My initial response when I started to read Helen Mundler’s Three Days by the Sea (Holland House Books, 300 pages) was “Yes, we need more of this.” In addition to the interest of the story, the book serves as a reminder of the strengths of literary realism, at a time when for many readers, journalism and nonfiction have replaced the novel as a chronicle of lived experience.
This situation is the product of a changing culture but it’s also, I think, the fault of many novelists, who too often settle for what I’ve come to think of as “weather report realism.” In these novels, Plot X or Y occurs against a backdrop of dutiful descriptions of everyday life, a supposedly reliable accounting of facial expressions, brand names and what the weather was like that day.
Of course life is full of facial expressions and brand names and weather, but verisimilitude is not an end in itself. Saying as much is nothing new. Surely it’s what Willa Cather had in mind when she defended the novel démeublé. As a masterful realistic writer, she knew the risks of her chosen mode. An artist can faithfully render how life appears while neglecting how it feels. “How wonderful,” Cather observed, “it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window.” Continue reading →
Literary fiction about science remains an exception. When C.P. Snow voiced concern in 1959 about “Two Cultures” in reference to the growing gap between science and the arts, it created a stir. Nowadays, no one would debate the notion. It has hardened into fact.
Often, when literary fiction tries to engage with science, it tends toward speculative writing. For instance, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Ian McEwan’s Solar or any of a number of Richard Powers’ novels. They show a hypothetical present or future and ask: “What if?” Continue reading →
Timely literary fiction is uncommon. Stories deemed “topical” by major media outlets flicker at us as frantically as a strobe light. Literary fiction, in contrast, offers a slow burn. Lag times in the publishing industry exacerbate the situation. By the time a story ripped from the headlines reaches the reader, it can exude a whiff of old news, precisely because it’s been ripped from the headlines. Continue reading →
Flash fiction has enjoyed a boom in recent years but sometimes overlooked are shorter prose forms which don’t respect the conventions of flash—e.g., at least an implied plot or hint of closure—in order seek out other literary effects. Thomas Walton’s All the Useless Things Are Mine: A Book of Seventeens (Sagging Meniscus, 138 pages) is an intriguing entry into this field. It is both experimental, in the sense that there isn’t really a label for the genre, and traditional, for it deploys aphorism and image in a manner which is readily accessible, despite its peculiarity.
The author calls the pieces in this collection “seventeens” because each freestanding entry is composed of exactly seventeen words. A few pieces are titled, but most are not, and the book is arranged in 26 chapters with titles like “Animal Sketches,” “Art Criticism” and “Birdsong.” The fixation on seventeen words recalls the haiku form, which in its English rendering is typically composed of seventeen syllables in three lines. Here, though, instead of relying on poetry techniques like line breaks or rhythm assisted by white space on the page, Walton opts for a “prosier” approach, working with short, punchy sentences. Continue reading →
Was it the intention of Randall Brown or his publisher to make a statement by putting the word “stories” on the cover of This Is How He Learned to Love (Sonder Press, 88 pages)? I don’t know. Of course, it’s a convention to tag book titles with explanatory genre labels such as “a novel” or “stories” or “a memoir.” But Brown is a particular case. He is a prolific and expert writer of flash fiction as well as the author of A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction. He also writes longer forms (see his novella How Long is Forever), but it’s not unreasonable to think of him as “Mr. Flash,” one of the chief exponents of the form in America. Continue reading →
When does a presence become a force to be reckoned with? A few years ago, I became aware of Stephanie Dickinson because her name often appeared in literary magazines. She was a prolific writer, popping up in many places. I’d read a few of her flash pieces, which were strong in imagery, but I’d never read an entire book of her work until now. Her latest collection of short stories, Flashlight Girls Run (New Meridian, 254 pages), has made me sit up and pay attention. Continue reading →
Good book titles play with a reader’s expectations. A short story collection called The Surprising Place (University of Massachusetts Press, 197 pages) might seem to imply an emphasis on locale, a Winesburg, Ohio-ish evocation of a town and its inhabitants. And, in fact, this volume of stories takes its title from a former promotional slogan for Des Moines, Iowa, which provides the backdrop for most of the action. Still, what is “surprising” in Malinda McCollum’s excellent new book and winner of the Juniper Prize for fiction is not a matter of geography, in the prosaic sense. Rather, it concerns a different kind of space, a province of heart and mind. For lack of a better term, you could call it interiority. McCollum offers intensely observed portraits of her characters’ internal struggles which are often unsettling and full of contradiction.
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To describe a book as unclassifiable is, of course, to classify it, but that fact is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Jacob Smullyan’s Errata (Sagging Meniscus, 72 pages). Comprising thirty short chapters of mini-essays, stories and philosophical aperçus, it straddles numerous genres and grapples with the process of making sense.
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The abecedarium has a long literary history, and some of its best-known examples, such as Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary or Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues, play with the form’s implied authority for purposes of satire. Recently Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby used the template to convey hellish fragments of an environmental dystopia. Suzanne Scanlon, author of Promising Young Women (2012), turns to a woman’s experience in contemporary America and offers a probing and artful inventory in Her 37th Year, An Index (Noemi Press, 161 pages). Continue reading →
“This morning I crossed a river on a horse made of lightbulbs.”
That’s just another day (June 4, to be exact) in Bob Schofield’s The Inevitable June (theNewerYork Press, 120 pages), an agreeably strange book structured around an unnamed narrator’s calendar for the month of June. Using text, cartoons and distinctive graphics, it is unclassifiable in terms of genre but it manages to create a self-contained world of its own. Continue reading →