Lorrie Moore Moore, Lorrie - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lorrie Moore 1957-

(Full name Marie Lorena Moore) American short story writer, novelist, children's writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Moore's career through 2001.

Among the most promising American short story writers to emerge during the 1980s, Moore is distinguished for the clever wordplay, irony, and sardonic humor of her fiction, all of which usually masks an underlying sadness or trauma experienced by her characters. Best known for her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) and the short story collections Self-Help (1985) and Birds of America (1998), Moore presents female protagonists who are often exploring loss or moving toward a new, undefined stage in their lives. Her darkly comic stories are filled with relationships in which the partners feel alone and devoid of hope. Her adult characters typically find themselves coping with realizations that their lives will not fulfill their hopes and dreams; consequently, they experience feelings of displacement and unease. Moore's fiction has appeared in numerous periodicals, including the New Yorker, which featured one of her best known stories, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” in 1998.

Biographical Information

Born in Glen Falls, New York, Moore was interested in creative writing as a young child. Her parents participated in a local community theatre, where Moore learned to appreciate drama and language. Academically gifted, she advanced quickly through public school and won a Regent scholarship, which she used to attend St. Lawrence University. Her writing career began at age nineteen when she won first prize in a Seventeen magazine fiction contest for her short story “Raspberries.” Moore won several academic honors as an undergraduate, including the Paul L. Wolfe Memorial Prize for Literature, and was editor of the university's literary journal. After graduating in 1978, she worked for the next two years in Manhattan as a paralegal while attempting to develop her writing talents further. She entered Cornell University's Master of Fine Arts program in 1980, where she studied with Alison Lurie, and in 1982 received her M.F.A., staying on as a lecturer at Cornell through 1984. Her first volume of short stories, Self-Help, contained pieces she had written for her master's thesis. In 1984 Moore accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she remains as the Delmore Schwartz Professor in the Humanities and a member of the English department. She was also the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College in 2000. Throughout her career, Moore has received a number of prestigious prizes and fellowships, including the A. L. Andrews Prize at Cornell in 1982 for three of the short stories later published in Self-Help. She was named as a Granville Hicks Memorial fellow in 1983, and received a National Endowment for the Arts award and a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1989. Along with winning three O. Henry awards—for “Charades” (1993), “Terrific Mother” (1994), and “People Like That Are the Only People Here” (1998)—Moore has received six Best American Short Story awards and, in 1996, was included the “Best of Young American Novelists” issue of Granta 54. Her story, “You're Ugly, Too,” appeared in the 2000 anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Birds of America was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle Award and was named one of the Best Books of 1998 by the New York Times.

Major Works

Since the 1930s, the American short story has been noted for moving away from streamlined, carefully crafted prose toward minimalism and the sophisticated, witty, experimental work of Moore and other contemporary short fiction writers. Self-Help is one of the first of a group of short story collections that helped redefine the genre in the mid-1980s. The nine stories mock the popular form of “how-to” books, and most are written in the second person, including “How to Be an Other Woman,” “How to Become a Writer,” and “Go Like This,” which tells the story of a woman confronted with the news that she has terminal cancer. Other stories in the collection explore the often trying relationship between mothers and daughters. While Moore is best known for her short fiction, she has explored other genres as well. Moore wrote her first novel, Anagrams (1986), during her early years in Wisconsin. It is the story of a nightclub singer, Benna, who tries unsuccessfully to rearrange the letters of words to make anagrams, and similarly tries to make sense of the disjointed details of her life. In this work, as in Self-Help, Moore experiments with point-of-view. The eight stories of Like Life (1990) are less satiric than those in her earlier collection. Thematically, the stories are concerned with romance, particularly the pain and irony that can result from relationships gone awry. Two of the stories, “Vissi d'Arte” and “Starving Again,” focus on male protagonists who both fail at creating a lasting bond with an object of affection. “You're Ugly, Too,” which depicts the destructive effects of loneliness on a woman in her thirties, contains a haunting, ambiguous ending. The novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? opens in Paris, where Berie Carr and her husband are attending medical conference and hoping to renew their flagging marriage. Berie, however, cannot help remembering her fifteenth year, when, with her best friend Sils, she worked at a Canadian amusement park called Storyland. Sils played Cinderella at the park, but Berie, who had not yet attained physical maturity, was a cashier. The park's happily-ever-after fairy tale theme contrasts sharply with the reality of the girls' growing up and the challenges they face. A bildungsroman with a female protagonist, the novel is full of humor, derived primarily from wordplay, but the overarching theme is one of loss. Berie reminisces about her lost childhood and her lost optimism for the future.

