December 26

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Eleven kinds of loneliness

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?

Daniel


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  • Hi Daniel,
    I happen to reading Yates also. And Cheever and Carver. The jury is out on who my favorite is yet. I am a writer too and my teacher suggested these writers. I am enjoying them.
    I think if you keep reading writers like these…you will soon start drinking heavy and smoking a lot to help you with your 2008 goals 😉

  • If you want to feel unstable and unpleasant (which is not the same as being, I admit) read something by Ann Coulter or some other such vile individual.
    I don’t like short stories. I do not know why.

  • I don’t think you necessarily have to be a total bastard to be a good writer. You have to remember that we want our great writers to be a bit nutty. The boring truth is that all personality types are represented, including sensible, all-round good eggs like Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. What you really need is to be caught up in a war or suffer a series of personal tragedies. Then you just click into auto-biographical fiction mode.

  • Naruwan – there’s quite a sting in your comment’s tail 🙂

    These are good suggestions, keep them coming…

  • Daniel – don’t mean nuffing by it. was aiming for “wry” !

  • A couple of possibilities:

    a) since much of fiction is about describing conflict between characters, surely the sort of person who’s going to excel at it is someone who can easily imagine conflict or, better yet (and much easier), not have to imagine it at all because the writer himself is a source of never-ending conflict and hence their own best source for the stories they write. Hence captivating writing probably comes all the easier to people who are literary but also aggressive, self-centered, manipulative, abusive, unconsciously (or better yet consciously, for that facilitates critical awareness) indifferent to social norms, and so forth. Such misfits are going to be full of stories of disaster and botched interpersonal interaction, all ready grist for the writer’s mill. So if you take a group of people similarly talented and half of them are lightweight sociopaths, it’s more likely to be people from the latter group who excel at the writing biz.

    b) one of the side effects of becoming competent with writing is that one’s speaking skills improve significantly. A keen gift of the gab leads to everything from a superiority complex to an enhanced ability to manipulate people who have not cultivated their verbal skills in a similar manner. It’s only human nature to follow the line of least resistance and become a pest by avocation if it results in financial and bedroom successes. Further, and perhaps more importantly, the gift of the gab also results in the ability to inadvertently manipulate oneself; i.e. to rationalize one’s failures into successes and otherwise become a blowhard annoying the devil out of those less verbally skilled, and hence often better grounded in reality. Not to mention that the manipulation of others evolves from a recognized moral transgression into a sort of droit de seigneur in the boudoirs of one’s friends (soon to be enemies) and a general sort of happy lording it over the illiterate village serfs (as one sees it). One believes oneself superior and begins to have fewer obligations to one’s perceived inferiors. In fact, they owe me. Hence, what is theirs, should in fact be mine. (See Rousseau et al)

    Etc., etc.

    Myself, I just find this sort of comedy rather dimwitted and unimaginative (though this only tallies with my view that most novelists are unimaginative and wholeheartedly conventional). All that time wasted on abusing and fooling people who aren’t worth the abusing or the fooling… ha…

    Keep up the good work Daniel,

    Biff…

  • Hi Daniel,

    Any experience with Alice Munro? Or is it just midwestern N. Americans who enjoy sliding through her prose as though it were melting dark chocolate? I’ll take a look at Richard Yates on my next visit to Eslite, so thanks for that heads-up.

  • It’s funny. I have a whole stack of short story collections, but I have to pick them up when I’m in the mood because you’re right — they tend to want to make me open up a bottle of Jack Daniels, smoke some crack and slit my wrists if I spend too much time with them! I don’t know what it is about the form that tends to make it so dark. I did recently pick up The Dead Fish Museum, a collection by Charles D’Ambrosio because it got great reviews (it’s unusual for short story collections to get much attention), and a few months ago I read Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson and I really liked it. But — dark, dark, dark. We do love our Alice Munro here in North America. But cheer up! I think there are plenty of very nice fiction writers around — they’re just not as interesting to gossip about 🙂

  • Hi Daniel, I actually stumbled upon your blog while looking for information on teaching business English abroad while my husband teaches at an expat school abroad (Location and possibility of this actually happening TBA…)
    Anyway, I know it’s very rude to randomly hijack people’s blogs, especially when they are very busy applying for University and travelling the globe, but I couldn’t pass by without echoing the above comment by Tim.
    I would like to shout out to Alice Munro from the North American…mid-northeast. Southeast Ontario 😛 Good luck with your travels and reading list and applications- your blog is a fantastic read, thanks so much for letting me in on your adventures.

  • My favorite thus far is Leonard Michaels, The Collected Stories.

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