I have a hard time remembering the books I have read without also remembering who I have read them with or where. Increasingly, since so much of my reading is done out loud to my children, it seems natural to me that all reading should be shared reading of one sort or another. Sifting through text messages, chats, emails, and the letters and envelopes scattered around my office, I have pieced together a calendar of the books I have read and the people who made them matter.
January, February: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, “stories that show how the momentary convergence of yearning and surrender can make time hang still,” I shout first at Stephanie, then at the bartender serving us, before putting the thought in an essay on Williams; Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, Monkey Grip, and The Children’s Bach (“one of the best novels of the twentieth century,” Len writes to me after reading a draft of my essay on Garner)—novels built out of beautifully Brechtian tableaux. My calendar reminds me that most of February was spent at festivals and talks, reading on freezing trains. On a train to Harrogate: Dasa Drndić’s Doppelganger, which features an old lady giving an old man a hand job beat out to a Nazi alphabet primer. On a train to Cambridge: Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story, the best anatomization of how one person can colonize another’s thought after a break up. During a long weekend in New York: Drndić’s Belladonna, EEG, and Trieste for an essay about Drndić’s novels of unsuccessful self-annihilation. On a flight to Glasgow, Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, about an inexperienced, neurotic, young man seduced by a wry, charismatic, older woman.
March, April: Nightwood, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Giovanni’s Room, Housekeeping, Beloved, novels I re-read during the term with my students. (“Is modernism inherently depressing or do you just like depressing modernist novels?” one asks.); Siri Hustvedt’s fine and predictable Memories of the Future for a review. Obsessed with telescopes and other instruments of sight after scientists release the first image of a black hole, I read Margaret Cavendish’s mind-blowing The Blazing World and Poems and Fancies and Danielle Dutton’s enchanting novelization of Cavendish’s life, Margaret the First. I chase down some seventeenth century scholars, all of them named Katharine (why?), so I can learn how old telescopes work.
In mid-April, my friend Sarah comes to visit Oxford. A sense of civility and calm descends on my loud, disordered home. She airs out the cottage, opens a bottle of wine, roasts a chicken, and makes a salad, the likes of which my children have never seen before because I feed them only frozen peas, still frozen. We read together. The kids—The Jolly Postman, Each Peach Pear Plum, Julián Is a Mermaid, Tiny T-Rex and the Impossible Hug. She—Sally Rooney’s Normal People, interrupting her reading every ten minutes to groan at me. (I prefer Conversations with Friends.) Me—The Last Samurai, the pages of which have stiffened into little waves after I laughed so hard at DeWitt’s mad, philological genius that I dropped the book into the tub. To make Sarah happy again, I take her to Blackwell’s and make her buy her own copy of The Last Samurai, which has a nicer cover than mine because it’s the U.K. edition. She reads it in a single sitting the next day, draped over the couch in my office, and complains that Jonathan Safran Foer ripped off Helen DeWitt when he wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “Only his version was squishier,” she says.
At the very end of April, someone—I wish I could remember who, but I can’t—recommends Olive Moore’s Spleen, a forgotten modernist novel, painterly and queer, about the fearful eroticism of maternity. In Paris for work, I do an interview with British Vogue about “serious erotic fiction,” trying hard to convince the wide-eyed editor that Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is full of practical sex tips. On the flight to Guernsey for a festival, I read the first half of my friend Rachel’s forthcoming book On Compromise: Essays on Art and Democracy, which is bracing and sensitive and funny.
May: a month consumed by gradually escalating illnesses. A sniffle, a cold, a sinus infection, bronchitis. I am bravely preparing to die of tuberculosis in a garret somewhere when I receive a copy of Guy de Maupassant’s Like Death from Nicholas at the New York Review of Books. How does he know nothing heals me like a novel about French aristocrats and artists behaving badly? Convalescing, I blow through Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head at the urging of Sarah, who is convinced that my life is always one punch in the face away from a Murdoch novel. The recommendation is seconded by our friend Gloria. “When I gave this book to my roommate when we were twenty-two, she said she felt like bread that just discovered butter,” Gloria writes. “I have never forgotten that.” On the train to Cardiff for a talk, I read Adam Sach’s debut novel The Organs of Sense, which is extremely funny on seventeenth-century telescopes, blind astronomers, and the temporary luminosity of love.
June: Fleur Jaeggy’s novella Sweet Days of Discipline (cold, gleaming), then to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (eddying, frantic), poolside at Cliveden House where I burn badly, convinced that the English sun is too puny to warrant sun screen; Fran Ross’s Oreo after swimming the Thames, flanked by unarousable cows; Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, one of only three non-fiction books I will read this year and the inspiration for the bookish tattoo I get at the end of the month.
July: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, before a flight to Turkey to drop the kids off with my mother at her summer house on the coast. On the flight there, I read them the animal books they love: Just So Stories, Where the Wild Things Are, The Elephant and the Bad Baby. My last night at my mother’s, I stay up too late reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena, which I find on the shelf of the guest bedroom. I am mesmerized by how Frank—Milena calls him Frank; I will too—burdens this woman with his torment, yet how real and irreducible that torment seems. I am sad that Milena’s side of the correspondence has not survived. I like her voice as I encounter it in the appendix to the book, in a letter to Max Brod. It’s a voice that seeks reality and clarity and, glimpsing both, bends toward compassion. There’s an excellent description of how annoying it is to accompany Frank to the post office. I reread Lydia Davis’s short story “Kafka Cooks Dinner” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to hear the echoes of that voice, mined for its comic potential: “I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t.” On a flight to New York, I read over a dozen applications for the Whiting Non-Fiction Grant, though the one that I remember best, because it feels fated somehow, is a haunting new translation of Kafka’s diaries by Ross Benjamin.
