Hello and welcome to what will be the final installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After reading and analyzing Heart of Darkness I found I was able to cram one more influential book into the year: Franz Kafka’s novel (published posthumously in 1925) The Trial. A viewing of Orson Welles’ 1962 film years ago inspired me to want to get to this one, and there are many obvious parallels to the current “legal” system in our nation that I will get to after the lessons for writers. So let’s get to those first.
Keep it simple. The story, while twisted and surreal, is actually pretty straightforward. It’s in the language and details where Kafka let his abilities shine. The shabbiness of the courtroom building is a reason for Joseph K. to both despair and for the reader to find bizarre amusement at his situation. There are long passages of characters speaking to K. about the banal bureaucracy that he is attempting to penetrate that are dosed with a sense of irony about the world and humanity. Not once did the translation I had (Breon Mitchell 1999) escape the laws of understanding and kept the story and characters firmly in weird territory.
Symbolism/Interpretation. I found Kafka’s use of these notions to be quite different from Conrad’s, but that doesn’t mean either approach is flawed. Kafka was more interested in the interplay of man’s rule of law and the internal struggle imposed by religious orders of his day. While Conrad was open to showing the ugliness of the human heart, Kafka shows us how that ugliness can be used against us politically and socially. The court is never revealed, and despite K.’s best efforts he is no closer to success at the end of the story than when his ordeal begins in the first chapter.
There are quite a few more things apparent in this book that will attract the individual reader and writer, so I would strongly recommend this surreal tale to anyone wanting to hone these talents. This is the first work of Kafka I’ve read and I’m eager for more. I wanted to wrap up this review by taking a quick look at the parallels to our current justice system. This book also began to interest me during the initial phases of the “War on Terror.” It is staggering to think a century ago Kafka was already anticipating the impervious bureaucracy and state spying that was to come in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. While he was writing about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the way he describes the corruption and unreachability of the court echoes through history as demagogues (even now) seek to control these systems for their own gain. This novel both made me laugh and feel afraid for the future. It was that compelling.
This will wrap it up for another experiment in reading nothing but fiction. I’m going to take a bit of a break over the holidays and won’t be starting this up as a formal experiment next year. Rather I’m planning on trying to incorporate it as a regular post on the blog, taking place alongside some other projects I have in mind. And as promised, I’m including more female writers this time around, starting with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ll also have some concluding thoughts about pursuing this experiment for another year and what it has taught me about writing. Thanks for reading everyone, and happy 2018!
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I’m tackling a few more novels before the end of this experiment. After blazing through some Cormac McCarthy I decided to take a plunge into a universal piece of modern literature: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
This novella, first published in serial form in 1899, should be familiar to students of literature or anyone who has followed the many ways it has influenced art since its release. While over the years there have been substantial criticism of this work (most notably the racist imagery), I felt this was worth the time to sit and read over the course of a few days. I’ll get to some of the critical considerations after we first take a look at some of the major lessons writers can draw from this work.
Use of symbolism. This is arguably the profound lesson to be drawn from this work. Conrad uses an amazing tapestry of words and images to describe Marlow’s horrific journey up the river to “rescue” Kurtz from his entrenched madness. This includes stunning passages involving the steamer enveloped in a white shroud of fog, and also terrifying illusions of the heads of “rebels” placed on spikes before the domain of Kurtz. Conrad was attempting to show the barbaric nature of the Belgian mission in Congo at the time, and while some have argued he should have gone more descriptive in this territory, I feel this lines up nicely with the next lesson.
Write what you “don’t” know. Conrad was taken to task by critics for specifically not describing some of the worst things Marlow sees on his journey, using such words as “inscrutable” or making it known that Marlow doesn’t even want to describe what he sees. While this is a tough strategy for an author to take, in my opinion the advantages can be many. Even a simple epigraph as Kurtz utters before he dies (“the horror”) can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. To me, this lines up with the essential unknowability of the human heart and its capacity for wondrous good and appalling evil.
