Grace Paley

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In Grace Paley’s “The Loudest Voice,” Shirley defines Christians as “lonesome”. Why?

In “An Interest in Life,” John Raftery claims that Virginia’s problems—which he refers to as a “list of troubles”—only add up to “the little disturbances of man . . . .” What significance does this comment have not only in defining his and Virginia’s characters but in shaping the underlying theme of the story and the collection of the same title? what does his comment say about his attitude toward women, considering that he deems Virginia’s troubles not “real”?

In the same respect, Virginia comments that “noisy signs of life” are “so much trouble to a man.” What does this comment (and the above comment by Raferty) say about gender attitudes?

Of her many stories, Paley’s “The Loudest Voice” is often anthologized and quite popular. What makes the story so accessible, so universal?

Consider the ambiguousness of the title “Faith in a Tree.” What significant meanings do you find attached to the title and present in the story?

What is the tone of “Faith in a Tree”? How is it conveyed by the author?

Consider the stories with neighborhood settings. How do these settings reflect the attitude of the narrator? How does each alienate or embrace the narrator?

As an author, Paley incorporates part of her familial, writing, and political life in her works. Which stories are clearly centered on family and the importance of family? Which are more political in tone or theme? Does the authorial inclusion interfere with the story? In the same respect, do you find her motherly themes an interruption of feminism?

Other Literary Forms

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In addition to her short fiction, Grace Paley has published the poetry collections Leaning Forward (1985), New and Collected Poems (1992), and Begin Again: Collected Poems (2000), the nonfiction works Conversations with Grace Paley (1997) and Just as I Thought (1998). She has also contributed short stories to The New Yorker and essays on teaching to various journals.


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Grace Paley received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, a National Council on the Arts grant, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for short-story writing. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1980, and in 1988 and 1989 she received the Edith Wharton Award. In 1993, she was awarded the Michael Rea Award for the short story and the Vermont Governor’s Award for excellence in the arts. In 1994, she was a nominee for the National Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 1997, she was awarded the Lannan Foundation Literary Award.

Other literary forms

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Grace Paley (PAY-lee) is primarily known as a short-story writer. Although her output was modest, she attracted a devoted following and was praised by critics for her astute dialogue, which was extremely spare and, at the same time, remarkably rich. This dialogue for which she was famous had a tonal diversity that reflected actual speech, great understatements, and sudden shifts in rhetoric. Paley was among the first American writers to explore the lives of women, especially the lives of single mothers who traversed their daily lives between the extremes of sexual longing and relentless fatigue.

Paley’s first collection of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Men and Women in Love, was published by Doubleday in 1959. It received rave reviews, and the editors at Doubleday encouraged her to write a novel. She spent a few years working on this longer project but eventually abandoned it, believing it was not very good. In 1968, Viking reissued The Little Disturbances of Man , and it was instantly successful. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published her next...

(This entire section contains 211 words.)

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two collections of short stories,Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985). She also published a collection of short fiction and poetry, Long Walks and Intimate Talks: Stories and Poems, which appeared in 1991.


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Grace Paley began attending Hunter College in New York when she was fifteen years old and later studied at New York University but never earned a degree. She attributed whatever success she had as a short-story writer to her study of poetry, which she continued to write all her life. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Ms. Fiction, Mother Jones, and other magazines, and have been used as models in writing workshops. She started teaching in the early 1960’s at Columbia University and Syracuse University, then joined the staff of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.

In 1961, Paley helped found the Greenwich Village Peace Center, the same year she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction. In 1970, she received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 1974, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, her second collection of short fiction, appeared. This, together with her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, used techniques such as fragmented plots, shifting narrative voice, and authorial intrusions, causing Paley to be considered a postmodernist writer by some critics. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1980. In 1983, Paley won the Edith Wharton Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. She was named the first official New York Writer by Governor Mario Cuomo in 1989. The Collected Stories (1994) became a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 1997, she received the Lannan Literary Award for fiction and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award. In 2003-2006, she served as poet laureate of Vermont.


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Aarons, Victoria. “Talking Lives: Storytelling and Renewal in Grace Paley’s Short Fiction.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 9 (1990): 20-35. Asserts that Paley empowers her characters through their penchant for telling stories. In telling their stories, her characters try to gain some control over their lives, as if by telling they can reconstruct experience.

Arcana, Judith. Grace Paley’s Life Stories: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. A biography of Paley which includes a bibliography and an index.

Bach, Gerhard, and Blaine Hall, eds. Conversations with Grace Paley. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. A collection of interviews with Paley from throughout her career as a writer, in which she comments on the sources of her stories, her political views, her feminism, and the influences on her writing.

Baumbach, Jonathan. “Life Size.” Partisan Review 42, no. 2 (1975): 303-306. Baumbach approaches Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by concentrating on the innovative narrative voice and how it enhances the themes that run throughout the stories.

DeKoven, Marianne. “Mrs. Hegel-Shtein’s Tears.” Partisan Review 48, no. 2 (1981): 217-223. Grace Paley wanted to tell about everyday life but in story forms that were not the traditionally linear ones. DeKoven describes how innovative structures enable her to achieve uncommon empathy with her subjects.

Iannone, Carol. “A Dissent on Grace Paley.” Commentary 80 (August, 1985): 54-58. Iannone states that Paley’s first collection of stories reveals talent. Her second, however, written when she was deeply involved in political activity, shows how a writer’s imagination can become trapped by ideologies, not able to rise above them to make sense of the world. Iannone’s comments on the intermingling of politics and art result in interesting interpretations of Paley’s stories.

Isaacs, Neil D. Grace Paley: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. An introduction to Paley’s short fiction, strong on a summary and critique of previous criticism. Also contains a section of Paley quotations, in which she talks about the nature of her fiction, her social commitment, and the development of her narrative language. Emphasizes Paley’s focus on storytelling and narrative voice.

Marchant, Peter, and Earl Ingersoll, eds. “A Conversation with Grace Paley.” The Massachusetts Review 26 (Winter, 1985): 606-614. A conversation with novelist Mary Elsie Robertson and writer Peter Marchant provides insights into Paley’s transition from poetry to short stories, her interest in the lives of women, and the connection between her subject matter and her politics.

Meyer, Adam. “Faith and the ‘Black Thing’: Political Action and Self-Questioning in Grace Paley’s Short Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Winter, 1994): 79-89. Discusses how Paley, through the character of Faith, examines someone very much like herself while distancing herself from that person’s activities.

Paley, Grace. “Grace Paley: Art Is on the Side of the Underdog.” Interview by Harriet Shapiro. Ms. 11 (May, 1974): 43-45. This interview about Paley’s life and politics succeeds in presenting her as a unique personality.

Schleifer, Ronald. “Grace Paley: Chaste Compactness.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. As Schleifer puts it, “Both little disturbances and enormous changes are brought together at the close of [Paley’s] stories to create a sense of ordinary ongoingness that eschews the melodrama of closure.”

Taylor, Jacqueline. Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives. Austin: University of Texas, 1990. Taylor focuses on what she calls Paley’s “woman centered” point of view. Asserts that “Conversation with My Father” allows discussion of many of the narrative conventions her fiction tries to subvert. The story reveals the connection between Paley’s recognition of the fluidity of life and her resistance to narrative resolution.


Critical Essays