Men: Please Try Harder
I’ve been having an argument with myself and with friends and whatever acquaintances will listen to me for the last few years. I don’t know what started the argument -- it could’ve begun the first time I read Lorrie Moore, or maybe after finishing Thisbe Nissen’s great first book; it could’ve been because of Elizabeth McCracken or Eudora Welty or Grace Paley. I think, though, that the argument really began when, working at a bookstore right out of college, I kept seeing and reading bad debut story collections published by big houses -- bad collections that’d seemed really promising and interesting, full of stories by people I really wanted to get excited about and be a fan of -- and the thing all these disappointing people had in common was a chromosome.
The argument is this: American women are better short story writers than American men.
There are any number of caveats to that, the first of which is: I’m not talking about the geniuses or the godawful stuff. At the end of any spectrum, rules are out the window. I’d never argue against, say, the Moody of Demonology (I think the title story might actually be one of the best stories writeable), against the David Foster Wallace of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, against George Saunders or the up-and-coming and hugely worthy of praise Ben Percy, to say nothing at all of Tobias Wolff. Likewise, a really bad story can be written as easily by men or women, far as I can tell.
Also, this is only about short fiction. I’m talking about the middle-of-the-road stuff, the ”literary” stuff. Small press runs, usually, and little hype -- the sort of story collections that include mention in their acknowledgments of places like the Indiana Review or Post Road or Colorado Review. What I’m trying to figure out is this: I’m an editor for Swink magazine, and when I get a stack of stories I separate them into a pile for women and a pile for men. And there are always exceptions -- the latest story that knocked my socks off is authored by a guy -- but by and large any pile of stories written by women is just fundamentally better than one full of stories written by men.
And I know: I’m a guy, and I’m a writer, so I’m suspect. Possible axes I could be grinding are that I have two sisters that I adore and I suppose that, since I’m straight, I want to appear suave and winning and liberated to women. Maybe this is some weird male guilt because I’m the dominant paradigm: a straight white guy with a college education. I don’t know of a defense against those charges. Also, all of this lambasting is as directed at me as it is at any other practicing male fiction writer, just in case anyone wants to take too much offense. (My last published story? About a young guy who can’t just get his act together and tell the girl he likes that, in fact, he likes her.) This is motivated by a frustration with men as short story writers, and I feel the same way about this as I do about assholes who yell loudly at bars: I want men to be better.
I fully acknowledge that to try to rank men and women is, in fact, a pretty masculine impulse. That said: men are published way more often than women, and I would care about this a whole lot less if interesting and good female authors were represented even half as much as lukewarm male authors are.
Two months ago I read a story from the slush pile which begins, “I used to make out with the household iron. I'd turn it on to Silks and, as it started up, start the fantasy.” Name the last short story you read that was written by a man that started so daringly and confidently. The author’s a woman named Caren Beilin and her story, “When We Were French,” goes on to describe a girl who makes out with a train in her small town. “She could feel it go soft in her arms, not melted, but flesh-filling. She grabbed different parts of it, opened her mouth and applied her tongue and moaned and meant it.” (The story’s recently been published by Arabesques Review, available online.)
Take another short story, unpublished, this time written by a guy. In this story, which begins slowly, a high school girl with questions about sex calls her brother, who is studying languages in South America, to get answers. Completely ignoring the fact that every woman I’ve ever known with questions about sex has gone to another woman for answers to those questions, my principle frustration with the story was the deception. Ostensibly about a confused young woman, the story read, in fact, as something like a sales-pitch for her hip, cool, and experienced older brother (who is also a hip, bookish guy. I know, author/character separation and all, but isn’t it interesting that the salvific and redeeming character in the story’s a literate guy?). What made him more interesting than his sister, made his story more worth emotional investment? From what I read in the story, nothing: it was simply the fact that he was a guy.
Or let's try this, a story published in the summer of 2006 in a pretty well-known and -regarded literary magazine. The protagonist, a first-person narrator, is with his son at a playground, and the son finds a bag of pot. The protagonist pockets the weed, takes his son to his ex-wife's apartment, and then drives home, musing on the carefree and gone glory days of pot smoking in college. After calling his ex-wife and her hanging up on him, the protagonist drives over, is physically confronted by her new lover, and is then driven home, bloodied and tasting regret. First, why is it that when men write first-person short stories, the narrator's almost always a stand-in for the author? (I don't personally know the author of this story, but it's not hard to imagine that the vaguely disaffected young father in the story -- longing for the past, confused by the present -- bears some significant resemblences). Why do we write so much about men, period? Second, isn't this just awfully thin stuff for a story? More flat sentences about one more guy who can't get his act together -- really? How much more do we need?
