Archive for August, 2008


August 7th, 2008 10 comments



The title of my entry today has been shamelessly stolen from a book called (what else?) YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS. Edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, it’s published by Harper Perennial, and is subtitled CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN WRITERS INTRODUCE STORIES THAT HELD THEM IN AWE.

 You probably already have a pretty good idea of what the work offers, but Donna Seaman’s BOOKLIST review will give you the details:

 Writers are passionate readers because literature is an ongoing dialogue. And you can learn a lot about writers by knowing what they love to read. Editors Hansen and Shepard decided to ask some of their favorite American writers to identify stories that fell into their you’ve-got-to-read-this category. The end result is an anthology of terrific tales introduced by essays that open windows onto the creative process of 35 top fiction writers. Each story is introduced by the writer who was inspired, intimidated, or moved to extreme emotion on reading it. Here’s some examples: John Irving chose “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens; Mary Gordon selected “The Dead” by James Joyce; Oscar Hijuelos acknowledged his debt to Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph”; Lorrie Moore was stunned by John Updike’s “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car”; Joyce Carol Oates picked Kafka’s unforgettable “In the Penal Colony”; and Louise Erdrich couldn’t get over Robert Stone’s “Helping.” This is almost a two-for-one deal for story-lovers: a glimpse into the reading minds of one set of popular and talented authors, together with a selection of outstanding stories by their mentors and peers.

 All of us who write–and, I dare say, all of us who really read–have had that book or that story or that poem that has sent us out into the madding crowd, grabbing people by the arm, not suggesting, not urging, not recommending, but dictatorially telling ‘em, “You’ve got to read this”–and then adding the essential “because …”

 Of course, your “You’ve got to read this” guidelines can and will change as you change; that’s how it works. As somebody (Lionel Trilling? W. H. Auden? Harold Bloom? Wayne Allen Sallee?) said, “Real books read us,” and US is a dynamic and malleable beast as we live and grow and grow older and grow old. Maybe once you were that 13 kid waving CATCHER IN THE RYE and yelling, “You’ve got to read this because this Salinger guy HAD TO BE living in my house and in my head to know my real true feelings so well … ” Chances are, you’re not that same kid today and CATCHER doesn’t catch you in QUITE the same way. I’ve had two different nephews tell me that STAR WARS was the best book ever written–in fact, all the STAR WARS books were the best books ever written because all the STAR WARS movies were the best movies ever movied, but these fine lads, having aged a tad, are no longer certain that the Skywalker and Co. saga belongs on the same shelf with WAR AND PEACE.

 All the above is by way of wordier than usual prologue, so that now I can say to you: You’ve got to read this.

 My criteria: I’m doing a shout-out only about stuff I’ve recently read–say, in the past year. I’m bringing to your attention a writer whose work can be found relatively easily, and yet a writer who’s not a brand name like Grisham or Patterson or Drano or Ajax. I’m pointing out to you–no, I’m telling you–YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS.

 It’s a story called “Wickedness.”

 It breaks most of the rules of short story writing. Indeed, it might be called “experimental writing,” but unlike much of that oeuvre, this is an experiment which deserves to leave the laboratory because it succeeds. It does not have a single main character, as a proper story (ahem) ought. Instead, it gives us a series of characters and each is as main as the other.

 Nor does “Wickedness” have anything like a traditional “A leads to B, B leads to C” PLOT. Instead, we have a series of vignettes presenting the characters who are caught up in a sudden Nebraska blizzard in 1888. Some of them live, some live but are damaged, some die. (Vonnegut might add here, “And so it goes …”)

 But in its presentation of that blizzard, the story does something to me I’ve never previously experienced in a short work of fiction: It makes me feel the intensity of the cold, the dead white quiet in the center of the winds, the smallness that is our human lot when hit by–apologies for the cliché—a “Force of Nature.” (yes, I’ve had a similar feeling when reading Dan Simmons’s masterful novel THE TERROR, but a short story has intensity that a novel, a lengthy novel, cannot provide.)

 In previous UNPLUGGED columns I’ve quoted Cyril Connolly’s “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice.” I’ll be reading “Wickedness” again, more than twice, pondering the title, feeling that blizzard, and observing moments in lives rendered in words with the memorability of an Impressionist master painter giving us scenes of the ordinary–and unforgettable.

 Oh, I see I’ve forgotten to mention the author of “Wickedness”; why, it’s none other than … Ron Hansen, YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS! co-editor (with Jim Shepard, also a dynamite fictionist).

 I’ve been reading Ron Hansen’s books for years and using them in my classes at Columbia College Chicago. He’s a writer of tremendous range, giving us THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and HITLER’S NIECE — and a modern comedy of manners / errors novel called ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?: AN ENTERTAINMENT. Other books include ATTICUS and MARIETTE IN ECSTASY and the nonfiction A STAY AGAINST CONFUSION: ESSAYS ON FAITH AND FICTION, which proves that “religious writing” does not have to be on the level of “God has a Son on the Honor Roll in Heaven” / bumper sticker theology. His writing has never disappointed me …

 –But “Wickedness” astounds me.

 You can find the story in Hansen’s collection NEBRASKA from The Atlantic Monthly Press.

 It’s my “You’ve got to read this!” for this STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED.

 And to my fellow UNPLUGGED STORYTELLERS and all the readers of this blog, I’m asking:

 What’s yours?


PS. Apologies for the early post, but I’m moving around and about some these days–and have to tack stuff onto the bulletin board when I can at a time “close” to when I’m supposed to …