The Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month Club: November 2006

November 8, 2006 | 1 book mentioned 8 4 min read

It’s official. I’m done!

coverThis month, I finally finished my Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Box Set. I read nearly every page over a broken, two-month period (the first month – my Millions debut – can be found here). It was a difficult, grueling battle, but I made it through with only a few bruises and just one small paper cut. And now, as I had always hoped, I have a full awareness of all things “literature.” I’m ready to start teaching World Lit at Harvard.

Well, actually, I’m not. In fact, I’ve given myself an even greater test: I’m giving myself three years to fully comprehend at least one title from the classic authors I’ve (until now) completely missed.

But that’s the future. This is the present. Revel with me as I celebrate this accomplishment!

Choosing one of these selections as the “book of the month” turned out to be more difficult than actually reading them. I read 36 books this month: part of a classic (the very long, very complicated, incredibly wordy and not entirely pleasant A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) and 35 54-page Pocket Penguins. That’s a lot of books to filter through.

Obviously, I can’t choose any of the books that I didn’t really fully read or any of the books that I quickly skimmed through on my way to another selection. Yeah, that’s right. Sometimes I cheated. You can’t blame me – this entire collection features a wide array of genres: poetry (skimmed), history (primarily rooted in World War II, most of which I read, but honestly didn’t read fully and skimmed), biography (Churchill’s and Percy’s biographies were skimmed, Selassie’s outright skipped after the first ten pages) and memoir (many were skipped after a few pages). I couldn’t possibly do it all without screaming.

This left me with about 20-25 works of fiction that I enjoyed at varying degrees.

What I found is that this entire 70-book collection is really a celebration of the short story. When condensing an author into 54 pages, a publisher can only choose the shortest of selections. A majority of the time, this means a selection of short stories. When “true” short stories weren’t chosen, we find excerpts or expurgated chapters instead. Regardless of its original form, it’s a short story all the same. I was blind to it through the first 35 books, but this time it was all I could think of.

Throughout the second half of my Anniversary travels, I marveled at how so many authors could sum up a literary career into just 54 pages – how they could completely buck the novel’s tradition and contain their words concisely into these Penguin selections.

So with that in mind, I needed to choose one book – the one book that captures everything that short stories are to me: emotion, curiosity and mystery; ultimately, thought-provoking literature that drives me to read on and devour the next short story while still feeling the heat of the previous one.

coverEnter Melissa Bank’s The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine. The Book of the Month.

I have found that most short story writing involves a quick slice of life, one that reveals only as much as needed, leaving the reader a chance to fill in the gaping holes. A great short story fills those holes without much effort, using the power of its passages as an assumed backbone, driving characters together not through writing, but through the normal constraints of society and culture.

Bank’s title story does a great job of doing this. In it we find a young woman – an assistant editor who is not entirely sure of her own talents – struggling with two relationships; a love/hate connection with her on-again-off-again boyfriend and a wait-and-see connection with her father, a once strong man who is dying from leukemia.

The emotion is there – this is a young woman who doesn’t know what to do in life. We’ve all been there, obviously; unsure of our place, wondering if we chose the right life, the right partner, or the right career. In this case, we find a woman who is being overwhelmed through every aspect of life – at work, with an older boyfriend, and with her father’s sickness. She feels pulled in every direction, forced to accept her position editing books (a job that is quite below her position) and to accept the criticism from an older man – her personal father figure. All the while, her actual father is sick – very sick.

The curiosity is there. Where did these people meet? Why has she made these decisions, and why does she continue to stick by them? How will her father end up, and will her boyfriend be there to support her. Is he drinking again?

Is she safe with herself?

As good as Bank’s story was, it all kept bringing me back to the style as a whole – the short story as a concept and viable literary interest. Short stories are designed to view a small, minute portion of life and weigh it against society. They’re created to leave a suspenseful impression, one that makes you wish you could know the rest of the story and one that – for just a few seconds – leaves you considering just writing the story yourself.

Often times, this is exactly what happens. In your mind, you have the ability to fill in the holes, to create biographies based on the hints an author leaves behind. There’s no better writing prompt than a short story. And it seems sometimes like there’s no harder piece of literature to actually compose.

