During the sweltering summer of 2009, I first came across the writing of Tobias Wolff. A friend had given me a battered copy of the 2008 edition of The Best American Short Stories. In the book was a short story entitled, “Bible,” a lengthy piece that focuses on Maureen Casey, a teacher, and an angry parent who threatens and half-kidnaps her. Written in the third-person limited point of view, I admired through this perspective Wolff’s acute capturing of psychological realism and then the heady manner in which the narrative played out. The story became a mediation on religion, parenting, loss, and redemption.

After finishing the story, I became ravenous for more of Wolff’s fiction, and I decided to find out more about him. In my research, I discovered, along with Raymond Carver, Wolff had emerged from the “Dirty Realism” strand of American literature. He had authored eleven books, including, the novel The Barracks Thief (1984), and the memoir, This Boy’s Life (1989), which was later made into a film with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. He was educated at Oxford and Stanford (the latter, he later won a prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowship), and Wolff had remained within academia ever since. During the 1990s, he taught at Syracuse and since then back at Stanford.

Two years later, and it was summer again. This time not so hot. In preparation for his visit to Virginia Tech, I read Wolff’s short pieces, “Powder” and “Say Yes.” The stories are brief; perhaps paragons of the short-short form, using an economy of language and imagery to maximum effect. Utilizing only a couple of characters for each piece, Wolff was able to convey a story beyond the simple vignette, to a plot-driven narrative that garnered a certain degree of absolution, but also mystery of what would happen next.

The night of the reading, Wolff strolled to the lectern wearing dark dress pants and a light pink shirt. He was an easily recognizable figure with his bald pate, tanned face, and well-groomed grey mustache. In front of the assembled two hundred students and faculty, he had a confident manner and easygoing stance. Before he read from his books, he told the crowd an extended anecdote on his writerly influences. “Yes, there were Jack London and Ernest Hemingway,” he said, “but before that was a series of children’s books about collie dogs.” He riffed on these early memories for several minutes before aptly segueing into his short story, “Her Dog” (published in the 2008 short story collection, Our Story Begins). The story was a brief, but fascinating surreal narrative of a man conversing with his dead wife’s dog. Although I found the story to be poignant and attenuated to the fine craft of the short story, I preferred the engaging excerpt from his 2003 novel, Old School.

In the second half of the reading, the novel excerpt he read centered on a young prep school student entering a writing competition to see who would meet the famous visiting writer. Through a well-realized setting, and through the humor and pathos of the situation, I felt myself transported to that school—where I became another one of the boys. Afterward in the brief Q&A session, Wolff mentioned this school was modeled on the one he had attended and had later been expelled from. Although he had never been a winning boy he once met a tipsy William Golding in the headmaster’s office, after being sent there for some minor offense. This anecdote encapsulated the tone of the evening—one replete with a fine attention to detail and the ability to tell a story that encompassed many associative abstractions: humor, sadness, joy, and despair. The night marked a fruition of the writer come full-circle. He became a teacher, an inspiration to others, including myself, in the room, perhaps leaving us with a sense that if we all tried long and hard enough, we could be writers, too.

Hi folks,

Along with my co-editor, Brianna Stout, I’m editing an online literary journal: The New River. See our advertisement below for more details:

“Virginia Tech’s The New River: A Journal of Digital Writing & Art is looking for submissions of new media (hypertext, image/video art, digital text, etc.) for its upcoming fall issue. We seek innovative, hybrid, genre-defying work that fulfills the potential of the digital screen. Now in our fifteenth-year of continuous operation, The New River is the oldest new media literary journal on the Internet. We are accepting submissions at our website until November 1st. For guidelines check the website and feel free to contact the editors at thenewriver@vt.edu

A NYT essay on David Foster Wallace and his impact upon Internet writing styles (via HTMLGIANT).

A related Zadie Smith essay in the TNYRB.

A website that reviews neglected, rare, and obscure books of all genres.

A book that seems both odd and enchanting.

Time Magazine‘s 100 book canon.

Another 100 book canon from the Modern Library

A Slate critique of the canon.

A book of essays analyzing popular culture.

A new blog that charts the interior of Kazakhstan.

Many national literary journals are located geographically in the Midwest. Madison Review, Iowa Review, New Letters, Michigan Quarterly Review, etc., are all prominent publications that solicit beyond their local confines for a diverse, international literature. Recently, though, several journals seem to have gone the other way: narrowing their focus and giving voice to the American heartland. Midwestern Gothic, Cleveland Review, South Dakota Review, Camas, Whitefish Review, Downstate Story, and Front Range to name a handful, attempt to offer identity to this vast and subtly heterogeneous region. Often, it seems, many journals also cover the natural environment (and how humans change it), and the idea and practices of the West. Iowa State’s Flyway, the independent Three Coyotes, and more broadly ISLE, Terrain, Precipitate also parlay into this evolving and mythic territory. Although, in some ways, Midwestern literature is conjoined with a backlog of archetypal scenarios, backdrops, and character, mostly aptly described below by Patricia Hampl, the art of the written word is blossoming in the countless miles between the coasts.

