Sunday, January 31, 2010

Short Story 101

The below appeared in The Danforth Review in 2006. It was a popular feature. Here's a link to the original, now warehoused on the National Library and Archives Canada site.

TDR asked 27 writers what curriculum they would bring to class, if they were asked to teach an introductory level course on "the short story."

Below are the suggested reading lists from Greg Hollingshead, Brent Robillard, J.J. Steinfeld, Douglas Glover, Jonathan Bennett, Lynn Coady, Carrie Snyder, Emily Pohl-Weary, Peter Darbyshire, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Nathaniel G. Moore, Ibi Kaslik, Harold Hoefle, Matthew Firth, Mark Anthony Jarman, Michael Holmes, Tony Burgess (w/ Derek McCormack), Yashin Blake, Craig Davidson, Sharon McCartney, Nathan Whitlock, James Grainger, Tim Conley, John Lavery, Dan Wells and Michael Bryson.

Greg Hollingshead

An essential reading list for the short story:

 Raymond Carver, Cathedral

 Anton Chekhov, Forty Stories

 William Faulkner, Collected Stories

 Mavis Gallant, From the Fifteenth District

 James Joyce, Dubliners

 Alice Munro, Selected Stories

 Flannery O'Connor, Complete Stories

Brent Robillard

I'm not sure if this is a list for Short Stories 101 -- however, these stories stand out from the jumble of reading I've done in the last ten years, or so; and if they stand out, there must be something to them. They're all Canadian (but then, again, I read mostly Canadian fiction).

 Guy Vanderhaehge, "Man Descending"

 Alice Munro, "Miles City, Montana"

 Patrick Lane, "Rabbits"

 Tom Wayman, "Amnesia Café"

 Steven Heighton, "To Everything, A Seas

After much thought, I've compiled a second list of "classics" that might read more like a Short Story 101 list:

 Ernest Hemingway, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"

 James Joyce, "Counterparts"

 D.H. Lawrence, "Rocking Horse Winner"

 Charlotte Perkins Gillman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"

 Hernando Tellez, "Just Lather, That's All"

J.J. Steinfeld

 The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories, Edited by Daniel Halpern, Penguin Books, 1987.

 A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, Edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, Penguin Books, 1990.

 Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, Schocken Books, 1995.

 Alice Munro, Selected Stories, 1996; Runaway, 2005.

 Alistair MacLeod, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, 1976; As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, 1986; Island: The Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod, 2001.

 O. Henry Awards anthologies, Anchor Books.

 The Journey Prize anthologies, McClelland & Stewart.

Douglas Glover

I have a list I use over and over to teach. I use then to teach plot structure, then time flow management, then image patterning.

In the following order:

 Charles D'Ambrosio Jr., "The Point"

 Bobbie Ann Mason, "Shiloh"

 E. Annie Proulx, "Brokeback Mountain"

 After those three in order, I branch out in other directions but tend to keep the same few stories going. These are in no particular order:

 Alice Munro, "Meneseteung"

 Douglas Glover, "Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes"

 Richard Ford, "Communists"

 Alice Munro, "Lives of Girls and Women" (the story or the chapter from the novel; whatever you call it)

Jonathan Bennett

What would be on my list? Well, I teach short story writing, and use these books to help my students. They are and would be on any list of mine for sure:

 William Trevor, Hill Bachelors

 Alice Munro, Open Secrets

 Carole Shields, Various Miracles

 Annie Proulx, Wyoming Stories

 GG Marquez, Strange Pilgrims

 David Malouf, Dream Stuff

 I'd also now add:

 Tim Winton, The Turning

That's my list. Conservative and current to be sure, but in these books are some of my very favourite stories. They are the writers, and stories, I chase.

Lynn Coady

I stopped myself from putting down stuff like Chekov's Collected and Joyce's "The Dead", and Alice, and Mavis, because, you know. But of course if I was being comprehensive and not lazy that sort of thing would have to be there -- and I would spend the next two years of my life compiling said list.

So I'm not going to do that, but I can say at least that the older writers on the list, O'Connor and Kafka, are simply people I've been really shaken -- and remain really shaken -- by, whereas the contemporary guys are guys who've impressed me of late. But impressed me so much that they were the ones who came immediately to mind when you put this little challenge to me. So, here you go.


