31 March 2007

A Little List

Lists always grab my attention. They are potential stories, full of possibilities between their items. I love to move the pieces around in my imagination and see what sorts of sounds and shapes they produce. Restrictions on lists particularly appeal to me -- what constraints do they have to meet? How creatively do they meet them? Personal lists are fun, too, in what they reveal about the list-maker. (Many fine writers -- Thomas Disch and Gilbert Sorrentino come immediately to mind -- have used lists to great effect in their work, efficiently and amusingly revealing much about characters and situations, attitudes and moments.)

By clicking through various webpages without reading very carefully, I somehow ended up at this collection of lists of what short stories writers would include in an introductory level course on "the short story". From the lists, I started evaluating not only which writers I would like to take a class with, but which writers' lists made me curious to read their own fiction. Some of the lists are staid, predictable, and unimaginative, and fairly or unfairly I imagined the list-makers' own stories as likely to be similar, while other lists (e.g. those of Lynn Coady, Peter Darbyshire, Tony Burgess, Tim Conley, and a few others) are marvelous.

And then I got to thinking that it would be fun to make a list of some sort, because I haven't for a while. Something a little odd, perhaps. After a nanosecond or so of thought, I came up with this idea: A list of 5 stories that I wish I had read sooner than I did -- stories that might have helped me become a better writer or thinker or person or something, stories that I wish I could put in a time machine and send back to myself before I first encountered them. I decided to add another criterion: Each story must be available online. So here we go...
  • "The School" by Donald Barthelme. A story I read out loud every year to my students, which probably is a sign of some sort of dementia, but it reads aloud so well, and it's a perfect blend of humor and horror, absurdity and profundity. I first read it in college, I think, or maybe a little later. I would have loved encountering it in high school -- it might have sparked a more complex passion for fiction than I had then.

  • "Ward No. 6" by Anton Chekhov. I dithered between including this or including "Gusev", which is, I think, a better story, but I settled on "Ward No. 6" because I would like to send this story back to get myself to read Chekhov's fiction sooner. I developed a love for his plays my freshman year of college, but it took much longer for me to learn to appreciate his short stories. Partly, I think this happened because I started with the wrong stories -- I started with "The Kiss" and a few others that are lovely but not stories I really feel passionate about even now. "Ward No. 6" has, for Chekhov, a relatively strong plot, and it's a brilliantly rich and thorough tale, wonderously and intricately constructed.

  • "The Golem" by Avram Davidson. I first read this story three years ago. I'd read other Davidson stories and enjoyed them, but it wasn't until I read "The Golem" that I sought out every Davidson book I could find. It was, for whatever reason, exactly the right story to make me not only appreciate his work, but adore it.

  • "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" by Kelly Link. I don't know what the first Kelly Link story I read was, but it was probably this one, though it might have been "Louise's Ghost". Whichever one it was, it wasn't nearly soon enough. Link is a writer I wish I'd paid attention to when she first began publishing, because just about at that time -- the mid to late 1990s -- was when I was not finding much contemporary fiction that excited me. I finally picked up a copy of Stranger Things Happen, her first collection, after numerous people told me I would love it. I realized then that for years I had had a copy of the issue of Century magazine with her story "Water Off a Black Dog's Back" in it, but had never bothered to read it. Stupid me!

  • "A Country Doctor" by Franz Kafka. Though I discovered Kafka when fairly young, I focused mainly on things like "The Metamorphosis" and the novels. I somehow missed "A Country Doctor" and first read it, I think, five or six years ago after reading something William Gass wrote about it, though I don't remember where or quite what he said. In any case, the story was a revelation, different in feeling from a lot of Kafka's other work, and so beautifully constructed. I think it's the sort of story I would have puzzled over for hours and hours when I was a teenager, and I would have enjoyed that experience immensely.
This exercise was harder than I expected it would be, because so few of the stories I would have wanted on such a list were available online. Normally, I would find choosing 5 stories to be nearly impossible -- choosing 50 would be hard enough -- but the limitation of having online texts made it much simpler, though not as representative of certain techniques and ideas as I would like. Nonetheless, an interesting list, at least for me.