Getting Uneven

Raymond Carver‘s final published story, “Errand,” is arguably his most unusual work—it’s a piece of historical fiction about the death of Anton Chekhov, and historical fiction wasn’t Carver’s forte. (According to Carol Sklenicka‘s 2009 Carver biography, the piece was a relatively difficult edit at the New Yorker because it had to be vetted by the magazine’s fact-checking department.) No doubt the story bothered a few critics—it’s not the story I think of when I think about what made Carver great—but it did help bolster his reputation after his death. As one British reviewer put it after reading the story, Carver was the “Chekhov of Middle America.”

I thought about the strangeness of “Errand” reading John Matthew Fox‘s complaint about how short-story collections are too often dismissed as “uneven,” and Lincoln Michel‘s follow-up post on the subject in the Faster Times. For Fox, judging a story collection on whether they’re “uneven” or not “encourages a form-based, limited type of ‘unity’ to collections, and discourage[s] a thematic or innovative type of unity.” For Michel, the “uneven” critique leads to too-hasty dismissals of any story in a collection that appears to be an outlier—for instance, the title story of Wells Tower‘s 2009 collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a story about Vikings in a book otherwise set in the present day.

Michel may be protesting a bit too much: Whatever accusations of “uneveness” Tower’s book may have received, it hasn’t done the author’s reputation any apparent harm. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned received much more praise and attention last year than, say, Ha Jin‘s A Good Fall, a very good collection of stories exclusively set in the Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens. If a story about Vikings shows the breadth of your talent and ambition, Fox may be right to suggest that critics avoid the word “uneven,” at least to the extent they confuse it with the word “diverse.”

Because consistency (or “evenness”) is a foolish thing to hope for in story collections, in the same way it’s foolish to expect it out of record albums or TV shows. (Even New Day Rising has “How to Skin a Cat” on it; even The Wire had a fifth season.) Where a novelist generally sustains one narrative voice, one tone, and one plot over the course of a book, a story writer might work with five, ten, twelve. So part of the pleasure of story collections are the left turns, the surprises, the experiments, even the failed ones. Ben Fountain‘s stellar 2006 collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, closes with “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” a story about a young concert pianist in the late 19th Century, a place and time distinct from the contemporary Third World of Fountain’s other stories. The story is fine on its own, but it’s also improved in its context—the themes of alienation and isolation that characterize the preceding stories deepen “Fantasy,” or at least show how deeply those feelings run regardless of place and time. Something similar happens with “Jonas,” a story tucked in the middle of Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen; it’s a story about woman’s efforts to understand her husband’s decision to get a sex-change operation, placed amid stories that address more commonplace domestic concerns like aging, addiction, and escape. But by placing “Jonas” where it is in the book, Boggs tacitly argues that the story’s themes are of a piece with its companions.

Both of those stories signify unevenness, but it’s unevenness as a virtue. It’s certainly an asset in the best collection of stories I’ve read so far this year, Stephen O’Connor‘s forthcoming Here Comes Another Lesson. Thematically and tonally, it’s a mess: A story about a minotaur and a video-game-obsessed girl bumps against a story about an Iraq War vet’s first difficult day home, both of which are placed alongside a series of seriocomic tales about a “professor of atheism” arrived in (perhaps) heaven. O’Connor can be satirical, but not in the kind of consistently arch way that marks, say, a George Saunders collection. O’Connor is simply acrobatically capable of finding the style appropriate for each story—and his fanciest trick is the closing “Aunt Jules,” an expansive story about two sisters where the conflict and style are utterly familiar and conventional, but no less successful for that. It’s his “Errand,” unusual even in a set of stories that’s defined by the unusual, but what critic would hold that against him?

10 responses to “Getting Uneven

  1. Harvey Freedenberg

    I enjoyed the post, Mark, and posted a link to it on my FB page. Last week I received an ARC of O’Connor’s collection in a box of books and now you’ve inspired me to give it a good look.

