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April 8, 2009

On loving the "humble" cupcake

While I like short stories a lot, I do spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to articulate exactly why this is. Perhaps because the form is under-bought and under-read (or merely under-marketed?), and because lately also there have been so many reasons to celebrate it. And perhaps further because I come up against a lot of people who flat out don’t like short stories, so then I start to get a bit zealous about conversion.

I’ve been thinking about short stories even more than usual, ever since coming across Craig Boyko’s cupcake metaphor. “[Liking novels over short stories is] like preferring chocolate cake to chocolate cupcakes. Aren’t they the same thing?” I actually like cupcakes even more than I like short stories, which I don’t bother spending time trying to articulate because it’s obvious. But I do take issue with Boyko’s suggestion that cakes and cupcakes are the same thing. Just like novels and short stories, I love cakes and cupcakes very much, but each in different ways. And I wonder if perhaps an exploration of why exactly I love cupcakes as I do could clarify my relationship with short fiction.

The usefulness of this metaphor occurred to me on Sunday morning as I realized that cupcakes aren’t as dainty as they look. I was watching a small child trying to eat one at the time, which mainly consisted of said child licking frosting off the top. The cupcake was too big to fit in her mouth properly, and a smaller bite would send the cake into a mess of bits and crumbs. Further, how to get the paper peeled off? The cupcake was delectable to look at, but eating it would be a daunting task. The cake’s delicacy does indeed end with the first bite, even for an adult mouth, and the crumbs would fall, anyone would long for the service of a fork instead of clumsy fingers, and would end up unaware of a spot of frosting on the nose.

It is intimidating to consider penetrating anything so pretty. Substance could well be all or nothing. The frosting might be the highlight, or even decorative sprinkles. What if the cake is too dense, or undercooked? Perhaps cupcakes are best admired from afar.

A slice of cake, of course, is a less troubling prospect. They’re usually sloppier-looking affairs to begin with, and the damage is done as soon as a knife is pressed through its layers. (I hate cutting cake, the pressure, plus I have no eye for symmetry). You’re handed a slab of slice, with a plate and fork even, the cake’s strata submitted for examination. You don’t like jam filling, for example? Well, just eat around it, and no one will be any the wiser. Cake is certainly a safer bet.

So why then do I love cupcakes as I do? Well, however intimidating, I do admire the prettiness, the containment, the same way as a child who once had a dollhouse, I get a kick out of all things minature. The whole cakey universe in a tiny paper wrapper. I also love the aesthetics of their collection, displayed on a pedestal or just on a special plate. That they can be assorted or near-identical, and what a different offering each grouping is.

I like the portion control very very much, but moreso I like that the portion control is just an illusion. I’d feel a bit guilty having a second slice of cake for example, but would think nothing of devouring three cupcakes in a row. Or four, if they were manageable (and I’d always find a way to manage). Unlike a whole cake, which is usually too much or too little, I like that a cupcake’s very essence is that of being just enough. I like that you’re never sure what you’ll get inside it until you’re through. Not knowing what to make of the entire thing until you’re done.

The cupcake’s littleness is really deceiving. How can anything that is “just enough” be little, particularly when you can have two? And they’re bold cakes anyway, cupcakes are, on display, so photogenic. They’re stylish, decorated with edible matching accessories, urban as you like in adorable store windows. But then they can be homey too, when rendered by a different kind of hand. Or cupcake brutalism? I can imagine it.

I suppose one more reason I now love cupcakes as I do is that I’m old enough to eat them properly. It’s taken years of practice and figuring out to get that first bite quite right, and to learn to contain crumbs in my napkin or wrapper. I was once that little child facing a cupcake the size of my head, and that I am no longer means I’ve learned to have my cupcake and eat it too (or that I’ve at least learned how to have my cake and eat it afterwards). It also means that my head has grown, which is something to be pleased about after all this time.

January 28, 2009

Hardly Knew Her by Laura Lippman

Though I am not sure if Laura Lippman is so literary, it must mean something that from her writing I learned the word “postprandial.” Her novel What the Dead Know was absorbing, well written and a treat to read, so deserving of its many accolades. Unusual for a genre writer, Lippman has won significant mainstream critical acclaim, and the position of her books on various bestseller lists is a demonstration of her popular appeal. And perhaps my indecisiveness in regards to Lippman’s literary-ness is more to do with the vague boundaries of that genre than the genre Lippman herself is writing from.