 Flannery O'Connor, Collected

 Lorrie Moore, Birds of America

 Michael Winter, One Last Good Look

 Aimee Bender, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

 Franz Kafka, Collected


 George Saunders, "CommComm"

 Gary Shteyngart, "Several Anecdotes About My Wife"

Carrie Snyder

Oh it's lowbrow, and she's far too maudlin and romantic to be in fashion, but I love L.M. Montgomery's short stories, especially one called "The Quarantine" from the Chronicles of Avonlea. She knows plot, character, and how to tug the heart strings. Humour too.

The thing about short stories is they have this magical ability to stab images into your memory. Eleven years ago I read the opening story "Why Don't You Dance?" from Raymond's Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and I can still see the characters sitting outside on a sofa. His stories create mood stunningly, leave you panting and desperately sad/elated.

Speaking of Raymond Carver, he edited American Short Story Masterpieces, published in 1987, which my first boyfriend lent to me never to see again -- lots of the stories there have to go on the list. I've read the best several dozen times. Best of in there: Andre Dubus' "The Fat Girl," Jayne Anne Philips' "The Heavenly Animal," Philip Roth's "The Conversion of the Jews," Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh," Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," Richard Ford's "Rock Springs," and Carver's own "Fever."

Mavis Gallant. She is so intelligent, an intimidating talent. From Home Truths, the Linnet suite of stories based on her own early experiences in Montreal, and from Across the Bridge, the suite about the Carette sisters, also set in Montreal. She's marvelous at linked stories. I could re-read In Transit about once a year, happily. Really anything by her. The stories are elegant, immaculately structured right down to the sentences themselves, rich with intense but never overwhelming physical detail, and cool endings that will break your heart, but in that good way, the way you want your heart broken by a short story (and the way only a short story really can). Endings that set your mind working at solving the insoluble human puzzles.

Alice Munro. The early ones: the title story from Dance of the Happy Shades; and "How I Met My Husband" from Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, the latter being quite light, but I choose it because reading to be entertained is important too, and it's so well done. "Chaddeleys and Flemings," linked stories that open The Moons of Jupiter. "Oranges and Apples" from Friend of My Youth [I can't confirm absolutely that because I can't find my copy of that book anywhere!! Aagh!]. "The Bear Came Over The Mountain" from Friendship, Courtship, etc. and "The Albanian Virgin" from Open Secrets. Don't get me started listing favourites because I'll never stop. I don't know if you can get much better than Alice Munro. She was born to write short stories. What do I love about them? The winning main characters who are so present, the beauty of the telling, how she can pin down these basic human moments perfectly so that you are reading along and come across a sentence that shocks with its recognition, as if she's looking right at you and telling you something you've just suddenly understood, she's put into words your experience.

Others I've been unable to forget (my somewhat questionable criteria for this list): Eden Robinson, especially the title story from Traplines. She is so brave, her leaps are so broad, you can't believe they can carry you along, but they do. And Sandra Birdsell's early collection, linked stories, Night Travellers, especially the final one "There Is No Shoreline." And "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" from J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories. I like stories that link to others, creating entire sealed worlds, and that one of course connects to Franny and Zooey. Just reading it will give you a nicotine overdose.

Oh dear, this list proves I shouldn't be teaching any courses. But I promise the stories cited are truly amazing ...

Emily Pohl-Weary

The list of short stories I'd love to make English students read would include:

 "Tweetie Sweet Pea" from Girl Goddess #9 by Francesca Lia Block

 "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Tuesday Afternoon" from The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami

 Something from Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

 "Two Words" from The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

 "Crates of Stars" from Darkness, Then A Blown Kiss by Golda Fried

 A chapter from Cover Me by Mariko Tamaki

 One of the stories from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

 "Unlimited Rapes United" from Strange Things Happen Here by Luisa Valenzuela (after I translated it into English, because I'm pretty sure it hasn't been)

 "Starring Lotta Hitchmanova" from What's True Darling by M.A.C. Farrant

It certainly would be an odd class!