  2. I absolutely agree with you that some critics confuse the term “uneven” with “diverse.” Unless a short story collection has been written with the intent that its contents are deliberately linked (say Olive Kitteredge), then as a reader I expect (pray) for surprise, diversity, range. One challenge for the writer of short stories is that they often give agents / editors the heebie jeebies, as they are perceived as un-marketable (patently untrue given the number of successful collections currently available) and the writer is encouraged to think of short form works in terms of ‘a collection,’ which may result in a novel masquerading as short stories rather than an opportunity for a reader to experience the full range of colors and styles produced by an artist fearlessly experimenting with the paint box – the good, the not-so-good, and the off-kilter. Regarding thematic concerns, it always worries me to imagine a writer sitting down to work on a single story with an overarching theme in mind – one is as liable to end up with propaganda as fiction – surely theme should arise organically from the work and not be imposed from ‘above’? As regards ‘voice’ and ‘tone’, I believe a story dictates to the writer how it should be told and by whom. Such voices enter through one’s bones. But I’m beginning to sound a little New-Age-y so I’ll stop warbling on…

    • Mark Athitakis

      @Harvey Thanks for the link! Hope you enjoy the O’Connor.

      @Susan It’s interesting that you bring up “Olive Kitteridge,” because I can’t think of a recent much-praised work of fiction that exasperated me more. I’m never quite sure what to make of linked story collections, which sometimes feel like novels that couldn’t quite come together. I remember liking Donald Ray Pollock’s “Knockemstiff” well enough when it came out, but now I can’t recall much of what I admired about it—and that may be a function of the lack of a plotline threaded through it. My problem with “Olive Kitteridge” is that it seemed to suffer from a kind of overbearing consistency/evenness—whatever the conflict might be in the tiny town in which the book is set, Olive, in her cantankerous way, arrives to resolve it, either actively or passively. (When an aging black character in a movie behaves this way, we dismiss it as a sad example of the cliched Magical Negro; why is it Pulitzer-worthy when the character is an aging Maine resident?) I like how Amy Bloom compiled her latest collection, “Where the God of Love Hangs Out”—there are two sets of stories that follow a particular couple through the years, interspersed among some standalone pieces. It’s interesting to see how Bloom can deepen her characters across multiple stories, or dial back within the context of a single one.

  3. The title story is what finally endeared Wells Towers’ collection to me. After story after story of contemporary Carveresque fiction, we get this off-kilter Viking saga. It made me want to read whatever the author does next.

    Also — kudos for Husker Du reference.

  4. amy danziger ross

    nice post! I don’t know that I’m such a fan of “even” collections… I enjoyed the George Saunders collection I read recently, but I was disappointed by how interchangeable the stories felt. It’s nice to see authors change it up a little…

  5. Mark, I really enjoyed this…

    One part of the equation you don’t talk about are the pressures from commercial publishers for ‘unity’. It’s hard enough to find a publisher for any literary book of stories, but to find one for a collection that’s ‘linked’ is considerably easier. I don’t know that being ‘linked’ is necessarily the same as being ‘even’… often the word ‘unified’ gets thrown around as a synonym, too, for a quality that’s worth identifying but not privileging. I much prefer the sort of ‘unity’ you champion: theme, in an undidactic sense, seems a better quality to focus on. Coherence and cogence, not in terms of plot or even world, but in vision.

    • Mark Athitakis

      Buried somewhere in one of my earliest posts here is a comment from Knockemstiff’s editor, who said, in essence, that linked stories are more popular these days because they’re a much easier sell to publishers, which believe audiences are generally disinclined to buy short-story collections. (Perhaps because they have a reputation for being “uneven”? Maybe linked collections are more book-club-friendly?) So I don’t doubt that that pressure is there, and that it results in some success for the publishers—”Olive Kitteridge” clearly did better, comparatively speaking, than other story collections out there that weren’t written by Jhumpa Lahiri.

      Just to be clear, I don’t have a problem with linked collections per se. One of my favorite books of 2007 was Vincent Lam’s “Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures,” which focused on a group of young doctors. I think what impressed me there was in the variety of perspectives Lam brought to the subject, as well some impressively clear prose and storytelling. A blurb I wrote on the book when it came out is here: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/2443/vincent-lam

  6. When I see a reference to a collection being “uneven,” I take it to mean that some of the stories are of noticeably lower quality than the best stories in the collection, not that the term is related to thematic “unity” or other forms of linking.

  7. Good point, Tom, and one hopes that the reviewer will elaborate.

  8. A short story collection must be subtle and crisp. It is important to note that the readers are more inclined to short stories because of the crispness and subtlety.

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