Stuck in "Stoner"

Ian McEwan praises John Williams’ Stoner on BBC Radio 4. He is not alone. Stoner, first published in 1965, recently hit the top of the Dutch bestseller list. A number of critics and writers have fawned over the revived minor classic, but so far I don’t get it.  

On my second attempt, I’ve made it about halfway in, and I’m stalled. Protagonist and narrator both are inexplicably anhedonic and uncommunicative. William Stoner, we’re told, has been transformed by literature, but he never seems to have any specific thoughts about it, and it fails bafflingly to illuminate his many encounters with failing love, emotional abandonment, and death. If he ever actually draws from the trove of cultural riches that has elevated him from bumpkin to professor, the plodding, yeoman-like, close-third narrator keeps it from us. Perhaps there is a good reason for this. One senses that the readers’ sympathy is meant to lie with Stoner, but his total incuriousity about his wife’s malaise is monstrously callous. His reticent passivity more and more seems like aggressive dereliction. The book is emotionally monotone, its dolefulness dunning. I aim to try to slog through, on the strength of the recent wave of enthusiasm, and because I liked Butcher’s Crossing, but I’m not very happy about it.

Will report back, maybe.

Ted Gioia on the Rise of the Fragmented Novel

The most interesting thing internet today:

The beauty of the new fragmented novel is that writers can have it both ways. These books pay deference to complexity, that deity of the lit critic, but they are also marked by an intense devotion to plot, pacing and other elements of traditional craft. Highbrow and lowbrow elements are pleasingly blurred. Experimentation proves that it is compatible with accessibility.

I am attracted to these books—and I suspect others are as well—because of their skill in serving such conflicting masters, and without obvious compromises.

This especially caught my interest:

The fragmented novel has gone through three phases in modern times. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio (1919) exemplifies the early attempts to take a series of short stories and turn them into a novel. A. E. van Vogt gave this approach a name—he called it the “fix-up” and he built his own reputation on repackaging his pulp fiction short stories into books that resembled, more or less, science fiction novels.

Van Vogt’s motivation was primarily financial. “A novel would sell whereas the individual stories seldom did,” he explained to an interviewer. “Hence, the great thought came; and the fix-up novels began.” The obvious advantage was that van Vogt could sell the same piece of writing twice. As for those who attacked him for peddling secondhand goods in his novels, the author countered: “I could only shake my head over these people; to me, they were obviously dilettantes who didn’t understand the economics of writing science fiction.”

Van Vogt’s fix-up could hardly be more relevant to the MFA economy. It’s easier to sell a novel than a collection of short stories, and a book has become almost de rigeur for a tenure-track fiction gig. However, a pre-book fiction MFA or PhD without a healthy handful of well-placed stories on his or her CV is probably going to struggle in the contest for on-ramp fellowships and visiting gigs. I reckon that’s why a good few of the fiction students at Houston are working on a “novel-in-stories,” and I know it has a lot to do with my own tortured deliberation about whether to plan my novel with a modular structure that allows for a fair number of free-standing pieces. But then there’s also the fact that workshops emphasize the short story, and that I think affects how you come to think of a “chapter.” The short story tends to develop more musically than narratively, initially “incidental” elements picking up thematic density and coalescing eventually in a moment of illumination or realization or lyrical grace. This leads to a much more definite, resolute sense of closure than the episodic chapter ending, and tends to kill rather than boost narrative momentum. Yet the  story form really does seem like it ought to be able to function as a chapter-like unit in a cohesive larger work. If the traditional movement of the story conflicts with the needs of the long, linear narrative, one solution is to give up on linearity, or at least to give up on the idea that a chapter is like a leg of a relay…

Anyway… read the Gioia essay and get to work on 57 [!]  linked essays, each about a different “fragmented” novel.

This High-Voltage Blog Post Obliterates Distinctions Between Characters

In the midst of this account of the notional LARB/NYRB beef around Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Marc Tracy writes:

Purely as a reader, I am with Seidel and the NYRB—I stopped reading The Flamethrowers a third of the way through, because I felt that its high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters.

Exactly why I can’t finish anything by Martin Amis! (Kidding. It’s only tough to finish ladybooks.)

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Dan Kois’ subtweeting efforts:

I stopped eating this sandwich because I felt that its high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters

— Dan Kois (@dankois) July 18, 2013


I had to stop drinking Diet Coke because I felt that its high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters

— Dan Kois (@dankois) July 18, 2013


I had to stop subtweeting like an asshole because I felt that my high-voltage narration obliterated distinctions between characters

— Dan Kois (@dankois) July 18, 2013


I know what I’m writing on every workshop story next semester!

I’m generally more interested in high-voltage narration than distinctions between characters, but I haven’t actually found Kushner’s narration especially high-voltage–thought it was sort of understated, actually. I’ve stalled because I stall in absolutely everything that doesn’t cater in a hyper-focused way to that day’s whimsical narrow interest. So far, it’s pretty great. Really fresh.

William Boyd's Taxonomy of the Short Story

From this 2004 Guardian piece. Pared-down and lightly rearranged…

1 The event-plot story … The stereotype of the event-plot story is the “twist-in-the-tail” famously developed by O Henry but also used widely in genre stories – ghost stories (WW Jacobs, for example) and the detective story (Conan Doyle). I would say that today its contrivances make it look very dated, though Roald Dahl made something of a mark with a macabre variation on the theme, and it is also a staple of yarn-spinners such as Jeffrey Archer.

2 The Chekhovian story …  The revolution that Chekhov set in train – and which reverberates still today – was not to abandon plot, but to make the plot of his stories like the plot of our lives: random, mysterious, run-of-the-mill, abrupt, chaotic, fiercely cruel, meaningless. … I would say that the Chekhovian point of view is to look at life in all its banality and all its tragic comedy and refuse to make a judgment. To refuse to condemn and refuse to celebrate. To record the actions of human beings as they are and to leave them to speak for themselves (insofar as they can) without manipulation, censure or praise. …

3 The ‘Modernist’ story … Hemingway’s most obvious revolutionary contribution to the short story was his style: pared down, laconic, unafraid to repeat the most common adjectives rather than reach for a synonym. But his other great donation was a purposeful opacity. … You know there are hidden meanings here and it is the inaccessibility of the subtext that makes the story so memorable. Wilful obscurity in the short story works: over the length of a novel it can be very tiresome. This idea of modernist obscurity overlaps with the next category.

4 The cryptic/ludic story Here the story presents its baffling surface more overtly as a kind of challenge to the reader … In these stories there is a meaning to be discovered and deciphered … A Nabokov story, such as “Spring at Fialta”, is meant to be unravelled by the attentive reader – and it may take several goes – but the spirit behind its teasing is fundamentally generous: dig deep and you will discover more, is the implied message. …

5 The mini-novel story In a way it is something of a hybrid – half novel, half short story – trying to achieve in a few dozen pages what the novel achieves in a few hundred: a large cast of characters, lots of realistic detail. … These stories tend to be very long, almost becoming novellas, but their ambition is clear. They eschew ellipsis and allusion for an aggregation of solid fact, as if the story wants to say, “See: you don’t need 400 pages to paint a portrait of society.”

6 The poetic/mythic story … the poetic/mythic story seems to wish to get as far away from the realistic novel as possible. … This is the short story-quasi-poem and it can range from stream-of-consciousness to the impenetrably gnomic.

7 The biographical story … the short story deliberately borrowing and replicating the properties of non-fiction: of history, of reportage, of the memoir. … [A] variation is to introduce the fictive into the lives of real people. …  A very valid definition of biography is that it is “a fiction conceived within the bounds of the observable facts”. The biographical story plays with this paradox and in so doing attempts to have its cake and eat it, to capture the strengths of fiction and the non-fictional account simultaneously.

Seems good enough, for a start. Pair with this 2006 Boyd piece on the history of the short story. The commenter is right about Washington Irving.

Gabriel Roth's Winsome Book Trailer

The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth from Ryan Junell on Vimeo.

Self-conscious awkwardness about self-promotion as self-promotional strategy. Does this make you more or less likely to want to read Roth’s book (which I was already looking forward to)? Though I completely share this self-effacing impulse, I think there’s a reason swag sells, why Kanye is more Norman Mailer than David Foster Wallace.