The stuff we had to read rubbed me the wrong way for many, many reasons, and as a result it was very difficult for me to say anything about it that didn’t devolve into incoherent rage in very short time (there was actually going to be a video accompanying this post, but I found out after making it that within ten seconds I transformed Hulk-style into Simon Cowell, which apparently makes for rather unpleasant viewing.)
Normally bad writing treated as the next literary masterpiece is my main rage trigger, but in the case of my summer reading, the writing wasn’t actually that bad, at least not from a technical standpoint. There were a couple different award-winning writers on the roster (Antonya Nelson, Mary Gaitskill, Tobias Wolff, Chris Adrian, and Isaac Babel were the authors on the list), and their prose is pretty readable, and in some cases, pretty good. Given that everything we read by these authors were short story collections, it stood to reason that there would be some stories that were worse than others.
Unfortunately almost all of these stories were forgettable. And in quite a few cases, I found the quality to be subpar, to the point that I would just describe many of these stories as bad.
One of the biggest problems with many of these stories was that they weren’t really stories, at least not in the sense of there being a logical sequence of events that had a clear conflict and resolution of said conflict. Most of these stories were merely anecdotes or glimpses into the life of characters, with very little character development or growth. In most of the stories, the characters were angsting about something- usually sex– and sort of wondering through life without drawing anything from their experiences or learning anything. I’m not going to say it’s impossible for an anecdote to be a story (Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” comes to mind), but it’s a very difficult thing for a writer to pull off.
The fact that we read short story collections by these authors highlighted another weakness of many of the stories- all the characters would sound the same. The life experiences, ages, gender, and beliefs of the characters would be different, but their voices all sounded the same. The young middle/high-school girl in Antonya Nelson’s novella “Some Fun” sounded exactly like the grown woman in the story “Heart Shaped Rocks”. This is not a good thing. And I don’t mean that the stories had the turns of phrase indicating they were written by the same author; the diction and tone and vocabulary of the observations the characters made sounded far too similar. I couldn’t form a distinct idea of the characters in many of the short story collections because so many of them sounded the same. The only author who avoided this problem pretty consistently was Tobias Wolff, and he had a pretty major problem of his own: closure, or lack thereof.
Many of Tobias Wolff’s stories would just stop at a seemingly arbitrary point. Now it’s possible that I might find some deeper meaning in his stopping points during discussion of these stories in class, but looking back I honestly have a very hard time understanding why his stories would end in the places they did. He would tell a sequence of events to a certain point and then stop, without any clear indication of what the characters had reached, gained, understood, or lost. It was frustrating to read his stories because I would become invested in them, and then they would just end, seemingly at random.
My other major pet peeve- but not my biggest one- was the fixation on sex. It was frankly bizarre to read about so many characters associating so many things with sex, or thinking so constantly about sexual relations. Maybe I’ve just led a sheltered life- but most of the people I know don’t have sex so much on the brain, and they don’t complain about it nearly as much as these characters did. Yet most of the characters seemed so focused on everything carnal that I had a very hard time relating to them or what they were thinking.
I especially had a hard time with the sexual content because I read Anna Karenina earlier in the summer. Whenever I read about an affair tepidly described in a short story where the protagonist is vaguely unhappy but doesn’t actually take any steps to make a change or have any consequences, I would compare it with Anna Karenina. I recognize that that was a rather unfair comparison, since not everyone can be Tolstoy, but there was something about the writing of all the affairs (and believe me, there were many) that really bothered me. None of the relationships depicted had much depth or explanation beyond “midlife crisis” and they didn’t have much in the way of consequences for those involved. Again, I recognize that a short story is different from a novel, but the fact that so many of the short stories glossed over the idea of consequences for the behavior was immensely irritating. One of the greatest aspects of Anna Karenina was that it showed the titular character as sympathetic, or at least understandable, while showing that her behavior had consequences. Given how much internal monologuing the summer reading stories managed to cram in, I think there could have been some room for showing some actual events, rather than the characters’ reactions to everything.
And that leads me to the worst part by far about all the stories I read- almost none of the characters actually do anything. The stories almost always focus on their reminiscing on events, or thinking about the past, or watching things around them. Rarely did the characters actually do anything for themselves. There were a handful of exceptions, but for the most part everyone in these stories was shockingly passive. And I hated reading about people like that. I like people who can take horrible situations and cope with them. I like characters who don’t take things lying down, and I like people who chose to do things with confidence. And I like it when the actions of such characters have meaningful and lasting consequences.
The short stories that I read this summer didn’t have that at all.
If the authors were trying to depict real life, I’m both disappointed and skeptical. Some people do indeed see life as a constant existential crisis where all we can do is be buffeted by the tides. But not everyone sees the world this way. So why was there no action, no doing? Why were there so little repercussions for the events that happened in the story? Why do the characters all feel so flat? Is real life really that boring, or have I just been doing it wrong for the past twenty years?
Okay, I have to stop or I’ll start turning into Simon Cowell again, and you wouldn’t like me when I’m Simon Cowell. So one last thing to ponder: what makes good fiction? Trueness to life? Or a good story?