Being open to interpretation. The fact that this landmark work can tell us things today should be an indicator of how deeply enmeshed into the human condition Conrad takes us as we journey along with Marlow (who in the story is regaling some other sailors outside London with the entire tale). Conrad made the deliberate choice to not be completely moralizing regarding the destruction wrought by Kurtz, indicated somewhat in the closing paragraphs of the tale when Marlow is forced to lie to Kurtz’s “Intended” so as not to besmirch his reputation.
All of that being said, there are still a ton of critical responses to this work, and I was lucky enough to read a few of them in the Norton Critical Edition I had. Of particular note is the African author Chinua Achebe, whose massively influential lecture on Conrad’s racism was included here in a revised form. Achebe’s major argument is that despite on the surface seeming to indict white European greed and recklessness, Conrad’s inability to show us much of the African characters (even refusing to allow them to speak very much) is just another form of the same problem. The entire essay was well worth reading and I would highly advise it as a counterpoint to this work.
Overall I would recommend this novella to anyone who wants to see a pristine example of how literature is supposed to operate. True, this story has accumulated a number of flaws over the years, but I feel the reader needs to at least engage with it and find out what he or she thinks before delving into the many levels of interpretation and criticism.
I should add that two other works I’ve encountered over the years have finally led me to reading Conrad’s original vision: Adam Hochschild’s stunning 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost, and Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now. I would also recommend engaging with these if you are planning a deep dive into Conrad.
This was a pretty short book so it leaves me time to cram one more novel into this year’s experiment. I’m taking another weird turn into a massively influential author I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read: Franz Kafka. A viewing some years back of Orson Welles’ film rendition of The Trial got this book on my list; I hope to read it and get an essay up by the end of 2017.
As always, thanks for reading.
Hello and welcome to this installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I’m back to novels as we approach the end of this year’s experiment, last time wrapping up an analysis of workplace comedy and now pivoting toward an author who is a favorite of mine: Cormac McCarthy and his masterful 2005 work No Country For Old Men.
This author is quite established as one of the greatest contemporary storytellers. I had already read (and been blown away by) The Road several years ago, and wanted to take another dive into McCarthy’s western worlds. This was without a doubt one of the best novels I’ve read in some time, but I want to pull out the major lessons before I get to why I felt it was such a great book.
Finding your voice. There can be no doubt that this author provides a master class in how to do this throughout the work. It is well known that McCarthy is possibly the only author to get away with using the most minimal punctuation required. Character speech is never demarcated by quotation marks (he only ever uses “Chigurh said” this, or “Moss said” that), he constantly jams up two or more words into one (“shirtpocket,” “domelight,” “dumbernhell”) and generally plays with language in ways that most editors would never let an amatuer get away with. This indicates an author in supreme command of his skills, and it never really distracted from the text for me. It was that good.
Using the novel to talk about society. McCarthy sets this novel in 1980, enabling him to populate it with veterans of two wars: Moss (Vietnam) and WWII (Bell). This shades their experiences in many ways, with Moss seeing how his life can change with stolen drug money and Bell attempting to rectify leaving his men on the battlefield in Europe. This is masterfully interwoven with the drug runner story, told partially through interludes with Bell as he describes the falling away of the country over the last few decades. Some critics weren’t fans of McCarthy’s pseudo-sermonizing, but it’s worth mentioning that not a lot of “good guys” come out on top at the end of the book. Take from that what you will.
Overall, if you can stomach the appalling levels of violence, this book can teach yards to any aspiring writer. If nothing else it’s worth reading just for the stunning control over his writing that McCarthy displays on every page. I’ll even go as far as to say no other author comes close to displaying how to find and use one’s voice than this guy.
(I also made an exception and re-visited the astounding, Oscar-winning film adaptation directed by the Coens ten years ago to see how much it represented the novel. While not quite as good, you’ll hardly find a better example of directors using source material in every way to tell a gritty and great story.)
It’s looking like I have room to fit at least one more work before this year wraps up, so I’m going to take on an epic that has echoed through the ages: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I was lucky to pick up a Norton Critical Edition which contains a ton of extra essays, criticism and analysis of the work, so I hope to be able to add some commentary on this story and how it has affected literature for decades.
Hope everyone has safe travels over this holiday weekend, and thanks as always for reading.
