Tuesday, June 14, 2005

MSS, Book the Second: Shannon Ravenel's New Stories from the South 2005

Judging from this "year's best" anthology, Southern fiction is a populist fiction. Now, I know this isn't strictly or necessarily true. One need look no further than Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, et many al. to see the prickly difficulty of a lot of the best Southern fiction. Nevertheless, while the stories in the anthology are a diverse lot, ranging from wacky po-mo messing around to laconic Carver-esque witnessing to those too, too cute stories of eccentric families or plucky heroines sleeping with Mr. Wrong, they are united in privileging accessibility and entertainment value above all else.
The stories that trade most heavily in cliches and stereotypes and wink-wink-nudge-nudge-you-know-what-I-mean asides to the reader had better tell a good story. There's so little else there that we have to need to find out what happens next. But even what I would expect to be the most difficult stories, the stories that experiment with form, are funny, clear, and short.
The apparatus of the book seems populist to me too. I think all "year's best" anthologies include information about the writers and (sometimes embarrassingly pompous) notes from the writers about the genesis of their stories. But here the bios always include information about the writers' hometowns, info about their families--nosy, small-town gossip. And the notes from the writers--I might be overstating in some cases--do seem like attempts to bring the reader into the process, to show how the work is done, not idealize the author on high. They remind me of those chatty author introductions to collections of science fiction stories, a genre famous for the almost punk rock closeness of readers and writers.
This idea of a definite reading community of whom the writers count themselves members has a great appeal to me. It points to an art that is vital, not fossilized or too solemn as is, I think, much contemporary literary fiction.
Speaking of changing subjects without regard to unity or transitions, I was interested in the introduction by Jill McCorkle. Okay, not really. Confusingly, for the bulk of the essay she rails against stereotypes even as she trades in them. But I was interested in one tidbit she drops. She mentions Eudora Welty (mental note: read One Writer's Beginning) who says that as a child she learned to listen through the rambling digressions of her elders for the story. This I take it refers to the quality I mentioned about some of Tony Earley's stories, that tendency to talk all the way around the story, bringing in quite a lot of context, before getting to the point. I found some of those stories in this collection as well.

Boo:

  • "Mr. Sender," Moira Crone
  • "The Dream Lover," Lucinda Harrison Coffman
  • "Good Witch, Bad Witch," Gregory Sanders

Yay:

  • "Hidden Meanings: Treatment of Time, Supreme Irony, and Life Experiences in the Song 'Ain't Gonna Bump No More No Big Fat Woman,'" Michael Parker
  • "Severance," Robert Olen Butler
  • "Anything That Floats," Bret Anthony Johnston
  • "The Boy in the Tree," Elizabeth Spencer
  • "Dumdum," Janice Daugharty

3 comments:

  1. Imported on behalf of: Mike Jasper
    So... what mad the Booed stories booable, and the Yay stories yayable?

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  2. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    I feel a little guilty picking on someone saddled with the name "Moira Crone," but . . . the story is is just a bunch soap-operatic cliches about child molestation and gutsy mammies. The Coffman story has some good qualities, but the heroine is so plucky. God! how plucky. And the dream of the title--of an Ur-redneck lover--is so on the nose and so obvious in its meaning that it stretches credulity past the breaking point. (Perhaps I'm a little hard on this one. It's an entertainment, and I'm clearly not the audience.) The Sanders "story" reads like the personal essay of one of my old English 101 students. Now, to be fair, I'd give this person an A if he were an 18 year old VCU student writing a personal essay. As it is, it's meaning is too pointed for a story, in my opinion, plus there's the pile of cliches and the pluck--that godawful pluck.

    Now the conceit of the Parker story is that it is a college essay, but it reveals more about the writer-character than the writer-character intends. All you really need to know about why this is good, though, is right there in the title. "Severance" is a little short-short that ends in the POV of a beheaded chicken ("The clucking . . . she clucks for me"). I actually got a belly-laugh out of that one. First one since, I dunno, 1996? The others are "just" masterful stories with convincing characters.

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  3. Imported on behalf of: Mike Jasper
    Okay, cool -- now I want to read some of those stories. Even the bad ones...

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