Tuesday, June 07, 2005


I remember the first time I read a Tessa Hadley story in The New Yorker. It had sexy and unique characters (including one glamourous woman named Helly who I can still envision), insight, betrayal, and an ending that left me startled and enamored and wanting more. As it turned out, I got my wish. The "story" was actually an excerpt from Hadley's novel, Accidents in the Home, which I read as soon as it was released. And thoroughly enjoyed.

Thus, I was excited when I saw that Hadley's name in the table of contents in the June 6th issue of The New Yorker. The intriguing title, "A Mouthful of Cut Glass," further whetted my appetite. Unfortunately, that was where the excitement ended. This story about a couple from the seventies introducing one another to their parents was overly long and too uneventful for my blood. Neither the mildly interesting main characters, Sheila and Neil, nor their blandly flawed families, nor anything about the situation, sufficiently rewarded me for the time it took to read it. It begged the question: why should I care? And the answer is that I didn't. Or not enough. Sorry, Tessa. I'll read you again, but I won't be looking for the novel, from which I suspect this story is excerpted.

For another take on this story, check out Grendel's review on Earth Goat. In fact, I intend to head on over there right now myself. I wanted to read it as soon as it was posted, but didn't want to let it color my own review.


The best story I read last year was "Runaway" by Alice Munro. In a lot of ways, I wish I could name something else, something less predictable, something I might even introduce to a few new readers. But to quote Woody Allen, "The heart wants what it wants," and in my case, the heart can't deny Munro.

I not only remember the story, I remember where I was sitting in the house when I read it, and exactly how the light slanted across my Mexican tile floor, I remember the light in the story, too--fairly grey throughout, tragically golden at the end. I also recall the curving road between the narrator's house and the home of the story's protagonist, a woman who wants to leave her abusive husband but in the end, cannot bring herself to do so. That road, at once desolate and luminous, is one I have traveled often since I read the story. I remember, too, the chill that passed over me when I reached Munro's stunning ending. Immediately, I had to go and search out the nearest human being, and make him sit down in the very same spot where I had entered Munro country and read it.

"Runaway" is mysterious and multi-layered and beautiful. It is the best thing that a short story can be, a life eclipsed into a few short pages. And yet, I wonder if Munro were an unknown writer, and she forked over ten or fifteen bones to enter one of the many short story contests that offer $1000 prize and publication in some prestigioius journal, whether she would have a chance to win.

The reason for my doubt is this: despite its strength, "Runaway" is also traditional, realistic fiction. There are no particularly quirky characters strutting through the landscape, and the language, while lovely, never shows off or calls attention to itself. It serves the story rather than vice versa. In other words, "Runaway" has little in common with the kind of fiction that usually wins contests.

Not that I'm blaming the judges who have taken on the job of sifting through hundreds of competently written stories in search of one gem. No wonder the one that is most overtly "original" or iconoclastic is frequently the one selected. After reading coming-of-age or adultery stories till the mind freezes over, I, too, would probably seize upon the one that is simply different.

And yet, for this reader, the fact remains: there is nothing more original than a genuinely true voice.

While we're on the subject of stories that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and salute (not to mention contests), over at I'M REALLY NOT A WAITRESS, I've instituted the first Literary Waitress Contest. Tell me about a book you didn't just admire, but actually loved in 500 words or less. You won't believe the prizes offered.

Meanwhile, "The Hero Speaks," a new excerpt from my novel, RACE POINT, was posted on line at VerbSap yesterday.


Melly said...

I haven't read Runaway, but I guess what you say applies to Munro in general.
I think that there's a lot to say for simplicity. I'm a big fan.
I found it interesting to read what you think about stories who win contests and you're probably right, but I still hope that someone's talent would be recognized regardless.

Sherry said...

The link to I'm Really Not a Waitress doesn't work as far as I can tell--neither the one in the entry nor the one the sidebar list.

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Sherry. I'm working on the links. There seems to be a problem with publisher's marketplace, but you can get to my blog through the home page.