The Midwest. The flyover, where even the towns have fled to the margins, groceries warehoused in Wal-Marts hugging the freeways, the red barns of family farms sagging, dismantled and sold as “distressed” wood for McMansion kitchens, the feedlots of agribusiness crouched low to the prairie ground. Of all the American regions, the Midwest remains the most imaginary, ahistorical but fiercely emblematic. It’s Nowheresville. But it’s also the Heartland. That weight again: the innocent middle. Though it isn’t innocent. It’s where the American imagination has decided to archive innocence.

The Florist’s Daughter.

Recently, I took a break from reading the Best American Short Story series and devoured instead two novels: Paul Auster’s Invisible (2009) and Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply (2009). Although I chose both books at random from the library shelves, the two did harbor, at least in part, similar thematic concerns: identity and its formation. For me, though, each text suffered from a problem of believability: Auster’s reliance on his characters’ obsessive behavior and, in particular, the madness of old, wiry men, and Chaon on two-dimensional characterization (note: this is a novel about identity theft; however, authors should always be wary of the mimetic fallacy).

Often in fiction-writing circles we talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (the phrase is taken from his Biographia Literia [1817]) and how the writer earns it through style, tone, voice, and characterization, etc. I found the two novels in question to have fallen short in these regards. Although both are amiable enough reads, they each pale in comparison with the writers’ earlier works, especially Auster’s The New York Trilogy (1987) and Chaon’s Among the Missing (2001).

In light of this year’s Bulwer-Lytton’s purple prose competition, I put forth Auster and Chaon’s first lines…

Auster begins:

I shook his hand for the first time in the spring of 1967.

Chaon begins:

We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says.

In comparison, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, begins:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

To be honest, for the literature of the time, it’s not too terrible. In fact, the clause, “it was a dark and stormy night” has over the centuries demonstrated a wide cultural impact. Perhaps, a little unfairly, terminating now in this annual competition. The winner/s of this year’s competition can be found here.

Will we remember Auster and Chaon’s first lines in two hundred years?

A quick post on the latest volume I digested and consumed.

The Best American Short Stories 1999:

Standout stories: Ha Jin’s “In the Kindergarten,” Tim Gautreaux’s “The Piano Tuner,” and Junot Diaz’s “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars.”

Overall, there were some strong pieces within this edition. Although, all things considered, I felt the chosen stories to be not quite to my liking, as they were in previous years. But anyway, I recently came across a useful table of data assembled by Bookfox that details the magazines and literary journals which receive the most re-printings and honorable mentions. Unsurprisingly, The New Yorker tops the list. If you check it out, you’ll see some surprises.

Recently, I’ve managed to publish a few flash fictions. There’s “Dear Id” at Atticus Review, “The Temple at Avenue D” at Big Lucks’ online arm Quick Lucks, “Notes From a Fruit Dentist,” at Penguin Review, “The Sale” at RipRap, and finally “The Walk” at Rougarou. In addition, I have a full length story, “Moonbow,” in the inaugural issue of The Lindenwood Review.

The first two posts charting my odyssey through thirty volumes of the Best American series can be found here and here. While reading another one of the books, I came across a recent survey by VIDA, an organization that deals with women in the arts. VIDA completed a statistical analysis of the gender discrepancies in each of the Best American Short Stories, Poetry, and Essays anthologies. They found over the last thirty years women accounted for 29% of the essays, and 39% of the poems. However, in terms of the short stories they discovered practical equality:

…of the stories published in the anthologies from 1978 through 2010, 47% were written by women. Of the thirty-three years of the Best American Short Stories we counted, there were sixteen years in which the number of works by women published in the anthologies were equal to or greater than the number of works by men.

Some fascinating data there. I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions. So onward with my latest year:

The Best American Short Stories 2000

Standout stories: Geoffrey Becker’s “Black Elvis,” Ha Jin’s “The Bridegroom,” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent.”

Overall, I found this edition to be lackluster, many well-written but so-so stories. Often I found myself wanting more profundity in the work, the type of insight gleaned at by the guest editor, E.L. Doctorow, in his fascinating introduction:

It was the Freudian disciple Wilhelm Reich who realized that extensive dream analysis was not necessary to uncover a patient’s psyche: anywhere you looked — in actions taken, habits of thought, tone of voice, body language — you would find the typified self. That about describes the working principle of the short story as practiced by James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.

Throughout his short essay, Doctorow offers his thoughts on the short story and its development and progression over the last few years. Of particular interest, he examines episodic and epiphanic narrative modes and discusses the strengths and pitfalls of Frank O’Conner’s The Lonely Voice (1963), a sweeping and yet detailed study of the short story genre. In the past, I’ve read sections of O’Conner’s book. I think it may be time to pay it another visit.