The feeling that (literary) life is elsewhere

William H. Gass as painted by Philip Guston

William H. Gass as painted by Philip Guston

I was going to write (in a somewhat gushing manner) about how much I enjoyed William H. Gass’s piece on Katherine Anne Porter in the latest issue of Harper’s. Not because I have any particular interest in Porter (so perfect is my ignorance,  I had never even heard of her), or that learning about her life and writing created the desire to read her books,  letters and reviews, an impulse that was accompanied by a kind of anticipatory pleasure, as if her books were some new kind of fruit.

My enjoyment stemmed from neither of these, nor the satisfaction of knowing this was one less thing I knew nothing about (and for me, it is never terrible to become aware of yet another empty, dark space where the flame of my knowledge is but a lighter held aloft. On the contrary, I find it profoundly reassuring. This meager effort is usually sufficient to make me feel let off the hook (of not-knowing) so completely that it is wholly unecessary to make any futher effort). What made the piece an utter joy was simply Gass’s performance: his erudition; the grace of his prose; his metafictional tics.

On Porter’s marriage to John Koontz:

The pair moved but packed their problems with their pajamas. One one occasion husband thew wife down stairs, ‘breaking her right ankle and severely injuring her knee’. On another, he beat her with unconscious with a hairbrush. The view one has of men and marriage from the foot of such a fall, or from an instrument that should only pursue fashion or caresses, tends to be as permanent as Adam’s; nevertheless Porter tried to save her marriage by converting to Catholicism, a move I find mystifying, though I was never consulted.

On praise for Porter as ‘an excellent stylist’:

This praise is well meant, but it is also removed as quickly as it is offered. For most critics, the presence of “style” requires assurance that there is also “substance”. Style is wrapping paper and ribbon, scented tag and loving inscription. If you are careful, the tissue can be reused for a birthday or another Christmas. My aunt ironed such paper as she fancied and stored it like linen napkins in folded flat stacks beneath her bed.

Whilst this no doubt seems like ‘flashiness’ or ‘showing-off” to some- those who prefer their reviewers sober, staid,  so absent from the discussion as to seem like critical ghosts -to me it is the brilliance of a man, who at the age of 82, could not be more playful.

The article is only available to subscribers (which, believe me, is very cheap, even for those outside the U.S.- with it comes access to the entire Harper’s archive) but I can provide a pdf on request.

Having spent all this time and effort on the gush, I don’t have sufficient negativity left to write about what this post was intended to be, namely a moan/rant about the feeling that the UK has an impoverished literary culture, with few decent magazines and (as people seem to virtually crow) that there is no market or demand for or interest in short stories, unless they are by people whose long stories (i.e. novels) are already beloved. Happily, this can bring us back to Gass (and curtail my slatternly tears):

Although O’Connor, Welty, and Porter obliged us by writing novels, it is for short stories they are generally remembered, in which more polish for small surfaces is routinely expected, whereas Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Stein- well, they are moving mountains, and it doesn’t matter if they leave a small mess here and there like great chefs in their kitchens. Does it?

2 responses

  1. I also lament the shortage of quality literary magazines in Scotland and the UK. For an international comparison, it’s worth checking out Dave Eggers’ introductory essay to Best of McSweeney’s Vol. 1. He discusses the state of the short story in the USA. He boasts about its ruddy state of health, and I feel he’s right to do so. It puts Britain’s literary ‘scene’ in perspective – we’re a country that pretends to punch above its weight in many spheres, but on this front we do worse than many US states. These states have populations lower than ours but still produce middling and decent literary journals that make a good ‘living’ out of disseminating short fiction and poetry.

    The UK has, what, only two or three short story-carrying titles that are high profile (on a high street bookshelf). Compare that to a magazine stand in NYC.

    Umberto Eco highlights the healthy short story/literary culture in the USA in a recent interview too (Paris Review 185). The US has rewarded short story writing for decades longer than us. It’s time Scotland (or Britain) did some catching up.

    (sorry no links to articles cited – can’t find them online)

    • I remembering Eggers’ essay annoying me greatly, mainly because he was right. The extent to which McSweeneys has helped us “to love the short story” is quite another matter…

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