Little Empathy

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2053

Lorrie Moore’s ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too’’ is a witty and sometimes hilarious account of an unmarried woman who, like so many of Moore’s fictional creations, is unable to connect with men—or with anybody else, for that matter. With Moore’s signature barrage of one-liners, jokes, and what critic John W. Aldridge, in his critique of Moore in Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction, calls ‘‘other ludicrous dislocations of language,’’ it is easy to understand the acclaim that Moore and this story have received.

However entertaining her style may be, reading Moore can ultimately be a frustrating experience. While she has an obvious knack for creating memorably eccentric and disassociated characters (especially women characters), and while she displays a pyrotechnic touch of language that makes those women smolder with a clarity and intensity rarely seen in contemporary fiction, Moore generally keeps her readers in the dark as to the causes of their predicaments. It is never quite clear if Moore’s women are genetically predisposed to live a life of isolation and loneliness or whether there are larger cultural or social forces at play. Do her women merely have bad luck with men, or are they rebelling, subconsciously or not, against society’s expectations of how they should behave in sexual relationships? More often than not, it is as if Moore keeps her characters hermetically sealed from their surroundings, allowing them to be influenced only by their own internal clocks and thoughts. And even at that, her readers can never be certain if there are more serious bio-chemical or psychological issues beyond mere ‘‘eccentricity’’ that are driving these women to the precipice of spinsterhood.

Zoë Hendricks, the leading woman in ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ is a typical Moore creation: a remarkably eccentric but possibly clinically depressed woman who, for whatever reasons the reader can never know, lives a life utterly alone, with only her wit and her jokes to accompany her.

That Zoë Hendricks is an extraordinary, though not necessarily likeable, character is inarguable. An east coast transplant teaching American history in a Midwest college, Hendricks seldom lets an opportunity for a snide remark or joke elude her. When a student asks her about her perfume, she retorts that it’s ‘‘Room freshener’’; when another student tells Hendricks that she wants her history major to be meaningful, Hendricks snaps, ‘‘Well, there’s your problem.’’ She relates seemingly irreverent stories at the most inappropriate occasions that conclude in suicide or violent death, and she tells drawn-out lies to her dates for no apparent reason. With impeccable timing, she often reduces her audience to various states of incredulity, disgust, and disdain. Her final act of pushing Earl against the balcony railing, her final ‘‘joke’’ in ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ is little more than a physical manifestation of what she had been doing to him the entire evening through dialogue: pushing him, pushing him, and pushing him some more until he metaphorically and literally has no place left to go.

When Hendricks first began teaching in Paris, she thought she was using ‘‘irony, something gently layered and sophisticated’’ in her joking. But ironically, her students, whom she believes ‘‘know very little about anything,’’ understand the difference between irony and sarcasm and accuse her of the latter, and Hendricks is eventually forced to concede their point and admit to her sister, ‘‘Illinois. It makes me sarcastic to be here.’’

Hendricks does not derive pleasure from her behavior; her incessant joking is what Aldridge calls ‘‘a kind of sublimated scream . . . anxiety displaced into jokes that Moore and her characters incessantly make but at which no one is laughing.’’ And what is Hendricks anxious about? For starters, she is extremely lonely. She lives by herself in a ‘‘rather empty’’ house that she bought; her television, which she watches at all hours, is in her bedroom, a self-admitted ‘‘bad sign.’’ She lives for the mailman, ‘‘that handsome blue jay,’’ who brings her letters ‘‘from someplace else’’ which she then takes to her bedroom to read ‘‘over and over.’’ And her dates, of which there have only been three since she moved to Paris, are miserable failures. The men she meets may as well speak ancient Greek for all the success she has in communicating with them. And although she talks with her younger sister Evan every Tuesday and visits her regularly, Hendricks does not communicate much better with her. ‘‘I’m going out of my mind,’’ Hendricks tells Evan at one point, very possibly intending the statement to be taken more literally than her sister has the capacity or willingness to do, and shortly before the ultrasound test that would reveal what may be a tumor growing inside of her, Hendricks resorts to another cliché, thus glossing over the stark truth she may be trying to convey, when she tells her, ‘‘I feel like I’m dying.’’

If Hendricks is like others, she has probably used phrases such as ‘‘I’m going out of my mind’’ and ‘‘I feel like I’m dying’’ countless times in her life as the innocuous figures of speech they are normally intended to be. In the context of this story, however, it is conceivable that in both cases she literally means what she says. But for reasons that Moore never makes clear, Zoë Hendricks, a liberal arts history professor whose first chapters on her book on presidential humor have been generally ‘‘well received,’’ seems to have the ability to speak only in clichés to describe her feelings, or through jokes to communicate to the world, and the reader is never certain what she is actually trying to convey.

