Many thanks to Mark Athitakis (@mathitak) of American Fiction Notes for bringing to my attention an excellent commentary on the contemporary American short story by John Barry at City Pages. In his commentary “Dead End: Has a single James Joyce short story unduly influenced contemporary American short fiction?,” Barry complains that American short story writers focus too much on the, admittedly awesome, ending of “The Dead”* — the lovely, longish short story (almost novella) that concludes Joyce’s pitch perfect story collection Dubliners:
And I haven’t been to a class on the American short story that hasn’t involved a paen on the merits of “The Dead.” It’s the greased flagpole we’re all trying to climb, just because we know we can’t.
I know, because I’ve been in a few of those classes, and I’ve taught a few. And while I’m not going to say that it’s Joyce’s fault, I will say that our nation is full of aspiring writers, some better than others, swinging and often whiffing for that gentle melody that comes with the perfectly tuned final graph.
If he had ended there, Barry would have done modern American letters a great service just by calling out one of the problems. But it gets better. He lays his finger on exactly the thing that’s been bugging me about short stories of late (and that includes those published in the Mormon market):
If that’s what they’re after, the short story isn’t a story anymore. What we come out with now, too often, is an architectural feat, carefully layered to texture a feeling that is, not coincidentally, the sort of feeling you might get after teaching short-stories for years, while writing the occasional book review. It’s the kind of story not many people read anymore, unless they want to learn how to write a story. It’s a story that many people publish, some of them so that they can keep their jobs.
That last sentence is a little harsh. But this idea of the careful layers to “texture a feeling” really gets at the heart of the problem, I think. And, sadly, if my reading of contemporary science fiction and especially fantasy short stories is any guide, it’s a problem that is extends in to the well-written genre short stories. And, in turn, because fantasy is a great way to create texture and build precious architectures, we see literary writers borrowing from fantasy, as well. Now don’t get me wrong — I’m all for such cross-contamination. My favorite writers of fiction — Kafka, Bulgakov, G. Wolfe, S. Clarke — live in this space. But I think that Barry’s diagnosis is accurate. And I think that he may just have hit on something with his solution:
“The Dead” comes to life in the present: that viral, bastardized language stomping in galoshes across the landscape of the Irish imagination as Joyce wrote. And before the next army of young writers tries to create the next version of Gabriel Conroy, they should think about what’s happening in our own national landscape. “The Dead” was Dublin itself, the ultimate situation room. Everything happening in “The Dead” was happening around Joyce as he wrote, in the first decade of the 20th century: the rampant alcoholism, the faux nationalism, the dying generations, the shallow hospitality, the end of decency, the emergence of feminism, the reaction of the boneheads. It was about a beloved country turned suddenly strange, in a way that fascinated Joyce, and yet, which caused him to leave it.
What is interesting and exciting about this solution for Mormon short story writers, in particular (and let’s face it, for now, the market for Mormon literary fiction is dominated by the short story), is that we are well-positioned to engage in the national landscape. How do I put this inoffensively? I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to state that when it comes to overall percentages, American Mormons have benefited from the post-WWII meritocracy and the rise of the information age and have been able to “pass” in mainstream American society more than any other religious/ethnic minority. On the other hand, I think we’re reaching a stage where many of the elements that were working for us (educational opportunities, access to capital, the decline of WASP uniformity, the rise of the suburbs/exurbs, healthier living, etc.) are now passing us by (somewhat). Yes, there’s the rise in areligiosity and the movement toward gay marriage. But I think there may be something more than that. Perhaps we have tied our fortunes and most of our numbers to the exurbs. Or perhaps I’m just full of it. Certainly there are signs that younger Mormons are fairly adept at negotiating the digital world.
Whatever the case, what I keep coming back to is the thought that our outsider/insider status and how that specifically manifests itself in Mormonism puts us in a position where we can explore who we are, what it means to be an American and what’s wrong and right and painful and joyful with both the right and the left, the godly and the heathen, the materialist and the ascetic, the provincial and the cosmopolitan, the old and the young, etc.
* “The Dead” also is the subject of the single best film adaption of a work of literary fiction ever. That is John Huston’s The Dead.