This month, I am reading all of the short stories suggested by Charles May in his book Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. Charles has dedicated his entire career to thinking critically about the short story and I am a huge fan of his work. You can read more about the book here on Amazon.com and more about Charles on his blog Reading the Short Story. The blog is fantastic. Below is the first of my two part interview with Charles.
Interview with Charles May: PART 1
1. I think The Reality of Artifice is one of the best titles ever. Can you explain the concept?
I am glad you like the title, Audra. I realize that it sounds like a contradiction—for we usually think of “reality” as something “actual” and “artifice” as something “artificial” or unreal. But I have always been a romantic who believes that so-called “reality” is highly overrated and largely uninteresting. That which humans “create” is what constitutes true reality for me. The rest is just stuff you stub your toe on. It seems to me that the true artist, like Yeats’s speaker in “Sailing to Byzantium” is always “sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal,” waiting to be gathered into “the artifice of eternity.”
The short story has always, it seems to me, been that paradoxical form that even as it seems to focus on “reality, for example in the so-called realistic story from Chekhov to Alice Munro, is always a carefully constructed organization of language that depends on form, tone, rhythm, significance, rather than on a mere mimetic reflection of so-called “reality.” It is unfortunate that folks have such a “common sense” bias against the short story as being highly formal and unreal that they prefer the novel, which seems more like “real life.” The trouble with common sense is that it is just so damned common, don’t you think? What human beings “make” is what is real; the rest is just raw material.
2. I decided to start this project off with your suggested reading list because you make a great argument for reading a short story expecting it to be a short story instead of reading a short story expecting it to be a novel. What are some of the ways in which we misjudge short stories by novel criteria?
Well, I am working on an entire book on that subject. But the short version is this, it seems to me: People begin reading fiction as if it is merely an “account” of something that happened, or might have happened, or could have happened. Thus, they tend to focus on the “happening” and make a judgment on the fiction based on how close it seems to mirror “reality.” The novel, which has world enough and time to meander along like life itself, recounting events, describing surroundings, pondering (or having characters ponder), is a comfortable “fit” for readers looking for an account that either provides an escape from their own lives or that provides an interesting reflection of what seems like their own lives. Readers of novels can sort of stretch out—on a hammock, on the breach, in bed—and comfortably settle into what seems like a “world” that is either familiar or that during the reading time becomes familiar; they meet characters (or think they do) that they think they get to know and like, or dislike.
Readers of short stories, on the other hand, have a harder time “settling in” because as soon as they start to get comfortable, the damned story is over, as soon as they think they know a character, the character disappears. What’s more, the story often seems to be puzzling, elliptical, inconclusive. The writer seems to be leaving stuff out, seems to expect the reader to pay closer attention than when reading a novel, and then refuses to tie things up neatly in the end. If for no other reason than endurance, when finishing a novel, the reader is apt to close the book with a satisfied, maybe even smug, nod; however, when finishing a short story, the reader may come to the final blank space with an aggravated shake of the head.
3. What was your process in compiling this suggested reading list? Should it be read chronologically?
When I wrote The Reality of Artifice in 1995, I had been teaching the short story in university classes for almost thirty years, so I had taught hundreds of short stories—enough stories to make some educated judgment of what I considered to be the most important–i.e. interesting, influential, complex, powerful, representative etc. etc.—stories that had been published to date. I always hesitate to use the word “canon” to refer to books that have been “received” by history, for that word suggests a body of “sacred” works; furthermore, the notion that there is such a body of accepted, received works in any genre has been much vilified in recent years. Whereas the stories I have chosen for this list certainly do not include all the stories that I have loved over the years and think others might love also, it does include a bare minimum of stories that I think anyone interested in the short story as a genre might not want to ignore.
Should it be read chronologically? Well, it could be, but I don’t think it must be. I think if one just jumps in anywhere and reads stories hither and thither, that would be fine. I believe there are so many great stories here that one will start to see how completely different they all are and yet how very similar they are also.
4.What do we learn about your personal aesthetics through the stories that you chose?
Perhaps nothing, except that my tendency is to focus on stories that I think are carefully and complexly created—not stories that exist to make a polemical, political, cultural point, or stories that seem merely “ripped from the headlines” or stories that merely provide an interesting look at some culture or group that has been previously neglected.
5. A few weeks ago, you posted a blog entry about accessibility vs. elitism and whether a great short story requires being read more than once. (Popular Plotted vs. Literary Thematic Stories: Margaret Atwood vs. Alice Munro—Part I) Are there some stories on this list that require a second reading and some that don’t?
Well, the issue of “accessibility vs. elitism” is a troublesome one that I have talked about several times on my blog. My own preference for stories that are humanly complex and aesthetically delicate has got me pounded by cultural critics and political polemicists many times in the past. I think all great art works deserve to be experienced more than once—indeed that all great art works required being experienced more than once. Do we really think that we only need to look at a Da Vinci painting one time or listen to a Mozart piano concerto one time? The more accessible a work of fiction is the less apt we are to want to read it again. We may come back to less accessible of fiction over and over again because it is not just the story that interests us, but rather the beauty and delicacy of the work’s language or the mysterious complexity of the work’s meaning that requires us to reexamine it, rethink it. I have looked over this list of recommended stories again and cannot find a single one that I think should be read only once than then tossed aside without further thought.
6. You mention that the short story is “no longer tainted by commercialism as it was in the early years of the century…” Is this always a positive change? In the sense that, have short stories, become a form that has failed the general public?
Ah, yes, this is a most troublesome problem, isn’t it? And it involves lots of issues that go beyond what I can talk about in this brief interview. There is no doubt that the short story is no longer the popular “entertainment” form that it once was in America. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that there are other media that provide “story” entertainment in less taxing, more flashy ways—i.e. movies, television, ipads, etc. There arevery few wide circulation magazines that publish short stories now. Even The Atlantic, which had been publishing short stories since the mid nineteenth century, now no longer publishes them. (As an aside, about 30 minutes ago, I got a call from a telemarketer asking me to renew my subscription to The Atlantic, and I had to say that since the magazine no longer felt short stories were an important use of their pages, I was no longer interested in paying for those pages).
Since many of the short stories appearing nowadays appear in small circulation magazines published by university presses (and those are being increasingly underfunded and undermined), the short story has become primarily a “literary” form read by the few rather than a popular form read by the many. Thus, the short story seems to be going the way of poetry—read by a few folks who have been privileged by an education that values literature. I don’t know if that is good or bad—perhaps just inevitable.
7. You have always kept your focus on short stories. Who were the writers that made you fall in love with the format?
In the order of my development:
First, there were the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.
Then there was Edgar Allan Poe.
Then there was J. D. Salinger.
And then there was Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Bernard Malamud.
Now there are Alice Munro, William Trevor, David Means, Steven Millhauser, Edith Pearlman—–and so many more, so many more.
Thanks to Charles for taking the time to answer my questions. Part II of this interview will be posted on the last Friday of March.