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I wrapped up the short story portion of this year’s experiment with a trip through the mind of Raymond Carver and his twisted characters. Now I’m back in novel territory with Joshua Ferris’s 2007 workplace farce Then We Came to the End.
Workplace comedy had found a steady tranche in the cultural zeitgeist by the time this novel appeared (Steve Carell’s smarmy boss on NBC’s re-working of The Office being perhaps the best example of the period), and this book is no exception. I mostly read it as a counterpoint to the manuscript I’m still laboring through rewrites, Observe and Detach. I was pleasantly surprised to see this book is not much like my own, and I found some important areas of difference in some of the lessons I drew from the book.
Use of narration. Ferris decided that a sort of weird first-person plural narrative form was best suited for this story (explained in an interview with the author at the back of my copy - about how ad agencies referred internally to the company as “we”). While I understand why he made this choice, overall it did not work for me and I found it to be slightly distracting at times. This might be due to the obsession in my own books with using singular first-person narration. Or it could be that when Ferris drops this in the middle of the book for a large section on a main character’s battle with cancer I found the prose to flow much better. Despite using this to try and make it seem like the reader is just one of the crew, I never felt that compelled to empathize.
Use of form. This might actually be what I liked least about the work - Ferris works backward through time as various people in the office tell stories from their disparate points of view. Sometimes this works, but often it ends up with a bunch of quotations packed into a dense paragraph, the characters not so individual that they can be recognized through what they say. There’s a converse to this as I will point out in a moment, but I have a feeling a better editor would have structured these paragraphs better (and maybe even use actual indentation, which Ferris manages later in the book).
Showing characters through dialogue. Despite the odd structure, Ferris is a master of capturing the minutiae of the office worker’s daily life, barraging the reader with a ton of pointless anecdotes and bizarre actions on behalf of the “creatives.” He even manages to work in a terrifying situation that has become all too real in the age Newtown and Las Vegas, even if nobody dies in this version. There are some brief forays into the territory of my own novel - mostly emails and inter-office politics. Still, I feel the form of my manuscript is sufficiently different from this one to stand out in the marketplace (once I finally get to that point).
All of this being said, I would recommend the book to anyone who likes this sort of farcical take on real life scenarios. It was well-written enough to compel me to finish it pretty quickly, allowing me to tackle at least one more novel in this experiment: Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 epic tale No Country for Old Men.
As I’ve said before, I plan on shaking up the experiment a little bit next year (or at least not be so formal about it), adding in other types of reading material such as graphic novels, and I may even try to write more about television and film. Also, a wise co-worker of mine recently pointed out the relative lack of women versus men on my reading lists, so if any of you out there have some female authors that could shake up my perspective, feel free to email/comment. I also hope to get one more essay on writing posted here before I start up some new projects in 2018. As always, thanks for reading!
Hello all and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Last time I covered a few other masters of the short story. For my final entry here in short story land (for 2017 anyhow), I read an author considered a legend in the field: Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. After viewing the soaring, Academy Award-winning film Birdman a few years ago, I decided to look into the source material. I found a rich tapestry of human emotion and detail. This guy was an utter genius of the human condition, but before I get to the effusive praise let’s peruse the lessons available in the work:
Know thy subject. There is a reason Carver decided to use this title. This collection is more about damaged, conflicted individuals talking about what they think “love” is rather than a more inclusive account. This makes the characters that much more real and compelling. So why did he pick this title? I think that can be interpreted best by the title story, which was my favorite of the lot. A conversation between two couples that endures for an unknown amount of time as they recount former lovers. One of the characters goes off on a long rant about how when someone dies, the other just picks up the pieces and finds someone else. This passage in particular is an incredibly poignant depiction of some people's’ very realist outlook on the world. I found it very striking as I seem to have found exactly what this character was looking for: love so deep it cannot be replaced. A very interesting rumination in a very fascinating story.
Using dialogue to show people. There are fairly minimal physical descriptions throughout the collection, so Carver chooses to show the characters through dialogue. The way he does this in each story is uniquely brilliant, and possibly the best use of this technique I’ve ever read. Whether it’s internal or external, the words on the page add up to people questioning the very meaning of their lives.
