short stories

Which Capitalism It's Going To Be

George Saunders in conversation with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's Bookworm, Jan. 31, 2013: 

Photo of George Saunders by Damon Winter for The New York TimesI think [these are hard times], but also they've probably always been, in the sense that we aren't really born very well equipped [for] the struggles that we're gonna go through. We're kind of born with this idea that we're permanent and we're central and we're enduring and we're the most interesting person in the room, and then, especially in times like these. 

When I was growing up, the sort of things was that capitalism was in a battle with socialism and communism and anarchy was sort of the crazy uncle over there on the side. And now, in our time, I think capitalism has just won. There's no question. It's just overwhelming victory for capitalism.

But I think we're in an interesting time, in that maybe capitalism is trying to decide which  capitalism it's going to be. And it seems to me that just in my lifetime, it's kind of been decided that the form of capitalism we're going to embrace is the one that says, "If you got it, you deserve it. No guilt. Don't worry about it. And anybody who doesn't like that is whining."

Whereas, the one I like is sort of a Emersonian-Whitmanesque form which says, "There's no point in any of thisdemocracy and capitalism—if we're not simply making more citizens—making brighter citizens, making the lives of the least among us better. 

So I think it's some kind of weird diffuse way, fiction can remind us that even those people are on a continuum with us and that remembering that actually enobles us. 

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An Air Pocket of Total Silence

Excerpt from “The Year of Silence,” by Kevin Brockmeier. Anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2008. Listen to this story read by Anthony Rapp from the Aug. 22, 2010 episode of Selected Shorts titled Let’s Not Talk.

Shortly after two
in the afternoon, on Monday, the sixth of April, a few seconds of silence overtook the city. The rattle of the jackhammers, the boom of the transformers, and the whir of the ventilation fans all came to a halt. Suddenly there were no car alarms cutting through the air, no trains scraping over their rails, no steam pipes exhaling their fumes, no peddlers shouting into the streets. Even the wind seemed to hesitate.

We waited for the incident to pass, and when it did, we went about our business. None of us foresaw the repercussions.

That the city’s
whole immense carousel of sound should stop at one and the same moment was unusual, of course, but not exactly inexplicable. We had witnessed the same phenomenon on a lesser scale at various cocktail parties and interoffice minglers over the years, when the pauses in the conversations overlapped to produce an air pocket of total silence, making us all feel as if we’d been caught eavesdropping on one another. True, no one could remember such a thing happening to the entire city before, but it was not so hard to believe that it would.

A handful of people
were changed by the episode, their lives redirected in large ways or small ones. The editor of a gossip magazine, for instance, came out of the silence determined to substitute the next issue’s lead article about a movie star for one about a fashion model, while her assistant realized that the time had come for her to resign her job and apply for her teaching license. A lifelong vegetarian who was dining in the restaurant outside the art museum decided to order a porterhouse steak, cooked medium rare. A would-be suicide had just finished filling his water glass from the faucet in his bathroom when everything around him seemed to stop moving and the silence passed through him like a wave, bringing with it a sense of peace and clarity he had forgotten he was capable of feeling. He put the pill bottle back in his medicine cabinet.

Such people were the exceptions, though. Most of us went on with our lives as though nothing of any importance had happened until the next incident occurred, some four days later.

This time the silence
lasted nearly six seconds. Ten million sounds broke off and recommenced like an old engine marking out a pause and catching spark again. Those of us who had forgotten the first episode now remembered it. Were the two occasions connected, we wondered, and if so, how? What was it, this force that could quell all the tumult and noise of the city—and not just the clicking of the subway turnstiles and the snap of the grocery-store awnings, but even the sound of the street traffic, that oceanic rumble that for more than a century had seemed as interminable to us as the motion of the sun across the sky? Where had it come from? And why didn’t it feel more unnatural?

