Sunday, August 06, 2006

Can you not be more specific?

To an extent, I call bullshit on Elif Batuman, who, in the pages of N + 1 (I know of no better literary journal by the way), bitches at great length about various stylistic commonalities of contemporary short stories--this seen through the lens of 2005's America's Best Short Stories. Bullshit because he never really gets past a few non extensive examples in support of his generalizatoins. Although I shouldn't say bullshit. I should say something more moderate. But that's what I thought as I was reading.

Anyway, Batuman's--I have no idea who he is, but it's a really good essay, however much I disagree with the points it makes--complaints are that contemporary american short stories are so consistenly full of specificity. I have a problem with this conclusion. The problem is that specificity is, yes, ubiquitous and sort of compulsory, but that doesn't mean its worthless. I can't really speak for anyone but myself, but for whatever miniscule meaning it has, I derive consistent pleasure when a carefully chosen name in a story pricks my imagination into a non-routine mode of narrative consumption. I suppose you can fill a story with unconventional abstractions or generalities, but it would be a different beast from the sorts of short stories--short stories that tell stories--that Batuman praises in the essay. As for conventional abstractions, man, child, sadness, family, doctor, my mind just glides over them, filling in the most conventional images and meanings available in the library of television and newspaper tropes. (It's actually an interesting game to activate one's imagination in response to an abstraction, and flesh out the image on your own; of course, it's more fun when the author meets you half way.)

On the other hand, I acknowledge that the prevelance of the "specificity" technique likely drowns out its effect. Back to the original hand, though, you've got a grotesquely severe baby/bathwater problem when you bring the issue up at length in an essay whose second and third sentences are these:

And yet I think the American short story is dead form, unnaturally perpetuated, as Lukacs once wrote of the chivalric romanc, "by purely formal means, after the transcendental conditions for its existence have already been condemned by the historico-philosophical dialectic." Having exhausted the conditions for its existence, the short story continues to be propogated in America by a purely formal apparatus: by the big magazines, which, if they print fiction at all, sandwich one short story per issue between feature sand reviews; and by workshop-based programs and their attendant lilterary journals.

The essay delves in its second half into the psychology that renders the contemporary literary scene , as Batuman sees it, less good and suggests that a fear that the authentic is uninteresting leads authors to hitch their character's lives in primary, first order ways to history, as opposed, I guess you could say, history seen from television or via a pink slip. I think this is true, but isn't it inconsistent with the claim that stories should contain more of the general and less of the local then is the case?

While I'm not sure that contemporary novelists are as ashamed of their profession as Batuman suggests, I am entirely in agreement with his admonition to authors to "write with dignity, not in guilt."

In fact, its greatly encouraging to read such encouragement. But it pissed me of that the essay starts with a Seinfeldian riff on literary pet peeves that Batuman mistakes for an important part of a real problem.

*I should say also that I'm not sure this little blog post was worth writing. The act of putting together a short assesment like Batuman's pretty much guarantess that someone will have problems with it that are not unlike the problems he has with choosing Nissan over "sedan." Of course, it would be foolish to give up on the conversation for such a reason.

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