The latter genre is crime fiction, detective fiction. Lippman is perhaps best known for her series of novels featuring Tess Monaghan, Baltimore P.I., though she’s written other strand-alone books too. Her novels are plot-driven, fast-paced, page-turners thick with popular appeal, and so (pardon my bias) I was surprised to find such substance there too when I read her What the Dead Know.

In his essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights”, Michael Chabon discussed “the modern short story.” Pointing out the form’s roots in genre, in that, “As late as about the 1950s, if you referred to “short fiction”, you might have been talking about… the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, science fiction, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war or historical story; the romance story.” This as opposed to the kind of story dominating the form today, which he terms “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.” (Whether or not his assessment is fair is an argument for another day.)

Chabon posits that many great contemporary novelists have “plied their trade in the spaces between genres, in no man’s land.” That some of the more interesting short story writers at work today are toiling away in similar locations. He writes, “Trickster haunts the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore. And that is where, if it wants to renew itself in the way the way that the novel has done so often in its long history, the short story must, inevitably, go.” (And if I remember some of the best of the Salon de Refuses correctly, the short story is often there-going already).

And so I was pleased, upon finishing Chabon’s essay, to remember that I had a book of Laura Lippman’s short fiction just waiting to be read. Though Lippman’s own straddling seems mainly just on the border between “genre” and “actually good,” this collection would be different from any other collection of short stories I’ve read lately. And I was interested to see how a collection with such decidedly popular appeal might serve to inform my thoughts on short stories in general.

Lippman’s Hardly Knew Her contains a novella, numerous crime stories, two Tess Monaghan stories, as well a fake news profile on Monaghan whose byline is Lippman’s, and is headlined “The Accidental Detective” in homage to Anne Tyler (who, like Lippman, lovingly renders Baltimore in fiction). The crime stories in particular are riveting, employing sleights of hand near-impossible to see coming. Most remarkable are Lippman’s ordinary narrators whose homicidal tendencies are as surprising to the reader as they must have been for the victims. The ruthlessness of these characters, complicated by the fact that we’re not always called on to sympathize with them, or we simply can’t, or (even worse) we find that we do! Suggesting the many ways in which ordinary people do terrible things in their lives, and that ordinary is just a veneer after all.

The thing about a book like this is that it takes the form right back to its roots, and could make any ordinary reader fall in love with the short story. The ordinary reader who thinks he doesn’t like short stories, doesn’t get them, hates being left hanging, how they’re not quite his money’s worth. (These people exist; we don’t hang out with them much, but I’ve met them. They’re the people not buying your latest story collection). But any reader seeking entertainment, amusement, distraction will find herself caught up in these stories, one after another, and perhaps realize the form is alive, vibrant, and altogether relevant to their reading experiences. Opening up the form, so perhaps the reader might seek some more of it, in admiration of the short story’s so neat and so sprawling containment. Of how every short story is really such a trick all along.

January 16, 2009

Alice Munro's Best

I thought I knew Alice Munro. It’s a critical error, I think, so common amongst those of us who’ve been to school. Because we’ve read Lives of Girls and Women, and we’ve read The Stone Angel, and The Handmaid’s Tale, so this CanLit thing is old hat, right? But I had no idea. I’d read The Progress of Love ages ago, though I don’t even remember it, but it still lives on my shelf. I read Lives of Girls… at least twice in my literary schooling, and evaluated numerous undergraduate papers on Who Do You Think You Are? (which, in spite of that, remained a book I love).

I thought I knew Alice Munro, but that was like thinking I knew somebody I hadn’t called up in twenty years. And then I picked up Alice Munro’s Best: Selected Short Stories.

It wasn’t clear from the start that I was wrong, for the first two stories “Royal Beatings” and “The Beggar Maid” were from Who Do You Think Are?, and so this was quite familiar ground. The next few stories followed similar patterns, the retrospective voice recalling a rural childhood and noting complicating factors the child’s perspective had missed. There are hints of sexual transgression, domestic dissatisfaction, marriages go wrong, and whole ways of life now obliterated. All very much what I had expected.

The first real hint of something came with “Miles City Montana”, which wasn’t so much a departure from what had come before, but whose plot twist was so harrowing I had to skip right to the end before reading through. Keeping in mind, the is a short story. And the stories from then on in contained these singular horrifying moments where I could hardly bear to read. When one friend takes another’s lover, a lonely librarian duped by the promise of love, characters that do terrible things to one another for reasons that are never straightforward or explainable. That taxidermist, and what he did behind Bea’s back. The woman who’s heading west, tricked into thinking she’s promised love. The woman alone in her house in the country and the knock on her door in the middle of the night, or the woman driving with her grandchildren in the backseat when a filthy girl strung out on drugs forces her way into the car.

