Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Down with Schlub Stories

I'm still reeling from seeing an exhibition of the work of James Turrell this past weekend. It made things different, in my head, not just in how I think about art and perception (you know, little things) but in how I think about memory and impermanence and other existential stuff. It was not an ordinary experience.

So I want to write about something else entirely. Last summer I read two books of short stories that I'll be recommending for years to come: Mary Gaitskill's Don't Cry and Jincy Willett's Jenny and the Jaws of Life. Neither is perfect, but neither is ordinary. Gaitskill is a strange, prickly writer, embodying strength and control and keeping the reader at a definite distance. She is not interested in making you happy, but sometimes, before you're finished with her story, the earth will move. Willett is even more original, and harder to parse, but her work is slightly more personable. It still leaves you turned totally upside down, baffled at what you just read but urgently turning the page.

During my UCLA Extension fiction class last semester, we read a lot of short stories that all felt exactly the same (to one another, not to my description of Gaitskill and Willett in the preceding paragraph). Let's call these "schlub stories." They were about blue-collar guys, many of them drinkers, most of them pathetically flawed, going on some kind of escapade that ends either badly or without a resolution. I understood that the instructor wanted to teach what he knew best, what he felt best qualified to interpret, and what he liked. But the sameyness of these stories seriously got on my nerves.

Gaitskill and Willett rocked me, fascinated me, and I have no idea how they accomplished what they did. The schlub stories didn't, on the whole, work any magic on me, and I could hardly distinguish the voices from one another, even if they were written by completely different authors years apart. It was reasonably easy to tell how these stories were built, how they manipulated the reader along the journey.

Couldn't I learn more from reading stories on the edges of the map and breaking them down than I could from stories that are extremely technically proficient, but right in the literary middle?

There's also the problem of who was represented in this selection of fiction. Even if the stories hadn't all seemed exactly the same, their writers definitely did. In ten weeks, the only fiction we read by a woman was Dorothy Parker's "Here We Are" (which was presented as a novelty of form rather than of interest as content), and every single writer was white. Those of you white men out there reading this may not know it, but the white male perspective is actually not the only perspective that exists on human life.

"But Kat," you say, "stories like 'Rock Springs' and 'Bullet in the Brain' are supposed to be universal." Uh huh. Get this: the white male perspective is not universal. Okay? It's one perspective, and it's not mine. I want to hear from other people. Even people whose cultural perspectives I hardly understand at all. I didn't like Life and Times of Michael K, but I appreciated having a different experience. I did like Things Fall Apart and The God of Small Things, and again, I appreciated having a different experience.

I guess that breaking down a Willett story would be too complicated for a basic-level fiction class for which anyone on the street can sign up, but that doesn't excuse the lack of diversity. I guess that teaching nearly all white male writers was easier for the instructor, but that doesn't excuse the lack of variety in the stories. It was so disappointing to read the same story over and over and feel left out week after week. I suspect we - and that "we" includes the instructor - would have learned a great deal from reading challenging, enigmatic stories at least once or twice. I've learned an awful lot in the last couple of years reading books I didn't understand.

So that's part of why I doubt I'll be going back to UCLA Extension for more classes. I'm getting better and more diverse education at CSUN.

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