Birds of America contains twelve stories—with ten focusing on female lives and perceptions. The title has been variously interpreted, with some seeing it as a reference to nineteenth-century naturalist and painter John James Audubon, who killed birds before enshrining them for posterity in his watercolors. The women in the collection, like nearly all of Moore's female characters, are Midwestern, well-educated, and in their thirties or forties. They have lived sufficiently to have experienced loss but still believe in the potential for exciting possibilities. A thread that runs through many of the stories is physical pain, the result of either accident or disease—Down's syndrome, polio, cystic fibrosis, or cancer. With two exceptions, however, the diseases and misfortunes do not afflict the protagonists; rather, they occur in the lives of a sibling, a child, or a parent and affect the protagonist in unexpected ways. “Real Estate” contains two plots that intertwine. The first involves a woman who realizes that her cancer is no longer in remission; the second concerns a young man who turns to armed robbery when he is fired from his job. The most celebrated of the stories in Birds of America is “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” in which a baby is diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer. The mother finds a blood clot in the baby's diaper, and the nightmare of an emergency room visit, surgery, and chemotherapy begins. The staccato nature of thoughts and events are memorably captured in Moore's raw and nuanced telling of this devastating event in the life of a young family. Moore has also authored a children's book, The Forgotten Helper: A Story for Children (1987), and edited an anthology of stories about childhood, I Know Some Things (1992), republished in 1997 as The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories About Childhood.

Critical Reception

Critics have considered Moore to be one of the foremost practitioners of the innovative and urbane American short fiction that emerged in the final two decades of the twentieth century. While Self-Help has been acclaimed by reviewers, her novel Anagrams has been regarded as far less illustrative of Moore's talent. Critics have praised Like Life for its emotional engagement and broader thematic scope. Some of the short stories in this volume, notably “You're Ugly, Too,” have been considered as representative of the best in American short fiction. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? has been generally well received, though some reviewers found the novel's Parisian sections overly coy and questioned Moore's ability to sustain the breadth and scope of the novel form. Birds of America has been widely complimented for its sharply etched vignettes and the maturity of Moore's narratives. In particular, “People Like That Are the Only People Here” has attracted notice for its emotional power, which has been considered by many reviewers as evidence of Moore's skill with narrative control. Moore's incorporation of humor, particularly puns and one-liners, has been both admired and admonished by critics, with some arguing that Moore's jokes lessen the emotional connections between the text and the reader.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Self-Help (short stories) 1985

Anagrams (novel) 1986

The Forgotten Helper: A Story for Children [republished as The Forgotten Helper: A Christmas Story, 2000] (juvenilia) 1987

Like Life (short stories) 1990

I Know Some Things: Stories about Childhood by Contemporary Writers [editor] (short stories) 1992; republished as The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories about Childhood, 1997

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (novel) 1994

Birds of America (short stories) 1998

James Phelan (essay date fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Phelan, James. “Self-Help for Narratee and Narrative Audience: How ‘I’—and ‘You’?—Read ‘How.’” Style 28, no. 3 (fall 1994): 350-65.

[In the following essay, Phelan discusses theoretical aspects of second-person narration, derived from narratological and rhetorical analysis, and the application of second-person narration in Moore's short stories in Self-Help.]


A voice addresses you. Not from clouds, a mountaintop, or a burning bush. From this page. It asks how you are and what you're up to. It is a friendly, though unfamiliar, voice. You are unsure of how to react. You have an impulse to shout...