These questions nettled at us. We could see them shining out of one another’s eyes. But a few days passed before we began to give voice to them. The silence was unusual, and we were not entirely sure how to talk about it—not because it was too grave and not because it was too trivial, but because it seemed grave one moment and trivial the next, and so no one was quite able to decide whether it mattered enormously or not at all.

Less Like Homework


“The founders of Electric Literature, a new quarterly literary magazine, seek nothing less than to revitalize the short story in the age of the short attention span. To do so, they allow readers to enjoy the magazine any way they like: on paper, Kindle, e-book, iPhone and, starting next month, as an audiobook. YouTube videos feature collaborations among their writers and visual artists and musicians. Starting next month, Rick Moody will tweet a story over three days…One thing Electric Literature seems good at is getting people to read serious literature, making it less like homework.”

From “Serving Literature by the Tweet,” by Felicia R. Lee, New York Times (October 27, 2009)

Nothing Less Than the World Itself

Below is an excerpt from a beautiful essay, "The Ambition of the Short Story," written by Steven Millhauser whose recent collection of short stories, Dangerous Laughter, was reviewed back in February:

In a world ruled by swaggering novels, smallness has learned to make its way cautiously. We will have to intuit its secret. I imagine the short story harboring a wish. I imagine the short story saying to the novel: You can have everything — everything — all I ask is a single grain of sand. The novel, with a careless shrug, a shrug both cheerful and contemptuous, grants the wish.

But that grain of sand is the story’s way out. That grain of sand is the story’s salvation. I take my cue from William Blake: “All the world in a grain of sand.” From A Grain of Sand: Nature's Secret Wonder by Gary Greenberg.Think of it: the world in a grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small, contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself. In that single grain of sand lies the beach that contains the grain of sand. In that single grain of sand lies the ocean that dashes against the beach, the ship that sails the ocean, the sun that shines down on the ship, the interstellar winds, a teaspoon in Kansas, the structure of the universe. And there you have the ambition of the short story, the terrible ambition that lies behind its fraudulent modesty: to body forth the whole world. The short story believes in transformation. It believes in hidden powers.

Writing for Whatever Audience is Left

From Stephen King's essay in The New York Times Book Review (9/30), "What Ails the Short Story?":

We could argue all day about the reasons for fiction’s out-migration from the eye-level shelves — people have. We could marvel over the fact that Britney Spears is available at every checkout, while an American talent like William Gay or Randy DeVita or Eileen Pollack or Aryn Kyle (all of whom were among my final picks) labors in relative obscurity. We could, but let’s not. It’s almost beside the point, and besides — it hurts.

Instead, let us consider what the bottom shelf does to writers who still care, sometimes passionately, about the short story. What happens when he or she realizes that his or her audience is shrinking almost daily? Well, if the writer is worth his or her salt, he or she continues on nevertheless, because it’s what God or genetics (possibly they are the same) has decreed, or out of sheer stubbornness, or maybe because it’s such a kick to spin tales. Possibly a combination. And all that’s good.

What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.

The Supreme Fabulist of Modern Man's Cosmic Predicament

From the forward by John Updike (originally published as an article in the New Yorker) to The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka:

"It is the shorter stories, too, that sparkle most with country glimpses, with a savor of folk tales and a still-medieval innocence. They remind us that Kafka wrote in a Europe where islands of urban wealth, culture, and discontent were surrounded by a countryside still, in its simplicity, apparently in possession of the secret of happiness, of harmony with the powers of earth and sky. Modernity has proceeded far enough, and spread wide enough, to make us doubt that anyone really has this secret. Part of Kafka’s strangeness, and part of his enduring appeal, was to suspect that everyone except himself had the secret. He received from his father an impression of helpless singularity, of being a 'slave living under laws invented only for him.' A shame literally unspeakable attached itself to this impression. Fantasy, for Kafka even more than for most writers of fiction, was the way out of his skin, so he could get back in. He felt, as it were, abashed before the fact of his own existence, 'amateurish' in that this had never been quite expressed before. So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; more than a century after his birth he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament."