Since Christmas Eve I’ve been reading short story collections. I’m modelling this reading project on the one I did back in the summer, in my last month in Taiwan (which was an attempt to get my head around literary theory and postmodernism). The process is simple: you drink coffee and eat small meals through the day, and keep reading for a few weeks. The trick is to keep switching between authors and writing styles as you go, so you don’t get tired out. I’ve been working through short stories by Hanif Kureishi, Chekhov, Annie Proulx, AS Byatt, RL Stevenson, Tolstoy and Richard Yates.
Important note to the reader: If you suffer from depression, do not do what I’ve just described. Happy endings are rare beasts in the short story form. No, let me put it better: perhaps, to write a good short story, you have to know something horrible about the human race.
Aside from Chekhov, the best of all of them is Richard Yates: an author, it seems, famous only to people who want to write short stories. A very large number of such writers acknowledge him as the secret master, and really, it’s a pleasure to join such distinguished company. One of my favourite stories from “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” is “No Pain Whatsoever”: while it has a very Carver-esque title and theme, Yates reaches far more of the reader’s heart than Carver’s dispassionate surfaces do. Yates is a master of the many forms of irony – not merely in the popular, satirical sense (which tends only to conceal surprisingly conventional moralising), but also as tool for showing compassion, for revealing the distance between how a person would like to live and how they manage to survive in the actual, sorry world.
I looked at a biography of Yates, and it seems that he was one more confirmation of the commonplace that artists are terrible people (he drank too much, travelled Europe pursued by creditors…) I’ve read a fair amount about writers now, and while outright monsters are rare, there are few of them who I’d shortlist for the “best human being ever” award. Either a general lack of compassion for other people, no interest in maintaining a healthy bank balance, recurring mental problems, an early-ish death – or a combination of all four. I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf and her husband, I’m thinking of Dostoevsky and his gambling, Shakespeare and his second best bed, Hemingway and his drinking, Rushdie and his knighthood…
I’m not quite sure how to understand this phenomenon, especially as one day I hope to be a good writer myself. The moral might be simply to trust in my writing a bit more, and let everything else in my life take care of itself, but perhaps there’s more to it than that. While I don’t know if I’d nominate myself for that best human being ever award, it’s possible that I’m not enough of a bastard to do well at art. I’m deliberating on ways to become more unstable and unpleasant in 2008: dear reader, as it’s Christmas, can you give me some suggestions in the comments box below?