Short Stories; Manual
Received a fun phone call from Beijing yesterday: â€œWhen the phone rings, who would you most like it to be? And who would you hate it to be? Who is the first person that comes into your mind, Roy liked to ask people, at that moment?â€ Have I mentioned how much I like Hanif Kureishi? His â€œIn a Blue Timeâ€ opens with that paragraph.
All his opening lines are good actually. The others in Love in a Blue Time are:
Azharâ€™s mother led him to the front of the lower deck, sat him down with his satchel, hurried back to retrieve her shopping, and took her place beside him. (â€œWeâ€™re Not Jewsâ€)
All week Bill had been looking forward to this moment. He was about to fuck the daughter of the man who had fucked his wife. (â€œDâ€™accord, Babyâ€)
I tell you, I feel tired and dirty, but I was told no baths allowed for a few days, so Iâ€™ll stay dirty. Yesterday morning I was crying a lot and the woman asked me to give an address in case of emergencies and I made one up. (â€œWith Your Tongue down My Throatâ€)
I used to like talking about sex. All of life, I imaginedâ€”from politics to aestheticsâ€”merged in passionate human conjunctions. (â€œBlue, Blue Pictures of Youâ€)
Surreptitiously the father began going into his sonâ€™s bedroom. (â€œMy Son the Fanaticâ€)
Iâ€™m at this dinner. Sheâ€™s eighteen. After knowing her six months I've been invited to meet her parents. I am, to my surprise, forty-four, same age as her dad, a professorâ€”a man of some achievement, but not that much. (â€œThe Tale of the Turdâ€)
She comes to him late on Wednesdays, only for sex, the cab waiting outside. (â€œNightlightâ€)
At eight, those whoâ€™d stayed up all night, and those whoâ€™d just risen, would gather on the beach for a swim. (â€œLatelyâ€)
One morning after a disturbed night, a year after they moved into the flat, and with their son only a few months old, Baxter goes into the box-room where he and his wife have put the wardrobes, opens the door to his, and picks up a pile of sweaters. (â€œThe Fliesâ€)
(Midnight All Day is a better book, but Love is what Iâ€™m reading at the moment.)
I got through most of Dean Allenâ€™s (textism.com) Manual recently. This is a collection of short stories written by what might be regarded as members of the A-list of web authors: the contributors include Heather B. Hamilton, Alexis Massie, Paul Ford, Leslie Harpold and Joshua Allen.
Each of these authors has a pretty decent web following: they are all good, funny, perceptive writers. Manual, though, is a completely different matter. The stories contained within are, almost without exception, pitiable things. Theyâ€™re indulgent. Theyâ€™re ungrammatical. Theyâ€™re unengaging.
A terrific example is Gail Armstrongâ€™s â€œHow to Skin a Cat.â€ It starts like this:
Thatâ€™s as far as you ever get. Thoughts veer toward you like a swarm of bees then scatter shattered like a storefront window. Swat, flee, toe the shard orâ€¦. the mosaic is becoming unruly. Words abdicate like never before. Youâ€™re tired of what they say and, besides, youâ€™ve had to start thinking in French againâ€”a fancy excuse for canâ€™t cut through this muddle on a dare, not even in your native tongue.
What happened here? Editors everywhere are weeping. (Compare this to the Kureishis.) Did someone dare Armstrong to produce a sentence in which the verb abdicate was applied to the noun words? To personify a mosaic? To employ, in the same sentence, two difficult-to-imagine and opposing similies for thoughts?
Chekhov wrote: â€œFledgling authors frequently should do the following; bend the notebook in half and tear off the first half â€¦ youâ€™ll only have to change the beginning of the second half a little bit and the story with be utterly comprehensible. Everything that has no direct relation to the story must be ruthlessly thrown out.â€ This otherwise good advice unfortunately improves almost none of the stories in this collectionâ€”their problem is not that they combine a good heart with a superfluous beginning: their problem is that they donâ€™t contain much worth salvaging at all.
I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m the only person to come to these conclusions. There has been remarkably little buzz about the book, which is especially strange when you consider the profiles of the authors involved. (Iâ€™ve not seen any criticism, but I haven't seen favourable comments (or even links) either.) Dean Allenâ€™s VeriSign agitation has been linked to from just about everywhere, but Manual seems to have only been mentioned on the authorsâ€™ own sitesâ€”has it even appeared on Metafilter?
There are some good things about the book. It was a nice idea, and to connect the stories via the theme of instructional documents was a clever way to cater to everyone. Heather B. Hamiltonâ€™s â€œHow to Unsuccessfully Woo Your Roommateâ€™s Future Husbandâ€ was good (to this story most of my criticisms donâ€™t apply). Kevin Guilfoileâ€™s â€œHow to Explain the Rules of Cricketâ€ is particularly clever, though the execution couldâ€™ve been better.
Why didnâ€™t Manual work out? The stories arenâ€™t good enough, yesâ€”but how to explain the authorsâ€™ web success? The answer, I think, is that their websites are popular because their content is personal. Pepysâ€™ diary is popular even though it isnâ€™t high literature: itâ€™s popular because itâ€™s personalâ€”and itâ€™s the truth. Anne Frank was a real, live personâ€”a fictional account of a similar life would not have the same impact.
Writing situated within the context of a personal website does not need to be as high in quality as writing that has to stand without this â€œsupport.â€ A piece of fiction is good if these things are irrelevant: (1) when and where it was written; (2) whether or not itâ€™s true; (3) who the author was (such that you have no hope of interacting with them). These criteria apply to short stories. Happily, they donâ€™t apply to the personal writing of the web.