Keep it simple. As Hemingway before him, Carver keeps things short and in their own self-contained universe. Each is a master class at how to keep all the major elements of storytelling and do it well in a few pages.
Some of my other favorites were “Gazebo,” “The Bath,” “After the Denim,” and “So Much Water So Close to Home.” But as I’ve stated, I would fully recommend this collection or any of his others, which I hope to get to in the future.
Well, that about wraps up the short story portion of our trip through AYOF. Thanks to everyone who responded to the stories I posted on the blog! I will continue to submit the stories I wrote this fall to some dead-tree and online lit mags through the end of the year, but mostly will be working on manuscript re-writes of Observe and Detach.
To that end, I’m going to pivot the reading list back toward novels and tackle one that is similar in nature to what I’m crafting now: Then We Came To the End, by Joshua Ferris. Until then, thanks for reading!
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). So far in this tour of short story land I’ve read the works of Neil Gaiman, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain. (I have also posted two short stories of my own to the bloggy). For my second update, I took a turn in a fairly opposite direction with two well-known but perhaps not quite as well understood authors. This would be the beloved children’s writer Roald Dahl, who had a second life writing bizarre stories for adults, and Kate Chopin, one of the earliest feminists whose own work ostracized her for decades. Can’t get much different than that, so let’s dig right into the major writing lessons I gained from diving into each collection (The Roald Dahl Omnibus and The Awakening and Selected Short Fiction):
Tell a good story. I can’t stress this enough as the major lesson to pull away from Dahl. While I’d argue I still like his stuff for kids better than these weird tales, they are no doubt memorable and creepy in ways I’m still processing. From a man feeding his small child royal jelly in the hopes of turning it into a bee, to a story about proposed wife-swapping, to one about a landlady who kills her tenants, these stories hook you immediately with a sense of the bizarre and reel you in through ‘til the end. Chopin obviously does this in her own way, using strong characters and interior narrative to drive the story forward.
Using a short story to speak about society. This is a lesson I’ve drawn from many works over the years, and once again Kate Chopin was showing us how to do it before the last century was dawning. The Awakening was by far one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve ever read, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read something that tears at one’s very soul. That might seem a bit dramatic, but Chopin was writing about women’s liberation decades before society even allowed such talk in “polite” company. The fact that she was considered offensive due to the short story ending in the main character’s suicide should bear this out, as Chopin was attempting to put on display the emptiness/ennui that many women of her day felt (and feel today in Trumpistan).
Use of symbolism. Both authors are quite good at this in various ways. The first story I read of Dahl’s involved a parlor bet about wine tasting that quickly gets out of control, portraying family life versus money in a rather harsh light. But Chopin is the true master of this form, deftly weaving feminine insights into her short fiction, telling untold stories of affairs, unplanned pregnancies, and unbeckoned thoughts that occupy a woman’s mind when she think she might finally be free of her husband. These were all very real problems Chopin chose to grapple with, and we must all be thankful the feminist revolution gave her work the prominence it deserves.
While I will stop short of recommending Dahl as some of his stories put me off, they were all wonderfully written and worth the effort. It also gave me a newfound respect for his children’s work, as my wife and I read the BFG together at night (yes, we are old). And true to the opposite nature of this post, I can do nothing but highly recommend any of Chopin’s work, as it certainly deserves to sit within the American literary canon.
Up next I’m taking a foray into Raymond Carver, finally catching up with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. And yes, it was the film Birdman that impelled me to want to read it. I’ll say no more, but please stay tuned until then. And as always, thank you for reading.
Hello all and welcome back to short story corner. While I don't feel any closer to solving the mystery of short narrative, a few people did tell me they enjoyed the previous one I posted, #OccupyTrump.
I decided to give this another go, posting a story I've been working on over the last few months. This one is called "Flossing." I don't think this one is quite ready for submission, so I welcome any thoughts or criticisms you all might have to round it out.
As always, thanks for reading! jA_W
I open the decrepit bathroom mirror. The remains of a previous life stare back at me. I avoid looking at the floss in its small white box.