In effect, Hendricks is a character who suffers from loneliness but does not have the communication or social skills to escape that state, a predicament that is, of course, self-generating: the more she fails to communicate, the lonelier she gets.

But why exactly is Hendricks so lonely? Why is she unable to build any lasting relationships, with either men or women? This is one of the frustrating aspects of reading ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too’’: the reasons behind Zoë Hendricks’s situation are unclear, and as a result, her abject loneliness and alienation are mere window dressing to her character, evoking little sympathy from the reader.

It is not entirely true that Moore does not offer some reasons behind Hendricks’s situation, but what she gives is inadequate. Moore suggests that the Midwest, known for its conservative customs and lifestyles, is one factor to consider. ‘‘You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with the funny names: Paris, Oblong, Normal,’’ the story opens. And if living in Paris as an expatriate east coast academic and an eccentric one at that is not difficult enough, to make matters worse, Hendricks is a woman in an otherwise all-male department. Her reaction to this situation is reflected succinctly by one of her students in a faculty evaluation: ‘‘Professor Hendricks has said critical things about Fawn Hall, the Catholic religion, and the whole state of Illinois. It is unbelievable. ‘‘

However, neither regional dislocation nor her all-male department can be blamed entirely for Hendricks’s predicament. She has not been served a prison sentence, after all; she was not forced to move to Paris to begin with, and her purchase of a house can easily be interpreted as a commitment to establishing roots. And regardless of whether or not Paris is making her miserable, is it truly possible that there is not a single human being in the college, in the town itself, or in the surrounding area with whom she can relate on some level? Another dislocated easterner, for instance? And if geographic and cultural isolation are the problems, how does one explain Hendricks’s dismal failure at connecting with Earl, an east coast photographer and divorcé, at Evan’s party in New York?

With regard to her professional situation, despite her being the only woman in her department, there is no indication that she is either being unfairly treated or has expressed any complaints. In fact, the obvious lack of respect she shows toward her students should raise eyebrows in her department and cause Hendricks at least some worry about job security, but her colleagues seem indifferent.

No, there is something besides her geographic and professional environment that is causing Hendricks these feelings of isolation. One clue may be found in Evan’s response to Hendricks when Hendricks tells her she is losing her mind. ‘‘You always say that,’’ Evan replies, ‘‘But then you go on your trips and vacations and then you settle back into things and then you’re quiet for a while and then you say you’re fine, you’re busy, and then after a while you say you’re going crazy again, and you start all over.’’

In other words, according to Evan, Hendricks is on an emotional or psychological roller coaster. Although the story does not offer anything more than suggestions of biochemical or psychological instability, the suggestions are numerous. While tacking a ‘‘Zoë’s Tree’’ sign to a backyard tree may be a sign of innocent eccentricity, her returning of the Oriental rug to the store because she convinced herself that the symbols on it said ‘‘Bruce Springsteen,’’ and the return of the pine chests because they reminded her of baby caskets, and the return of the mirror because it kept ‘‘startling her with an image of a woman she never recognized,’’ are acts that push the envelope of eccentricity into the mail boxes of the unstable. In this light, her seeming obsession with stories and images of death begin to make sense: Hendricks may very well be clinically depressed, or worse. But again, Moore only provides hints, with nothing for readers to grasp; there is no conscious discussion or thought about these possibilities. In fact, the possibility exists that Hendricks is, ultimately, nothing more than a mean-spirited, eccentric, and lonely academic who deserves all the isolation she gets.

Ultimately, what ails Hendricks is that she is, for all intents and purposes, a nihilist; she believes in nothing and sees little meaning in life. Her trick, for instance, to flying safely ‘‘is to tell yourself you had nothing to live for anyway, so that when the plane crashed it was no big deal.’’ And by the time the time the cab arrives to take you and your luggage away, make sure you’ve ‘‘come up with a persuasive reason to go on living.’’ It is easy, then, to understand her scornful attitudes to her students and her biting response to the young woman who wants her history major to mean something. Believing in anything is a problem for Hendricks.

Still, none of this is enough to evoke the sympathy necessary for the reader to feel anything but curious disdain for Hendricks. Nihilism is the result of other forces—social, psychological, spiritual, metaphysical. Explaining Hendricks’s nihilism on any of these grounds could provide ample information for the reader to empathize with her, but Moore only offers her readers the products of Hendricks’s nihilism—her jokes, her sarcasm, and her dismissive treatment of humanity.

