TMR Editors’ Prize
Our new, enhanced online anthology
Current Issue: 36.1 (Spring 2013)
Featuring the winners of the 2012 Editors' Prize as well as work by Cara Blue Adams, Jennifer Anderson, Aaron Belz, Jerry Gabriel, Darren Morris, and Brad Wetherell... along with a conversation with Steve Almond and William Giraldi and a look at the art of Al Hirschfeld.
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During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Andrew Scott.
“A story is not like a road to follow, I said, it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay A story is not like a road to follow, I said, it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself, of being built of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you. To deliver a story like that, durable and freestanding, is what I’m always hoping for.”
—Alice Munro, from the introduction to her Selected Stories
Like many readers, I am always grateful to come upon the kind of story Alice Munro calls “durable and freestanding,” one that forever alters my experience as a reader. Munro has written many such stories in the last five decades. Her famous story-as-house metaphor is aptly realized in her fiction, especially in stories published after her conscious decision to abandon the epiphanic shape of stories in her first book, Dance of the Happy Shades. Her stories will endure for a number of reasons, but especially because she willingly constructs a “house” that always reveals more with each visit. Other famous stories are as intricately designed as Munro’s—James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” for example. Few short stories, though, remain “durable” after so many readings. Munro’s design choices are responsible for that durability, and readers remain excited about her work because their expectations are never easily met. We never want what comes easily, Munro reminds us, which is perhaps another reason why her fiction will endure beyond her lifetime. Reading her work may frustrate readers who do not surrender completely to her narrative control; she complicates expectations to create the kind prison William H. Gass refers to when he says that an author should work to “keep us kindly imprisoned in his language.” Her language, in this case.
“Differently,” a story from Friend of My Youth, is a fair representation of Munro’s post-epiphanic work. Her stories often contain a multitude of shapes, in much the same way a novel can simultaneously employ various shapes. This is generally what readers mean when we speak of her stories’ expansive or novelistic qualities. Many of them are quite long; some surpass forty pages. At 28 pages, “Differently” is not one of her longest stories—only the fifth-longest story in Friend of My Youth—yet “Differently” does have feel more like a novel because there are several characters whose entire lives are revealed for readers, and its narrative shapes vary widely: the journey, the gathering, and more. Munro wishes to pack entire lives, not just mere moments (or glimpses, as William Trevor might prefer), into her stories. “Differently” opens in this manner:
Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.
Munro, like the creative writing instructor, realizes the importance of understanding the reader’s expectations. Unlike the instructor, however, Munro does not hedge toward simplicity or oversimplification. She assumes that readers will rise to meet a work on its own terms, without the story needing to be dumbed down. In “Differently,” Munro is thinking about what readers should pay attention to, about that important thing. Her answer is simple: she asks that readers work to discover the importance of each story element.
One possible reason for Munro’s decision to move away from the epiphanic structure is that, after a century of encountering them in books and magazines and movies, readers can find the pattern in an epiphanic narrative and know, before the story’s ending, the ways in which the character will view the events in a new light. In short, readers’ expectations in an epiphanic story are not openly challenged. For a story to be “durable and freestanding,” for it to hold up after various examinations, it must contain “more than you saw the last time.” Epiphanic stories may have the effect of surprise during the first reading, but the epiphany is rarely as powerful the second time through, and if the story has little to offer but its epiphany, it will be hard for the story to remain “durable” through the harsh winters of time.
The plot of “Differently” is fairly simple. Georgia travels to visit Raymond. The front story—that is, the story that does not occur in flashback or memory—occurs in Raymond’s house. Georgia’s visit is the occasion for story. She and Raymond remember old times, some of which were better than others. Then Georgia leaves. During the course of that afternoon visit, which is told in the present tense, Munro weaves in decades of back story. As a result, readers are never really sure what to expect. The first section, which begins the front story, also contains numerous moments and memories of Georgia and Raymond’s pasts—shared and not. Numerous sections keep the reader guessing as to how these lives will unfold. The sections are organized associatively—Munro navigates through time as needed, and not in predictable ways.
The second section, for example, occurs one year prior to the time of Georgia’s visit to Raymond, back to the moment when Georgia learned of Maya’s death. Maya was Raymond’s wife. Georgia’s had been angry with Maya for many years because Maya slept with a man with whom Georgia had been having an affair.
