Subverting Our Expectations: The State of the Short Story
By Johannes LichtmanDecember 14, 2012
Fakes by Matthew Vollmer and David Shields
AS MOST PEOPLE KNOW, it’s not easy to make money writing. Young writers read of a mythical past when aspiring authors could work for “newspapers” in exotic locales like Kansas City, but even if there is still a newspaper operating out of some soon-to-be-abandoned warehouse on the banks of the Missouri, I bet it isn’t hiring. The BFA/MFA track has become one of the last refuges for young writers before they start fighting their way into the welfare state of grants and fellowships, and even if we remain undecided on the question of whether writing can be taught — if I have to read another essay asking that question I may run away to Kansas City myself — we have definitively declared that the teaching and learning of creative writing can be a good way to make money (or at least to postpone the need to do so).
For this reason, contemporary fiction anthologies have never been more proliferant than they are now. Classroom texts — most often either the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone or the Vintage Book of Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff — are where many undergraduate writers (weaned on high school classics, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, and Chuck Palahniuk) get their first doses of modern short fiction. These books answer the burning question: what are real writers writing today?
Which makes it such a shame that the two most popular anthologies offer such limited answers. The Vintage and Scriber collections feature eleven writers in common, but more importantly, they draw from a common aesthetic. Both favor a kind of story that generally relies on a first page/first sentence hook, a second page circling back to explain how we came to this interesting place, and, after the necessary information has been dumped on the reader, a series of events that lead to some sort of change in the protagonist: a change which usually takes place epiphanically, when the story has, to paraphrase Stuart Dybek, shifted from the narrative to the lyrical mode.
There’s nothing wrong with writing stories in this manner; some of the best American fiction follows just such a traditional blueprint. But the Vintage anthology — which, published in 1994, is starting to feel a bit dated — suggests that this is pretty much the only way to write a story. While the Scribner book offers more ethnic diversity than the Vintage anthology, it likewise doesn’t put much effort into diversity of narrative approach. To the latter’s credit, it does include work by Junot Diaz, A.M. Homes, and Daniel Orozco, but woefully absent from its pages are David Foster Wallace, Lydia Davis, and Dave Eggers, three of our most stylistically influential authors. As such, the Scribner anthology is pretty much the worst fiction anthology out there. Except for every other anthology.
Enter David Shields and Matthew Vollmer’s Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. Where much of the fiction in the two dominant anthologies tries to hide its artifice, the stories in Fakes borrow forms from non-story “artifacts” — author acknowledgements, police blotters, lists, letters, lectures, speeches, book catalogs — and use them as vehicles for narrative.
Charles Yu’s “Problems for Self Study,” one of the strongest pieces in the collection, takes a traditional subject — the birth and death of a relationship — and filters it through the sieve of a physics problem:
a) Imagine you are 20m from A. Close enough to see his face. Close enough to know his shape. Close enough to imagine Contact.
b) You have a rope. If you can throw it just right, you may be able to tie yourself to A, turn his course, affect his trajectory. You will not be able to stop him, but you may be able to make sure that wherever it is he drifts to you end up there as well.
“Problems for Self Study” has the best possible outcome of a formally experimental story, as the experiment lends freshness to familiar feelings rather than allowing playfulness to take the place of emotion.
The same can be said for Robin Hemley’s “Reply All,” a very funny take on the accidental mass-email reply. The secretary of a local poetry society sends a group email detailing the society’s next meeting. A male member of the group responds to the treasurer’s email with an intimate declaration of how great it is to be sleeping with her: “That no one else knows your mole’s position on your body (other than your benighted husband, poor limp Richard, that Son(net) of a Bitch as you call him) is more the pity (if Marvell had known such a mole, he undoubtedly would have added an extra stanza to his poem).” When the email’s author accidentally hits reply all, he sets off a frenzy of digital gossip. After the president of the society returns from a weekend vacation, she writes, “Well, it seems our little organization has been busy in my absence. I have over 300 new messages in my account, all, it seems from my fellow poetry lovers! I haven’t yet had the chance to read your exchanges, but I will soon.” I can only imagine the fun of teaching this story: And that, class, is what I mean by dramatic irony.
In Lydia Davis’s “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” the narrator complains about the use of the word “cremains” to refer to her father:
We were sitting there in our chairs in the living room trying not to weep in front of your representative, who was opposite us on the sofa, and we were very tired first from sitting up with my father, and then from worrying about whether he was comfortable as he was dying, and then from worrying about where he might be now that he was dead, and your representative referred to him as “the cremains.
