Issue 79 |
Fall 1999


It's probably a shame to say so, at least at the outset of an introduction to this issue of
Ploughshares, but I may not be a particularly good or efficient reader of other people's fiction. By nature I am somewhat distractible. And although my distractibility is matched at times by my ability to concentrate, these two qualities create certain difficulties in judging and editing a group of stories.

For example: a few days ago, I returned from taking some cash out of an automatic money machine near the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor to find that the meter lady (actually, I believe her title is "parking enforcement official") was writing out a ticket in the spot where I had parked. Thanks to a cold downpour, I was both soaked and irritated. Standing near the driver's-side door, I informed her that, after all, I had only been gone for four minutes. (Actually, it had been longer than that; I had been distracted -- again! -- by the almost-invisible automated camera behind a tiny square of glass hidden away on the upper-left-hand corner of the money machine. I was doggedly wondering about who, if anyone,
looks at these pictures -- and, for that matter, when. Where does all this surveillance information go? I obsess about such things.) I told the parking enforcement official that, as she could certainly see, I was back now. I told her that I was now going to get into the car and leave. I told her that since she obviously hadn't finished writing the ticket, it would now
not be fair to lay it on me, since I
had returned and was presently about to drive away. She, too, was irritably soaked, and from the bored and offended expression on her face, I knew that she was all too accustomed to similar forms of lawyerly back talk from irascible motorists. She turned, walked down the street, and disappeared around the corner. Excellent!

It was only after I had tried to put the key in the door lock that I realized that the car next to which I had been standing, that I had been defending from attack, was not, in fact, mine. That the ticket that the parking enforcement official had been writing was not intended for me, but for someone else. My car was two spaces away, ticketless. The color of the two cars was similar, but they weren't the same brand, the same model, the same anything, otherwise.

This tendency toward obliviousness is, perhaps unfortunately, characteristic of me. As a reader, a writer, and a human being, I tend to be distracted by the actual and metaphorical trees, which in this case may be an immediate task such as talking off the meter lady, and I have a way, sometimes, of losing track of the overall shape of the forest, at least the first time through. This trait can present analytic or even perceptual problems for anyone, but it can be a particularly grievous fault in editors. I am as a result a slow reader and usually have to read everything twice. Acts of analysis and of creation tend to require a balancing-off of parts against the whole, and, in the case of the short story, that process may involve noting how the story's apparent theme or subject -- what it's about -- is voiced and dramatized by its tonal, imagistic, and associated dramatic elements, and I can almost never do that the first time through.

What I am saying is that each of the stories in this issue often had a detail or set of details that was so remarkable that, for moments at a time, I forgot what the story was about and was transfixed instead by an image, a tone, a dramatic action, or a statement by one of the characters. The contemporary stories that I tend to love are the ones that stop me dead in my tracks, not through surprise, exactly, but rather through an effort of supreme focused concentration. They distract me in the way I want to be distracted; they play to my weakness for stillness and wonder.

I have noticed lately that students in my workshops have gotten into the habit of complaining about certain kinds of stories as "slow." How is this story? What is it like?
It's real slow. How was the movie?
Well, it was kind of slow. This adjective, once descriptive, has now become part of an inventory of complaint. Out of a certain perversity, or perhaps a feeling that very serious matters of aesthetic judgment are on the line, I find myself these days complaining at some length about the opposite problem. Most of the movies I go to at the cineplex are much too fast; events have happened before you have a context for figuring them out, and you feel as if you have been given the narrative equivalent of a shell game. The pacing is often, and too literally, breakneck. You feel as if you're being sold something that basically won't stand up to any intensive or serious scrutiny, that doesn't, in fact, make any sense and that doesn't care to do so, sense not having been part of the project at any point in its conception or execution.

Years ago, James Agee, in a fit-to-be-tied defense of Carl Dreyer's somberly beautiful and by now classic film
Day of Wrath, defended its pacing against an attack from a rival critic, Bosley Crowther, who had complained of its slowness, by saying that such a charge against a serious work of art is absurd. It would be, Agee wrote, like complaining that Beethoven's adagio in the slow movement of the "Archduke" Trio was too slow. Slow music isn't bad
because it's slow. If it's bad, it's bad for some other reason. The problem is never one of pacing but of focus and concentration. He had a point, and I wish he were still around to make it again, only with more vehemence. Too much recent fiction, I think, has been written as if for the movies, and the resulting rhythms are often too staccato or too breezy. Such fiction gives off a nervous and impatient air, a feeling of stage fright, as if the story had to get its business done in a hurry and had no right to exist if it didn't.

This is, just possibly, an aesthetic spillover effect from the age of data processing, whose primary adaptive virtues include efficiency and speed. But perhaps it should go without saying that writing fiction, including short stories, is not data processing and never has been. This art does not need to be done quickly or consumed quickly; it just needs to be well-made, by whatever means, in communicating its experiences, emotions, and meanings. The late (and, by me, lamented) American novelist, essayist, and short-story writer Wright Morris used to go on at length in his essays defending slow reading, reading transfixed by wonderment, by the perfect image and detail. His own novels are typically slow reads. They invite a certain kind of reverie, and like his photographs they also invite solitary contemplation of the time-worn objects within them, often touched by what the Japanese call
sabi, a quality of noble shabbiness.

As Flannery O'Connor says in "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," there is "a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once."

The stories I chose for this issue typically made me slow down rather than speed up. They required multiple readings. I found them arrestingly beautiful in both the part and the whole. I feel as if I have been the curator for an exhibit of wonders: for example, those semicircles of steam from two coffee cups just beneath the car windshield in Peter Ho Davies's "The Hull Case," or the three-paragraph scene in the Tuileries in Jill Bossert's "Remaining in Favor," or the miraculously cool and slowly darkening twilight paragraph at the end of Stewart O'Nan's "Please Help Find." A Chinese herbal doctor, possibly a quack, holding out his hand compassionately in Mabelle Hsueh's "Spillage," a character saying, "Stop we must," in Joan Silber's sweet and beautifully creepy story "Commendable," the runaway parents in Hilary Rao's "Every Day a Little Death," the spots of blood on a dirty mattress in Antonya Nelson's "Palisades," the methodical stalking prose in James Morrison's "Stalker" -- well, I don't mean to do
an inventory of these or the other wonderful stories here, only to suggest that such moments, tonally, thematically, or imagistically, provoked in me a sense of formal cared-for beauty in the work, something so well cultivated that its effect was to make the other world, the one I actually live in, disappear for a moment and give way to the reverie-inducing one represented by the words on the page.

Reading these stories will not be a job for you any more than it was for me as I gathered them together. For your own good, your skills of efficient speed-reading -- if you have them -- might well be, as we say now, disengaged. Some pleasures, usually the best ones, take their own sweet time, and although literature has no traffic cops, if it did, and I were one such cop, I would be stopping the graduates of the Evelyn Wood Institutes to ask, "Hey. What's your hurry?" What is profound or psychically consequential often allows its pivotal elements a kind of suspension in the midst of an onward narrative flow, and each one of these stories has that power to suspend itself, like a trapeze artist who flies off into the air and somehow, despite the forces of gravity (and of time), manages to stay transfixed, by us, above the net.