August, back in the U.K., reunited with the kids: Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, because I have decided to include a chapter in this book I’m trying to finish writing on the short story and close reading; Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, because it’s “the new Ben Lerner” and because I used to be a high school debater. In the passenger seat on a drive to Cornwall, I pivot to read backwards to the kids—Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine, Ogden Nash’s Custard the Dragon, Julia Donaldson’s Tabby McTat, all of which I have memorized, so I can recite instead of reading—until I start to feel car sick. While they nap, I finish Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and begin Nicholas Mosley’s Accident, recommended by Claire, who describes Mosely as a “bloodless D.H. Lawrence”—lots of shadowy evil, too little golden sex. On the ride home, I write a short, exorcising essay on Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart, a grim, anti-Romantic novella about a woman who murders her cheating husband. The week after in Paris, everyone gets a 24-hour stomach bug, only no one gets it in the same 24 hours. The trip becomes a relay race of illness. The kids are listless, filthy. I read them their favorites: Lost and Found, Up and Down, How to Catch a Star, Stuck, The Incredible Book Eating Boy, all by the magnificent children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. I read chapter 42 of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady on my phone about a dozen times because his sentences stave off nausea.
September: On a trip to Boston and New York: Deborah Levy’s calm, aphoristic The Cost of Living—Sarah’s copy, a re-read from last December; Fleur Jaeggy’s S.S. Proleterka. Three Lives, and I Am the Brother of XX and Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, all courtesy of Mieke who invites me to raid her bookshelf at New Directions; the proofs for The Ferrante Letters with Kat, Jill, and Sarah, which I read aloud to us around Sarah’s kitchen table because I always read proofs aloud, though it is slow and excruciating. At a conference in South Bend, Nan recommends Susan Choi’s My Education, about a graduate student who sleeps with her literature professor’s wife, a literature professor too but also—shocking and confusing to all involved—a young mother. I read it on the plane home, and find that, like most relationships, the novel is fun and full of possibility in the first half, turns stale and falls apart in the second.
October: Len, who is on a one-man crusade against what he calls the “New Piety” in literary criticism, convinces me to read Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire. It starts out funny—Roth is trying hard to retool Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” as a comic novel—but Roth makes compulsive sexual desire into such a sad, annihilating thing that my laughter runs out quickly. In an afternoon, I read Isabel Waidner’s propulsive We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, a Brexit novel that manages to write about the present without making the present feel dated; in a night, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan’s Correspondence, which, though not as intense or agonized as Letters to Milena, still crackles with Celan’s despair and Bachmann’s self-possession. On a flight to Stockholm at the end of the month: Niklas Luhmann’s Love: A Sketch, for a talk I’m supposed to give preemptively titled “Critical Love Studies.” (What does this mean? I don’t know yet.)
November is frantic with reading to crowd out the holidays, which leave me bored and melancholy. There is Hermione Lee’s engrossing biography of Virginia Woolf and Volumes 2 and 3 of Woolf’s diaries for the new edition of Mrs. Dalloway I am annotating and introducing; John Berger’s sexy, phenomenologically attentive G., on Len’s recommendation, and Alison Light’s compassionate memoir about marriage and communism, A Radical Romance, on Pam’s; The Complete Gary Lutz for an essay on the un-erotics of art and sad literary men; all of Benjamin Chaud’s gorgeously illustrated Bear books to my children and the new Oliver Jeffers book The Fate of Fausto, a parable about an angry, possessive man for whom nothing in the world is enough. “What is enough?” my younger son asks. I do not know how to answer.
In mid-November, Diane Williams, who I have dinner and drinks with after a reading she gives in London, tells me to read John Cheever’s “The Season of Divorce.” I do, ending the year more or less where it started. Though by the time this piece goes up, I may finally finish Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I have been reading at a disciplined snail’s pace of 20 pages a night for the past several months.
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As writers and editors of flash fiction, we love stories that are structured around a story’s gaps, the nuanced caesuras of what’s left out. In fact, the promise of a good flash story—a genre usually defined as being less than 1,000 words—is the way a narrative moves through an escalating series of hints. There’s no expectation of comprehensiveness, and often little room for connective tissue; rather, flash fiction invites the reader to live in the spaces of a story and imagine what’s left out.
As list-makers, however, we wish we could have been more comprehensive. One list begets other lists, and in making this list, we realized how many more lists are needed for flash fiction as it continues to emerge and become ever more popular.
As a concession to the lack of comprehensiveness, we’ve broken this list into three categories: some of our favorite classics, a few go-to anthologies, and then a sprinkling of recent collections. Please, though, consider this list to be a piece of flash fiction itself—a series of hints toward other wonderful flash collections in the world, including ours, Nothing Short of 100, a collection of the best 100-word stories from 100 Word Story magazine.
Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata
Yasunari Kawabata, the 2oth-century Japanese writer and Nobel Prize Winner, wrote short shorts before the category of flash fiction existed. He called his stories “palm-of-the-hand” stories because they were so small they could essentially fit in one’s palm.
This collection includes a total of 70 stories drawn from 1922 until Kawabata’s death in 1972 (he died in a gas-filled room, a probable suicide). He started writing the stories as his way to write poetry. Each one of his miniatures is molded by a spare understatement, a suggestiveness that comes from his painterly eye for detail, a focus on the telling perception.