From “Friend of My Youth”, the stories branch out into history, or least further back into history than Munro has been considering all along. Here, no more first person narration, but rather we get pieces from all manner of perspectives. The author herself revoking her own authority– from the end of “Menesetung: “I thought there wasn’t anybody alive in the world but me who would know this, who would make the connection. And I would be the last person to do so. But perhaps this isn’t so. People are curious…./ And they may get it wrong, after all. I may have got it wrong. I don’t know if she ever took laudanum. Many ladies did. I don’t know if she ever made grape jelly.”

These stories take on a strange, uncertain and fascinating shape. I was most struck by “Carried Away”, which told the story of a small town librarian who receives unexpected letters from a soldier at war. Rather than a flowing narrative, the story is made up of blocks like a quilt, or more like sides of a cube because the result is most three-dimensional. I kept noticing points in these stories where the edges of these blocks would nearly connect, but not exactly– slightly altered phrasing, or memory from a different angle. How lives are made, these stories are, with shady corners and lots of questions.

But then these really aren’t stories at all, in a way, but rather novels. There is no narrow scope here, anything left out suggests reams of detail we can fill in for ourselves, and these are the stories of whole lives, entire places, which is not usually within the short story’s grasp. They are not novels only because they’re too short to be novels, which is not be undermine Alice Munro’s status as the short story master, because I’ve never been so mesmerized by 500 pages of stories in my life. She is a master, I think, because in observing these stories written over the course of her career, it is evident that she’s pushed the very limits of the form, changed the shape into something altogether different from what she started with, enabling the story to be stuffed to its capacity, and even further. An Alice Munro story: I didn’t know the half of it. I’m still blown away.

This collection is enhanced by its introductory essay by Margaret Atwood, placing these stories within their literary and geographical context. I would have appreciated dates attached to each story, however, and their places of publication, to give an indication of the book’s overall range. Also some kind of afterward by Munro herself, a retrospective? But then I fear I may be asking too much. With this superb collection, she has already given generously.

January 8, 2009

Links and birds

Now reading The Darren Effect by Libby Creelman, which is fabulous, and I’m right in the middle with no idea of what comes next. Maud Newton speculates about why copies of Lush Life (which I reviewed last month) are so hard to come by. Dovegreyreader encounters The Robber Bride. On the history of stenography (subscription required). Jon Evans wonders why he shouldn’t write about Africa, which led me to “How to Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina. A short story by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. And more on used books.

I watched The Birds on the weekend, which is based on a short story by Daphne DuMaurier (whose Rebecca I so delighted in last year). I’ve not read the short story but checked out the plot synopsis and it seems as though the screenwriter really only used the premise– and yet… Though this is a full length film, it seemed undeniable that it’s source material was a short story. What we know of the characters and what happens to them is really not the point, rather the point is the moment (which is so incredibly terrifying, tacky special effects aside). So interesting to me how clearly the short storyness remained. I’ll have to read the story and see if it came about itself similarly.

August 22, 2008


Alternatively, from a rather strange book called Great British Short Novels (circa 1970, which I bought for a quarter and from which I am currently rereading Heart of Darkness) we find this:

“Given its narrow confines, a short story cannot probe character beyond a few basic traits. It cannot allow for great scenic detail or elaborate plot to illuminate the conduct of its protagonist. Effective as a means for providing sudden insight or creating a powerful emotional impact, it cannot diffuse its focus to include anything beyond the immediately relevant.” –from “Introduction: The Art of the Novella” by Robert Donald Spector

August 20, 2008

The Best Antidote: Salon Des Refuses

Since Friday, I’ve been reading the “Salon des Refuses”, as avidly as one reads any literary anthology. But, actually, no– because I’m not sure anyone reads literary anthologies avidly: such books were made for shelving. The Salon, on the other hand, is not a book at all, but rather two periodicals. The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes and Queries collaborating on a response to The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, comprising stories by a number of writers whose exclusion from the Penguin Anthology has been regarded as baffling at best.

CNQ Editor Daniel Wells offers the Salon “as evidence of the short story in Canada, both inside and (in particular) outside of Penguin’s anthology.” TNQ Editor Kim Jernigan explaining the project, “What if we “tweaked the beak” of the Penguin by putting together a Salon des Refuses (an exhibition of the rejected) after the famous exhibition of artists not included in the Paris Salon of 1863, many of whom… went on to greater fame than those included?”