The narrator argues that the newness of the word forces her and her mother to think about the deceased’s corporeality in a way they do not wish to. “You could very well continue to employ the term ashes,” she suggests. “We are used to it from the Bible, and are even comforted by it. We would not misunderstand. We would know that these ashes are not like the ashes in a fireplace.” Davis pulls off a wonderful trick here, as she employs the antiquated epistolary form to explain the benefits of cliché, essentially subverting cliché while championing it.
Other stories are less successful. Melanie Rae Thon’s “Instructions for Extinction” takes a preachy tone that most young writers could stand not to be taught. Stanley Crawford’s excerpt from Some Instructions to My Wife Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage, and to My Son and Daughter Concerning the Conduct of Their Childhood demonstrates one of the difficulties of using a non-story form: the longer the story, the harder it is to maintain the energy without plot. As many of the artifacts Fakes mimics tend to be relatively short — contracts, personal ads, and so on— the most effective stories in the collection are the ones that maintain the brevity of the original artifact.
Laura Jayne Martin’s “This is Just to Say That I’m Tired of Sharing an Apartment with William Carlos Williams” does exactly this, channeling the concise rambling of an angry note to a roommate: “Will, you are a dick. You’re goddamn right I was saving those plums for breakfast.” Over the course of the story, the disgruntled narrator outlines all the ways WCW has wronged him and shares the notes the poet left in explanation:
this is just to say
I am sorry
I used your toothpaste
it’s all gone
floss left under
the cabinet but
The roommate shares the poems Williams wrote to apologize for drinking all the beer, sleeping with his roommates’s girlfriend, and crashing his Dodge Durango into the neighbor’s sunroom. There’s no stranger coming to town or hero going on a quest: there’s just William Carlos William being a total asshole.
The problem with potentially teaching a story like this — I’m approaching this from the perspective of a teacher, since the goal of pretty much any anthology is to find its way into the classroom — is that the setup doesn’t work so well if you’re not familiar with the thing being parodied. The story uses the expectations the writer assumes we have, just as most of the stories in Fakes try to subvert our ideas of what a story, or the artifact the story embodies, should be. But that’s very hard to do if your reader has never read an author’s acknowledgments or a book catalog, if your reader hasn’t internalized what reading a more conventional short story entails.
Almost all the stories in Fakes contain a disruption of predictable logic, to borrow a phrase from the poet Mark Cox, in which an element of the story — most often the tone — shifts away from what we expect. I would humbly submit that today’s American fiction needs, more than anything, fewer epiphanies and more surprises. So it’s great to see a whole anthology of stories that actively strive for surprise, even if some of them mightn’t be inventive enough, leaving the experiment as a whole a little unsurprising.
On the other hand, you can’t really be surprised before you have expectations. In my own brief stint teaching creative writing, I consistently struggled to teach my favorite contemporary short story collection (Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son) to undergrads, because the students had not yet tired of the sorts of dreary exposition that Johnson rips open with his hallucinatory realism. The students tolerated Johnson, but much of the time, they just wanted to read a straightforward story in a straightforward way.
My core criticism of the Vintage and Scribner anthologies is a little bit unfair: the dominant discourse is never the right discourse. In the introduction to Fakes, the editors say, “New times call for new forms, new words, and new sounds. And if you won’t make them, who will?” If Fakes were to usurp the workshop anthology throne, ten years from now I would be complaining about how workshop fiction has become predictable in its need for tonal disruptions and how the focus on inventing new forms has superceded the need for characters and plot.
All stories, regardless of what style they affect, have the same need of form. Whether it’s ZZ Packer hiding the scaffolding of narrative under blankets of imagery or Donald Barthelme hanging out a neon sign that reads, “This is scaffolding,” both writers need the scaffolding to make their stories stand. While what Fakes presents comes with its own set of problems, it also offers a myriad of exciting options — a smorgasbord of ways to make writing feel like the fun it should be (the introduction includes instructions on how to make your own forgery, complete with a list of over 100 suggestions of forms to try). Whether Fakes winds up as a replacement text, a companion to the old anthologies, or a subversive treat for the student to read after class, it’s great to have it as part of the conversation.
Johannes Lichtman’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Sun, American Short Fiction, and Carolina Quarterly. He lives in Malmö, Sweden, and can be found online at blingtheory.net.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.