Monday, December 12, 2011

Why the Short Story Is Dying

THE SPOT by David Means

David Means learned his creative writing class lessons too well. This book is the literary standard. Finely-crafted sentences, long paragraphs of them, sentence after sentence without a break, like a salesman who gets you on the phone and keeps talking without pause and it's all babble. It's not scene. It's not really narrative. It's just writing.

From "Reading Chekhov":

"Behind them the office building, with its reflective glass, collected and cubed the vista. The terminus of parting; the deep, elegaic tragedy of it."

There's scarcely a sentence in the entire book that's not this kind of pretentious shit. But then, when the title of a story has "Chekhov" in it, you know it's literary output intended to be pretentious. Someone is sucking up to someone. The objective is to impress. Not to entertain, not to move or thrill, not to enlighten. Impress-- and not the general reader either.

This book is literary writing at its worst.

The characters are interchangeable. They run together even within the bounds of a single tale, as in the title story, "The Spot." Every character is soulless. Every one is stupidly violent or apathetic, without conscience and barely conscious. Organisms helplessly caught in a flow of nature or a flow of stupidity. It's not that Means doesn't like people. His characters aren't people. They're not even caricatures.

The settings are uniformly grim. The sentences run together and the paragraphs run together. The characters and situations run together as the words run together. The plots are buried under sheer wordiness.

One of the stories lists three ways someone copes. Here's one of the ways:

"Assume a protoplasmic mobility; the creep of the protozoan, one-celled hydra, primal and original and eager to consume itself for lunch."

Sounds great. Not exactly positive. What does it mean?

It's bullshit writing. Means is basically just shitting the reader.

Since I can't quote the entire book, it's impossible to convey here how bad it is.

Yet pillars of the literary establishment love it! The back cover contains flatulent blurbs by The New York Times, London Review of Books, Jeffrey Eugenides and James Wood. On the dust jacket right inside the back cover is the author photo, which makes David Means resemble his characters. He appears to have all the intelligence of a ripe squash.

For a minute, looking at the photo and reading the book, I wondered if the thing was one big put-on. A mock collection. A satirical joke. But no, they've been charging $23 for it, and the blurb writers are serious. They truly believe it's good. Which says a lot about the higher levels of the literary world.

The New Yorker, flagship publication of that world, originally published the title story with its depiction of rural Neanderthals stumbling vacantly about middle America. Likely because the story confirms a Manhattan stereotype.

David Means anyway, within the open spout of words, briefly becomes honest about what he does:
"--we'd meet just as we're meeting now. Except it would go on forever. The story would end and then it would just keep going, the way this one does. That's what it's about. It would keep going onward, like the light from a star. We know they're not going to find a way out, around it, and we know they're just going to continue--"

You've been warned.

PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber, Inc.
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

1 comment:

Blitz Book Review said...

There will be a follow-up, "Why the Short Story Isn't Dying," about a different book. Stay tuned.

About Me

Blitzing the book world with reviews of excitement. SEND books to be praised or destroyed to (new address pending).