The quality of work in these two collections, though typical of the journals themselves, speaks for itself. That I’ve been positively absorbed in these stories these last few days, and oh the joys– my very favourite thing about anthologies– of discovering magnificent writers for the very first time. Which was also the case when I read My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead this winter– Lorrie Moore! Deborah Eisenberg! How could I ever have lived without them? And of course I’m contradicting myself re. the point above, I have avidly read an anthology before. But there is a difference, you see, between readable anthologies and most other anthologies, which are more statements than books, and are 700 pages long, for example. Anthologies made for reading, I believe, are actually where the future of the printed short story lies.

My favourite line from the entire “Salon Des Refuses” belongs to Caroline Adderson in her introduction to one of the stories, “Of course, the best antidote to the disappointment of the literary life is to read.” So wise, so true, in all manner of contexts. The Salon itself an example of this, ample consolation, I hope, to those rankled by Penguin that they’ve managed to create something so wonderful beside it.

A celebration, absolutely, of some really excellent authors. And I appreciate this approach much more than the attack on the Penguin itself, and its editor. The critical pieces opening CNQ making the argument far less than the stories do– in particular the review by Michael Darling which takes single sentences from stories in the Penguin Anthology and strings them altogether to make a point (but what point? One could do that with anything). The pieces condemning Urquhart for her choices, for her background, her tastes, and giving all matter of justification for this, but in the end it really seemed to come down to “we got left out, and so did other people we like.”

Because it’s all down to sensibility, it really is. And it’s fine that these conversations are taking place because I like that I live in a world where people get angry about short stories, if they have to get angry at all. But still, nothing is definitive. Even in this wonderful collection of tales, there were some I didn’t like, and some (albeit v.v. few) that I didn’t think were very good. Oh, but the others. Really, they’re all you need. Slip them over to someone who’s hauling that Penguin, tell them, “Why not try something else?” They’re bound to be converted, just as I was. Celebration is contagious.

To discover such goodness all at once is overwhelming. Wells writing, “And if after reading the stories… you are not compelled to go searching for more of the same, well, then, I’m afraid that your case is hopeless: there’s nothing else we can do for you.” I cannot argue with the magnificence of Mark Anthony Jarman’s “Cowboys Inc.”, though I’m not sure I liked it, but I’m so glad I read it. How affected I was by Bharati Mukherje’s “The Management of Grief”. Terry Griggs’ “The Discovery of Honey” was an extraordinary tapestry of language and imagery, and I was entranced from start to finish. I liked Patricia Robertson’s “Agnes and Fox”. My favourite story was “Impossible to Die in Your Dreams” by Heather Birrell. I enjoyed “Cogagwee” by Mike Barnes, Steven Heighton’s “Five Paintings of the New Japan”, Sharon English’s “The Road to Delphi” and Russell Smith’s story. But then I always like Russell Smith’s stories, and I knew that already.

The other writers I didn’t know, however, for the most part, and I am so glad to discover. My “Must Borrow”/”Must Buy” lists ever-expanding, and it is so refreshing to be exposed to all these new (to me) voices. Exciting to know what innovations are ongoing and ever-possible, and the marvelous flexibility and potential of the short story form. I finish this collection feeling absolutely inspired– it is a triumph. You don’t even need to knock the Penguin– I haven’t read it and I’m sure I never will (and so won’t so many other people), but this collection has changed the world. No mere hyperbole, it has, if just a little bit. Congratulations to CNQ and TNQ on something wonderful. You’re going up on the shelf, but I’ll visit you again.

**And now for a PICKLE ME THIS GIVEAWAY: As I subscribe to both CNQ and TNQ, I’ve ended up with two copies of the Salon. If you live in Canada and would like a copy of one of the journals, email me your contact info at the address in the sidebar and I’ll post one of them to you. First-come/ first-served** And now CLAIMED. Lucky EG.

July 14, 2008

Summer Fiction

One of my favourite events of summer: The Atlantic Fiction Issue is now out and about.

July 1, 2008

Celebrating the Short Story

I’m writing this now, lying on the carpet in front of my bookshelves. I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time, what exactly I wanted to write about, and I decided it would be best written with inspiration in sight, within reach. Where I’m lying now, I’ve got my books by authors J-L before me– I’m looking at Jhumpa Lahiri’s two books of short stories. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Up above are collections by Jack Hodgins, Sheila Heti. Books by authors S-Sh are to my right– J.D. Salinger, Carol Shields. The Ps above that– Grace Paley, Emily Perkins. Flannery O’Conner is tucked over in the corner beside a Norton Anthology that contains “The Dead”. I really couldn’t think of a better vantage point for such a celebration than this (except if I were standing up, Twilight of the Superheroes would be within my grasp).

