Anthologies of short fiction widely used in undergraduate literature courses are a reliable guide as to who among contemporary writers are currently considered important. At the same time, when opened a decade or more later, when the anthologies have been replaced by updated editions, one can see how some of the names so recently considered important are already among the mostly neglected, or even forgotten.
It’s like walking in a graveyard and being drawn to look at an elaborately monumental tomb to a famous patriot, but not connecting his name with anything he did that you can recall. Rereading the abandoned anthologies effects a curious revisionism in one’s literary appreciation, and can be a liberating exercise that frees one from bondage to what formerly was a passing trend.
While it seems natural enough for anthologies of short fiction destined for use at American universities to contain a preponderance of stories by American writers, because the students can relate to their native settings and topical subject matter, that is precisely the wrong criterion for including those works. To be impressed by such relevance is a naïve level of reading literature and only the incurably puerile are impressed by such a gratification of their taste.
Several of the writers who appealed to this taste a quarter of a century ago — John Cheever, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver, to name only a few of the ones who appeared most frequently in magazines and anthologies at that time — have long been buried in the graveyard of the inconsequential, though no doubt there must be some academic doctors still performing autopsies on the dead body of their work.
There is another group of stories that rarely fails to appear in the succession of anthologies, of which ‘The Open Boat’ by Stephen Crane is a conspicuous example. It could have been a good example of fiction that projects a profound metaphysical level of the human condition. But it proves to be an example only of a writer bent on impressing the reader with ideas that apparently show off his own profound mind.
Rereading the abandoned anthologies effects a curious revisionism in one’s literary appreciation.
In ‘The Open Boat’, four men who have fled from a sunken ship find themselves struggling to survive on a turbulent ocean in a boat in which the four can scarcely fit. Yes, that’s going to be a powerful story but, instead of concentrating on what human beings are destined to endure in their eternal quest for survival, Crane gives us such thoughts as these: “It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him.”
Or, when he is presenting an engrossing piece of action in fine prose, he ruins the image by stopping the representation by stating: “Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature.” The temptation to sound profound is irresistible. The story proceeds to its predictable end and the reader is left wondering whether Crane had ever read Moby Dick.
‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce, set during the American Civil War, is another frequently anthologised story which has a special appeal to native readers. In it, a Southern slave-owning aristocrat is being hanged on a bridge from where his body will fall and sink into the river, and a graphically brilliant description gives the story a fine cinematic opening that grips the reader’s attention.
The man is hanged but, as his body is seen plunging into the river, he seems not to have been killed by the rope at his throat. He manages to swim ashore and elude the federal soldiers. Again, the narrative is descriptively vivid and keeps the reader absorbed until the end when — what do you know — his dramatic escape was a passing fantasy in his mind in the moment that he died, and the story is no more than one more example of fulfilling the common formula that ends stories containing unbelievable action with “The alarm clock buzzed, he woke up.”
Perhaps such popular entertainment was needed for the herds of magazine-grazing public before the 20th century but, by Bierce’s time, Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, Anton Chekhov and Machado de Assis had shown, importantly, how literary quality was a function that flowed in currents of language and of an inventive style, while the subject matter was just the surface in which readers saw themselves reflected.
Some editors, however, did include the more experimental writers and, among the Americans, it is good to discover Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover and Peter LaSalle, whose fresh and innovative formal approach and intellectual depth well counterbalances the pretentious shallowness of the likes of Norman Mailer and Philip Roth.
Take Coover’s ‘The Babysitter’ as an example of a literary work sculpted out of a minimalist subject matter with no potential for the sort of exciting action that attracts readers to formula fiction. All that happens in Coover’s story is that a young girl comes to babysit two children while the parents go out to a late evening party.
The story is in the form of a series of short paragraphs, each one containing some vivid imagery which is a projection of that moment’s multiple associations and sensations in a human mind, creating an immediate riot of sensual perceptions — which is every human’s experience, for we all live in the Borgesian garden of forking paths.
Such a piece of fiction has to be experienced, for it works as an explosion in the reader’s imagination and no amount of analysis can reveal its working. The form of Coover’s story has taken the presentation of the action far beyond new stylistic approaches, such as stream of consciousness, which was advanced over a hundred years ago: the world is now a dark galaxy where multiple meteors tease human consciousness with momentary illusions of light.
The columnist is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, a literary critic and fiction author
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 13th, 2022