I don’t think the premise of either story was the dooming element: strong sentences can make anything readable. If boxes of Wheaties had good copy, breakfast would be riveting. But the writing in both was weak with flimsy sentences that rarely pulled their weight. Consider, instead, a line by Alissa Nutting, from “My Trip to Space,” recently published in Swink 3: “I bet he likes waffles.” Can’t you see the character she’s describing?
So can a story’s brilliant premise help it overcome clunky writing? Absolutely, and that’s, I think, the biggest part of the problem. I feel like I keep reading short stories written by men in which the central character’s a man, and a man in pretty mundane situations -- confused about women, hanging out with friends, maybe frustrated with his dad. I read stories of confusion, but the confusion is common and, unlike real-world confusion, uncomplicated. But then I keep finding female-authored short stories in which someone makes out with an iron, or, even better, has an iron for a head. How about the boy who, literally, gives his heart to his mother in a transplant? That was Judy Budnitz.
In both of those male-authored stories above, too, there seemed to be an agenda beneath the male writers’ work. The default male short story writers’ agenda is to prove something -- about themselves as authors, about the story and what they know of the world. What do I mean by proving things?
In that story above, the girl calling her brother long distance, the story moves toward a denouement in which the sibling tie between brother and sister is strong enough to conquer confusion and loneliness. That is all. Do we need stories to prove this, and so emptily? In both stories from above, the proof, the argument, the themes at best feel choppy, added on as scaffolding to prop an otherwise shaky story, and at worst the themes feel like exercises in sophomoric wisdom. Really, you want to ask? Really? That’s all -- regret is problematic, siblings help each other? Is that worth the price of admission?
Do female authors do this? Of course they do. None of this is absolute. Writing can be tough, and proving something -- trying to establish a story’s legitimacy, or the author’s legitimacy in telling the story -- is plenty easier than simply sitting back and telling a story, hoping that the narrative itself will let the story rise or fall. Consider this response, uttered by a friend, when I told him about this great new story in which a girl makes out with an iron: why?
Ignore that the numbers are hilariously in favor of male writers. If you don’t believe me, keep a month-long tally of the New York Times Book Review, monitoring the number of books under review that were written by women and the number of reviews written by women, even granting that Janet Maslin and Michiko Kakutani run the show there. Or notice that women make up, at last count, a pretty ridiculous large majority of the reading public but are woefully underrepresented when it comes to awards and honors (Joanna Kavenna wrote a good primer on the subject for the Times).
Here’s a simple list that makes me simultaneously very happy and pretty sad: Adrianne Harun. Courtney Eldridge. Amanda Davis. Michelle Richmond. Jean Harfenist. Why are these five authors not well known, or more well known? Why have none of my friends or peers, or even many of the writers I know, heard of these female authors, yet do know of small, equally under-publicized collections written by men? Maybe things can change: two weeks ago, I’d have put Jean Thompson’s name on that list, but her latest, Throw Like a Girl, just got reviewed by Jennifer Egan in the Sunday, June 17th New York Times.
In an e-mail, Caren Beilin raised what I think might be the dark heart of this whole argument: “Well, of course, with guys, there can be that whole Raymond Carver effect, which really botches things up on their end.” Carver of course can be replaced with Hemingway, and the question then becomes: is the great majority of male American short story writers doomed because of our heritage? If we’re not mucking up stories by attempting to prove things about ourselves or our knowledge, are we cowed by the tough, athletic prose that’s come to be recognized as the Great White American Male style? What if the spectrum of male American short fiction wasn’t anchored by Hemingway at one end and Faulkner at the other and that, between the two, men had to choose?
I think there are great signs afoot, from Swivel magazine to the continuing popularity of McSweeney’s (as if the Quarterly, and the Believer, and all the books weren’t enough, they also sponsor an annual Amanda Davis short fiction award). It was in their 12th issue, guest edited by Michael Chabon, that he wrote of his exhaustion with stories that ”glitter with epiphanic dew,“ the sort of terse New Yorker fictions which end with a fly crossing a bistro table, the whole scene hilariously representing mortality, decline, ruin -- the full gamut of the problems that beset the modernly-problemed self-aware / -obsessed.
David Foster Wallace, in a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, said, “This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” It’s this that, I think, men more than anyone have to escape, this fixation on self -- we have to try harder to do the work that good stories demand, have to work toward empathy, toward generosity, away from our own issues and ideas. We have to tell stories, and it’s not that stories cannot be personal, cannot be about what each of us knows and believes. We just can’t use stories as thin cover to tell about what we know or think, or think we know or, worse, we can't use stories to placate our own insecurities and fears.