Wednesday, June 12, 2019

196. Dead first sentences } re. Elif Batuman.

Elif Batuman claims the “American short story is a dead form” (“Short Story & Novel”). She defines the American short story as… what? Her dipstick is the Best American Short Stories series, specifically from 2004 and 2005. She evokes science—“In the name of…”—but does so idiomatically only. There’s no method to her argument. She feels that the American short story is a dead form because she’s annoyed by the majority of short stories she’s encountered; her essay is not an argument but an airing of pet peeves.

For example: “Nowhere is the Best American Barrage of names so relentless as in the first sentences, which are specific to the point of arbitrariness….” To clarify, she cites the first sentences of two stories, the first by Trudy Lewis, the second by Tom Bissell; here’s Lewis’s: “The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead.”

Most of Batuman’s pet peeves are elements of style subject to fashion. Lewis writes that first sentence because she’s seen others like it. Maybe she’s thought about it and decided she likes it, or maybe she hasn’t thought about it, but instead absorbed it. Either way, she identified a template. Batuman assumes Lewis (and other American short story writers) learned the template in an MFA program or by reading the Best American.

That a majority of American short story writers are bad at short story writing—or worse, are dull—is not evidence that the form is dead. If it’s evidence of anything at all, it’s that many people who write short stories don’t read enough of them and that it’s hard to write a good short story. But it’s much more cocktail-party exciting to declare something as “dead.”

Of the stories Batuman read in the two volumes of the Best American she perused for the sake of science, she found only one of interest. What stood out to me—and is unremarked upon by Batuman—is that story is a fantasy story, bordering on horror, and it’s written by an author who exclusively writes short stories (not a novelist promoting a novel by dashing off a short story; not a budding novelist writing short stories in workshop as some kind of practice). Fantasy isn’t bound by the strictures of realism and thus may, by accident or by design, avoid the clichés of realistic (AKA “literary”) short fiction. (Fantasy has its own clichés.) An author committed to the short story form is (hopefully) reading a lot of short stories. More, perhaps, than the novelist who dabbles.

(Please note, I do not mean to suggest that great short stories and great novels can’t come from the same author.)

The way Batuman dismisses that one interesting short story is to claim it’s not actually a short story, but “really novelistic plots crammed into twenty pages.” It’s bad science (and sloppy essay writing) to take data that doesn’t fit your claim and call it something else; her claim needs to be adjusted. The American short story isn’t dead. The American short story just isn’t obligated to read like Chekov anymore.

Batuman’s observations are funny. I only wish she didn’t insist they mean more than they do. But her observations are funny and maybe even sharp.

She ends her essay with a mini-manifesto, that will no doubt dog her forever: “Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things.” (Setting up her declaration, she writes, “American novelists are ashamed to find their own lives interesting….”) She’s giving herself permission to shoegaze, and I dig it. Sure!

(Last night I opened up the March 4th issue of The New Yorker [for which Batuman is a staff writer] and read the first sentence of Jonathan Lethem’s short story “The Starlet Apartment” and lo: “When Peter Todbaum and I were twenty-five, and three years clear of Yale, I lost track of him for a short while.” It’s a model of the Who What Where Why When & How first sentence Batuman finds so irritating—going strong, thirteen years after she published her American short story post-mortem.)

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