She used to make me floss, every night. Said it was good for me. Haven’t touched it since she left. I don’t notice a difference.
My eyes land on other containers. The shaving cream I bought after she moved out. It’s not as good as the stuff she bought me, but I don’t care. Don’t have to anymore. My razor, the dull blade reflecting the glare of the bathroom light.
Long cotton swabs representing how often she would clean the disgusting wax from my ears. Peroxide for my little cuts, and bandages for my others.
My eyes roll to the tweezers. She used to pull the hair right out of my skin. God, how I hated that. God, how I loved it. Even the pain.
Next I see the soap. Delicate, she said, because of my hands. Don’t have to worry about that either.
She left behind what she didn’t want at her new place. Took all the girly stuff. The makeup, her hair ties. All the pills she took for allergies. And the bottles that made her smell nice. I don’t need to smell like a damn thing. I’m a man, after all. Our species was never supposed to smell like roses. Or meant to clean up after ourselves. Don’t even think about that kitchen right now. Focus.
My eyes arrive back at the tiny white box with the writing on the side. If I’m going to do this, if I'm going to affirm that I’m ready to move on, if I’m using this as my first experiment towards that goal, it’s best to get it over with now while I still can. I don’t notice any difference in my teeth. But maybe I’m not looking hard enough.
I pull the little box toward me. A tiny string dangles from the edge. I grab it taut and start on the back. That was always the worst. Where the dentist said the cavity was beginning. That was one year ago. She told me to just take care of it then. I should have.
Damn, that hurts. More than it did before. Shouldn’t have stopped flossing. Shouldn’t have stopped doing a lot of things.
Moving up, along the right side. This hurts worse. Another cavity? I can’t bare to go back to the dentist. Not after last time. She shouldn’t have taken the kids. I lost control over the narrative of the situation. God knows what she is telling them every day about their absent father. About what a jerk, a loser he is. Doesn’t even floss.
Forget about all that. Keep doing it. You are doing this because you want to, not because it was a routine like all the others that only she could keep you doing. Not because it reminds you of the ways she affected your life. Doing this painful exercise because I want to, not for any other reason.
This part doesn’t hurt so much. What it’s supposed to feel like. Nice, clean feeling. Doesn’t that feel better, she’d say. And I’d say grudging: yes, it does. You were right. You were right about a lot of things.
Enough of those thoughts. Time for the other side. This side hurts even worse at the back. I must be developing more cavities. It’s my diet. She used to make me eat the most disgusting yet healthy crap. Vegetables. Cooked vegetables. Can you imagine anything worse? And this was a nightly occurrence. Said it was good for the kids. What’s good for me?
Now I’m going to have to look for a second job to pay for this place. Or I could just find a cheaper one. Not likely to happen. This is all that remains of our life together. This, and the floss.
We used to have all sorts of routines. Get the mail together. Go for a walk, with the dogs, out in the forest. Sitting up by the fire late at night. I don’t even remember the last time we went to the movies. Not since the kids, obviously. They go see their own stuff now, and we never went back. Routines are only held together by commitment. I’m finding that out through this little exercise. I keep telling myself I’m doing this for my own good, but I know the truth. I’m doing this because she made me do it, and I can’t not do it. I wanted to be made to do it.
Circulating the miniscule string into the lower regions now. It still hurts, not as bad. I should go to the dentist. You’d want me to do that, even after all this.
But you’re not around anymore. Not since that night. You had your suspicions. The lipstick on that envelope from my co-worker. You never had proof. You had all you needed.
Why was I so stupid? I left the envelope in the open knowing you’d find it. You always tried forcing these routines on me because you knew I could be better. Even through my resistance, you knew I wanted better. For myself.
Rounding home and getting to the front teeth now. A piece of the frozen pizza I inhaled earlier comes flinging at the mirror.
It’s time to be done. I can’t believe what came of such a simple act.
I take a lingering glance at the cabinet. You knew I’d want to floss again someday.
I close the creaky mirrored door with a shriek of metal. Gotta get that fixed. The kitchen first.
The gums in between my teeth are on bloody fire. I remember you telling me I had to endure pain before I could learn to understand it. To love it. And the worst pain of all I brought upon you. And me, and the kids. Eternally. You were right to take them. I’m unfit. Can’t even take care of my freaking teeth.
