Best American Non-Required Reading 2011, and Ben Tanzer’s Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine: finished. Also finished: Artifice Issue 4 (which I read, but can honestly say that I probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind to understand or comment upon, so we’ll take a pass on that one…Artifice is a great literary magazine, but man, its unique mix of poetry and prose that is “aware of its own artifice” isn’t always the best choice for a man running on two or three hours of sleep). But if you’ve been reading this series, you get the general theme, right? Short. Short books, short stories. Short short short.
The other two thin volumes I decided upon for the month of January were even shorter than Tanzer’s book: Ryan Bradley’s Prize Winners and Roxane Gay’s Ayiti, neither more than 120 pages, and both from the rising small-press publisher Artistically Declined (who also published Tanzer’s popular You Can Make Him Like You). And maybe this sounds a little strange, but as I held each book, I instantly realized that these were the perfect-sized books for a man with a baby in his arms. Smooth surface, but not slippery-smooth. Not too heavy, not too tough to hold with a single hand. And no, I don’t need two hands to lift a paperback (I’m not that out-of-shape), but some books can be very difficult to hold one-handed; you’ve got to have your fingers in the perfect position to prop the book open, to pin the pages back on either side. And when I opened Prize Winners to read the first story, I felt…happy…comfortable.
So did the book’s content live up to the first impression formed from the book-as-accessory? (After all, approaching a book with a good attitude can do wonders. I approached Alice Munro’s Selected Stories with disdain and negativity, and so I wound up hating way more of it than I should have.)
Though I’m familiar with Ryan Bradley as a writer, editor, and cover artist, I hadn’t read much of his work before ordering Prize Winners. Maybe an online story here or there. And as I positioned Jackson on my chest and settled into the rocking chair in my living room, I think I even had some misguided view that Prize Winners would be a series of Alaska stories. When that wasn’t the case, I assumed—judging by the title—that this book would be some satirical send-up of pretentious “prize stories” one might find in a dry academic anthology. And while I don’t necessarily think that was Bradley’s over-arching theme for his book, I do think that my characterization of the collection is helpful for the outside reader deciding whether or not to pick up Prize Winners. The back cover promises “stories not for the faint of heart…or loins,” and I guess that’s pretty accurate. No false advertising. This is a collection of sexually explicit and/or lewd stories, a heavy focus on sexual conflict or even deviancy. There’s a story called “Pubes,” FYI, so if you buy this and expect the dry academic prize winners, it’s really your own fault.
Each of Bradley’s fictions is short, which (in addition to the awesome size of the book itself) was helpful for me, allowing me a quick read while rocking Baby Jackson before taking a break and zooming him around the house on an airplane ride, or putting my full attention into bouncing him on my knees and forcing a massive burp. Truth be told, I’ve always had a nagging fear—while reading in situations where my attention could be compromised at a moment’s notice—that I won’t get to the end of a page in time, or that I will be stuck in the middle of some gigantic dense paragraph, and I’ll look over, and the (let’s just say) pasta pot will be boiling over, or my friends will ring the doorbell, and I’ll need to jump out of my seat to turn off the burner or open the door or whatever, and when I return to the book, I won’t know my place. Such a stupid fear. But I’ve had it all my life. Anyway, from that perspective, Prize Winners was perfect for me, the right book at the right time. Stories of three pages, four at most.
But I’ve got to admit that this conception of “perfect” was also a scary thought: while reading Bradley’s collection, I started to wonder if I would need to give up on novels for awhile. Yes, I’d finished Tanzer’s book, but I already mentioned the downsides of chapter-by-chapter novel reading in my last post. And sure, I enjoy short fiction (and flash fiction), but nothing compares to the experience of reading a good novel. Not a short story, not a poem, not an essay of any length, not a movie. A good novel invites all of those reading clichés about “losing yourself in another world,” or “becoming another person for awhile.” Giving up novels, for me, would be almost as bad as giving up on beer and pizza.
So anyway, Prize Winners was quick, and some of it was clever and new, and the reading experience was light and fun, but it wasn’t an “experience.” In fact (and this is my problem with short-shorts and flash fiction as a form), too often it allowed itself to be satisfied only with being clever. A clever image, a clever anecdote, a clever punchline, a clever concept. That story called “Pubes,” for instance, or a story about a girl with an obsession over Tom Selleck’s mustache. I’m not complaining that the book should have been stale and un-clever (if that’s a word); as I said, the book was quick and light in a way that I wanted, that I needed. Bradley’s prose was often patient, and suitable for the characters he was sketching. It was original, too: I’ve never before read a story called “Wishes and Blowjobs,” or a story about prize-winning lettuce used as a parallel for a girl’s breast growth (“Maybe it’s ridiculous to imagine breasts are anything like lettuce,” the character says). But as a general philosophy on reading, cleverness only really takes me so far. It doesn’t offer an emotional experience, but instead just a quick reaction.
And maybe that’s unfair to Bradley. Maybe he didn’t want to create an immersive experience; he’s not writing House of Leaves, after all. Maybe this is my long-standing prejudice against flash fiction, that the short-short form invites work that relies upon surprise rather than sustained suspense. (And maybe this is also the reason why I tend not to write very good flash fiction!)
