LATELY — 26 June 2002

Short Stories; Manual

Received a fun phone call from Beijing yesterday: “When 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?” Have I mentioned how much I like Hanif Kureishi? His “In a Blue Time” opens with that paragraph.

All his opening lines are good actually. The others in Love in a Blue Time are:

Azhar’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. (“We’re Not Jews”)

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. (“D’accord, Baby”)

I tell you, I feel tired and dirty, but I was told no baths allowed for a few days, so I’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. (“With Your Tongue down My Throat”)

I used to like talking about sex. All of life, I imagined—from politics to aesthetics—merged in passionate human conjunctions. (“Blue, Blue Pictures of You”)

Surreptitiously the father began going into his son’s bedroom. (“My Son the Fanatic”)

I’m at this dinner. She’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 professor—a man of some achievement, but not that much. (“The Tale of the Turd”)

She comes to him late on Wednesdays, only for sex, the cab waiting outside. (“Nightlight”)

At eight, those who’d stayed up all night, and those who’d just risen, would gather on the beach for a swim. (“Lately”)

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. (“The Flies”)

(Midnight All Day is a better book, but Love is what I’m reading at the moment.)

I got through most of Dean Allen’s ( 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. They’re indulgent. They’re ungrammatical. They’re unengaging.

A terrific example is Gail Armstrong’s “How to Skin a Cat.” It starts like this:

Dear Mom…

That’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 or…. the mosaic is becoming unruly. Words abdicate like never before. You’re tired of what they say and, besides, you’ve had to start thinking in French again—a fancy excuse for can’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: “Fledgling authors frequently should do the following; bend the notebook in half and tear off the first half … you’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.” This otherwise good advice unfortunately improves almost none of the stories in this collection—their problem is not that they combine a good heart with a superfluous beginning: their problem is that they don’t contain much worth salvaging at all.

I don’t think I’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. (I’ve not seen any criticism, but I haven’t seen favourable comments (or even links) either.) Dean Allen’s VeriSign agitation has been linked to from just about everywhere, but Manual seems to have only been mentioned on the authors’ own sites—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. Hamilton’s “How to Unsuccessfully Woo Your Roommate’s Future Husband” was good (to this story most of my criticisms don’t apply). Kevin Guilfoile’s “How to Explain the Rules of Cricket” is particularly clever, though the execution could’ve been better.

Why didn’t Manual work out? The stories aren’t good enough, yes—but how to explain the authors’ web success? The answer, I think, is that their websites are popular because their content is personal. Pepys’ diary is popular even though it isn’t high literature: it’s popular because it’s personal—and it’s the truth. Anne Frank was a real, live person—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 “support.” A piece of fiction is good if these things are irrelevant: (1) when and where it was written; (2) whether or not it’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 don’t apply to the personal writing of the web.