Tag: 1970s

On who gets called narcissistic

“‘[N]arcissism’ is a word that’s sometimes used to assert a diagnostic power over someone, or a group of people, who are perceived as having too much, or asking for too much. When I started reading, I noticed that Freud’s narcissists were women and gay men. As I was writing, others published deeper research about this. The historian Elizabeth Lunbeck’s The Americanization of Narcissism tracks how, in psychoanalysis, ‘narcissism’ was a construct that helped to pathologize homosexuality and femininity. In her review of that book, Vivian Gornick wrote about marching for equal rights, in the 70s, and then having Christopher Lasch condemn feminism as narcissistic. You say ‘we’re here, too,’ and someone whose power is threatened is going to say ‘you’re too self-absorbed.’ The book launch for The Selfishness of Others was in a historically African-American neighborhood, Ft. Greene, from which so many have been displaced, and the majority of people at the launch looked to be what we call ‘white.’ During the Q & A, a person of color in the audience pointed this out, and afterwards about twenty white people came up to tell me they thought that person was a narcissist, for ‘interrupting’ the event to talk about this. So in that way a valid intervention, an important one, is dismissed by claiming the person who makes it is vain, and self-absorbed, or worse, has a mental illness.”

—Kristin Dombek (x)


Short story: “Emergency”

“Emergency,” by Denis Johnson

Appeared in the New Yorker, September 16th, 1991 (subscribers can read here); collected in Jesus’ Son (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992; Harper Perennial, 1993; Picador); anthologized in The Vintage Book of American Short Stories, edited by Tobias Wolff (1994); read for the May 2009 episode of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast by Tobias Wolff; reprinted in Narrative

3571 words

This isn’t exactly my favorite kind of story, but it’s stuck with me in the years since I first heard it on the New Yorker podcast. The painfully doomed fetal rabbits. The vision of angels over the graveyard. That line “I thought it was something else”—the kind of cautious thing you say when you know you could make a fool of yourself.


On how to respond to a volcano full of baby skulls

“[T]he bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, ‘There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.’ Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living. You shouldn’t lie. If there aren’t any, so far as you can see, you should say so, like the Merdistes. But I don’t think the Merdistes are right—except for Céline himself, by accident, because Céline (as character, not as author) is comic; a villain so outrageous, miserable, and inept that we laugh at him and at all he so earnestly stands for. I think the world is not all merde. I think it’s possible to make walls around at least some of the smoking holes.”

—John Gardner (The Art of Fiction No. 73)

Short story: “The Horse Lord”

“The Horse Lord,” by Lisa Tuttle

First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in June 1977; collected in A Nest of Nightmares (Sphere Books, 1986; later reprinted as an ebook by Jo Fletcher Books) and in Stranger in the House (Ash-Tree Press, 2010); featured in episode 450 of Pseudopod, August 7th, 2015

Maybe 4,000 words?

I was frustrated with this story. The old Indian burial ground/curse/legend/warning trope just doesn’t age well. One of the Escape Artists staff argues that Tuttle subverts it by making the real monster something older than the tribes, but if that’s true, the warning given by the “brave” is still played totally straight, and the main characters’ indifference towards the Native Americans is still off-putting. I was also annoyed by some minor lapses in prose quality.

I liked the ending, especially the revelation about the monster’s real nature.

Short story: “Dole Girl”

“Dole Girl,” by Barbara Hamby

Winner of the 2015 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest; appeared in volume 40, number 4 of Boston Review, July/August 2015

4,319 words

Not a bad story, but I guess I was expecting something more insightful or complex. Kind of reads like a memoir. The main character’s problem is resolved by the passage of time; she learns a few obvious things. Nothing really ties it all together, it’s just a window into an important period in her life.

Short story: “The Screwfly Solution”

“The Screwfly Solution,” by Raccoona Sheldon, better known as James Tiptree, Jr. and Alice Sheldon

First appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact in 1977; won the 1978 Nebula Award for Best Novelette (defined by the word count above); featured in episode 400 of Pseudopod, August 22nd, 2014

Somewhere between 7,500 and 17,500 words

The characters and emotional situations are almost entirely cardboard, but the idea is so clever and well-executed that I don’t care.

Matthew Cheney has an interesting post about “The Screwfly Solution”, which I mostly disagree with. He says, “One of the problems of most commercial fiction is that, in aiming for a large audience, it insults that audience.” I agree in general, but not about this particular story. I think “Screwfly” sacrifices subtlety and depth deliberately, not for the sake of pandering, but for more superficial pleasures.

