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 (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. 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.