Barthelme’s antic break with the traditional tactful manner of the classic New Yorker story, where every stick of furniture and motivation was neatly, firmly in place, would expand into an entire wing of the magazine’s house style. His mastery of incongruity and curveball allusions helped liberate the whiz brains in the office and scramble the genetic code of the magazine’s humor and fiction irregulars: By the ’70s, the set-piece fictions and “casuals” of Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Mark Singer, Marshall Brickman, and George W. S. Trow abounded with absurdist dialogues, box scores, chess notations, chicken-scratch scribblings, send-ups of familiar minigenres (liner notes, movie blurbs, capsule reviews, wedding notices), multiple-choice quizzes, and mash-up satires (Geng’s specialty—assigned to write a new intro to Dwight Macdonald’s anthology Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm—and After, she pretended to have him confused with the mystery novelist John D. MacDonald, the creator of Travis McGee, and cast Robert Benchley in the part of “the Vietnam vet who drifted freely between the glittering cabanas of the Fun Coast and the oil-stained walkways of a derelict marina”). They ran riot while Ann Beattie stood slightly off to the side, strumming her hair.