Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Grammar: A Fashionable Topic

 An article from the New York Times took me back to my college days and the study of grammar.  John McWhorter says that "proper English is, like so much else, a matter of fashion":

Few people want to throw out instruction in grammar, but I daresay, grammar is taken less seriously than it once was.  In college, I took an education course taught by a former high school English teacher.  She chose to teach the class grammar because she said she was tired of principals complaining to her that English majors no longer knew grammar.  They were only interested in teaching literature.

Well, there were a few hidden smirks among the students, and I may have been one of the smirkers.  I thought I knew grammar well enough.  I was wrong.  I learned a lot in that class, and, throughout the years, I came to appreciate its practicality.  I even kind of like grammar.  I still don't think I know it all--in fact, I know I don't.  As an editor and writer, I find knotty little problems with which I struggle.

I just struggled not to end that last sentence with a preposition.  Saying "I find knotty little problems I struggle with" is more natural to my ear and perhaps yours.   Which brings me to this (another questionable construction?):  Usage often prevails over the long run.  In graduate school, I did another project on language and grammar, and that was my conclusion.  I'm talking centuries here, and I am by no means dismissing the teaching of grammar.  But language is a living thing and dialect, or the way people speak, gradually affects what is acceptable in formal speech and writing.  It's possible that a century from now ending a sentence with a preposition won't be looked upon as incorrect.

I could go on and on about this, but a really dull topic is nagging at my conscience.  That would be housework.  I'll just refer you to a lucid discussion of grammar at About.com, a product of the New York Times company:  http://grammar.about.com/od/basicsentencegrammar/a/grammarintro.htm.
(They care a lot about grammar at the NYT.)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

"A Short Attention Span"

My essay "A Short Attention Span" appeared in Monkey Puzzle #11, which, unfortunately, was also the magazine's last issue.  The essay appears in the paper edition but not as full-text on Monkey Puzzle's web site.  Considering these facts, I think it's legit to display it on this blog.  Here it is:

            Lately, I’ve been giving some thought to my short attention span. 
            No, I don’t think I have ADHD, or some other disorder.  It’s just that when I read novels, I find myself having this experience.  I start a well-reviewed, promising book, but then I lose interest.  I think of myself as a discerning reader, but these books either languish on my shelves or get returned to the library unread.  An example:  Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, a book that I still plan to read some day. 
            A related experience is that, in the case of some authors, I enjoy their short stories more than their novels.  For instance, I love William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and “A Rose for Emily” but find his novels a hard slog.  I also count some of Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories among my favorites (e.g., “Heat,” “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”), though I have not read many of her novels.
            I seem to have lost patience with the journey, or the requirements for reading most novels—the investment of time (and sometimes money, assuming a purchase rather than putting my name on a reserve list at the public library), the side excursions, digressions, subplots, and appreciation of any precious scenery (any prolonged description of place, no matter how well written).  This does not mean that I have lost my interest in fiction.  I just read it in a more concentrated form—the short story.
            I subscribe to literary magazines that publish short stories, and I purchase or borrow from the library, collections of short stories.  As an editor of a literary magazine (full disclosure), I read and evaluate many short stories.  And I also write short stories myself.
            My personal experience leaves me wondering why it is that short stories do not get read more widely and why some literary figures feel that the short story is an endangered genre.  After all, in an age when people are pressed for time, the short story would seem to be a good choice for people who need a quick dose of fiction. 
            In Alice Munro’s short story “Fiction,” Joyce, the main character, makes a sly comment on the status of short stories:  She notices a woman who turns up at a party with a group of people accompanying her stepson.  She’s not sure she likes the woman, but, upon finding out she is an author, Joyce buys a copy of her book.  Here are her thoughts about it: 
            “How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel.  This in itself
            is a disappointment.  It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author
            seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than
            safely settled inside.” (Too Much Happiness, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)
Munro, a preeminent short story writer who has been dubbed “Our Chekhov” by Cynthia Ozick, must have had fun crafting that paragraph. 
            As editor of Best American Short Stories 2007 (Houghton Mifflin Company), Stephen King colorfully and caustically describes in his introduction what he sees as the sorry state of the short story.  He believes that the effect of a shrinking general audience for short stories is, in too many cases, stories that are “show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and – worst of all – written for editors and teachers rather than for readers.”  
            The reasons for that are complicated, but certainly are due to marketing strategies and the disappearance of the short story from popular magazines.  King’s visual description of his short-story-hunting expedition to his favorite mega bookstore says a lot about what does and does not get attention from publishers and retailers.  He walks “past the best sellers, past trade paperbacks … past the mysteries, past the auto repair manuals, past the remaindered coffee-table books” to face “the Wall of Magazines.”
There, he finds The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine “while . . . still standing up.”
To find literary magazines, like Zoetrope, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and American Short Fiction, he must “crawl along the magazine section’s last display module … with [my] ass in the air and [my] nose to the carpet in order to secure that month’s budget of short stories …”   
            On a superficial level, readers may see the short story as lacking the substance of the novel because of its length (the “hanging onto the gates of Literature” attitude), even though it could certainly be argued that a collection of short stories involves more work and thought than a novel.  This possibly has something to do with lack of instruction in the short story.  Other than studying classics such as “The Telltale Heart” or “The Most Dangerous Game” in a high school English class, many people have had little exposure to the form.  (And I do believe that a good class is helpful in developing appreciation for the genre.)  It may not cross their minds to seek out contemporary short stories that could become tomorrow’s classics, and their chances of encountering them in popular periodicals are slim.
            Stephen King’s prediction for the short story is fairly bleak:  “Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead.”  Well, I hope not.  So, after some thought and research, I offer the following list of persons, places, things, and ventures that are favorable to the health of the short story.
1)     Electronic Media.  In December 2009, Amazon.com announced that it would be selling The Atlantic short stories for their electronic reader, the Kindle.  These are stories that are too long for the magazine to publish but not long enough to be novels.  The Kindle is a product that is enjoying much success.  It gives short stories publicity and an association with new technology.  It says to the public that a short story is a serious piece of writing with a monetary value ($3.19).  More recently, Electric Literature publishes stories via eBook, Kindle, and iPhone.  Its mission is “to use new media and innovative distribution to return the short story to a place of prominence in popular culture.”  Using the money saved on printing, Electric Literature pays $1,000 to five writers for each quarterly issue.
2)  Libraries.  Public libraries are repositories of short story collections and browser delights.  Browsers can find several editions of the annual Best American Short Stories filed under “B” in the fiction section.  They may also find a collection of short stories by a novelist they’ve enjoyed and decide to try it.  Libraries have new book displays that offer a variety of books, in contrast to book stores that tend to place the best sellers in the more eye-catching displays, and librarians often provide theme displays.  I discovered the Noir mystery series (Akashic Books) in a display at my local public library.  Another time, I counted three collections of short stories on a “Staff Picks” display.   
3) The Internet.  The Internet has possibilities for increasing exposure to and interest in short stories.  The Library of America (www.loa.org), a nonprofit publisher, offers a “Free Story of the Week.”  If you register at their site, you will receive a short story in your email each week.  Their goal is “keeping in print, authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing.”  A web site entitled “Classic Reader” (www.classicreader.com) offers full text of stories by writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, and many others).   Many literary magazines are migrating to the net, offering excerpts or full-text of short stories.  Readers now have access to stories previously hidden away in print journals.  There are even blogs on short stories (where authors vent their frustrations about the genre not getting the respect it deserves).
4)  Short stories as film or television productions.  Probably the best known recent adaptation is Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.  Another recent film Away From Her is based on Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came over the Mountain.”  When I taught a course on the short story, I found excellent films at the public library to show my students:  Paul’s Story (Willa Cather), Everyday Things (Alice Walker), and Smooth Talk (based on Joyce Carol Oates’ Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?). 
5) Radio.  PRI (Public Radio International) broadcasts Selected Shorts, an award-winning series of short fiction read by stars of stage and screen.  Both classic and new stories are included.  The readings are recorded live at New York’s Symphony Space and broadcast on NPR, which also offers a podcast.
6)  Writers like Alice Munro.  Why Alice Munro?  Well, she is known primarily as a master of the short story.  She has published ten collections of stories, but only one novel.  She also writes stories that have appeal to both a literary and a general audience.  And her stories are focused more on women characters, and women are the biggest consumers of fiction.  (See NPR story re the “fiction gap”:  “Why Women Read More than Men,” September 5, 2007.) 
            And there are always people like me with “short attention spans” who seek out, defend, and proselytize the short story.  Simply put, it is an elegant form of writing that merits more attention and appreciation.