At this point, the reader might think a pattern is developing, that Munro might return to the front story in Raymond’s living room, thus establishing a pattern of alternating sections: front story, back story, front story, and so on. Instead, the third section moves even deeper into the past, to when Georgia and her husband first visited Maya and Raymond’s home. The fourth section remains deep in back story, but moves forward from the third section to characterize the development of Georgia and Maya’s friendship. The fifth section continues with this, and establishes the start of Georgia’s affair; the sixth clarifies their friendship and the downfall of Georgia’s affair; the seventh section, which is longer than the previous five sections, details the emotional breakdown and distance within Georgia and Maya’s friendship.
The eighth section returns readers to the present-tense front story, the conversation between Georgia and Raymond. But quickly readers are moved through to the ninth section, to Georgia’s final memories of Maya. The tenth and final section brings readers again to Raymond’s living room, where Raymond asks Georgia how they should behave: “‘Differently,’ says Georgia. She puts a foolish stress on the word, meaning that her answer is so lame that she can offer it only as a joke.”
The moment is like an epiphany. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would become an epiphany. A lesson has been learned, although it has taken a lifetime. But then Munro moves past epiphany, having Georgia realize the uselessness of the moment, of her answer, as “she puts a foolish stress on the word.”
“Too many things,” the creative writing instructor says, and what reader would expect, upon reading such an opening, to encounter the story that follows? A writer wanting to analyze the craft of Munro’s stories can expect a long and rewarding journey. Her stories’ structures are often not easily discernible. And writers analyzing her craft are consciously trying to study how the stories are put together, remember—a reader approaching her work simply for pleasure will never know the reasons for its complicated construction. That is to say, such readers may read and re-read her stories with pleasure and wonder, trapped as they are in its kind prison.
Andrew Scott is the author of Naked Summer, a story collection, and the editor of a forthcoming anthology, 24 Bar Blues: Two Dozen Tales of Bars, Booze, and the Blues. He holds writing degrees from Purdue University and New Mexico State University, where he was twice awarded a Frank Waters Fiction Fellowship. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire, Ninth Letter, The Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, Glimmer Train Stories, The Writer’s Chronicle, and other publications. He is the co-editor of Freight Stories, an online fiction journal, and a Senior Editor at Engine Books. He teaches at Ball State University and lives in Indianapolis.
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Alex Luft.
I’ve always thought about the short story as an extended form of joke-telling. You’ve got your basic premise (three guys walk into a bar), and your growing complication (and then the second guy says) and then your punch line. Or, in some cases, there’s no punch line—and that awkward lack of punch creates an entirely different effect.
And if we understand short stories as a lot like jokes, then Roald Dahl’s “A Fine Son” might be a sort of literary practical joke. I first came across this story while cataloguing stories published in Playboy; this one appeared in December 1959. While it was Dahl’s first original story for Hugh Hefner’s magazine, many of his other works—including a novel excerpt—showed up in Playboy.
Strange place to find the man who brought us James and the Giant Peach.
“A Fine Son” is not necessarily a great short story, but it does perform a peculiarly notable set of moves. The exposition: we’re in a German hospital, where a doctor is trying to calm a woman who just gave birth to a little boy. The complication: the woman has lost three children in the last 18 months, and she fears this child, too, will die. To make things worse, her beer-swilling husband blames her for producing such frail children and hesitates to acknowledge this new child.
Dahl drops us a breadcrumb. The mother says: “I think my husband said that if it was a boy we were going to call him Adolfus because it has a certain similarity to Alois. My husband is called Alois.”
When the husband shows up, he is disappointed in how small the child is and declares it’s no use trying; the child will certainly die. The doctor urges him to reconsider, to hope the best for the child.
Then, the punch line. In reference to the wife, the doctor tells Alois: “Be good to her, Herr Hitler.”
Dahl has spent this entire short story gearing us up to root for baby Adolf Hitler. Gotcha!
The turn of this story at first appears simple—a nearly manipulative demonstration of how character and narrative can direct our sympathies toward places we’d never imagined they’d go. But for a lot of readers—and we have to remember this happened in 1959—it was perhaps a subtle way of challenging the master narrative of singular evil and inhumanity already formed around Hitler. I think the question for Playboy’s readers was not necessarily whether they ought to reconsider their views of Hitler, but rather how they might understand certain human sympathies manipulated for unclear or even nefarious ends. Gotcha again.