While this ultimately leads to a frustrating experience in reading ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ it is the exact reading Moore seems to want for her stories. In an interview with the Paris Review, Moore calls her stories ‘‘a kind of biopsy of human life.’’ As far as ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too’’ is concerned, ‘‘biopsy’’ is the perfect metaphor. The purpose of a biopsy is, after all, to test for a malignancy in tissue. The source of the cancer, if it exists, and its possible treatments, are revealed through a series of other tests. The biopsy simply answers the question, ‘‘Is the tissue cancerous?’’

‘‘You’re Ugly, Too’’ is Moore’s biopsy of Zoë Hendricks—a lonely, unmarried, woman who has only her wit to keep her company. The results of this biopsy reveal that Hendricks is being eaten alive by profound psychological, emotional, spiritual, and, very likely, physical cancers. But whether these cancers are treatable or not, or whether any reader actually cares, are questions Moore’s biopsy is not designed to answer.

Source: Mark White, Critical Essay on ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.

The Use of Cynical Humor

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2005

Lorrie Moore, in talking about her short stories and novels, has admitted that her work has an underlying theme of sadness. Her narrative is often overlaid with tones of cynicism, one-liners, and wisecracks, which suggest sadness below the surface. Certainly, this appears to be the case in ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ an acclaimed short story from Moore’s collection Like Life. How, then, does Moore keep a reader engaged? Sadness alone will not hold all readers. Part of the effectiveness of Moore’s writing lies with her detailed, nuanced observation about the human condition, via her characters and her descriptions. Moore’s observations about the human psyche are fascinating. But it’s the edgy interplay between acerbic humor and the darker aspects of the human experience (despair, anger, grief, realization) that make this story unique. This interplay accelerates throughout the story, showing the reader the sadness of the character’s life and of life in general.

As reviewer Ralph Novak of People Weekly says of Moore’s writing, Moore is ‘‘effective with indirect approaches’’ and ‘‘her stories are usually thick with insight and laugh-first, think-later humor.’’ In ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ this is immediately evident in protagonist Zoë’s observations and feelings about living in the Midwestern United States. Moore finds original ways to make observations here that manage to convey cynicism, disdain, and wry humor all at once. These observations are motivated by sadness, ever a part of the world in this story. Moore takes the reader below the surface. Instead of Zoë simply saying, ‘‘Illinois. It makes me sarcastic to be here,’’ Zoë goes to great lengths in the beginning of her stay in the Midwest to insist to herself that she is being ironic rather than sarcastic, even when talking about sarcasm. Irony, to Zoë, is subtle and seems more appropriate to a sophistiY cated New Yorker in exile rather than more blatant sarcasm. Both sarcasm and irony, however, reflect a deeper despair on the part of the character. This kind of observation on the part of Moore makes Zoë a fascinating character. It’s exactly the kind of thought anyone might have in the protagonist’s situation. But such nuances do not always get captured so well in writing.

Humor and sadness are interwoven throughout the story so skillfully that the reader is not aware of the transition from one to the other. Moore leads the reader from wisecracking observations to the sharp edge between sadness and madness, and it’s what keeps story tension high. Zoë’s Midwestern students are ‘‘spacey with estrogen from large quantities of meat and cheese,’’ complacent, unnerved by Zoë’s brunette hair, and ignorant about the geography of the east coast. Zoë compares the Midwestern tendency to repeatedly insist that ‘‘everything is fine’’ to the worldview of a sort of archetypal or stereotypical Heidi. But Heidi doesn’t stand in front of broken copiers and threaten to slit her wrists. Zoë has discovered her ‘‘crusty edge,’’ and in the scene that quickly follows, with teacher and student (who has a ‘‘big leather bow in her hair, like a cowgirl in a TV ranch show’’), Zoë slams it to the girl, telling the student that it’s her problem if she wants ‘‘her history major to mean something.’’ Zoë’s had it; she’s realized that she’ll never fit into the Midwest and will never completely understand it.

So that the reader isn’t completely estranged from Zoë, Moore soon gives a sense of Zoë’s vulnerability (still motivated by sadness, however). Vulnerability is actually suggested earlier in the story, when Zoë skips into class singing all two verses of ‘‘Getting to Know You.’’ It is difficult to tell at this point in the story whether Zoë’s behavior is spurred by cynicism, frustration, vulnerability, or all of these. As the story progresses, however, Moore gives the reader a clearer picture. This happens not so much in the description of the three men Zoë tries to date in the Midwest. Instead, it is presented in smaller, everyday ways. Narrative such as the following shows her actions as intensely human, whether motivated by loneliness, sadness, or a sense of personal insignificance in the world: ‘‘Zoë lived for the mail, for the postman, that handsome bluejay, and when she got a real letter . . . she took it to bed with her and read it over and over.’’