Peter Darbyshire

My Short Stories 101 course would include all the usuals -- Raymond Carver, James Joyce, Stephen Leacock, Lorrie Moore, Italo Calvino -- but I wouldn't really be excited about teaching that course. The course I'd like to teach would be "Reinventing the Short Story." If you don't see how the following stories do that, then you're in the wrong class.

 "Teen Sniper" by Adam Johnson

 "I Was an Infinitely Hot and Dense Dot" by Mark Leyner

 "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" by Denis Johnson

 "Behavior Pilot" by Matthew Derby

 "Civilwarland in Bad Decline" by George Saunders

 "The Cavemen in the Hedges" by Stacey Richter

 "The Half-Skinned Steer" by Annie Proulx

 "The Naked Matador" by Roger Zelazny

 "The Gernsback Continuum" by William Gibson

 "A Dry, Quiet War" by Tony Daniel

Jon Paul Fiorentino

Here's a brief list of some short stories I've taught recently (or recommended to certain students). Most of these stories were chosen because they contain specific lessons about the way stories are written. Some were chosen simply because I love them. I like to feature contemporary Canadian work whenever I can so students get a sense of what kind of stories are being written here and now.

 "Araby" by James Joyce

 "The Drama Bug" by David Sedaris

 "Glen's Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3, No. 2" by David Sedaris

 "Sad Bastards" by Alissa York

 "Road Porn" by David McGimpsey

 "Stargaze" by Derek McCormack

 "Small Wonder" by John Lavery

 "What We Wanted" by Michael V. Smith

Nathaniel G. Moore

These are short fiction collections or in the case of Vidal, a novella.

 Graham Greene, May We Borrow Your Husband?

 Dylan Thomas, Adventures in the Skin Trade

 Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar

 Victor Pelevin, A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia

 JD Salinger, "A Perfect Day For Bananafish"

 TC Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain

 Richard Brautigan, Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery

Ibi Kaslik

 Raymond Carver

 Amy Hempel

 J.D. Salinger

 Anton Chekhov

 Lorrie Moore

 Larry Brown

 Breece D'J Pancake

 Donald Barthelme

 John Cheever

 Jorge Luis Borges

Harold Hoefle

Here are the fourteen stories I would use in a one-term Intro to Short Stories course:

 Ha Jin, "In Broad Daylight"

 Juan Rulfo, "Luvina"

 Nina Berberova, "The Resurrection of Mozart"

 Paul Bowles, "The Delicate Prey"

 Lisa Moore, "Melody"

 Richard Van Camp, "Mermaids"

 Paul Morand, "Hungarian Night"

 Bruno Schulz, "Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass"

 Yasunari Kawabata, "Glass"

 John McGahern, "Wheels"

 Alistair MacLeod, "The Golden Gift of Grey"

 Norman Levine, "Something Happened Here"

 Geza Csath, "Erna"

 James Salter, "American Express"

Matthew Firth

Individual stories in no order aside from the books I pulled from the shelf:

 "There Was a Soldier" by Laura Hird

 "Oscar, as in Wilde" by Len Gasparini

 "Mermaids" by Richard Van Camp

 "The North London Book of the Dead" by Will Self

 "The Port Wine Stain" by Patrick Boyle

 "Neighbours" by Raymond Carver

 "Just Another Asshole" by Mark McCawley

 "Make Sure There's Something in the Freezer" by Alan Ram

 "Stripe" by David Rose

 Books (i.e., collections):

 The People One Knows by Daniel Jones

 Directions for an Opened Body by Kenneth J. Harvey

 Song of the Silent Snow by Hubert Selby Jr.

 The Big Hunger: Stories 1932-1959 by John Fante

 Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski - every damn story in equal measure from the entire 478 page book!

Mark Anthony Jarman

This list keeps growing; you may hear more from me as I leap up in middle of night. Thanks for doing this.

 Barry Hannah: "Testimony of Pilot." Southern cracker-Elizabethan hybrid; one of the best and made me rethink what a sentence could be.

 Elizabeth Tallent: "No One's A Mystery." Only a page or two, but a perfect story (almost an updated version of "Hills Like White Elephants."

 Ray Carver: "Why Don't You Dance?" or "The Calm." I like his early stuff better than his later stuff; it's spookier.

