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mcgrath strikes again redux

I'm going to try this again, but it'll be way less clever than the first try. So, just mentally up the clever factor on each sentence by five percent, okay?

Charles McGrath has this tendency to take on a genuinely interesting issue, toss out a few fairly obvious observations about it, and then he either just doesn't poke and prod and explore the subject any further or he refuses to do adequate research on said issue in order to actually justify said observations (depending on whether this phenomenon is a product of intellectual or actual laziness). The graphic novel piece fits this mold, as did his Bush and Kerry the Bicyclists little thing. Today, his subject is the short story, tackled via a review of the Ben Marcus-edited The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.

He starts out with the core assertion that:

The story has to a large extent been severed from its traditional roots - from popular, large-circulation magazines, that is - and it has been transplanted into the greenhouses of the academy.

He goes on to talk about MFAs and raises an interesting point about how wannabe novelists are being trained as short story writers (two very different things). But then he prances on with his critiques -- which feel more unimpressed than they actually seem to be -- of the stories in the Marcus anthology, and yet still somehow uses this as a jumping off point to look at all of short storydom. He even acknowledges that the borders of the short story are too broad for this before he really gets into looking at the stories in the anthology:

There is some truth to this, but it's also true that freed from the dictates of the marketplace, short stories these days are often less formulaic, less imitative than they used to be. There's no preferred style or mode anymore - even The New Yorker no longer publishes "the New Yorker short story" - and there are now dozens of different camps of short-fiction writing, all happily coexisting. Many of them are on display in "The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories," an anthology edited by Ben Marcus, who teaches in the graduate writing program at Columbia.

And yet, I never really felt as if the rest of the piece believed this paragraph. Are there really different camps? Because it doesn't feel like it from inside the piece. Instead, McGrath really does seem to have decided that most of the kinds of current short storytelling that are important are showcased in this anthology. He says so in the paragraph above. But I can't ever quite tell what he thinks about this -- good thing, bad thing? The piece is confusing because he doesn't really have the courage to go all the way out on the limb he pointed to at the beginning. He hints at the negatives of what he sees here, but isn't willing to commit exploring that any further. From the squibs on the individual stories we end up here:

These and similar stories are so energetic, so filled with invention, that they seem almost hyperactive; they also seem to assume a reader whose taste and interests have been formed by television and by the movies as much as by literature. Yet in their gimmickiness and occasional luridness, their jokiness, their quickness of pace, their way of developing a single clever idea, there's something old-fashioned about them too - a trace of the pulp magazines, say, or of some of H. G. Wells's tales.

For most of the last century, short-story writers in English - or the great ones anyway; writers like Hemingway, O'Hara, Salinger, Cheever - were busy dismantling the Victorian machinery of the story, dispensing with surprise endings, for example, and eventually with beginnings too, and even with plot itself, to create a kind of story that was deeper, quieter, moodier: the kind of story that on the evidence of this anthology, many of these "new" writers don't quite trust anymore. Or rather they seem not to trust that we - or the editors who publish the collections and assemble the anthologies - any longer have the patience or the attention span for them. You could argue that it's the readers who are in need of rehab, but these writers appear instead to have checked the short story itself into the clinic for a face peel, forced oxygen, and some steroid injections. The patient would probably be happier outside the sickroom, but the cure succeeds at least to the extent that there are stories here that won't let themselves be put down.

He reveals a lot with his extremely short list of Great Short Story Writers (interesting that there are no women on it, even if it is short) and a seemingly narrow definition of what the ultimate short story is. Also, why the quiet disapproval of "pulp magazines" and H.G. Wells' stories*? Was the genre story not a staple of the high circulation, popular magazine during the golden age mentioned in the story's lead? I'd also guess that the genre fiction magazines still have a higher circulation than most other magazines aimed at short fiction readers. (If I'm wrong on that, someone please let me know.) It seems that McGrath has chosen to ignore this bastion of great short story writing though. Surely if he'd read some of the work being published in genre right now, this piece would have a different slant on that score. (And it wouldn't have pretended to canvas the field of short story writing, if such a thing exists.) But he's also wrong -- at least as he presents his arguments here -- about what's going on with the mainstream short story, and he has less of an excuse for that massive blindspot.

Writers should -- and are -- writing all different types of stories. Stories with plots and without, with Victorian devices and poetic ones. Experimental and traditional. And all the rest.

Which is just as it should be.

There is so much quality short fiction out there right now, being written right this second, that it's impossible to even think about reading it all. Just yesterday, I read Kelly Link's "The Faery Handbag" and Holly Black's "The Night Market" in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's new anthology The Faery Reel. Both are excellent stories, and both make something new from something old. And that's finally what I want from short fiction (and, really, from all fiction): new eyes.

* Maybe these are too close to Stephen King, since the fact he had a best-selling short story collection (or three) is dismissed out of hand at the beginning of the piece.

worm "I Wanna Be Your Dog," Uncle Tupelo version

namecheck Justine "Publisher's Lunch" Larbalestier


  • At 3:58 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    His problem with short stories today, especially when you note the list of authors he considers classics, is the lack of substance, and use of style. If this is an issue of his, why not review BASS or O'Henry. Instead, he's reviewing a collection in which the editor writes in his introduction:

    "The question I wanted to ask, as I read the stories that would fill this book, was not: What is the plot, but rather, What is the story plotting for? Not: What is it about, but how is it going about its business, whatever its business might be? What is the story's tactic of mattering, its strategy to last inside a reader? How is it scheming to be something I might care about?"

    He chose a book where all of the stories chosen were going to be to his disliking, to make his point. He didn't read Best New Southern Stories, or BASS, or any number of collections of stories written in a straightforward manner, etc.

    It just seems to be a shallow way to make your point. It's comparable to the publishing house marketing department waiting until a perfect niche book comes along and taking credit for the brillant marketing job.


    Dan Wickett

  • At 2:16 PM , Blogger gwenda said...

    Absolutely, Dan, thanks for your thoughts. I don't know what he thought he was accomplishing with this piece, but it has cemented my resolve to buy Marcus's anthology.

  • At 7:12 PM , Blogger sheasie said...

    Have you seen his most recent:

    "Is PBS Still Necessary?"

    I beg you to comment.


  • At 4:00 PM , Blogger J.A. and/or Eleanor said...

    I completely agree with what you say about Charles McGrath. He is a coward and boring to boot. I have just written a blog about him.


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