Kawabata was so dedicated to an aesthetics of concision that he even condensed his most famous novel, Snow Country, into an 11-page story, “Gleanings from Snow Country,” which appears in this collection.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis is as close as you’ll get to royalty in the flash fiction genre. Sometimes it can seem as if she invented brevity. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis includes 200 pieces, amounting to just 700 pages (an average of approximately three pages per story), 30 years’ worth of work.
Davis’s distinctive voice pulls stories from our everyday concerns, misunderstandings, and mishaps to fashion short shorts that are wry and wise. Her best stories explore the chasm of love, with narrators obsessively going through lists and chronologies of events to try to understand what happened. Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot. Some stories, in fact, are just a single sentence or two. As Jonathan Franzen said, “She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us.”
Clarice Lispector: The Complete Stories
If Elena Ferrante met Lydia Davis, they might write somewhat like the late Clarice Lispector. Dark, sharp, moody, yet sometimes focused on prosaic themes and occurrences, these stories represent the beloved Brazilian writer’s work from adolescence to the end of her life.
Lispector’s stories, sometimes a little bit mad, certainly delirious, decenter the reader in exhilarating and exhausting ways. “Coherence, I don’t want it anymore,” a character in one of her stories thinks. “Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.” Brevity plus disorder makes for fascinating aesthetic.
Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek
Ecstatic Cahoots starts with two lines of dialogue — “You’re going to leave your watch on?” / “You’re leaving on your cross?” — that recur throughout the collection in different situations, like the refrain of a song or poem that changes meaning through repetition.
The collection includes 50 stories that range in length from two lines to 13 pages. Many of Dybek’s quirky miniature masterpieces are a type of prose poem, and you might even say some read as prayers. In an interview with 100 Word Story, he said that one target to aim for in flash fiction is a “profound suggestiveness,” and with such a technique in hand he makes the small moments in his stories have big meanings.
99 Stories of God by Joy Williams
99 Stories of God is a collection of radically compressed stories, many barely a page long, some just a single paragraph, with a quirky and jabbing whimsy that is reminiscent of Lydia Davis. Not all of the stories are written about God, but they are all written with a sacred adherence to Emily Dickinson’s guide to writing: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Williams plays with deep questions in her stories, such as the existence and invisibility of God. Her disjointed connections, piercing details, and brutal humor jar one’s notions of the world, and often leave one baffled, but in the best of ways.
Flash Fiction Anthologies
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field
If you want a mentor text to guide you into writing flash fiction, there’s no better book than this one. The book is a true field guide, with probing essays on the art of flash fiction by such masters as Steve Almond, Pamela Painter, Robert Olen Butler, Deb Olin Unferth, Ron Carlson, and Jayne Anne Phillips. The book is designed as a teaching resource, but its essays, prompts, and exercises equip any flash writer to explore how constraints can open up a different kind of creativity and invite in unconventional approaches.
Best Small Fictions Anthologies
Publisher Braddock Avenue Books describes Best Small Fictions as “the first contemporary anthology solely devoted to honoring the best short hybrid fiction published in a calendar year.” Founded by Tara L. Masih in 2015 and annually staffed with the genre’s most respected writers and editors, the annual series is eagerly awaited by nominated writers while also serving as a sort of primer for those wanting to understand the evolution of the short-short form.
The 2018 Best Small Fictions will showcase 53 stories that first appeared in a range of literary publications—from a 50-word short in the tiny hand-stapled Blink-Ink to a longer piece from The New Yorker—and highlight another 101 finalists.
New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction
Micro fiction is defined as a story that is less than 300 words. This anthology, coming out in August, includes newcomers and established writers alike: Amy Hempel, Kim Addonizio, Richard Brautigan, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, and James Tate among them. The anthology is the latest from James Thomas, who along with Robert Shapard, helped put flash fiction on the writing map with their series of flash fiction anthologies (Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Flash Fiction International) that began decades ago. This time, Thomas teamed with microfiction author Robert Scotellaro (who wrote a notable collection of 100-word stories, Bad Motel, and has work in 100 Word Story as well).
Recent Flash We’re Excited By
Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith
Cross-Smith’s stories are Southern with a capital S, steeped in cigarette smoke, whiskey, and sex. In this collection, lovers cheat and regret, embrace and fight, make out and make up. Evocative and written in a warm, confident style, the stories in this collection make you feel like you’re sitting with an old friend on a porch in summer, talking about life, sipping something so good it burns.
Dictionary Stories by Jez Burrows
Flash fiction invites unconventional approaches to telling stories in such a small space, as exemplified by Jez Burrows’s Dictionary Stories. Burrows became obsessed with the italicized example sentences in dictionaries and began playing with them, remixing them into idiosyncratic pieces of short fiction. It all started when Burrows looked up the word “study,” and saw this dramatic story starter: “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.” The collection, which includes 150 stories, was spawned by a popular Tumblr blog, and each story is categorized by topic, whether it’s “dating” or “the occult.”
Other Household Toxins by Christopher Allen
A respected editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, Allen collected his own stories for seven years before publishing his book with Matter Press. He moves smoothly between the everyday and the surreal, with a focus on fathers and sons, lovers, and taboo, moving easily between hard and gentle tales.
Pretty by Kim Chinquee
Sophisticated, restrained, and even slightly aloof, Chinquee’s stories often focus on love lost, found, and squandered. This collection is for studying and re-reading, with images and characters sometimes appearing teasingly just on the edge of our field of vision.
Damn Sure Right by Meg Pokrass
When you read Meg Pokrass, you know she was once a poet. In fact, she’s taken many of her poems and transformed them into stories—perhaps the perfect activity for any flash fiction author. But to present her fiction as guided mainly by lyricism is misleading. There are few authors out there as daring and honest and real as Meg Pokrass. She possesses that rare gift of a writer, knowing how to poetically tell a tale while not flinching from the uncomfortable truths she discovers along the way.
Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song by Kara Vernor
Kara Vernor’s work is world weary yet hopeful, her characters inhabiting malls, amusement parks, video stories, blue collar neighborhoods. With an unflinching voice, Vernor tells stories largely about girls and women who are trying to figure out life and find their place in it. Read “Ferris Wheel,” a remarkable micro about a blind date with the hopes of the narrator lifting up and dropping like an old, creaky ride.
On the Edges of Vision by Helen McClory
Dark and disturbing, these stories don’t shy away from violence and grit. If nothing else, read “Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break” to see just how masterfully McClory mingles the surreal ramblings of the victim with our everyday obsession with crime. This flash alone is a downright harrowing social commentary on women as victims—and entertainment.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published a book of essays on creativity with Chronicle Books, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. He’s also published a collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, which have been included in The Best Small Fictions 2016 and the new W.W. Norton Anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories.
Lynn Mundell is co-founder and co-editor of 100 Word Story and co-editor of its anthology, Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story, as well as a managing editor at a large health care organization. Her short-short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in many U.S. and U.K. literary journals, including Tin House online, Booth, Superstition Review, Portland Review, Permafrost, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, The Sun, and Five Points, as well as in anthologies including New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company, August 2018). Lynn earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University and is an advisory board member of the U.C. Berkeley Extension Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Writing.
Beret Olsen is a writer, photographer, teacher, and long-time proponent of the Oxford comma. Currently, Beret teaches black and white film photography in the Bay Area, where she lives with her husband and two pre-tweens. She writes two blogs: Bad Parenting 101 and LobeStir, and you can find her photography at www.beretolsen.com.
Jon Roemer is publisher/senior editor of Outpost19, an award-winning publishing house based in San Francisco. His writing has appeared at The Writer, OZY, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, 3:AM and elsewhere. Jon studied literature and fiction writing at Northwestern and Arizona and has developed creative projects for a handful of Fortune 100 companies.
Image Credit: Pexels.
I wish I knew why the U.S. Army never tried to weaponize old photos. When you look at the government’s history, which includes such episodes as the gay bomb, it’s difficult not to conclude they’ve researched nigh-on everything, to the point where you could justify a grim variant of Rule 34. If it exists, in other words, the Army has attempted to kill with it. Yet, as far as I know, our top military minds never tried to kill people with embarrassment. I guess even the cruelest officer has a flicker of basic decency.
I read a lot this year, enough so that I’m not embarrassed about it, but I didn’t read all that many books in total, which seems like a bit of a paradox. How can I call myself a reader if I read so few books in that time? The answer, I think, lies in a photo, taken when I was 15. I’m contorting my face in a dimly-lit hall in my high school. My style, generally speaking, is that of Kurt Cobain, not because I’m some kind of super fan but because I’m sad and oblivious. I have unkempt, greasy hair, my shirt is ugly and baggy, and the cargo pants I’m wearing are somewhere near 80 percent pocket. I make it clear with every gesture my patron saint is Luc of Ennui. In my arms, a pile of books, so fat my elbow is a right angle. If you look at my friends, you’ll see they have around the same number of books in their arms, yet somehow I’m the only one who’s struggling not to fall over. Look closer and you see the culprit — one book in my pile is a doorstop.
When I was a freshman, that book was Ulysses. When I was a sophomore, Gravity’s Rainbow. At some point in ninth grade, I decided huge books were key to being smart and attractive, a thought so wrong I could write my own huge book meticulously debunking it. I was That Guy, more so than I could possibly know, and I hope I satisfy your schadenfreude when I say I barely understood what I read. I plowed through these massive tomes and got maybe two pages of meaning. What I did get, however, was a taste for the rhythm of huge books, which can be summed up as: you’ll be here for months, perhaps even years, so you might as well get comfortable, like a tenant.
All this explains why, around the the time Can’t and Won’t came out, I felt the stirrings of a deadly, ancient urge, the warblings of my sullen Inner Teen. “Hi there, douchebag,” said the teen, his posture terrible. “Why not read ALL the stories written by Lydia Davis?”
“Okay,” I said. “Please learn to shave and use deodorant.”
I bought a copy of Collected Stories that day. Altogether, it took me four months to read, which begs a simple question: was it worth it?
Please. Is it worth it to give money to charity and feed stray puppies in the street? Is it worth it to exercise and strive to live true to your values? To ask me if it’s worth it to read Lydia Davis is a bit like asking me if it’s worth it to learn new languages. Both activities are self-evidently nourishing, and no one needs guidance to see that.
For 30 years, since Break It Down was published, Lydia Davis has been churning out a singular, high-quality product, taking seemingly no detours into other, lesser breeds of stories. If Can’t and Won’t is any indication, she’ll be keeping it up for a long time. Early works like “French Lesson No. 1” are just as inventive and sly as things like the more recent “Idea for a Sign.” There is, I think, no “bad” Lydia Davis, in much the same way there is no bad Scottish tweed, or no bad bottles of new Jameson whiskey. Her stories reliably function as literary submersibles, dropping readers canyon-deep in a bracingly smart frame of mind.
The problem with reading huge books is it’s hard to start a new one after you finish. By then, it feels like a sort of betrayal, a break in a hallowed routine. That’s why I chose something broadly similar in the form of New American Stories. I’d read a few already, among them “Home” by George Saunders, but the contents (ably picked by Ben Marcus) supplied me with a whole new roster of writers to mainline. Chief among them were Rebecca Curtis, Said Sayrafiezadeh, and Rebecca Glaser, but I was perhaps most floored by Maureen McHugh, whose story in the book is best described as futuristic Chinese noir. The warp-speed “Going for a Beer” shows Robert Coover is still going strong, and “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” gave me a grounding in Mary Gaitskill. And, of course, there’s the 78-word-long “Men,” a Lydia Davis story that appears in Can’t and Won’t.