 Isaac Babel: "My First Goose." Amazing Red Cavalry stories by a Jewish writer riding with the Cossacks, a traditional enemy of the Jews. Stalin had him killed.

 Flannery O'Connor: "A Good Man is Hard to Find" or "Good Country People" or anything by her. She trained a chicken to walk backwards.

 Robert Coover: "The Babysitter." Wild unreliable narration.

 Charles Bukowski: "Kid Stardust on the Porterhouse." The bad job story.

 John Cheever: I love the Collected Stories, read it on a bus from Philly to Seattle, but especially "The Country Husband," "The Death of Justina," and "The Swimmmer."

 Ha Jin: Like his early stuff.

 Wiliam Trevor: "Beyond the Pale." Anglo-Irish history lesson that works on many levels.

 Frank O'Connor: "Guest of the Nation. Amazing ending.

 F. Scot Fitzgerald: "Babylon Revisited." Take heed.

 Robert Stone: "Helping." I am a big Stone fan.

 Linda Svendsen: "Who He Slept By." I used to look for her in Best Canadian Stories when I was a student in the 70s.

 Ken Mitchell: "Great Electrical Revolution." I read him when I was younger and it was important to me to see where I lived used as a setting in a story. In November 2005 I drank at The Freehouse in Regina and was told he was part-owner. Didn't see him but it was 29 below.

 Denis Johnson: His collection Jesus' Son, best book of stories in 2 decades.

 Mary Gaitskill: "Girl on a Plane." She's scarily good.

 Steve Almond: New story "Soul Molecule" or his earlier collection My Life in Heavy Metal.

 Elyse Friedman: "Truth." This was in The Malahat within the last couple of years and in Best Canadian Stories; great idea and great story.

 James Purdy: A book called 63: Dream Palace. I loved it; does anyone read him?

 James Salter: A collection called Dusk.

 Leon Rooke: I love to hear him read out loud.

 Greg Hollingshead: That story with the the guy coming back to his parents' place and a party and a trampoline and the missing car. That one.

 Alistair Macleod: He was a milkman (with horses) in Edmonton around 1955; I was born in Edmonton in 1955. You hear stories about milkmen.

 Alice Munro: "Thanks for the Ride." Great story from her first book and may be her only story narrated by a guy.

 Bill Gaston: "Dug." Semi-biographical piece about a tattoo of Doug Glover on his derriere.

 If I may, I would like to plug some of my former students:

 Tamas Dobozy: New book with Harper Collins and cited in 2005 O. Henry.

 Craig Davidson: Rust and Bone (Penguin).

 Eden Robinson, Traplines.

 Anything by Lorna Jackson. Jaspreet Singh. And check out newcomers Barb Romanik and Sean Johnston in 2005 Summer Fiction Issue, The Fiddlehead. Two very strong stories.

 And I must mention The Nfld Mafia or they will beat me up: Larry Mathews (read his book The Sandblasting Hall of Fame!), Ramona Dearing, Libby Creelman, Lisa Moore, and Michael Winter, especially that story he read at UNB about his brother.

 Other writers to keep in mind: Leo McKay Jr, Updike, Amy Hempl (perhaps an influence on Lorrie Moore?), Hubert Selby, Nathaneal West, AJ Liebling, Clark Blaise, Bharati Mukherjee, James McPherson, William Kittredge, Ben Marcus, Russell Banks, Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Richard Brautigan, Joyce Marshall, Jack Hodgins, WD Valgardson, Zsuzsi Gartner, Doug Glover, John Metcalf, Ray Fraser, and a young lad named James Joyce.

 Apologies to those I read and neglected to mention.