I’ve been wanting to celebrate the short story since I attended a reading of Luminato’s Festival of the Short Story last month, since I read Rebecca Rosenblum’s blog post after the fact, since I found out about Joyland, a new online home for short fiction established by writer Emily Schultz. One of the first stories posted there being “Clear Skies” by Lynn Coady, who’d moderated the Luminato writing I was at, and whose comments regarding the form were properly celebratory– the risks short fiction allows writers and readers, how it expands the possibilities of what fiction can explore, how the short stories are not miniature novels or long poems, but something onto themselves. Worthy of a festival indeed.

But not always celebrated, no. I’ve written before about short fiction’s illusionary portability, and I think a lot of readers get tripped up on this. Expecting brevity to mean easy, but it usually doesn’t mean such a thing at all. If anything, short fiction can take as long to penetrate as a novel does, reading it again and again instead of just once straight through. Which is an investment that doesn’t always make sense in purely economic terms (time is money etc.)– so much time and focus on a couple of pages, you might as well read a novel.

Further it’s hard to read a short story collection. I’m not always convinced collections are the best homes for short stories anyway– they work so well in magazines, I think, and online certainly could be close to ideal. But unless the collection was always meant to be a collection, as opposed to a stack of stories stuck together with string, it can make for stilted reading. And the time thing matters– how do you fit a short story collection into a day? One story might be too short for the bus ride, another too long to get through before you turn out the light and go to sleep.

Addressing any of this is a bit ridiculous because “the short story” is about as various as “the novel” or even “art”. Jhumpa Lahiri is barely related to Sheila Heti, for example. A short story is any/everything. The only thing that is certain is that a short story is itself.

I was a very undiscerning reader when I was in high school. I read what was put before me without judgment, because it was a book and books were good. Because I was Canadian, Alice Munro came my way, and I read Margaret Atwood– I remember liking Wilderness Tips. I read short story collections the way I did novels, voraciously, uncritically. But I do remember being vaguely unsatisfied by them. That I’d approach them looking out for what novels do, and when the stories failed to do it too, I didn’t know what else to do with them.

Which is not to say that I passed them over, but I rarely sought them out. I wanted to read whole worlds and not their pieces, failing to understand the key is to unpack the pieces, pick them apart to find the worlds inside. Within every single atom, if you’re lucky, and you will be.

The first short story collection I truly loved was Various Miracles by Carol Shields. Containing the story “Scenes” which is one of my favourites, itself made up of scenes (of course): “There are people who think such scenes are ornaments suspended from lives that are otherwise busy and useful. Frances knows perfectly well that they are what a life is made of, one fitting against the next like English paving-stones.” And the stories in this collection set up the same way– not linked, but fitted against, which is different. There is a space between. Engaging the reader to discern the connections herself, but it’s there– that voice, those themes. Here are pieces that equal even more as a whole.

One of the challenges of the short story– the effort required to read one’s way inside it– is conversely one of the best things it offers. The opportunity to read it again and again, engaging, becoming intimate, discovering its detail, the secrets inside. To get this close to a novel takes time, and perhaps was never even its purpose. Whereas the purpose of a story is to be steeped in, perpetually uncorked. To lie down inside so to look at the sky.

Discovering Grace Paley was a revelation to me, making clear more than any other writer ever had, that a short story was a short story was a short story, and that was that. Paley’s stories wore their storyness on their story sleeves, and I’ve never read anything else quite like them. They’re tough too– once through is not sufficient, you’ve got to go it again and again. She puts up blocks, strange twists, you’re not there to get comfortable. On your toes, get there and stay there. Read about a lady in a tree.

I read My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead this winter, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, and decided thematic anthologies are where the story has never been more alive. To be steeped inside one story after another, storyness in general, all of them of superlative quality, and various, multitudinous as you like. There were even some I hated, and I liked the freedom to be able to do so. Any/everything, from all over the world. If you asked me, What is the short story, I’d hand you this book the size of a brick.

Short stories populate my library. As the sun has started to go down, I’ve turned the light on and I can see to the tops of the shelves. Laurie Colwin, Kate Atkinson, Timothy Findley, Kate Sutherland, Virginia Woolf. I received Forms of Devotion by Diane Schoemperlen for my birthday last week. I’m looking at The Journey Prize Stories 19 now, and the literary journals that help keep the short story in business. The space where Grace Paley used to be, because I’ve taken her down now. In preparation of celebrating stories in the way I know best– through reading them.

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