I therefore spent the bulk of my reading time on two pretty hefty collections. One was 0.1 percent Lydia Davis while the other was 100 percent. Did I have a good year? I don’t know. Do you like Jameson?
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Early summer 2007, I spent all my non-working hours sitting next to the warm, greasy swimming pool of my apartment complex listening to Hanson’s “MMMBop” on repeat through a crummy pair of earbuds. I was, admittedly, feeling a bit lost at this point in my life, so there was something comforting in recognizing and fulfilling my part in such a straightforward symbiotic relationship: my job was to listen to “MMMBop,” and the job of “MMMBop” was to make me want to keep listening. As long as I kept hitting repeat, something in the world was working exactly how it was supposed to.
Around this same time, I was getting serious about writing fiction, and one day a question occurred to me: Is there a literary equivalent of pop music? Is it even possible to reproduce that catchiness, that playfulness, that danceability with the written word?
I certainly want it to be possible, so I’ve been kicking the question around ever since. It’s a tough one to answer, though. One big challenge lies in defining pop music, a genre that encompasses everything from “We Belong Together” to “The Twist” to “Shake It Off.”
Most broadly, pop music is music that’s popular. Based on that definition, the answer to my question is obvious: The literary equivalent of pop music is literature that’s popular. Pull up The New York Times bestseller list, see what’s at the top, and there you go — nice and easy. But to paraphrase the great Tina Turner, we’re not going to do this nice and easy. We’re going to do this nice and rough — to understand how pop music works, we’re going to look at an explanation of how popular movies work according to Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return,” a short story which itself might be the literary equivalent of a pop song.
At the beginning of Bolaño’s story, the unnamed narrator dies — “death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning” — and then, as a ghost, follows his corpse around to observe its postmortem fate. In describing the experience of dying, the narrator invokes the 1990 Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze movie Ghost. When he saw the movie in theatres, the narrator dismissed it as kitsch, especially the scene where Patrick Swayze’s character dies and “his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.” However, much to the narrator’s chagrin, on dying he finds himself, a disembodied soul, staring down at his own corpse: “I was stunned. First, because I had died, which always comes as a surprise, except, I guess, in some cases of suicide, and then because I was unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost.” The movie’s depiction of dying may be completely inane, but it also turns out to be true.
Though initially dismayed that such a meaningful moment in his own life so closely resembles the death scene from Ghost, the narrator’s opinion of the movie improves after some consideration. Though he prided himself in life on being a man of refined taste, he concedes after his death that “there is sometimes more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” The narrator discovers that in Ghost, the truth about death is hiding in plain sight, obscured not by layers of symbolism or ambiguity, but by its own kitschiness. Because it resembles so many other lazy Hollywood depictions of death, it might seem meaningless, but banality and truth are not mutually exclusive, an idea that’s key to understanding pop songs.
Take the lyrics of “MMMBop,” which manage to be completely bland, and at the same time, deeply preoccupied with some heavy existential ideas. About a third of the way through the song, the brothers put forth the following proposition: “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose / You can plant any one of those / Keep planting to find out which one grows / It’s a secret no one knows.” That last line signals a preoccupation with the unknowability of the future that only increases as the song continues, reaching an apex with the final insistent refrain: “Can u tell me? oh / No you can’t ‘cause you don’t know / Can you tell me? / You say you can but you don’t know / Say you can but you don’t know.” Amid all the ba duba dops, then, Hanson is wrestling with a relentlessly ambiguous universe and a completely unknowable future. These are big ideas — truly — and I’m not cherry-picking lines, either. Take a look at the full lyrics of the song, and the existential preoccupations become even more apparent. Ghost-like, Hanson’s song obscures its insights by stating them so unremarkably. The larger insights are also obscured by the fact that the lyrics are nearly unintelligible as sung, and while that may be completely appropriate to their larger thematic interest in the incoherent, it does mean that they lose their frightened edge for listeners and fail to create contrast with the song’s sunny melodies.
A better and more recent example of a pop song grappling with big ideas that we “can’t or don’t want to understand” is Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Where “MMMBop” focuses on unknowability, “Call Me Maybe” explores the frighteningly compulsive nature of infatuation. Again, there’s an occasional triteness to the lyrics, especially in the verses, that belies its weighty preoccupations. A line like “I trade my soul for a kiss” may be hackneyed enough to blow by unnoticed, but it’s still describing a willingness to make a Faustian bargain. Adding to the singer’s angst is her self-awareness that the infatuation in question is just that — an unexpected (“I wasn’t looking for this”), unshakeable (“but now you’re in my way”) obsession with a near stranger (“Hey I just met you”). The singer finds herself in thrall to forces beyond her control, but what delights and disturbs me most about “Call Me Maybe” is the way it replicates that same compulsion in its listeners, just as Ghost’s depiction of dying is mirrored in the narrator’s own death.
In a 2013 interview with Mashable, Taylor Hanson (of Hanson) lays out his criteria for a great pop song: “Does it get in your head? Do you sing it over and over? Do you wanna sing it?” That last question gets at one of the more unsettling qualities of a catchy pop song, that sometimes, even if we don’t want to, we might find ourselves not only replaying a song again and again in our minds, but actually singing it out loud and maybe even dancing. It’s such a commonplace occurrence that it’s easy to think nothing of it, but really there’s a kind of possession taking place, a mysterious outside force commandeering our minds and compelling us to use our bodies (to sing or to dance) in ways that are not always voluntary. A catchy song is not unlike that creepy fungus that hijacks the brains of ants and compels them to climb higher and higher and higher so the fungus can sprout from the ant’s head and spread its spores.