So even if Dahl plays a bit of a joke on his reader, he’s done it for a purpose. That’s one of the strengths of the short story form—it’s like a writer’s playground, a place where they can try new or innovative things.
Alex Luft’s fiction has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Midwestern Gothic, The Barely South Review and elsewhere. He holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Missouri and will be pursuing a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He just completed his master’s thesis titled “Pleasure Reading: Playboy’s Literary Fiction.”
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from Sarah Landolfi.
In the fall semester of my senior year at MU, I enrolled in an advanced fiction workshop course. My instructor was Mary L. Tabor, a fabulous writer and teacher visiting from Washington, DC. She introduced me to “flash fiction” and to one of my favorite short stories of all time, Robert Hass’ “A Story About the Body.” I think this story is remarkable for many reasons, but, being a long-winded, impossibly verbose speaker and writer myself, I think I am most in awe of the economy of language in Hass’ brief but expansive piece. The whole story is really just a paragraph, and not even a very long one. It is available in its entirety here.
I also love this story for the lovely, nuanced link it creates between the corporeal (human bodies and sexual desire) and the ethereal (making art). Hass writes of the young composer, “He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused or considered answers to his questions.” When I read this passage, I can’t help but picture an elegant older woman, her limbs moving like brushstrokes on a canvas. But – and perhaps it’s because the story itself is achingly concise, stripped bare, comprised only of what seems really necessary – it’s not heavy-handed.
Furthermore, the love the young composer feels for the painter is aptly compared to music: “The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity–like music– withered, very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.’” Yes, the protagonist in this story is a composer, so it’s natural that his desire for this fellow artist would, in Short Story World, be made musical. I would like to posit that Hass has accomplished this in a nuanced way, though, and I would also like to point out how very appropriate the comparison is. Love and affection and desire are radiant, and we do carry them around, fluttering and sort of nauseous-making, in our chests and in our bellies, and they are levity and brightness and beauty.
Most of all, I love the blue bowl full of dead bees, obscured at first by a layer of rose petals; the starkness of this image stays with me every time it is conjured, and the effect is ugly and sour but also righteous and significant. Not only has the painter attempted to communicate to the composer that he is superficial and shortsighted, but her gesture has also called into question the composer’s love for his fellow artist and for her work. How can he truly appreciate her or her art – which is, remember, “like the way she moved her body” – without being willing to bear witness to all of it, flaws included? I walk away from this story feeling at first angry with the young composer, and then pitying him. Ultimately, though, I ask myself if I might react any differently if faced with a similar situation. Would you?
Sarah Landolfi earned a BA in English from MU in 2008; these days, she mostly uses it to justify correcting other people’s spelling errors. She lives in Chicago, where she is a clinical social worker at a community health center serving LGBTQ clients. She rides a bright red, super-fast bike named Lola, has a huge crush on Leslie Knope from “Parks and Recreation,” and drinks a lot of Metropolis coffee.
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from author Kyle Minor.
I just finished reading Douglas Watson’s The Era of Not Quite, newly published in trade paperback from BOA Editions. “Against Specificity,” the first story in the collection, is among the most extraordinary stories I’ve ever read. It begins like this: “The trouble: You want Thing A but are stuck with Thing B.”
This is as good a distillation of general Americanness as I can imagine, and it’s also the bare bones set-up that fuels 90% of all American fiction. The standard advice offered to fiction writers — concrete, not abstract; specific, not general — is advice Watson ignores. But he ignores in the way that is almost always the most generative of something new: He pushes against the good advice as hard and as far in the opposite direction as he can, until what would otherwise be ill-advised becomes better than what could possibly have been merely good.
The reader is reminded, in “Against Specificity,” of the thought experiment David Foster Wallace offered in his paired half-stories titled “Adult World.” In the first half, Wallace offers a set-up of no small domestic trouble between a man and a woman, and he writes in a low-key register the movements through the cause-and-effect chain. But at the halfway point, he abandons the prose in favor of a schematic outline of the second half of the story, in which he shows each of the beats the story will cycle past, and offers notes about what they’ll mean for the characters, what everyone will want, what will be withheld from everyone, and how everyone will feel about all of it. The reader gets the sense of a writer wrestling with himself, at first abandoning the realist prose in order to ridicule its conventions by showing the machinery that lies beneath them, but then, as the writer moves through the machinery, there is a growing sense that the writer is nonetheless moved by what the machinery is offering up in the lives of the man and the woman. The reader is moved, too. It is a shock to feel such an emotional response to an outline meant to undermine the emotional response that the story would otherwise provoke. Ultimately, Wallace seems to be showing the reader how the machine itself is as much a thing of beauty as the lives of the characters who are animated by it, and the reader or writer who admires formal experiments away from the realist/domestic wing of American fiction might also be forced to consider, because of Wallace’s recontextualization, the beauty of the form that underlies even the dominant kind of story against which the reader or writer might be rebelling, and the things that character-driven fiction might yet have to offer literature in the hands of a writer whose restlessness might animate it yet again.
That’s the kind of recontextualization “Against Specificity” serves up, as well, except instead of stripping away the prose, as Wallace did, Watson strips away the names of everything — characters, objects of desire, the settings in which the psychodramas of want are played out — and replaces them with variables (Thing A, Thing B, Thing C, Thing D) and unspecific grounds of action (the Thing Exchange.)
At the same time, Watson lards his metaphors with specifics. The longed-for Thing A “shines like a gold tooth in the mouth of Jesus,” and if “joy itself were sugar maple, Thing A would be the syrup joy gave.”
The Thing Exchange itself is a Kafkaesque maze of procedures. Wanters of Things must take numbers and wait in lines, even though there might be no one else waiting. Maybe the clerk who forces the waiters to wait might be reading a book titled Against Specificity, and if you ask how the book is, the reply might be: I really can’t describe it.
Halfway through the story there is a run of dialogue among “you,” the silence, the disembodied voice, and the person, in which a great many people say the word “Nothing” in a row, but each iteration of Nothing seems to mean something different, which the reader will know by context, and the segment ends with this line: “The silence is great with child.”
By time the reader gets to the story’s ending, the reader might feel indicted (the fact that the story is written in second person probably contributes to this feeling), and who among us hasn’t been burdened with this trouble of being stuck with Thing B but wanting Thing A, fighting hard to get Thing A, offloading Thing B, and then living with the trouble of not knowing whether it was the right thing to offload Thing B for Thing A?
The story’s ending is worth quoting in full:
“About this truth: It is not that you wish you had held on to Thing B–you don’t. Nor do you foresee diminishing returns from your possession and observation of Thing A. You have not suddenly found allegorical meaning in your life, or for that matter in your mother’s. Indeed, this truth has nothing to do with your mother. Nor is it connected with your father, or Indiana, or any of the many things that state represents. The truth that roars now in your mind the way a furnace roars in the dead heart of winter has nothing to do with the Thing Exchange or any of its employees, not even your neighbor. It does not in any way involve circus clowns, scurvy, oranges, or out-of-work magistrates. And it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the road to hell, down which you are by no means walking, your hands in your pockets, your feet scuffing the hides of the well-intentioned, your mind turning over and over the question of which you prefer: the little that is or the nothing that will be. There is no one to help you decide.”
Kyle Minor’s second collection of short fiction, Praying Drunk, will be published by Sarabande Books in February 2014. His recent work appears in Iowa Review, Forty Stories: New Voices from HarperPerennial, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. Photo by Jen Percy. To learn more, visit Kyle at www.kyleminor.com.
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Micah Dean Hicks.
“García Márquez is fucking with you.” This is not the answer my students expected.
They had read this story and a few others for class. In it, a winged old man crash lands in a couple’s front yard and gets stuck in the mud. The townspeople try to figure out what exactly he is. They call on neighbors, a priest, and finally write to the Vatican. They never figure it out, eventually getting so frustrated that they give up.
Later in the story, a spider-woman comes into town with a traveling carnival. But unlike the angel, she has an explanation:
While still practically a child she had sneaked out of her parents’ house to go to a dance, and while she was coming back through the woods after having danced all night without permission, a fearful thunderclap rent the sky in two and through the crack came the lightning bolt of brimstone that changed her into a spider.
Like my class the town loves her and loses interest in the strange man. “So what’s the point?” my students ask, in chorus. “We liked the spider-lady. What’s up with that angel dude? Why is he even there?”
“Because García Márquez is fucking with you.” And he is. García Márquez knows that people want answers, for the world to make sense, for things to matter. But good art is contrary. It isn’t going to give you what you want, and it isn’t going to do what you expect. It’s going to surprise and confound you at every turn.
