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Tag: boringness

Short story: “Jack’s Garden”

“Jack’s Garden,” by V. S. Naipaul

Appeared in the New Yorker October 6th, 1986 (online to subscribers here); read by Karl Ove Knausgaard for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast episode released June 1st, 2016

A lot of words

I was barely able to follow this story on the podcast. I have to agree with Knausgaard that it’s “boring,” but unfortunately I didn’t recognize the redeeming quality he sees in it. At the end it did feel like there was a small, meaningful revelation—too late to capture my attention.

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Short story: “Bedtime”

“Bedtime,” by Gabriel Heller

Appeared in Electric Literature‘s Okey-Panky, November 13th, 2017

1,679 words

A depressing vision of home life, complete with a hint that old age holds worse things. The lack of paragraph breaks, the lack of quote marks, and the relentlessness of the banal details make this feel like stream of consciousness.

Short story: “The Easiest Thing in the World”

“The Easiest Thing in the World,” by Ryan Napier

Appeared in pages 40–46 of the October 30th, 2017 issue of The Tishman Review (PDF)

Maybe 2,000 words?

I admire the way this story presents the narrator. In little ways, we see that he’s a bit of a schmuck, but a happy schmuck—happy in his own small way, anyhow. The bit where he tries to tell the other tourists about his boring hometown is such a great touch. He loves that boring hometown.

 

On pre-visualization in storytelling

“I wish I didn’t have to shoot the picture. When I’ve gone through the script and created the picture on paper, for me the creative job is done and the rest is just a bore.”

—Alfred Hitchcock, as quoted in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Volume 2

I’ve heard that this statement is at best an exaggeration, but I sort of want it to be true. Not that I want to be bored while putting a piece of fiction together, but I want to believe that outlines and imaginative daydreams can be the heart and skeleton of a story, and that the writing itself is just the breath that animates the thing.

There’s been at least one case when I was bored while writing a scene because I had already written the surrounding story and determined what the scene needed to do. And it seemed to work! At least, people weren’t bored reading it.

Short story: “Woman of the Week”

“Woman of the Week,” by Claire Polders

Appeared in matchbook in February 2016

449 words

A neat piece. Sort of celebrating the individuality of somebody who appears superficially uninteresting.

On literary bookjacket copy

“The jacket copy on literary novels is always incredibly dull (genre writers would say that this is because literary fiction is inherently dull, but I disagree with that). I think it’s because literary jacket copy always tries to convey the experience of reading a book, even though that’s an inherently unexplainable thing. Whereas genre jacket copy just tries to convince you to read the damn thing. The jacket copy on a literary novel is like your college professor telling you why the book is important, whereas the jacket copy on a genre novel is like your best friend telling you why the book is fucking awesome.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

Yeah, I feel like literary fiction shouldn’t have that kind of copy at all. Just quotes from the work itself (assuming it’s the kind of thing that can be quoted effectively) and blurbs that make it sound awesome in a literary way.

I would have a hard time explaining why Swann’s Way is awesome, but if you put an excerpt about Marcel’s childhood clinginess, or his madeleines, that would be explanation enough.

How not to title a story

“I tell students, when in doubt, to title their story after the smallest concrete object in their story. I warn them off plays on words, (‘The Rent Also Rises’—no; ‘Life in My Cat House’—no) and no grand reaches, either. ‘Reverence,’ ‘Respect,’ ‘Regret,’ ‘Greed,’ ‘Adventure,’ ‘Retribution.’ And never use the worst title of all time, ‘The Gift,’ a story I read six times a year.”

—Ron Carlson (x)

Edit: It occurs to me that this advice isn’t so much for avoiding bad titles as for avoiding embarrassing titles. Which is all very well, but sometimes a writer has to risk embarrassment for the sake of boldness or integrity or experimentation or winning the reader over. Not everything can be safe, not everything can be easy on the ego.

That said, I do agree with Carlson that short story titles should err on the side of concreteness and conservatism. Short stories tend to focus on small, specific things, and they aren’t long enough to merit grand, abstract titles or clever titles that hint at complexity. (I feel the same way about movies.) Novels, on the other hand, can wear abstract or clever titles very well.

Novelette: “Investigations of a Dog”

Investigations of a Dog (Forschungen eines Hundes), by Franz Kafka

Original German found on Wikisource here

An automatic Google translation gives me 13,912 words in English

I think David Foster Wallace described this story (found it!) as having more private meaning than anything accessible to readers. And I suppose it’s probably an allegory for Jewish history or something else I don’t understand very well. But like a lot of Kafka’s stories, his animal stories especially, Investigations seems very real and meaningful to me whether or not I can make sense of it.

One thing that probably puts readers off is that, while it could be read as an elaborate exercise in defamiliarizing dogs, it doesn’t draw much power from the contrast between the reader’s and the narrator’s knowledge. It’s fun to read the narrator’s inability to see humans as something of a running joke (and it’s possible, as some have done, to decode all the events of the story through that lens), but the joke goes on long enough that it seems not to be the point of the story. The real point is—I don’t know what.

I’ve quoted this line before and I want to quote it again—it seems applicable to many things in life:

“That is my hunger,” I told myself countless times […] , as if I wanted to convince myself that my hunger and I were still two things and I could shake it off like a burdensome lover; but in reality we were very painfully one, and when I explained to myself: “That is my hunger,” it was really my hunger that was speaking and having its joke at my expense.

My rules about fiction titles

  • Subtle or obscure titles are hard to remember and accept, especially when the story is short or simple. A lengthy or complex work of fiction demands a lot of the reader’s time and attention, so a subtle title has a chance to sink in gradually. (This is a problem for movies based on books: the book has a chance to “earn” its title, but the movie must be brief and relatively shallow.)
  • Titles should not try to mean too much. Trying to cram explicit emotion into a title, let alone wisdom, usually comes off as mawkish. Again, this is especially true for short, simple works.
  • An inappropriate allusion can ruin an otherwise acceptable title.
  • A title that literally summarizes the story almost always reads as redundant. In very short fiction, redundant titles are rampant and they stick out. (See for example a lot of the otherwise excellent finalists in Robert Swartwood’s latest Hint Fiction Contest.) A titleless poem can avoid the problem by using its opening line as a de facto title, but that convention has never caught on in fiction.
  • A title named after the protagonist (or antagonist, or MacGuffin) is a safe choice. The only danger is that it will be too bland—and again, this danger is greatest with very short works.
  • Cute, punny, or self-consciously clever titles are annoying.
  • Titles that use clichés or stock phrases, without giving them any kind of twist, come off as clumsy and amateurish. Same with titles that use vague, trite imagery.

On boring and nonboring things

“People soon get tired of things that aren’t boring, but not of what is boring. Go figure. For me, I might have the leisure to be bored, but not to grow tired of something. Most people can’t distinguish between the two.”

—a character in Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, as translated by Philip Gabriel

I have to admit, I don’t know what this means. I just like how it sounds. Maybe it made more sense in the original?