Tuesday, July 05, 2022

'No Such Thing As Essential Form'

One of my bedside books for the last week or so has been Stories from The New Yorker 1950-1960 (Simon and Schuster, 1960). It’s a self-evident truth in certain quarters that the nineteen-fifties represent a dull, culturally sterile era. The notion is lazy and ridiculous, of course, considering that in the U.S. alone we saw the publication of Invisible Man, Lolita and Pnin, Whittaker Chambers’ Witness and Malamud’s The Assistant, among other essential books. 

Collected in the New Yorker volume are stories by many of the writers I grew up reading. They represent a sort of Golden Age of the Short Story. I can’t imagine rereading any of John Updike’s novels but here is his greatest story, “The Happiest I’ve Been,” along with John Cheever’s finest, “The Country Husband.” Here are Nabokov’s “Lance,” Peter Taylor’s “What You Hear from ’Em?” and William Maxwell’s “The French Scarecrow.” Eudora Welty’s “Kin” and J.F. Powers’ “Death of a Favorite.”


Here are stories by writers better known as poets: Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Village” and Richard Wilbur’s “A Game of Catch” (neither particularly memorable). Though celebrated as a screenwriter and novelist, here is Daniel Fuchs and his Hollywood story “The Golden West.” Also here are stories by ridiculously overrated, better forgotten writers – J.D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey, Nadine Gordimer and Mary McCarthy. Among the good non-American writers are Elizabeth Taylor, V.S. Pritchett and Mavis Gallant. Even a selection limited to a single decade from a single magazine suggests the infinite promise of storytelling in the right hands. One of the masters, Isaac Bashevis Singer, wouldn’t publish his first story in The New Yorker until the following decade (which also saw the first samples of Donald Barthelme's bric-a-brac in the magazine). 

Also included in the New Yorker anthology is Frank O’Connor’s “The Man of the World.” In 1962, O’Connor, an Irishman, published The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (1962), a book that I think first introduced me to Isaac Babel and Guy de Maupassant. In it he writes:


“For the short story writer there is no such thing as essential form. Because his frame of reference can never be the totality of a human life, he must be forever selecting the point at which he can approach it, and each selection he makes contains the possibility of a new form as well as the possibility of a complete fiasco.”


Faze said...

"Bric-a-brac" is the perfect word for Barthelme's New Yorker productions. But, as much as they baffled me at the time, today I give the editors credit for taking a chance on them, much as they took a chance on Singer, young Cheever and the Russian emigre. Not every bet on posterity pays off.

Thomas Parker said...

I'm not the greatest fan of the New Yorker (their rejection of "genre" stories has always seemed odd to me - is there any more recognizable or rigid genre than the "New Yorker Story"?) but not long ago I discovered the New Yorker's "Story of a Decade" anthologies, filled with fiction, reviews, poetry, and reportage. I have all three volumes so far published - the 40's, 50's, and 60's - and can only hope that there will be more. They are absolutely smashing collections.