Zoë stares with longing over the interior decorating magazines that her mother sends; remnants from a family that could not afford what the maga- zines suggested. But when Zoë attempts to decorate her own house, the ideas don’t quite take hold. Most unnerving is Zoë’s reaction to her reflection in a newly purchased mirror: ‘‘Most times she just looked vague . . . ‘You look like someone I know,’ she had been told . . . sometimes she seemed not to have a look of her own.’’ Zoë returns the mirror, scared by thoughts of insignificance or the nullification of personal identity. In a Ploughshares article about Moore, Don Lee notes that the author, as a child, ‘‘fretted, quite literally, about her insubstantiality.’’ Reviewer Sybil Steinberg of Publishers Weekly refers to Moore’s characters’ ‘‘quiet desperation and valiant searches for significance.’’ In ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ the character’s desperation has subtly been building since the beginning of the story and is nicely alluded to in Zoë’s reaction to the mirror.

The skill with which Moore plays with story time (perhaps purposefully) imitates Zoë’s tendency to deflect crisis with jokes or sarcasm. Always, however, the character’s sadness drives her cynical humor. Zoë does not quite get to the center of certain issues; she cannot face the certain despair of looking at these issues straight on. For example, during her ultrasound procedure she jokes about the word ‘‘ultrasound’’ and babbles about infertility, although it is obvious that she is completely worried about her health and the consequences of the tests.

Zoë approaches difficult issues tangentially. While Zoë is well aware of the sadness in her own life, she somehow can’t bring herself to burden those she is closest to (her sister Evan, for example) with in-depth discussions of some of the strange or frightening things Zoë is facing. She evades her sister’s questions about her dating life and can’t quite come out and tell Evan that she will be having an ultrasound. When the ultrasound is mentioned, the reader knows that the stakes have suddenly shot through the roof for Zoë and for the story. The sentence is presented and constructed in an emY phatic way (‘‘The ultrasound Zoë was keeping a secret, even from Evan’’). The construction of the sentence (object ahead of subject) gives the wording added impact, which it deserves. The irony is that this character can hardly bear to face these huge aspects of sadness in her life herself, even though she’s ready and willing to deflect everything or express herself with a cynical joke. Reviewer Ralph Novak calls Moore ‘‘so effective with indirect approaches,’’ and this point in the story is a stellar example of such a tactic. Much like a cynical joketeller, Zoë and Moore come at sadness indirectly, but the reader is always aware of its pervasive presence.

Zoë and Moore continue to juxtapose humor and sadness, but it feels as if now, at this point in the story where the stakes are out in the open, both protagonist and author become more forthcoming and direct about the sadness. Even the humor has more bite, reflecting more at stake for Zoë. Zoë finds a particular joke (from which the story takes its title) ‘‘terribly, terribly funny,’’ even though the first part of the joke deals with someone who has only six weeks to live. Perhaps it is no accident that Moore uses a word like ‘‘terribly’’ rather than a bland ‘‘very.’’ There is something terrible about the joke and its consequences. Zoë’s life, for the reader, has taken on a hard, new edge. This seems reflected by the sad wave of the cabdriver who reveals the smallness of his world. When Zoë ends the scene with her philosophy of flying, her humor has turned completely acerbic (‘‘you had nothing to live for anyway’’ and ‘‘keeping [the plane] aloft with your own worthlessness’’), and one is no longer sure of this character’s fuzzy boundary between humor and intense sadness.

More and more, the reader gets a taste of the author’s and Zoë’s reflections on relationship. Much of this is accomplished through Moore’s attention to telling details. Evan’s boyfriend comes home and watches ‘‘fuzzy football.’’ He kicks his underwear in the air and gets into bed. These details are funny yet sad and tell the reader more in a few words than Evan could if she had she gone on to describe the monotony of her relationship in more explicit ways. Zoë also reveals her obsession with relationship with a few telling details that Moore slips in: ‘‘the toad-faced cicadas . . . like little caped men’’ and the ‘‘size fourteen shoes’’ on the doorstep, indications of her lack of a relationship. These details are placed next to another starkly sad realization—‘‘as soon as you think you’ve got the best of both worlds . . . it can suddenly twist and become the worst of both worlds.’’

Again, Moore deflects the reader from lingering too long in sadness, just as Zoë tries to use humor to avoid facing her despair. Evan doesn’t seem to hear what Zoë has just said about ‘‘the worst of both worlds’’ and abruptly changes the subject. Zoë cuts short a story of mismatched lovers. Moore saves this for later, when Zoë gives the man at the party the full force of her edgy humor/anger, and tells the man the sad story in its entirety.

