Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.”
How We Spend Our Days / OCTOBER: DAVID JAUSS
JODI: What was your reaction when you heard that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature?
DAVE: I had pretty much given up hope that the Swedish Academy would ever recognize someone who wrote short fiction rather than novels—after all, not one of the previous winners wrote short fiction exclusively—so I was thrilled when she won the prize. I took it as reparation, 110 years late, for failing to give the award to Chekhov, and it made me feel that short stories just might finally start to get their due.
JODI: I’ve heard Munro referred to as Canada’s Chekhov. How has her work instructed your writing and teaching?
DAVE: I wish I could say that my writing shows her influence, but alas, I don’t think it does. Her work has definitely affected the way I teach writing, however. By subverting so many of the so-called “rules” of fiction, she has made me aware of possibilities available to fiction writers that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. Munro’s fiction is frequently described as “traditional,” but it is anything but. Like Chekhov, to whom she’s often compared—indeed, it’s become almost obligatory to call her “the Canadian Chekhov”—she is an extraordinarily innovative writer. Like him, she breaks every so-called rule in the book, and by doing so she reveals new ways to convey the depth and complexity of human experience.
But she hasn’t been merely following Chekhov’s playbook. They share subtlety, a self-effacing, unprepossessing style, a sympathetic but unsentimental understanding of an enormous range of human beings, and a willingness to depart from the conventions of their times, but her approach to story-telling is quite different from his. Her stories are far more capacious than his—and certainly far more capacious than mine. It’s not unusual for her stories to cover decades, and they loop backwards and forwards in time in unexpected but always enlightening ways. And her handling of point of view is also more complex than Chekhov’s and virtually anyone else’s. Anyone who believes the contemporary shibboleth that point of view should be consistent throughout a story would have that belief seriously tested by Munro’s brilliant modulations of point of view.
The best description of Munro’s original approach to both structure and point of view is her own: “A story is not like a road to follow,” she said, “it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.” Ultimately, it is her innovations, especially in structure and point of view, that make her stand in relation to our time as Chekhov stood in relation to his, not any superficial similarity in their styles or their attitudes toward their characters.
JODI: I like that analogy of entering a house; it’s useful to think about writing a story in that way, especially about the way in which “the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.” Do you think this kind of notoriety–a Nobel Prize in Literature–will serve the short story form?
DAVE: I’m not expecting the world to reverse its novel-centric view of fiction anytime soon (or ever), but I do hope the prize makes people recognize that, in Munro’s own words, “the short story is an important art, not just something you play around with until you write a novel.” For me, the short story is the most demanding and beautiful of all fictional forms. But don’t take my word for it; take Gabriel García Márquez’s. A few years ago, he said, “I’m convinced more than ever of the supremacy of the short story over the novel.” The short story may be small in size but not in ambition. As Stephen Milhauser has said, the “ambition of the short story” is “to body forth the whole world . . . in a grain of sand.” Whereas novelists all too often make a molehill out of their mountain of material, short story writers can make a mountain out of a tiny grain of sand. Amy Bloom summed it up best: both forms scale Mt. Everest; the short story just does it faster.
JODI: Besides Chekhov and Munro, what other short story writers would you recommend to short story readers and why? Or, to use the old familiar question, if you were to be stranded with five story collections on a desert island, which ones would you hope they’d be?
DAVE: Chekhov and Munro would definitely be on my desert island list, but since you’ve asked for other choices, I’ll be greedy and take five nice fat ones: the collected stories of Hemingway, Faulkner, García Márquez, Kafka, and Flannery O’Connor. But these are all books by established masters and your readers have probably already read them (if they haven’t, they should do so pronto). So here are five of the many lesser known contemporary collections that I admire and wish were more widely read: Leslee Becker’s The Sincere Café; Jack Driscoll’s Wanting Only to Be Heard; Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater; Ann Pancake’s Given Ground; and Eric Puchner’s Music Through the Floor.
JODI: And, Carver?
DAVE: Raymond Carver was a very big influence on me, as many of my stories probably make all too clear. I was drawn to his work in the same way, and for the same reasons, I was drawn to Chekhov, who is to me the Lord God of short fiction. They both have a cold eye and a warm heart and write sympathetically about people quite different from themselves. I think of them as the literary equivalent of defense attorneys, writers who make the case for even the most flawed of us while looking unblinkingly at those flaws. O’Connor’s been a big influence on me as well, but I see her more as a prosecuting attorney, someone who is doing her damnedest to convict her characters. Even though she sees these “convictions” as ultimately for the characters’ good—her goal is to show them, and her readers, the way to salvation—I think sometimes her heart is almost as cold as her eye, so I’m less drawn to her. But lordy, can she ever write. I marvel at her stories—and her essays, too. I think Mystery and Manners should be required reading of anyone who wants to be a fiction writer.