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Victoria Jenkins (review date 23 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jenkins, Victoria. “Two Teenage Girls, One Praying ‘For Things to Happen.’” Chicago Tribune Books (23 October 1994): 3.

[In the following positive review, Jenkins examines the themes and characterization in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?]

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (an odd, unpromising title for this slim, exquisite memoiristic novel) opens in Paris, where Benoite-Marie Carr and her husband, Daniel, eat brains every night. He likes the “vaporous, fishy mousse of them,” but “Me, I'm eating for a flashback,” Berie says, “hoping for something Proustian, all that forgotten childhood.” She gets it, too, not in Proustian volume but in...

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Tom Shone (review date 4 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shone, Tom. “Smart-Aleck Scenes.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4779 (4 November 1994): 22.

[In the following review, Shone offers a positive assessment of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, commending Moore's characterizations and serious themes.]

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? begins with this sentence: “In Paris we eat brains each night.” It's a typical opening from a writer who has mastered the art of button-holing New Yorker readers; but it will raise a particular question among Moore's fans: is Lorrie Moore eating her words? For braininess—and in particular its pipsqueak younger brother, quickwittedness—is something her...

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John Whitworth (review date 12 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Whitworth, John. “He Wouldn't A-Wooing Go.” Spectator 273, no. 8679 (12 November 1994): 40.

[In the following review, Whitworth offers a positive assessment of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, though notes that Moore's humor and shallow characterization of men may not appeal to some readers.]

This is a short novel [Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?], and somewhere round it the word ‘poetic’ beats its bat-like wings. It is Alison Lurie (who ought to know better) who uses it about an earlier book of Lorrie Moore's. When you hear the word ‘poetic’ you reach for your revolver, do you not? But hold your fire: things are nowhere near as bad as...

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Michael Griffith (review date April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Griffith, Michael. “‘All of Us Dislike the Laws of Nature’: New Fiction in Review.” Southern Review 31, no. 2 (April 1995): 365-80.

[In the following excerpt, Griffith offers a positive review of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, commending Moore's deft characterization and comic wit.]

In a way, all of us dislike the laws of nature. We should prefer to make things happen in the more direct way in which savage people imagine them to happen, through our own invocation.

—Robert Parrish, The Magician's Handbook, quoted in Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods


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Valerie Miner (review date April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Miner, Valerie. “Connections and Disconnections.” Women's Review of Books 12, no. 7 (April 1995): 14-15.

[In the following excerpt, Miner provides a mixed review of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, praising Moore's prose style but finding flaws in the story's extenuated form as novel rather than a novella.]

Longing permeates so much American fiction these days. Longing for an idealized past, longing for hope that will get you through the day, longing for real connection with family, culture, nation, in a society that compels us to respond immediately, keep our eyes on the inside lane and go for it. What Rebecca Brown and Lorrie Moore bring to this...

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Carole Stabile (review date January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stabile, Carole. Review of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, by Lorrie Moore. Belles Lettres 11, no. 1 (January 1996): 45-6.

[In the following review, Stabile praises the poignancy and power in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, lauding Moore's ability to depict the sense of nostalgia and wistfulness that adults feel when examining their earlier lives.]

“Things,” Lorrie Moore tells us in her second novel [Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?], “stiffen and shift in memory, become what they never were before.” For Berie Carr, visiting Paris with her husband, Daniel, memory possesses a richness—a fertility—that throws the present into...

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Catherine Blyth (review date 27 January 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Blyth, Catherine. “A Child's-Eye View.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4894 (27 January 1997): 20.

[In the following review, Blyth lauds the selection of stories chosen by Moore in the anthology The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories about Childhood.]

Roald Dahl did much to dispel cosy notions of the story for children. Lorrie Moore's anthology, The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories about Childhood, takes a similar line with adult tales of childhood. This collection shows that the construction of childhood innocence is a myth propagated by adults for adults. Moore distinguishes between stories about childhood and stories for children with her...

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Lorrie Moore and John Blades (interview date 24 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moore, Lorrie, and John Blades. “Lorrie Moore: Flipping Death the Bird.” Publishers Weekly 245, no. 34 (24 August 1998): 31.

