Sunday, March 16, 2008


An excellent review, as usual, by Adam Mars-Jones in today's Observer, of Amy Hempel's The Dog of the marriage. Mars-Jones is one of the best reviewers around, and his reviews are often masterclasses for wannabe writers, talking far more sense than most creative writing tutors (see post a few down from here on Rachel Simon.)

Mars-Jones identifies the influences of Raymond Carver and Grace Paley in Hempel's new collection of short stories. This gives him the opportunity to make a few telling remarks on the Carverisation of language in short stories. However good Carver was, he became a bad influence, "his tone of stoic bleakness spreading like a strangling weed across the dappled lawns of American short fiction." You see it still, all the time, writers writing this hideous, pared down style which manages to lose all emotional intensity in the process and read like Janet and John. We don't want lush, but Lish isn't the answer either (surely I'm not the first to come up with that pun?)

Mars-Jones notes that this pared down style is one which "sometimes requires a disproportionate effort from the reader." Donald Barthelme (no Carverian, of course) once remarked that he expected his readers to work hard. Fair enough, but don't be surprised if they fuck off and do something more immediately rewarding. The trouble, for me, arises when the stories start to reek of artifice. Mars-Jones identifies, in both Carver and Hempel, instances where the reality of a situation is artificially withheld. At its best (and Mars-Jones rightly cites Hemingway's Hills like white elephants as a classic example) it can work, but if it sounds, as it so often does, like an exercise in authorial control, then it fails because it pulls the reader out of the fictive dream. There is a barrier between writer and reader, one deliberately created by the writer to see how clever the reader is, and the reader, not unnaturally, becomes resentful.

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