And that compulsion brings us back to “The Return,” where the narrator’s dismay arises in large part from the fact that he’s “unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost” (my italics). He’s become an active participant in a piece of art which he disapproves of, and it’s happening against his will. At this point, though, the effects of pop music diverge from the dynamic in Bolaño’s story. In “The Return,” there’s no indication that the narrator’s death resembles that scene in Ghost because he saw the movie; there’s no causality there. Instead, the movie is accurately (and probably accidentally) describing a phenomenon that the movie itself has no direct effect on.
In contrast, a song like “Call Me Maybe” not only describes the frighteningly compulsive experience of infatuation (just as Ghost depicts the experience of death), it also generates a new compulsion in its listeners, a compulsion to sing along and dance along and, at the height of the song’s popularity a few years ago, to produce lip-sync tribute videos. This last phenomenon is pop music possession at its most explicit. If you haven’t seen any of these videos, here’s how they work: A group of people, sometimes famous, sometimes not, films themselves lip-syncing to Jepson’s song, and then they post their video on YouTube. These videos are then viewed (tens of millions of times, in some cases) by people who, in turn, create lip-sync videos of their own, and so it goes, on and on and on.
Unlike the narrator of “The Return,” these lip-syncers go out of their way to channel a piece of popular art through their own bodies; there’s a palpable eagerness there to be a conduit for the song. This is where Taylor Hanson’s third criteria is illuminating — plenty of pop songs might get stuck in your head, but a great pop song is one you want to get stuck in your head. It’s a form of voluntary possession in which the makers of these tribute videos capture — and create — a very public form of ecstatic experience, of being swept by something big and incomprehensible.
Because there is something big and incomprehensible about songs like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe.” I just checked and, three years after its release, the official music video for “Call Me Maybe” has over half a billion views on YouTube. Granted, it’s a plenty catchy song that holds up on repeat listens, but who can fully account for that degree of widespread enthusiasm? There’s something majestic and frightening in the scope of its popularity which for me pushes “Call Me Maybe” into the territory of the sublime. To borrow 18th-century essayist Joseph Addison’s description of the Alps, Jepson’s song, and others like it, “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” That seemingly irreconcilable tension — agreeability and horror — is essential to great pop music.
This is why, for instance, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the greatest pop album of all time. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones astutely foreground that tension between agreeability and horror throughout, creating music and lyrics (and music videos) that are catchy and danceable, and at the same time, preoccupied with discomfort. In “Billie Jean,” the tension arises from a baby’s disputed paternity. In “Beat It,” it’s knife fights. In “Thriller,” it’s werewolves. And start to finish, the album is compulsively listenable. Even the train wreck of “The Girl is Mine” (the doggone girl is mine — what?) is hard to turn away from.
So, to return to our initial question — if these are great pop songs, then what are their literary equivalents? (I’m going to exclude poetry at the outset as being too close to music to be an equivalent.) We’ve already looked at some key concerns and characteristics of pop music — compulsion and tension, agreeability and horror, banality and truth. I’d also add that pop songs are short, usually under five minutes, so their literary equivalent needs to be short as well. For that reason I’m excluding novels. Short stories, though, can be read in one sitting.
And of course, great pop songs have great hooks, so their literary equivalent needs to be both attention-grabbing and memorable. For a perfect case in point, here are the first lines of “The Return:” “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.” It’s a memorable opening — and premise — that in lesser hands might produce a story that coasts on shock value. Instead, Bolaño develops a complex and surprising relationship between the narrator’s ghost and (fictional) French fashion designer Jean-Claude Villeneuve.
Like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe,” “The Return” capitalizes on a tension between the agreeable and the horrible. While certain elements of the story — death, necrophilia — might inspire unease or distaste in readers, other elements — the story’s humor, its compassion — make the story not just palatable, but pleasant. It’s a fun read that also grapples with overwhelming concepts like death, compulsion, sex, and loneliness.
For all its pop-musicality, though, “The Return” is not an especially well-known story, at least not yet. And while we have rejected popularity as the sole defining characteristic of pop music, it is an important element. For that reason, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” serves as a useful case study. Like “The Return,” it’s a story with a horrifying core — the random and ritualistic selection of a small-town resident for stoning — made agreeable by its engaging narrative elements — a stunning concision, a compelling sense of mystery. The story has also achieved the ubiquity of a “Hey Ya!” or an “Imagine.” Everyone reads this story in junior high, and with the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” no other 20th-century short story has insinuated itself so completely into the pop culture lexicon.
“The Lottery” also shares with “The Return” a counterfactual, high-concept premise that resists easy allegorizing. This play with realism correlates to another widespread characteristic of pop songs, the nonsense lyric. The chorus of “MMMBop” is fun to sing along with and it also means nothing, at least in a conventional sense. What’s more, you’re not going to find a lot of people puzzling over what mmmbop ba duba dop actually signifies, because signification isn’t the point.
No story exemplifies this dynamic better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” in which a winged old man shows up outside the house of a poor couple where he’s caged and examined until, at the end of the story, he flies away. The story’s characters, as well as its readers, find themselves asking questions that listeners of “MMMBop” don’t bother with — what does this nonsensical figure mean? But the story’s refusal to yield any clues as to the old man’s provenance or nature makes a strong case that we should read the story the same way we listen to the chorus of “MMMBop.” It matters less what the old man means, and more how his enigmatic presence fits within and affects the rest of the narrative.
Of course, some readers will persist in being frustrated by “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” just as many listeners are enraged by pop songs like “MMMBop” or “Call Me Maybe.” I think that’s true, actually, of all three stories I’ve mentioned, that they’re just as likely to inspire consternation as admiration.
Part of the reason for that is their ability to get under a reader’s skin. You may hate “The Lottery,” but if you’ve read it, you’re likely to remember it for a very long time. Similarly, people who hate “MMMBop” don’t hate it because it’s forgettable, they hate it because they can’t get it out of their head. Even that hatred, though, is a remarkable artistic feat. Love and hate are, after all, both forms of devotion, and the ability to inspire that devotion is, the more I think about it, the most essential characteristic of a truly great pop song.
When, in 2007, I fell in love with “MMMBop,” I felt an irresistible urge to share the song with others, to ask them to listen and to consider if maybe, like me, they’d dismissed it too readily when it first came out 10 years earlier. We’ve already discussed how that compulsion to share is a strange, overwhelming force, and it’s a compulsion I feel again now. As I’ve thought through the possible criteria for determining the literary equivalent of a pop song, I’ve thought of so many stories that fit the bill, stories that have gotten under my skin, stories that I have to share. Unable to resist that urge, I’ve put together a Thriller-sized playlist of nine pop-musical short stories:
1. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson (from The Lottery and Other Stories)
2. “The Return,” by Roberto Bolaño (from The Return)
3. “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’Connor (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)
The names alone of the two main characters (Manley Pointer and Hulga) are worth the price of admission, and the story just gets better from there. Its jokey setup — a woman with a PhD in philosophy sets out to corrupt a naïve-seeming bible salesman — serves as a funny vehicle for a troubling exploration of condescension and pain.
4. “UFO in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami (from After the Quake)
After the Kobe earthquake of 1995, Komura’s wife leaves him, explaining in a note, “you are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” What follows has the feel of a verse/chorus/bridge song structure as seemingly disparate narrative elements — the accusing note, a package whose contents are unknown to Komura, an extended conversation with the sister of a colleague — trade back and forth until they all come together, more-or-less, at the end of the story.
5. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Collected Stories)
6. “The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall,” by Lydia Davis (from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)
A prison recreation hall is infested with cats and then the warden gets rid of them — that’s basically the whole story. But the simple premise yields an engaging pop-song-short two-page narrative about power, cruelty, and the passing of time.
7. “End of the Line,” by Aimee Bender (from Willful Creatures)
“The man went to a pet store to buy a little man to keep him company.”
Another killer hook, this time for a story that takes a whimsical premise and follows it to dark places. By the end, the reader is left with the troubling question of whether the big man subjects the little man to a series of cruel humiliations because he can’t see his pet’s humanity or because he can.
8. “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by Steven Millhauser (from We Others: New and Selected Stories)
Nineteenth-century Austrian magician Eisenheim stages increasingly audacious illusions that captivate the public and trouble government officials. It’s not just the descriptions of the magic tricks that captivate, though. The narrative itself contains flourishes and reveals that, rather than feel cheap or contrived, organically grow out of the story’s interests in spectacle.
9. Dormitory, by Yoko Ogawa (from The Diving Pool)
Tiny mysteries accumulate in this story, creating a tone both haunting and precise. The narrative’s indelible physical details — a stained ceiling, omnipresent bees, rigorous five-item to-do lists — ground the reader in a distinctly tangible world, which makes the dread-filled, disorienting effect of the story’s conclusion all the more affecting.
Image Credit: Flickr/modomatic.
This was a year of short stories, of picking up a book around midnight, when common sense dictated I should have been asleep, and refusing to set it down until two or three, at which point there was basically no hope of salvaging the following morning. This year was too hectic for grand scopes and labyrinthine plots. If I was lucky, those few evening hours in which I got to read wiped out the detritus of the workday, replacing them with voices and characters that scattered at the sound of my phone’s alarm. For a while I’ve thought that short stories, more so than other forms, are perfectly suited to adult life, if only because they accomodate the low-level amnesia of the stressed. The chronically busy person reads Alice Munro, say, and gets her brief hit of human frailty, which she then takes with her to the post office, or the doctor, or dinners packed with relatives.
I needed dependably good work, in other words, which is why, back in May, I picked up the latest Rivka Galchen book, American Innovations, on the morning it came out. (On Kindle, mind. I haven’t camped out for anything since I was young enough to hoard Transformers.) In 2010, just before the end of my post-college underemployment, The New Yorker released its 20 under 40 list, which included several authors I was already a little bit obsessed with. I read through the entire collection in the space of a week, envying the skills on display in the entries by Karen Russell and Wells Tower, among others. But it wasn’t until I got to “The Entire Northern Side was Covered with Fire,” Galchen’s perfect tale of a pregnant writer whose husband has left her, that I felt too dazed to go through with my schedule of planned errands and tasks. Written in the looping, contradictory sentences of a very smart person in shock, the story is tragic and wry, unveiling the deceptions of the narrator’s husband through a series of confessions by her friend. When I was finished, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of this writer, who understood with a rare clarity how the mind tries to reckon with turmoil.