Michael Holmes

 Mark Anthony Jarman, "Burn Man on a Texas Porch"

 Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

 Steven Heighton, "A Protruding Nail"

 Tony Burgess, "Ampersand"

 Dennis Johnson, Jesus' Son (every single word)

 Paul Bowles, "The Delicate Prey"

 JD Salinger, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"

 F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz"

 Ernest Hemingway, "Three-Day Blow" and all of A Moveable Feast (it don't matter if it's even "real" or "true")

 Daniel Jones, "The People One Knows"

 Raymond Carver, "Popular Mechanics" and "Cathedral"

 Alice Munro, "Boys and Girls"

 William T. Vollman, "The Ghost of Magnetism"

 John Lavery, You Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off (every single word of this too--the best of the best so far from perhaps the most criminally underread writer in Canada)

Tony Burgess

 My list was going to be any twenty pages in their correct order chosen at random from somewhere near the middle section of any novel written before 1901, but it seems unlikely that anyone -- including myself -- would bother. Instead I submit this, a list I acquired from the very Freyish male prostitute Derek McCormack, while we drank crack and sang:

 Romancer Erector by Diane Williams

 This is Not It by Lynne Tillman

 Wrong by Dennis Cooper

 Denny Smith by Robert Gluck

 I Cry Like A Baby by Kevin Killian

 Pink Steam by Dodie Bellamy

 Headless by Benjamin Weissman

 Stories in the Worst Way by Gary Lutz

 Three Kingdoms by Steven Millhauser

 The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley

 Tumble Home by Amy Hempel

 In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass

 The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

 Occasional Work And 7 Walks From The Office For Soft Architecture by Lisa Robertson

 Tell Me by Mary Robison

Yashin Blake

 "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin. The first story on the list. A personal favorite about brothers and jazz.

 "The Forged Coupon" by Leo Tolstoy. A long story at 75 pages, the plot is passed around amongst a 'cast of thousands' and works simultaneously on many substantial levels.

 "Daddy's Girl" and "Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine" by Thom Jones. The former is a remarkably short, yet entirely complete first person account of one person's life. The narrator is in her ninties. The latter is simply a perfect short story.

 "Labour Day Dinner" by Alice Munro. This story will make you ask the question "why bother reading (or writing) novels?"

 "Hello America!" by Morley Callaghan. This story shows a manipulative older man taking advantage of an impressionable youth set back in the days of hobos wandering the rails, wandering the nation.

 "The Queen of the Black Coast" by Robert E. Howard. An example early (1920s) genre fiction (fantasy). Readers of the Tolkein works will wonder why they invested so much time in all those pages when Howard can create vivid images and gripping plot in just a few paragraphs.

 "Chef's House" by Raymond Carver. The master speaks.

 "The Darkness of Love" and "Glissando" by Robert Boswell. The former is an incredibly unnerving, yet remarkably non-judgmental account of adultery. The latter is again, a simply perfect short story.

 "A Five Minute Love Poem" by Teresa McWhirter. From the Fall/Winter issue (number 27, Fall/Winter 1999) of SubTerrain. Dynamite story ...

Craig Davidson

 Well, I’ve given some thought to the question regarding what collections / stories I might include in a course, were I ever teaching one. I think some writers / collections / stories I would include might be (and of course, these are personal choices, stories I like, and ones I feel I can discuss in terms of what works / how and perhaps why they work; so, it’s pretty subjective and me-centric):

 Anything by Thom Jones. Perhaps "The Pugilist at Rest" (story) or the entire collection of his first stories, by the same title.

 Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. "Emergency."

 Lorrie Moore. Birds of America. Not my favourite writer, but of contemporary female writers I like her a lot, and I know she’s very well-liked overall.

 Mark Anthony Jarman. 19 Knives. Criminally under-regarded writer. Should be known/seen as the best (after Munro) short story writer currently writing in Canada. I’d go with "Burn Man on a Texas Porch" or "Skin a Flea for Hide and Tallow."

 Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried. Any story here would do, but maybe "How to Tell a True War Story" would be best; it’s my fave of the collection, and a wonderful story to discuss in terms of the fiction/not fiction angle.

 Alice Munro. Any collection would do. It's almost unpatriotic to say, but I’m not a huge Munro fan, either, but even though she’s not my cup of tea I’m not so ignorant to not know she’s a fabulous writer, and writing students could learn so much from her.

 Clive Barker. The Books of Blood. A bit of a dark-horse choice, I understand, but he’s remarkably imaginative, and one of the best word-smiths I’ve ever read. These are his early stories; categorically horror, but some are fantastical; all are quite brilliant. My choice would be, "In the Hills, In the Cities."