[In the following interview, Blades provides an overview of Moore's personal background, literary career, and fiction upon the publication of Birds of America, and reports Moore's own comments on her life and work.]

“Try to be something, anything else,” Lorrie Moore urged would-be writers in her debut short-story collection, Self-Help, published by Knopf in 1985. For those who stubbornly persist in their “unfortunate habit,” Moore had this tip on how to succeed: “Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an...

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Lorrie Moore and Don Lee (interview date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moore, Lorrie, and Don Lee. “About Lorrie Moore.” Ploughshares 24, nos. 2-3 (fall 1998): 224-29.

[In the following interview, Lee provides an overview of Moore's life, literary career, and fiction.]

Lorrie Moore hasn't had a full night's sleep in three and a half years. It's not what you think, however. She has not, like one of her characters, fallen prey to love woes or obsessive-compulsive panic. If anything, Lorrie Moore is far tougher than most people would suspect. It's simply that she has a feisty three-and-a-half-year-old son. “This particular parenting experience has been like a large nuclear bomb on the small village of my life,” she says....

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Julian Barnes (review date 22 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barnes, Julian. “The Wise Woman.” New York Review of Books (22 October 1998): 15.

[In the following review, Barnes praises the stories in Birds of America, noting the serious edge underlying Moore's trademark humor and wit which adds depth and power to the collection.]

Lorrie Moore is good at bad jokes. She's good at good jokes, too, and makes many of them. But good jokes are the sign of a certain control over the world, or at least of a settled vision, the sort of vision a writer has. Good jokes are finally just jokes; whereas bad jokes are more revelatory of character and situation. Wonky puns, look-at-me one-liners, inappropriately perky...

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Anita Brookner (review date 24 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “The Way We Live Now.” Spectator 281, no. 8881 (24 October 1998): 46-7.

[In the following review, Brookner praises the narrative skill and characterizations displayed in Birds of America, calling the stories “convincing and disturbing.”]

In Hollywood films of the late 1940s and 1950s there was always a substantial role for the heroine's girlfriend who was wacky and wry enough to offset the languishing love affair in the foreground. (I believe this role was pioneered by Henrietta Stacpole in The Portrait of a Lady.) [In Birds of America] Lorrie Moore's voice is that of the heroine's girlfriend, droll, hardworking,...

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Juliet Fleming (review date 30 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fleming, Juliet. “Deer in the Headlights.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4987 (30 October 1998): 27.

[In the following review, Fleming comments on the stories in Birds of America, faulting Moore for “curiously unhoned” writing and the abundance of meaningless jokes, puns, and wordplay in her fiction.]

Birds of America, Lorrie Moore's third collection of short stories, has been widely praised in the United States as representing the coming-of-age of one of the country's “most brilliant” writers. Set in the American Midwest, ten of the twelve stories are concerned with the small triumphs and larger despairs of a series of female...

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Rebecca Mead (review date 10 December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mead, Rebecca. “A Predilection for the Zinger.” London Review of Books (10 December 1998): 28.

[In the following review, Mead examines the stories in Birds of America, commenting on Moore's ability to jolt readers with abrupt endings and weightier subjects framed within tales full of sarcasm, barbs, and lighthearted puns.]

It is rare these days for a book or story to get talked about without the attendant behind-the-scenes efforts of publicists, and the notice of reviewers, and the author making appearances on breakfast television shows. But that is what happened in January 1997, when the New Yorker published Lorrie Moore's short story,...

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Erin McGraw (review date winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McGraw, Erin. “Man Walks into a Bar.” Georgia Review 53, no. 4 (winter 1999): 775-78.

[In the following excerpt, McGraw discusses the use of humor in contemporary American fiction and offers a positive review of Birds of America.]

A young comic says to his friend, “Ask me what's the most important thing about comedy.”

“What's the most—”


An old joke. But like most old jokes, this one has a bit of truth at the core: Comedy does rely on timing, and generally the most effective timing is quick. The successful comedian turns logical and perceptual corners a step ahead of the...