I tear open the cabinet with a fury, grab the floss and shove it in the trash. I can’t be bothered to remember to floss.
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Lately I took a gander at the master of comic/gothic stories Neil Gaiman and also posted a story of my own. Now I’ve turned my attention upon two of whom I would consider to be the greats of the form: Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain. I dove into both collected stories of theirs (for Hemingway just the “first forty-nine”) and found solid lessons for writers within, much as we all can. Let’s get to those, then I’ll conclude with some of my favorites from each author.
Use of language - This is an obvious strength of both authors, but they use it in quite different ways. Twain is ever the master story-teller, filling his yarns with impeccable illustrations of local dialogue and language, making it abundantly clear how much he understood his own country. Hemingway as I’ve covered before, generally has the opposite quality, but manages to tell an impactful story nonetheless. His characters come to live in equally breathtaking ways, despite the use of such basic structure.
Good first line - Both authors really understood this, and I was quite taken away by how much better a story can be by just having a great opening sentence. “When he saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.” (“The Light of the World” - Hemingway) - and “Somebody has said that in order to know a community, one must observe the style of its funerals and know what manner of men they bury with most ceremony” (“Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” - Twain) were two of my favorites, but many of these memorable tales have a great beginning.
Overall, while I didn’t get to every story in each collection, I felt I took a pretty decent tour through each author’s oeuvre. These two knew exactly how to tell a story for a certain number of pages, and in the introduction to the Twain collection Charles Neider notes that most of Twain’s novels are basically interconnected stories. The Twain collection also included some passages from Roughing It, which I’d never read and enjoyed quite a bit. Some other favorites were: “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg,” “The 1,000,000 Bank-Note,” and “Journalism in Tennessee.” For Hemingway it was definitely the greats: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Big Two-Hearted River,” and also “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” and “Soldier’s Home.”
But of course, I would be bereft in my writerly duty if I did not recommend these two for anyone looking to hone their short story skills. They were quite possibly the two greatest American short story writers, and they set down the guidelines by which many of us writers tread even today.
And on that note, I’m now going to head in another direction by reading two books I’ve never encountered: Roald Dahl’s bizarre stories for adults, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (and others). I also hope to submit one of the fifteen stories I’ve been working on to a lit journal, send another to an editor, and (if I can summon the courage) post one more on this here blog. I still will get back to the novel re-write by the winter months, but for now I’m content to remain in this “sub-experiment.” Thanks for reading!
Hello out there and welcome to this installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Last time I reviewed the major lessons that we can surmise from Jack London’s best works. Now I have pivoted to a short-story mindset in the hopes of gaining similar wisdom from the greats. To that end, my wife generously bought me Neil Gaiman’s 2006 story collection Fragile Things.
This collection contains mainly work the great comic/children’s book/fiction/mythology writer has published elsewhere, in other fantasy mixings or places like the liner notes of a Tori Amos CD. I must admit my love for the world of comic books is intensified when it comes to this man’s contributions, and while I’ve barely begun the epic Sandman series in its entirety, it probably should be a goal of mine to finish next year (I plan on mixing this experiment up a bit if we survive until then, spoiler alert, etc.)
All of that being said, I found it rather difficult to get into some of these tales. But before I get to my moronic griping about this iconic figure, let’s take a look at the major lessons from these stories.
Story within a story. Gaiman uses this in a few collaborative and commissioned pieces, and while I’m not sure I would ever want to use the technique it is very interesting. One story he considered a first attempt at The Graveyard Book, but is introduced in a completely different way. Another begins as a stranger’s tale in a club, and one that begins with the narrator meeting a former acquaintance in a diner. And the final novella takes place entirely in a whole other Gaiman-verse.
Writing for your audience. This is obviously a gigantic talent of Gaiman, and while I was encountering certain genres (such as gothic) here for the first time since I’ve read Poe, I can see how he knows how to write a certain type of story. Despite his massive success over in the States for decades, most of these tales still remain firmly in British territory in terms of style and language. Once I deduced this, it was actually easier to like these stories, as in general the Brits seem to outpace us quite well in many literary ways (yeah, I said it).