 David Gilbert. Remote Feed. Another odd choice, perhaps. Published in 2000, I think. Highly influential collection for me; I bought it used, on a whim. Would include it were I teaching a course; wouldn’t probably rec it for anyone else. I love what he’s trying to do with a lot of these stories, but critics have had mixed opinions. Would teach the title story.

 The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. Breece D’J Pancake. Weird name, tragic life (committed suicide at 26), phenomenal stories. Sort of like Flannery O’Connor. Would happily teach any story in the collection. Also Pickney Benedict’s Town Smokes or The Wrecking Yard would work.

 In this final spot I might include the classics. "Hills Like White Elephants" or "A Rose For Emily" or "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Wonderful stories, they practically teach themselves.

Sharon McCartney

 E Annie Proulx

 Ha Jin

 John Cheever

 Hemingway's Nick Adams stories

 Tolstoy

 Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever."

 But #1 pick is Barry Hannah's "Testimony of Pilot."

Nathan Whitlock

 Flannery O’Connor’s Complete

 Alice Munro’s Selected

 The Stories of John Cheever

 Borges’s Ficciones

 Barthelme’s Sixty Stories

 V S Pritchett’s Blind Love and other Stories

 A couple each from Calvino’s Marcovaldo and Cosmicomics

 A few from James Kelman’s Greyhound for Breakfast

 Joyce’s Dubliners

 Nabokov’s Pnin (technically a novel, but one made up of stories)

In addition:

 Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych”

 Chekhov’s “Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries,” “Concerning Love,” “Anna around the Neck” and “The Bishop”

 Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” “Report to the Academy” and “The Burrow”

 D.H. Lawrence’s “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” and “Love among the Haystacks”

 “Going Home” by William Trevor

 “Signs and Symbols” by Nabokov

 “Dante and the Lobster” by Samuel Beckett

 “The Overcoat” by Gogol

 Plus some Updike, Mansfield, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Poe, Carver

James Grainger

These are the collections and individual stories that I read again and

again, especially when my own writing feels stuck.


 D.H. Lawrence, England, My England

 Flannery O'Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge

 The Stories of John Cheever

 V.S. Pritchett, Selected Stories

 Alice Munro, Selected Stories

 James Joyce, Dubliners

Individual Stories:

 Raymond Carver, "Feathers"

 F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Winter Dreams"

 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"

 Edgar Allen Poe, "The Black Cat"

 Anton Chekhov, "The Bishop"

 Gogol, "The Overcoat"

Tim Conley

I’ll set aside the usual giant names (James, Chekhov, Poe, Mansfield, Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Carter, Ballard, Munro) with the understanding that any short story by them is worthy of study, and instead offer a more idiosyncratic selection of favourites. Many of these I have taught, some of them in just the kind of course imagined here.

 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Speckled Band”

 Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose”

 Tor Åge Bringsvaerd, “The Man Who Collected the First of September, 1973” (I wish, how I wish that I had written this story.)

 Mavis Gallant, “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street”

 Stephen Dixon, “Milk Is Very Good for You”

 Laura Riding, “Perhaps an Indiscretion”

 Joseph Conrad, “The Tale” (Little read, seldom mentioned.)

 Gloria Sawai, “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts”

 David Foster Wallace, “Mr. Squishy”

 Max Beerbohm, “A. V. Laider” (Another one I wish I’d written.)

John Lavery

I haven't been reading, or writing, short stories for a while, so I haven't much to offer. I have been reading Spanish, in connection with the novel I'm working on, so I might suggest two collections which I'm sure have been translated into English: La Reja by Maria Elena Llana, and Una historia de amor como otra cualquiera by Lucia Etxebarria.

Dan Wells

In alphabetical order, and with many, many omissions:

 Isaac Babel: "Guy de Maupassant"

 Clark Blaise: "How I Became A Jew" (anything from Tribal Justice/North American Education)

 Raymond Carver: "Where I'm Calling From" (or anything at all)

 William Faulkner: "The Bear"

 Terry Griggs: "BigMouth"

 Ernest Hemingway: "Hills Like White Elephants," "The Killers"

 Jhumpa Lahiri: "A Temporary Matter"

 Norman Levine: "We All Begin in a Little Magazine"

 Ian McEwan: "Solid Geometry"

 Alice Munro: "Menesetung"

 Joyce Carol Oates: "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been"

 Leon Rooke: "A Bolt of White Cloth"

 Richard Yates: "Doctor Jack O Lantern" (or anything, please, anything)

 Other short story writers I love:

 Tennessee Williams, Flannery OÇonnor, Chekov, Alistair MacLeod, Mike Barnes, Caroline Adderson, Sean O'Faolain, Bernard Malamud, John Metcalf, Mavis Gallant, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter. though I am biased, because we just published her, Michele Adams. God forgive me for those I have missed.