Every paragraph of the story is loaded with the unexpected. Wracking his brain about the origins of the old man, Father Gonzaga writes to Rome, knowing that God will have the answer:
But the mail from Rome showed no sense of urgency. They spent their time finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn’t just a Norwegian with wings.
Never rule out the possibility that your winged man is a Norwegian. In spite of everything, the town decides that the man must be an angel. Nothing about him makes this seem likely, but he is a man with wings, and this is the only way they can process him. Their world is small, and they can’t account for anything outside what they know. So they come to the man for miracles. But his miracles don’t go as everyone had hoped:
[T]he few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t get to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers.
García Márquez knows that readers, just like the town, will be most comfortable with the spider-woman’s story, I tell my class. She has a clear origin, for starters. Her punishment confirms everything we’ve been taught to believe. She’s charging for the information, so it must be true, right? But this is not the way that good art or life works. There is nothing new in the expected. The point of art is not to tell us what we already know or to confirm our biases. It upsets and expands what we thought we knew. The world is not a fair place ruled by logic and sense. Bad things are going to happen to people who don’t deserve them, and we won’t be able to find meaning in it. There are things outside the realm of our experience, and no matter how much we try to make them fit with what we already believe, they never will. By the time the old man flies away at the end of the story, we have to accept that we have no category for what he is. This is something new, beyond our reckoning. We are going to have to become bigger to encompass it, and we will be better off. García Márquez is teaching us not only how to write and how to read, but how to live.
You can read “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” online, for free, right here:
Micah Dean Hicks is an author of magical realism, modern fairy tales, and other kinds of magical stories. His work is published or forthcoming in places like New Letters, Indiana Review, and New Orleans Review. His short story collection, Electricity and Other Dreams, will be published by New American Press in summer 2013. He attends the creative writing PhD program in fiction at Florida State University. Keep an eye on him at micahdeanhicks.com.
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from Rachel Cochran.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t “get” John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” the first time I read it. I was nineteen, and it was assigned in a writing workshop class I was taking, sandwiched between readings that were more exciting and more bizarre (Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” comes to mind). I knew and liked Steinbeck for Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, but “The Chrysanthemums” dragged through its few pages. I watched Elisa Allen in her garden, “over-eager, over-powerful”, but I was unmoved by her story. I thought the dialogue was unextraordinary, the symbolism overt, and I kept waiting for something to happen. The stories I was used to, after all, had opium addicts and bodies walled up in wine cellars.
The end surprised me. After Elisa cried, I turned the page searching for more story, and there was none. I looked for an explanation, for an action, but that wasn’t the story Steinbeck wrote. The teenage me would have mentally rewritten an ending where Elisa Allen goes to a violent fight and watches the boxer’s gloves become saturated with blood, lives for a day as a man. Perhaps she even would have left her home, taken to the road like the traveling tinker whose life so fascinated and inspired her, finding work where she could and sleeping in the backs of wagons.
Surprise quickly faded to confusion, and I looked back on the story as though it was an easy puzzle I hadn’t been able to piece together. Always a bright student–a perennial favorite with my English teachers–I wasn’t about to let such a short story pass me by without understanding everything there was to know about it. Approaching the story with new eyes, I read again.
I found that reading took energy from me. The weight I now gave to every word, to all nuances of dialogue, positively drained me. I began to understand that, in a work like this so much more than in a novel, each phrase had to elbow for space, and what came across to the reader was the dimmest glance into a person’s life. But if you really paid attention, then those glances were not aimed at the faces and arms and bodies of the men and women at work, not at their actions or even their thoughts, but somehow at the strongest essence of what they were. Characters in novels might languish and slowly form in a way that characters in short stories cannot do. Elisa was only able to exist for one afternoon of her life, but rather than saturate the prose with a brief history of Elisa’s life so that I might understand why she cries in the end, Steinbeck let me stand in for her and provide that understanding myself. If that means some readers walk away from the story underwhelmed as I was the first time, that was a risk Steinbeck was willing to take.
What “The Chrystanthemums” taught me is that while event may be external, change is internal. It taught me ways of saying without saying. Elisa suppresses and cries because we all suppress and cry. The second time I reached the ending, I cried alongside her.
Rachel Cochran received her BFA from the University of Evansville. She is a current MA candidate specializing in Creative Writing – Fiction at the University of Missouri.