It is said that poetry is literature condensed. It gives each word an incredible weight that cannot be reproduced in prose (lest it become too weighty and difficult). Short stories take the weight away from the words and give it to the moment. Each second of a shortened piece of literature means the world. It is intensely analyzed and purposefully constructed. For me, it’s the most perfect form of writing.

So let’s hear it for short stories, eh? Let’s hear it for Lorrie Moore, for David Sedaris, and for Lewis Thomas. A round of applause for Ian McEwan, for Will Self, and for David Foster Wallace. And let’s not let the brevity of a short story ruin the weight of its moment in the spotlight.

Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood Pulp
CVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept, Oct

is a writer based in South Dakota

8 comments:

  1. Those are the people you toast to in celebrating the short story? Other than Lorrie Moore I wouldn't pick any of those particular names. I'm not even a huge fan of Moore but she has done considerable work in the medium hence the REA Award. What about James Salter, Alice Munro, Charles D'Ambrosio, David Means, Stuart Dybek, James Alan McPherson, Julie Orringer, Adam Haslett, Benjamin Percy, Denis Johnson, Thom Jones, Grace Paley, etc. etc. David Foster Wallace? David Sedaris? C'mon. I don't even like reading essays but those two clearly excel in the essay form.

  2. "I wouldn't pick any of those particular names."

    Which is why this is my view and not yours.

    Essays are very short, non-fiction stories. It's all semantics. Maybe I meant "short form literature." Whatever. It's for snobs to argue about.

    These are the ones I came up with off the top of my head. I apologize if you disagree.

  3. Okay — looking back at that after I posted it… boy, I'm cranky and sensitive.

    You're probably right — I often lump essayists with short story writers. Oftentimes they are interchangeable, depending on how wide your scope is. Hence, Thomas, Sedaris, and Wallace.

    Moore is one of my favorites. McEwan has written some wonderful short fiction, as has Self, though both are not known for it.

    I agree with Munro and D'Ambrosio. I'd also add Jhumpa Lahiri, Jean Thompson, Tobias Wolff, and Tony D'Souza, Roy Kesey, and Susan Steinberg.

    The rest are all quite unfamiliar to me. I enjoy the short story, but I'm by no means an expert. I love everything about it, but I have a lot to experience. I've been a serious reader for a year and a half now.

    Apologies for the shortness before. Work was driving me over the edge. (insert emoticon of your choice.)

  4. I'll take some from column A and some from column B. And if we really wanted to, we could name a couple hundred great short story writers, no doubt.

    Although, I have to say, I do like Corey's inclusion of a couple of essayists. It's always a treat to find good short-form non-fiction.

  5. Corey, I understand, no offense taken. Some people lump short story writers and essayists together but I write short stories, abhor writing essays, and a lot of writers that I talk to that do both, talk about how they approach both with different mentalities, so I don't tend to lump them together.

    I know for me at least when I'm writing an essay I tend to have a certain message or underlying ideal that I'm essentially trying to spread or "sell" if you will. With a short story, even though you have a bare-bones idea of how the story might flow, the plot points, etc. you don't go into it with an agenda. Writing with an agenda is the worst kind of fiction writing there is, and essays at heart, even if buried, have some sort of agenda [not all, but most].

    Those names were mostly off the top of my head and mostly contemporary names. I didn't want to pick anyone deceased or anyone that is obviously one of the greats [i.e. Chekhov, Carver, O'Connor]. That being said, if you haven't checked out any of those names I mentioned prior, please do, they're fan-f-cking-tastic. No hard feelings.

  6. None taken. Though I have tracked your IP address and plan to kill you tonight while you sleep.

    No. Just kidding. The IP address has only led me to your general vicinity.

    From the entire Pocket Penguin set, I did get to experience Chekhov, as well as Borges (who is also fan-f-cking-tastic) and GGMarquez, both in short story form. Add to that Zadie Smith's only foray into the genre…oh, who are we kidding — it wouldn't be hundreds…we could list THOUSANDS of great short stories, essays, novellas, expurgated chapters, long-form poetry, blah blah blah.

  7. Do you think someone has to be a short story lover or hater, or is there a middle ground?

    Also, in terms of reading bite size, check out http://www.dailylit.com, which is a fantastic service that gives daily emails of public domain literature. Truly, for those looking to get well read, it's joyous service! Mel

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