 Did I mention Richard Yates? Yes, I did. His Collected has been remaindered and is still in the odd place for five or six bucks. The best investment any student of the short story could make.

Michael Bryson

 Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"

 Ernest Hemingway, "Hills Like White Elephants"

 Alice Munro, "Dance of the Happy Shades"

 Mark Anthony Jarman, "Burn Man On A Texas Porch"

 Douglas Glover, "Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm's Mills (now Oakland, Ontario), November 6, 1814"

 Barbara Gowdy, "We So Seldom Look On Love"

 Eric McCormack, "Inspecting the Vaults"

 Terry Southern, "The Blood of a Wig"

 Leon Rooke, "A Bolt of White Cloth"

 Sheila Heti, "The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates"

 Woody Allen, "The Kugelmass Episode"

 Daniel Jones, "The People One Knows"

 John Lavery, "The Premier's New Pajamas"

 Thomas Pynchon, "Entropy"

 Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"

 Raymond Carver, "So Much Water So Close To Home"

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

On Reviewing

Interesting collection of interviews about reviewing books over at Lemon Hound. Not sure I added much to the discussion, but here's my interview.


LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

MB: I think the purpose of a review is to provide an honest response to a book. One must admit up front that one brings a host of expectations to a book, so the review can only be one’s own personal response to the book. Each of us has a particular education, particular tastes, and particular preferences. That said, some responses are guttural and impulsive and others are abstract and hard to articulate. Ultimately, a review needs to communicate to an audience beyond the one “responding.” Here is where things get more complex. The review is one person’s response to a book, but to have value to a broader community of readers it needs to explain itself to that community … and that community is diverse in the extreme. One can assert an isolationist stance (i.e., I think what I think and I don’t need to justify it to anyone), and sometimes those reviews are excellent (i.e., interesting to read). More often, the interesting reviews take a more self-consciously humble approach. Whatever wisdom each of us possesses, it is only a fragment of the whole. Each voice, each opinion is legitimate, but those that enhance the “conversation” (and don’t divert it tangentially) more often have long-term value. (I hedge and include the qualifiers because sometimes the one-offs, the lone wolfs, say things that are invaluable.)

Second part. Yes, I write a blog about books. Why? It helps me keep my sanity. I need a place to write, clarify my thoughts, throw words out into the void. Besides, it’s fun. Why not?

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

MB: I’ve written and published book reviews for 20 years. I don’t think I belong to any “school” or “approach,” but I’m open to being proven wrong. I write about what I like about the books, what I dislike about the books, and I try to provide examples to back up each of those opinions. Writing reviews has helped me to understand what it is that I like about books. It has helped me clarify my own opinions and tastes. In that sense, it has been a selfish enterprise. It has been about my own self-discovery. I used to think that I needed to be as clear as possible in my opinions, but I confess that often resulted in something close to cruelty. (In my defense, I would say that I never thought my opinion to be “the last word,” only the truth that existed in my own feeble brain.) At the same time, I was always aware of (at least trying to) be(ing) evidence-based. I always knew there was a writer out there who would (possibly) read my review and wonder what the heck I was going on about. I always wanted to say: Look! This sentence here! This plot point here! It’s problematic because X or Y. I’ve never thought reviews should rescue the ego of the writer, but I am now much more self-conscious about foregrounding the subjectivity of my opinion. I don’t think that undermines my opinion. I just hope it makes it easier for the writer to hear it.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

MB: Evidence. That’s my one-word answer. Reviews should provide quotations and evaluation. Here’s what I think, and here’s the evidence to back up my opinion. The reader of the review should be provided enough substance to make up their own mind about whether they trust the opinion presented, or whether they conclude their own tastes and assumptions invalidate the conclusions of the reviewer.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

