Isn't that a great title? It's not mine I'm afraid, but the title of the essay I read this week by Barbara Kingsolver in her collection, Small Wonder. It's hard not to like Barbara Kingsolver. She has such a chatty, genial voice. Her subjects always have weight and heft, yet you never feel bogged down by it all. I've read some of her earlier work but never managed to pick up any of her nonfiction books or essays. I'm not really sure what made me go in search of Small Wonder, but as much as I'm enjoying The Best American Essays of the Century and The Art of the Personal Essay (which surely must be the best of the best) I have been in the mood for something a little more current and something with a different feel to it. I think I've found that with Barbara Kingsolver's writerly voice.
If you've read any of Kingsolver's work you'll probably already know she tends towards topics dealing with social justice, nature, environmental issues, gender, and politics to name a few, which she writes about very thoughtfully. She's very much an intellectual and it's obvious she has high standards in all aspects of her life. Not wanting to tackle any particularly sticky issue at the moment, I thought it safe to pick an essay that has to do with reading and literature, and in this case it has to do specifically with short stories. I used to avoid short stories like the plague but after spending a year reading one each week (as I am doing with essays this year), I found I quite liked them and that done well they could be as compelling and satisfying as longer fiction--a whole, tiny world complete in ten pages or so.
However, many/most(?) Americans are not short story readers, and even less popular is poetry (must raise my hand for this one as I am not a poetry reader--maybe next year will be my year of poetry?). She bases her claim on the number of short story collections that sell each year and how few, if any, ever make the bestseller lists. Although this essay is in a sense an exposition on what makes a good short story, she weaves it together with what was happening in her life when she was asked to edit a short story collection, so it becomes very personal. In 2000 she was asked to be a guest editor for a special short story collection, which would mean reading well over a hundred stories in a three month period. As it was an interim between finishing a book and its publication, she thought it was the perfect project to keep her busy, but it turned out to be "the most eventful period of her life."
"My ideas of what I would gain from this experience collapsed as I began to wrestle instead with what I would be able to give to it. How could I read 125 stories amid all this craziness and compare them fairly? In the beginning I marked each one with a ranking of minus, plus, or double-plus. That lasted for exactly three stories. It soon became clear that what looks like double-plus on an ordinary can be a whole different story when the oxygen masks are dangling from the overhead compartment. I despaired of my wildly uncontrolled circumstances, thinking constantly. If this were my writing, would I want some editor reading it under these conditions?"
Maybe not she says, but life is like that, and the best tales can stand up to the challenge. As for what she considers good writing? "That's easy: the lyrical description, the arresting metaphor, the dialogue that falls so true on the ear it breaks the heart, the plots that winds up exactly where it should." She writes that she loves fiction, but she loves it for how true it is. The best stories are the ones that tell her something she doesn't already know or confirms what she might have suspected.
Kingsolver admits to being a demanding reader and she makes no apologies for it.
"...it had dawned on me that I may never get through the list of great books I want to read. Forget about bad ones, or even moderately good ones. With Middlemarch and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the world, a person should squander her reading time on fashionably ironic books about nothing much? I am almost out of minutes!"
She gives a book thirty pages and if by that point it's not "talking" to her, a real keeper, then she will put it aside or send it to the charity shop. And writers should keep this in mind. "We are nothing if we can't respect our readers." And short stories should not be what she calls "lit lite", but should "pull off the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces."
I mentioned Kingsolver is an intellectual with very high standards and what she says in her essay bear this out. She believes "literature should inform as well as enlighten, and first, do no harm."
This was a thought provoking essay, and while I by and large agree with her I do hesitate being dismissive of books that may not be of the sort that are "edifying", which I sort of get the feeling is the only sort that Kingsolver finds acceptable (I could be misinterpreting her, though I get the feeling she is extremely particular in her reading--as I suppose are most of us). Of course each reader has likes and dislikes and and I think every reader is different and looks for and needs different things at different times in their lives from books. Reading is very subjective, but there is surely nothing wrong with looking for the very best books to spend our time with. I also think that there is nothing wrong with a book being enjoyable, maybe even entertaining, along with being beautifully executed and nested in truth.
"For me to love a work of fiction, it must survive my harpy eye on all accounts: It will tell me something remarkable, it will be beautifully executed, and it will be nested in truth. The latter I mean literally; I can't abide fiction that fails to get its facts straight."