After spending just two months reading short stories closely, I’m seeing a change in my reading habits. I’m noticing more – paying much more attention to details. And I’m feeling less satisfied with what I’m reading when it seems that there’s less to notice.
Hopefully this is not a sign that I’m becoming a literary snob. Surely it must be possible to become a more critical reader without being condescending about others’ choices? Condescension pushes one of my Big Red Buttons – as it did when I read the comment below, taken from a recent article on this year’s recommended “summer reading list” in the alumni magazine of a local university:
“The idea was to pull together a list of great hot-weather reads penned by [N. University] faculty and alumni. Books that would be light and intellectually airy and perfect for tucking under your arm on the way to the pool. You know, vacation reading—engaging but nothing you’d take notes on.
“Well . . . It turns out that [N. University] doesn’t do light and airy, at least not that often. And you probably wouldn’t want to read an entire summer’s worth of those books anyway. So instead, we worked our way through the stack of impressive [N. University]-affiliated tomes on the editor’s desks, looking for titles that promised a good read, even if they required a little effort….We even found a novel.
“Look at it this way: It’s summer. Things are slowing down, vacation lies ahead. You’ve got a little extra time. Use it smartly.”
A recurring theme when I read about the modern short story form is that what is left out of (but implicit in) a short story is as important as – or more important than – what is left in. Implicit but unstated in the article excerpt above is the idea that OUR faculty and alumni don’t produce trivial commercial books that appeal to a wide readership: OUR faculty and alumni are deep thinkers, and because YOU are one of US, you too are a sufficiently deep thinker to appreciate heavy and serious “tomes” – to use your reading time “smartly,” even on vacation.
I’ve also been reading that the modern short story lacks wide appeal. One contributing reason may be its professed exclusivity. In order to understand and appreciate most modern short fiction, the reader must be able to read between the lines and puzzle out theme from some pattern of otherwise unconnected details. I suspect that most readers are more like my mother. She wants a well-defined narrative arc, a linear chronology with very few flashbacks, and characters whose lives resemble in some way or other the kind of life she wishes (on some level) that she’d had. After many decades of tax accounting – pattern analysis for pennies – she’s just not into pattern analysis as recreation.
Pattern analysis was a great way to go at “Enoch and the Gorilla,” my favorite of the short stories I read in the last couple of weeks. I’m still not mentally agile enough to do the work in my head, though. I read, highlighting or underlining things that “feel” significant
without attempting to stop and think about why those things stand out. Then I have to do the hard work of transposing what I underlined into a dual-entry journal; at this point, I slow down enough that patterns start jumping out at me. When that happens, I frequently have to re-read parts of the story to add things that I remember (but that didn’t seem to have major significance during the first read) to the notes.
On a first read, “Enoch and the Gorilla” seemed almost trivial. Bizarre. Lonely boy in big city, jealous of others’ interest and admiration for “gorilla,” decides to insult gorilla. When man in gorilla suit insults boy, boy steals gorilla suit. Boy dons gorilla suit, tries to shake hands with a man and a woman, man and woman freak out and run. Okay – wanting a gorilla suit to get attention is pretty normal. At least, it’s normal for my older son, who demanded a real gorilla suit for a Halloween costume two years ago (and who courteously posed for several photos for this blog post, though we forgot to get a shot of him reading Flannery O’Connor).
What on earth is “Enoch and the Gorilla” really about?
Playing with details and images in the dual-entry journal suggested some interesting oppositional patterns in the story: man/ape, umbrella/walking stick, normal/grotesque, clothed/naked, wanted/unwanted, man/animal, dark glasses/clear vision, comic/holy, innocence/awareness, creation/imitation. One thing that jumped out but didn’t
immediately fit into any of the oppositional patterns was the narrator’s intrusion to inform the reader that when Enoch buries his “human” clothes, he does not see them as a symbol of burying his former self.
What I ended up getting out of the story was the impression that O’Connor was challenging readers to consider what makes us human – what makes man a “successful ape.” She doesn’t answer the question directly, but does offer some possibilities: ability to recognize and interpret symbols; kindness, courage, and strength; industry; the ability to create patterns (like straight lines) that are not normally found in nature; and religious belief. In a sly way, through careful characterization, she also asks the reader to consider which characters in the story are more “human” and which more closely resemble their simian forebears – and in doing so, perhaps to evaluate our own animal behaviors.
My recent hyperfocus on the characteristics of “literary” fiction almost led me to overlook the merits of E. O. Wilson’s novel Anthill. I’d skimmed a positive review of it somewhere a couple of months ago, and picked it up for my soon-to-be-8th-grader’s summer reading project because he’s a natural history nut. Decided to read it myself on a Boy Scout campout while he was finishing Blood Gorgons.
I almost gave up after the third chapter. The characters weren’t even grotesques: they were stereotypes. Flatter than my old Flatsy Patsy dolls. What was the editor thinking? And there was no serious narrative tension. I’d expected some hybrid of John Grisham and Carl Hiassen. But there was never any real question that Raff, the young protagonist, would be the bridge between the natural world and the forces of development. I kept reading only because I’d peeked ahead to the middle section, which is actually about ants, and I was on a Boy Scout campout, where ants were running rampant.
Finally, the pattern sank in. Anthill is a very unconventional novel. It’s not literary fiction in the expected sense; it’s not straight natural history; it’s not really intended to be read as a thriller. Instead, it challenges the reader to think beyond the conventions of contemporary literature – just as its thematic message challenges the reader to think beyond the traditional conflict between tree-huggers and developers. Once I stopped trying to understand the book in terms of either literary or genre fiction, I enjoyed it very much – and can’t wait to hear what my older son thinks of it later this summer. Just this morning I found Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent review of the book for The New York Times. Clearly, she “got it” a whole lot faster than I did!
Men and ants are similar, says Wilson. What does distinguish man from other animals, then? Wilson, an entomologist, has some definite ideas on the subject and not only invites, but encourages us to think about them.
The final section of the book delivers a moral lesson on homeostasis, coexistence and the problem-solving abilities of Homo sapiens: the story of the biosphere is OUR story too. Anthill may not be the book that will change our interaction with the natural world; but it can be read on one level as Wilson’s salute to the fact that a book – a story – has the potential to help us understand ourselves and maybe even to change the world.
Anthill won’t convince or change everyone. And as Enoch Emory learned, putting on a gorilla suit didn’t change his situation: he went from being rejected as a human to…being
rejected as a gorilla with a more “human” heart. Adopting the attitude that literary fiction is the only worthwhile fiction isn’t going to change my essential nature, either. It would just be pretentious, and a false pretense to boot.
I’m not giving up all commercial fiction, especially because reading and reacting to literary fiction is a slow and laborious process. Sometimes I honestly don’t want to think about the big questions: I just want to get into an imaginary world fast, and to stay there for an extended period of time without devoting a great deal of intellectual energy to the experience. Short fiction can also leave me unsatisfied because it curtails some of my reading. The initial read doesn’t take long, but a good short story resonates so strongly and leaves me with so much to think about that I can’t pick up anything else to read for a day or two. This leaves me twitchy at bedtime, when I’m used to curling up in bed with a book to ease my way into the dreamworld.
I wonder what the reading experience will be like two months from now? I’m not so good at doing math in my head; will I ever be able to read literary fiction without a highlighter, stickies, and a dual-entry journal? Will a book of short stories ever make it to my bedside table?
I’m pleased that my short story project is changing me – it would hardly be worth doing otherwise. But change should be for the better. Slap me silly if you catch me turning into a condescending literary snob, dear readers. That’s not the destination I’m aiming for on this quest.