It’s hard to review a collection of short stories – in fact, I don’t think I’ve reviewed a single one since we started this blog in May of 2012. I’ve read several and wanted to review them, but where would I have started? I like to write about books in fairly close detail, but how does one write about an entire collection in detail? The end result is that I never wrote about George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Alice Munro’s True Life, neither of which deserved such an egregious snub.
Anthologies of short stories are even harder to review, I think. A collection at least has a certain authorial voice to it, and when I read a collection straight through, I get some sense of the author’s perspective and obsessions. In theory, of course, an anthology has a similar editorial voice, but an editor seems to add another level of distance between the story and the reader. Imagine a set of nesting blocks: the inner block is the story, and the next block is the relationship between the story and the others in the collection – its context. The third block is the author – and if the stories are in an anthology, the editor is the next block out, which – let’s face it – is awfully far away from the story.
The anthology I read recently – Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks’ American Short Story Masterpieces – has upset my expectation that an anthology will lack real unity. I was blown away by this collection. First of all, I had never heard of it, and – not to be a jerk or anything – I’ve heard of most anthologies. It was published in 1987, so it existed when I was in grad school, and I just can’t fathom how I ever missed it. Maybe it was out of print for a while and then reissued? I don’t know.
But enough of me questioning my own street cred. I can do that on my own time.
While I wouldn’t say that this anthology has a single, unified theme, it seems biased toward voice-driven stories – often written in the first person – that involve memories of childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood. Some of the stories – James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Frank Conroy’s “Midair,” David Quammen’s “Walking Out,” Tobias Wolff’s “The Liar” – strike me as semi-autobiographical, and in a few cases I know enough about the authors’ lives to know for sure that these stories walk the line between fiction and memoir.
I have been trained to distrust that line. To this day, I don’t know exactly how my creative writing professors in college and grad school managed to give me such a phobia of writing autobiographical fiction. They never told us not to – not in so many words, anyway – but I just knew it as something one does not do, like wearing white shoes after Labor Day or asking fat people if they are pregnant. There was something low and amateurish and laughable about writing about one’s own life. I did write autobiographical poems (which for some reason was not looked down upon), and the workshop process always made these poems seem small and somehow pathetic. I can’t explain the reasons for any of these feelings, but they are deeply ingrained.
Except. Between February and June of 2012, I wrote autobiographical essays on my other blog, Six More Weeks of Winter. Beginning in the fall of 2013, I started (finally!) making some progress on a novel I’ve wanted to write for years, and also on some short stories. And this anthology cracked some kind of shell in my determination to keep memoir and fiction writing firmly separated, and all of a sudden I was digging up stories from my own life, changing a few names, and setting them down as stories. It was a strange little revelation, kind of like when I was about fifteen and wheat bread suddenly started tasting good, and when I turned thirty and woke up one morning not hating Oprah any more.
I know: this isn’t much of a review of American Short Story Masterpieces, but here’s the deal: this book doesn’t really need a review. All it needs is for me to tell you that it’s good, and you should read it. The stories within the collection, however, do deserve reviews, and what I’m hoping to do is reread some of them over the coming weeks and write reviews of the individual stories. I really want to study some of these stories and see how they’re put together, and where better than Postcards from Purgatory to pick them apart?