Some of my favorites from the collection were: “Bitter Grounds,” “Harlequin Valentine,” “Feeders and Eaters,” “Goliath,” and the American Gods inspired novella Monarch of the Glen. But I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t recommend this entire book to anyone looking to hone their short story writing skills.
While I’ve since learned to overcome my initial hesitation to some of these stories/genres (not to mention Gaiman’s wonderful poetry throughout has singlehandedly made me that much more interested in that type of writing) and did enjoy this book, some of these tales didn’t work for me. I’ll take one example: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” While this is generally considered one of his best, I found myself unable to believe that even a kid at that age wouldn’t respond to the fantastic dialogue being spun. But could that be that I once again cannot wrestle with the fact that this is a writer deliberately leaving many things in his worlds unresolved? I find myself too inexperienced (and too enamored with this man’s great skill in creating art) to fully argue this point, and will leave it there.
Up next I will travel a few different directions in this vein. I hope to be able to post another example short story (or two) to the blog soon. I am also going to plunge head first into some other masters of the form: Hemingway, Twain, Chopin, Dahl, and a few more. And as always feel free to toss me some recommendations if you have ‘em. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to this update in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Last time I finished exploring Under the Dome, and after took the plunge back to an author I hadn’t read since school: Jack London. Specifically, The Call of the Wild. But I was in luck, as the copy I purchased also included some of this man’s best short stories. After I got through them I decided to read White Fang as well, and was richly rewarded. I’m assuming most of you are familiar with this author and his works, so I’ll go directly to the lessons I gained from reading these classics.
Use of language. This was London’s speciality, and I would argue he was Hemingway-esque before it was cool. London’s language through all these works is simple, easy to follow, and grimly detailed. Despite the stories being largely similar and no gigantic words to be found, the novels about the Wild and its impact upon creatures as well as the short stories carry heavy messages and are deeply impactful on many levels. You don’t have to be experimental in your language if you know what you want to show the audience.
A broad perspective. As is well known, the two novels are essentially allegories about nature and the meaning of the Wild. London is quite deft and noticing when his creatures are compelled to act by forces beyond their control (such as instinct) and expressing the importance of this to their survival. He also ruminates quite heavily on the nature of “gods” and how humans and animals might consider such a thing; while humans can never be sure theirs exist, animals’ are all around them, proving their might. It’s worth contemplating how large a perspective you want to have as you explore this in your own writing.
To Build a Fire. While my collection included some of London’s other famous short stories (including the devious “Batard” and the hilarious “That Spot”), I want to take a minute to look at what I consider the best one I’ve read in some time. “To Build a Fire” is the tale of an inexperienced man who ignores advice of an old-timer and ends up paying for it with his frozen corpse out in the wilderness. This was a haunting story, and kept me on the edge of my seat as London’s perfect use of language built up the environment and character. I can’t think of a single other story I could recommend as a finer example of the type. This one hits all of the previous themes and also remains an incredibly powerful parable about the dominance of nature over man.
I also want to recommend White Fang. For some stupid reason I always thought of this as a “lesser” work to The Call of the Wild, and I can’t express enough how wrong-headed that is. This is truly a masterpiece all on its own, and I would argue that London shows great growth as a writer from one to the other - not just in thematic elements but in overall storytelling ability. I would go as far as to say you can’t read one without the other, thinking of them as two parts of a larger whole.
I hope it’s pretty obvious that I emphatically enjoyed returning to this author, as I feel he has a much deserved place in whatever is considered the “canon” these days. While Hemingway would refine this type of writing, it was Jack London who paved the way in some regards. I would totally advise you to pick up any of this man’s books, as not only will you enjoy them, but will gain your own insights even from those I outlined.
Up next, I’m segueing into more short story collections (including a vacation gift from my wife - Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things) and continuing to write more of my own. I’m less concerned about publishing at this time and more about doing them well, and hope to be able to craft a similar post about lessons learned from reading the masters of the form. After that it will be back to novels to close out the rest of AYOF. Thanks for reading!
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cats. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.