That piece, with slight modifications, appears in American Innovations, as do several other examples of first-class work. A remarkable thing about the collection is how well it captures the messiness at the heart of civilized life. In “The Region of Unlikeness,” a woman who befriends two odd, pretentious strangers comes to realize, after hearing one of them detail his eccentric view of space-time, that one or perhaps both of her new friends are painfully, incurably disturbed. In “Wild Berry Blue,” a woman meets a gyro shop worker who looks exactly like her dead father, inspiring reflections on “the vast distances between nuclei and electrons.” In all the book’s stories, the mysteries of science and philosophy, of meticulously organized attempts to find order in a baffling universe, are kin with garden-variety moments of unreality. They incite a sense that bewilderment is the sanest reaction to the world.
Of course, I read other things, too. These included Flying to America, a posthumous collection of characteristically wacked-out Donald Barthelme stories, as well as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, which can function as a bible for a certain kind of person. (I am that kind of person.) And I also read more stories by Barry Hannah, the freewheeling, half-drunk uncle I always wish I’d had. But none of these books, great though they were, occupied me in quite the way that American Innovations did. As one of the book’s characters puts it, “there’s your life, and then you get a glimpse of the vastness of the unknown all around that little itty-bitty island of the known.”
That island is where I live. That island is where all of us live. Let’s not kid ourselves about how far out we can see.
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Zoltán Abádi-Nagy: The Faustian pact with the devil is nothing but giving up originality, isn’t it? And vice versa, a painter, Wyatt, manipulated into selling his soul, giving up originality, is bound to be Faustian, besides being emblematic of the artist’s position in a corrupt, manipulative, counterfeit world. Is this a correct interpretation of Wyatt’s central function as a Faust figure?
William Gaddis: It is, yes, originality also being Satan’s “original sin” if you like. I think also, further, I tried to make clear that Wyatt was the very height of a talent but not a genius — quite a different thing. Which is why he shrinks from going ahead in, say, works of originality. He shrinks from this and takes refuge in what is already there, which he can handle, manipulate. He can do quite perfect forgeries, because the parameters of perfection are already there.
—“The Art of Fiction No. 101,” The Paris Review, Winter 1987
Writers, if you can call them that, are cowards. They are afraid of being too different from one another. Easily the most pernicious lie they tell themselves is that they have a calling — that they belong to a metaphysical caste with others like them in some ineffable way. This quality may not be something within their powers to describe, as they’d be the first to admit, but that won’t stop them, for they are writers. They will find the words. By an irritating logic, writers may be accidentally correct in this belief of a species-wide likeness, the likeness being that silly belief.
When there is no writing out there to speak for itself, the writer talks about writing. Maybe they write a story about it. Or an essay. Or they read a story/essay about writing, which is an elegant way of avoiding writing, because it provides a writerly fog that nearly simulates writing itself. It’s all very tiresome, because of course you can’t properly write about writing — you just drone on about “the process,” or your close attention to the texture of this world, or your drinking problem, or whether MFA programs destroyed the craft (as if there was anything to destroy). Leaving aside the obvious benefits of a good writing workshop — deadlines, clashing viewpoints, sex — it’s clear they feed the fantasy that writers can coexist at a single set of coordinates. They allow a frivolous, narrow habit to resemble a vocation.
This has already been written about, exhaustively, and writing about it further will only encourage more of that same writing. When a writer writes what we’ll call a book, that book is pitched and sold as a book in the model of other books that came before, and the writer is identified as a writer happily related to several successful writers. This is utilitarian shorthand after a fashion, but it also reinforces the fear of originality. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis blurbs its author as both “heir to the shredding wit and poignancy of Dorothy Parker and the shrewd surrealism of Donald Barthelme” (Donna Seaman, Booklist) and a writer whom there is “no one like” (Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier). Well, which is it?
Admitting that language succeeds through contagion and mutability, it seems redundant to insist that no writer is truly original. But in despairing at that unattainable, likely unpublishable ideal, writers retreat too hastily into the traditional romans-á-clef, the same stunt journalism that a cycling of taste demands. The reasoning appears to be: if you can’t be a unique writer, have the markings of a generic. Glamorize your squalid room in the bohemian part of a bright metropolis. Peddle opinions on the books you read (if you read). Consort with other writers.
Except how friendly can two writers be? They are jealous of each other’s luck, scornful of each other’s methods. Slander flies thick behind backs. And because writers can focus on the business of books while overlooking books themselves, there is little need to have arguments about what has actually been written. Instead of Nabokov gleefully demolishing Dostoyevsky’s idea of the psyche, or David Markson noting mystic “bullshit” in the margins of DeLillo’s novels, it’s an unpacking of a critique of the hyperbole around Jonathan Franzen. This would be writing, not feeling.
What dark, original feelings writers have — and suppress in the interest of community — are purged as the calculated outbursts of token enfants terribles and bitter old cranks (the former smoothly becoming the latter, as Martin Amis can attest). To parse a book’s account of reality, consciousness, and time is to fly too close to the sun; the stakes are simply too high. Better to pigeonhole the prose style. To fetishize the small, lovely sentence. To address the writer’s eccentricities off the page, which he or she is transparently eager to name. Writers, assigned to write about other writing, skip over the gut reaction to nitpick, evading the biggest questions posed. Frightened of their problematic voices, they adopt synthetic tones, stripped of all that troublesome bias but saddled with its outcomes regardless. A century after William James, no one will confess to having a temperament.
You could have ignored the remarks above, and no harm would have befallen you. They are not especially provocative, in that there is nothing to provoke. It is unclear who should actually care what they mean. None of them are meant to suggest that things used to be different, or will soon change, because who knows how things used to or will be. Writing is just what some people do, whenever they stop writing about it. It is an art, as Gaddis had it, for which we can set the parameters of perfection. Why we should want to is, for the moment, beyond answering.
Image credit: design.mein/Flickr