Forgive the quick professorial intrusion here, but I guess I should clarify what I mean by “surprise vs. suspense.” What’s the difference? Alfred Hitchcock gave the famous example of an average card game. A group of men sit around a table, swapping stories, smoking cigars, winning games/ losing games, when suddenly—boom—a bomb goes. That’s surprise. We’re jolted for a second, but our surprise lasts only a second. Suspense, on the other hand: Hitchcock tells us that we can have the same boring card game, but perhaps the camera can cut away to show a bomb under the table, ticking…now we have a real danger, and now we will watch from the edge of our seats, wondering how everything is going to play out, when/if the bomb will go off. We’ll watch for thirty minutes, a full hour, sweating it out. Who will survive? Who is responsible? When one character goes to the bathroom, is he going to make it out alive? When another character suggests one last game, does that mean they’ll all die? Suspense requires the careful build-up of danger in a particular situation. Almost by definition, it is going to make the reader more involved in the story than surprise. But in a piece of flash fiction, it’s very difficult to accomplish, and so—the more flash fiction I wind up reading—the more I see the use of surprise rather than suspense.
I don’t know whether there’s an answer as to which is better, surprise or suspense, but maybe you want to share your own thoughts in the comment section. Maybe flash fiction is so popular in the online world not simply because we have short attention spans when reading online, but because we crave a quick fix online, and prefer a long and involving trip when reading in print.
Okay. Creative writing commentary is over. Back to the books.
Roxane Gay’s Ayiti was the final book I finished in January, and though the two books share the same publisher, the content couldn’t be more different. Gay’s book attempts to capture the Haitian diaspora experience, using a combination of short and long pieces to focus on a variety of different characters in various stages of their relationship with their home country. We have Haitian immigrants in American schools who long for the old familiar life in Haiti, and characters in Haiti longing for escape and opportunity, and characters on rafts and longing for…land of any sort. Viewed as a whole, the collection has real power, painting a multi-dimensional portrait of Haiti and granting us quick access to a dozen different lives we might not normally have glimpsed. Take, for instance, Lucien, a character who visits the 7-Eleven and “thinks about the sweet things he would buy for his children if they were with him and how much it would please him to watch them eat a Twix or a Kit Kat,” who sits outside the convenience store and enjoys the warmth of a Hot Pocket and “thinks he’s holding the whole of the world in his hands” (53). There’s a great deal of empathy in this book, a great deal of hope and sadness.
But really, I had some of the same thoughts about the flash fiction in Ayiti that I had while reading Prize Winners. The longer stories were powerful: “In the Manner of Water or Light” (which begins with the amazing line, “My mother was conceived in what would ever after be known as the Massacre River” (57)), and “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” But many of the shorter pieces—while well-written and careful—often settled for cleverness or surprise. Some even had endings that felt like punchlines. For instance, one story ends with a character going Bruce Willis on his classmates (when he is made fun of, “he adds a little something extra to his Yippee Kai Yay”), while another ends with the shocking revelation that two characters—following a rape—will be seeking a pregnancy test. This, of course, is a classic illustration of Hitchcock’s “surprise vs. suspense” distinction. One very quick “surprise” to leave me thinking about the awfulness of the situation…but at the same time, I found myself longing for a deeper study of what these moments ultimately meant for the characters. What is more emotionally involving, after all? A couple who learns that—after rape—the woman might be pregnant? Or a couple who—in the above situation—is forced to deal with it?
Because ultimately that is the true shortcoming of the short-short story. (God, I really didn’t intend for that terrible pun, but in the interest of self-deprecation, I shall leave it.) Often, we come just shy of truly knowing and understanding the characters. In Ayiti as a whole, it seemed that “Haiti” became the most important character in the book, a puzzle constructed from many small pieces throughout, a rich and complex portrait that we can only understand if we read the collection from beginning to end. But if Haiti is the main character in the spotlight, then the humans sometimes feel like props in the country’s hands, supplied in the book to prove certain points about American abuses, or Haitian responsibility or irresponsibility or identity; one story is narrated in the first-person plural (“We were told lots of things about The Americans…” (81)), but really, nearly all of the flash fiction pieces could have been. We know Haiti and we know Haitians, but we don’t know any of the individual Haitians.
I thought Ayiti was a balanced collection overall, a great and quick read, and Gay exhibits tremendous skill (and tremendous promise for a lengthy career). Like both Ben Tanzer and Ryan Bradley, she’s an important part of the small-press community, and regardless of why I chose any of these books to read, I’m glad that I did.
But my lasting thoughts at the end of January were now centered on the form of flash fiction, its inherent challenges and drawbacks. It was definitely easier to read while rocking or burping my baby, but was it the candy in my food pyramid? Fun in small doses, but definitely not a substitute for a full meal? Are the criticisms I’ve attempted to record here valid, or are they unfounded, and simply my own coming-to-terms with a new reading life that does not always allow for those big, rich novels that line the bookshelves of my past? Should I take each form for what it’s worth, rather than asking it to do the work of a different form?
For now, it’s back to changing diapers. But I’d love to hear your perspectives in the comments, and if we’re lucky, maybe we can get the authors to chime in with their own thoughts.