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James Urquhart (review date 8 January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Urquhart, James. “Dysfunctional Sitcoms.” New Statesman 128, no. 4418 (8 January 1999): 58.

[In the following review, Urquhart lauds the writing in Birds of America, commending Moore's ability to capture awkward situations realistically and her ability to portray adults looking back on their lost childhood.]

Lorrie Moore's new collection of stories [Birds of America] comprises a dozen punchy diatribes, laments and elegies to crumbling lives or broken relationships, all taut within the disciplines of the form. Only “What You Want to Do Fine” betrays any slack in the wire of Moore's concentration; it lacks the restraining architecture of the...

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Irving Malin (review date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 1 (spring 1999): 196.

[In the following review, Malin offers praise for Birds of America, complimenting the style and descriptions in the stories.]

Perhaps the titles of Moore's first two books offer a clue to her surprising, wonderful fiction. Self-Help and Anagrams suggest that words are our salvation, that language, artfully (re)arranged, helps us to resist those forces which we feel every day. Her style delights us; it suggests that we can—if only briefly—dance. Moore's latest collection [Birds of America] is her best....

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Michael Frank (review date April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Frank, Michael. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 87, no. 2 (April 1999): 157-74.

[In the following excerpt, Frank examines the stories in Birds of America, commending the “complexity, substance, and gravitas” of the tales and noting Moore's affinity for writing about displaced characters in difficult situations.]

When Lorrie Moore's short story “People Like That Are the Only People Here” [from her collection Birds of America] appeared in the 27 January 1997 issue of The New Yorker, there was an unusually audible murmur—of appreciation, empathy, and plain outright curiosity—among readers and admirers of both the writer and...

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Vince Passaro (essay date August 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Passaro, Vince. “Unlikely Stories: The Quiet Renaissance of American Short Fiction.” Harper's 299, no. 1791 (August 1999): 80-9.

[In the following excerpt, Passaro discusses the development of twentieth-century American short fiction, particularly as defined by the terse realism of Hemingway, and praises the work of talented younger writers, including Moore, whose sophisticated, experimental stories are leading a revitalization of the genre.]

The American short story—an expression we can use with some degree of domestic pride, as when referring to jazz or liberty—has entered a strange phase in its history. To examine the record of story collections...

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Michelle Brockway (essay date September-October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brockway, Michelle. “The Art of Reading Lorrie Moore.” Poets and Writers 28, no. 5 (September-October 2000): 16-19.

[In the following essay, Brockway praises Moore's effective use of humor, incongruity, and linguistic play in her fiction.]

Before discovering Lorrie Moore, I could appreciate just about any fiction created by a sharp mind and a skilled pen. But since Self-Help (in the best sense of the term), since Anagrams and Like Life and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?—and especially since Birds of America—my readerly orientation has altered: In addition to brilliance and verbal felicity, I want comedy.


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Lorrie Moore and Elizabeth Gaffney (interview date spring-summer 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moore, Lorrie, and Elizabeth Gaffney. “Lorrie Moore: The Art of Fiction 167.” Paris Review 43, no. 158 (spring-summer 2001): 57-84.

[In the following interview, Moore discusses her formative experiences and literary influences, her approach to writing, the characters and themes in her writing, and the conflicting demands of writing, parenting, and working.]

When The Paris Review approached Lorrie Moore about doing a Writers-at-Work interview, she responded with a warning: “My life is impossible to make interesting—others have tried before,” and a lament: “Alas, I am virtually incoherent speaking in person.” She then proposed that we simply...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Duffy, Maureen. “Fallen Arches.” Time (3 October 1994): 76.

Duffy asserts that Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is a “wisp of a story” with weighty literary pretensions.

Giles, Jeff. “The Human Comedy.” Newsweek (28 September 1998): 80.

Giles provides a profile of Moore and offers a favorable discussion of Birds of America.

James, Caryn. “I Feel His Lack of Love for Me.” New York Times Book Review (9 October 1994): 7.

James contends that Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is Moore's “richest work yet,” praising Moore for...

(The entire section is 535 words.)