MB: Usually when I review, I focus on the book. I would often love to be able to explore the broader themes and implications of a book (and the body of work of the author), but it’s beyond what I have time for. There is a difference between what the “review” can do and what the “essay” can do. Reviews can be weaker and still okay. Essays have a higher standard. These categories can obviously overlap, but I’m comfortable with the generalization. Reviews can be a simple response to a book, and a variety of responses and approaches can be valuable. If one wants to provide a deeper, larger, more valuable evaluation, then expectations rise. Deeper proof is required.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

MB: Wow, what a question. First, it comes from a different place in the brain. At least it seems to. Both can be intuitive, but the review is a response to a real thing, a book. When I write narrative, it is emerging out of nothingness. The review needs to remember that it is based in reality; it needs to be evidence-based. But any narrative I write is not evidence-based. It is following an often unexplainable logic. Or so it seems at the moment of creation.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

MB: Yes. I would identify two kinds of problems. The most difficult books to review are the ones you expect to like, but once you read them you find that you don’t. There is both the problem to articulating your response to the book, and the problem of trying not to amplify your response by also communicating your disappointment. This is the most difficult problem I’ve had reviewing books, and I haven’t always handled it well.

The second problem is as you’ve indicated. The work is coming out of a tradition that you find difficult to access. I’ve reviewed some books like this. These are less problematic for me than the previous category, because I feel a kind of “out.” I just say, this work is coming out of a tradition that I can’t for the life of me comprehend. I remember writing a review about a spoken word CD and using the example of a Bob Dylan concert I went to. Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead had opened for Dylan, and it was such contrast of styles that night. Lesh was unstructured, and Dylan was highly structured. I prefered the structured, and said so. The spoken word CD was more like Lesh. Obviously, there was an audience out there for this material, but it wasn’t me. The spoken word artist actually emailed me later and thanked me for the review and expressed regret that her work hadn’t connected with me. I regretted it, too. I felt maybe I was missing something. On the other hand, we shouldn’t apologize for our tastes.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

MB: I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book based on a reviewer’s opinion. Sometimes I’ve been made aware of books that I didn’t know existed and then sought them out. I read a number of reviews of Margaret Christakos’s poetry and then saw one of her books in a store and was inspired to pick it up. After flipping through it, I bought it. I trusted the voice of the poetry, but not the voice of the reviewer. I’m a skeptical reader. I want a direct relationship with the book. I like reviews that challenge my thinking, that make me reconsider my assumptions, but ultimately I only trust the book itself.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

MB: Am I still waiting for the perfect review? No. I don’t expect reviews to be perfect. There are too many possible variations of opinion. I want reviews to be clear. To express an opinion and back it up with evidence. I think a variety of opinions are possible about a book, and that they could all be “true.” At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that reviewers can often be wrong. Only constant re-evaluation and sorting will ensure the enduring literary works will rise to prominence.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

MB: I will continue to do this work for the reasons noted above. I don’t know how to stop.

Second question. No, I don’t see this trend reversing. I see it connected to a larger trend. Creative work is valued for how well it can sell, not how well it is written or how interesting it is or how well it extends or responds to a particular tradition. What does criticism mean in the context of capitalism? If sales are the performance measure, what does “reviewing” contribute?

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

MB: I need to believe that life is meaningful. I write about writing to help establish meaning. As noted above, it helps me maintain sanity. It helps me orient myself against something that isn’t superficial. (I confess that I might be delusional about the stability of this thing called literature, but I cling to it nonetheless.)

Second question. Can reviews bring new readers to texts? Absolutely! They can open texts to a broader community of readers. Reviews don’t provide a final rendering, a final interpretation, a closing of meaning, though; they open to mystery. On this I must insist. They open one text into another, into another, and into … infinite possibilities.

They remind us to keep reading, I hope. One new book after another.


Michael Bryson began reviewing books at the University of Waterloo in 1990 or thereabouts. He has written more reviews than he can count. His new book of short stories is The Lizard (Chaudiere Books, 2009). He keeps a blog. From 1999-2009, he was the publisher and editor of the online literary journal, The Danforth Review (indexed here). He has an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto, but doesn't use it much.