Edited to add: I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about the depth of the characters—I encountered this story on Pseudopod, and for whatever reason it didn’t grip me emotionally. I’ll come back to this again some time (I want to read a lot more of Tiptree’s work generally anyway).

Short story: “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death”

“Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” by James Tiptree, Jr.

First appeared in the anthology The Alien Condition (April 1973), edited by Stephen Goldin; nominated for the 1974 Hugo (in the Novelette category); placed third in the 1974 Locus Magazine Poll Award; won the 1974 Nebula (Short Story); also in a long list of collections and anthologiesavailable behind a paywall on Scribd; reprinted and recorded for Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014

6788 words

A delight. Need to read more of Tiptree’s work.

Also seems to be a precursor to “Mantis Wives.”

Short story: “A City of Churches”

“A City of Churches,” by Donald Barthelme

Appeared in the April 22nd, 1972 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here); found online here in Chinese and English; also anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of the Century; collected in Sixty Stories

1,335 words; almost four pages in this copy of Sixty Stories

Everybody hates listening to someone else’s dream, but everybody likes remembering their own vividest dreams. Dreamlike fiction seems to work best when it ends up feeling like the reader’s dream, not the author’s: ordered according to a compelling secret logic, full of irrefutable meaning.

Is Cecelia a symbol? Is she invading Prester, or is Prester abducting her, or both? That line “She was not afraid of him” has a ring of bravado to my ear, as though it is the character’s thought and not an impartial narrator’s. Then at the end, she shows no eagerness to stay, making threats but taking no action. Is the Secret real? Could it destroy the town? Will Cecelia be forced to assimilate? Perhaps this story is about a specific political or generational culture clash. I don’t know. It feels like my own dream.

Short story: “Why Don’t You Dance?”

“Why Don’t You Dance?”, by Raymond Carver

Appeared in Quarterly West in 1978 and The Paris Review in 1981; collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories; reprinted in Zoetrope: All-Story in spring 2011 (Volume 15, No. 1); found online here and here and also as a PDF

1,617 words

Marilynne Robinson described the dance scene this way: “The intimacy of marriage is voided, exposed, re-enacted and distanced, all at once. The moment may be said to suggest memory, art, the astonishing bond of intimacy among a world of strangers, the ghostliness of one’s attachment to any place or relationship.”

It does suggest memory and art to me. Somehow, the telling of the story ends up belonging to the young woman (I mean “girl”):

She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.

She’s gotten an early glimpse of how bad life can get, and storytelling (clumsy, inarticulate storytelling) is the only response she can come up with.

The last line seems to indicate that she fails to achieve catharsis. I can’t tell if she fails because it’s too terrible or because she’s a bad storyteller. Or possibly because she doesn’t have anyone who intuits the significance of the “yard sale” the way she does. Maybe the real ending implied here is the failure of her relationship with the boy.

The story seems to need all its characters to be hopelessly inarticulate. I think that’s a common technique of Carver’s. Inarticulacy is poignant, and it compels the reader to say what the characters can’t.

The economy and inevitability of this piece are daunting.

On emotional climaxes

I once saw some documentary about The Exorcist where the filmmakers discuss the reason they decided to cut out the “spider walk” sequence. Actually, they had several reasons, but one reason in particular stood out for me.

There’s an emotional scene in which the mother finds out that her friend, who was supposed to be watching her little girl, has died a sudden, violent death. She’s shocked and breaks down in tears. Then the possessed girl comes downstairs on all fours, upside down, looking like a freaky spider. They struggle to restrain her.

One of the filmmakers (probably William Friedkin, the director) said that scene never struck quite the right note emotionally. The mother’s emotional reaction is the scene’s climax. Following up with another emotional shock and another climax (as the director’s cut does) doesn’t work. Later in the same documentary, one of the filmmakers had a palm-to-forehead moment and said: I know what we should have done. We should have broken the bad news and then, before she had a chance to react, bam! Spider walk!

The mechanics of storytelling seem to have a lot to do with the mechanics of emotion itself. If you follow one moment of intense emotion with another one a little later, the effect of the second will be partly numbed and muddied by the first. But if the two are nearly simultaneous, then the emotion can perhaps reach a single, amplified climax.