The party scene is the rawest part of the story, and both the bite of the humor and the depth of Zoë’s desperation are accelerated during this scene. True to Zoë’s and Evan’s fears about marriage, Evan dresses for the Halloween party as a hausfrau and later regrets it. Earl represents the epitome of what frustrates Zoë about the dating life; appropriately, his costume seems to make a mockery of women. Zoë, in a subconscious way, contrasts Earl’s female representation with her own costume choice, but the reader does not pick up on this until Earl compliments her ‘‘bone’’ and she compliments (in a sarcastic manner) Earl’s ‘‘tits.’’ Typically, Earl interrupts Zoë’s recitation of her favorite joke, and gives it an ending which has overtones of sex and victory (‘‘I finally f——ked her’’) rather than overtones of self-perception and defeat (‘‘You’re ugly, too’’). Earl talks of wanting physical contact, and Zoë is reminded of gorillas smacking each other when they’ve been in a cage together for too long. All during the conversation between Earl and Zoë, Moore lets us see Zoë’s thoughts. These are detailed, honest, and despairing; the kind of tangential mind-jumps any human might make in Zoë’s place. Zoë is complex, and Moore’s descriptions help us see Zoë as a subtle, layered woman.

To Zoë, Earl represents the most frustrating aspects of men. The reader feels Zoë’s irritation when Earl laments dating career women (‘‘A guy can really tell what life has done to you. I do better with women who have part-time jobs.’’); the reader feels her scorn when Earl talks about female hormones and ‘‘men screwing rocks.’’ Moore convinces the reader that Zoë really meant to push Earl off the balcony, even though, in typical Zoë and Moore fashion, Zoë insists that she was only kidding. The entire story represents an edgy interplay between cynicism and sadness, and this instance in the climax of this story is the strongest illustration of Moore’s strange, jarring, story dynamic.

Source: Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.

The Exploration of Stereotypes

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1802

In ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ Lorrie Moore presents the story of a female character who is a mixture of tradition and modernity. She presents a new style of writing about women that is colorful and charismatic, portraying women with true emotional baggage and reaching readers on a more personal level. Her characters are drawn in a streamlined and uncluttered way. In fact, critics are split between finding fault with the characters because they lack traditional development and finding Moore’s representation of women with real faults incredibly refreshing. Moore reaches readers by constantly changing the roles through which her male and female characters interact and by writing about women and their perceptions of men. In ‘‘You’re Ugly Too,’’ she accomplishes this with various devices, stereotypes, and symbols.

In ‘‘You’re Ugly Too,’’ Moore creates a character, in Zoë Hendricks, who reveals her humanity through her flaws. Moore uses italics to identify pieces of information that are crucial in defining her characters and enhancing character development. Early in the story, Moore’s narrator reveals, ‘‘Professor Hendricks is often late for class and usually arrives with a cup of hot chocolate which she offers the class sips of.’’ This makes explicit the metaphor that, as a professor, Zoë comes to class equipped with ‘‘a cup of knowledge’’ to share with her students. Some time later, we hear one of her students say to her, ‘‘You act . . . like your opinion is worth more than everybody else’s in the class.’’ Consequently, the reader can see that, as a teacher, Zoë has fallen into the ‘‘I come to teach you, you don’t come to teach me’’ trap, which shows that Zoë is an average woman with real human flaws. This is just one of many ways that shows that Zoë is the average woman.

Zoë’s personality is revealed by her humor and Moore’s projection of skepticism onto female characters. Zoë considers her humor to be ironic, but her students consider it sarcastic—an opinion that Zoë eventually comes to accept. In fact, Zoë’s humor is sarcastic and cynical, which reveals her pessimistic view of life and dark humor. The joke that Zoë uses to cope with the abdominal growth is revealed as Zoë drives home from the ultrasound procedure. The punch line, ‘‘You’re ugly, too’’ when the patient asks for a second opinion from the doctor is referenced in the title of the story. Zoë finds this joke hilarious because the punch line of the doctor’s second opinion, a matter-of-fact statement, is not an answer to her original serious question. Instead, it serves to illuminate the fact that the doctor is offended because the patient feels that he needs another opinion. One can see that the doctor’s response to Zoë is similar to Zoë’s response to her students in her class and that the doctor’s and Zoë’s opinions are no longer matter-of-fact. Moore’s use of italics to reproduce the thoughts of Zoë’s student— ‘‘You act like your opinion is worth more than everyone else’s in the class’’—puts Zoë in the place of the patient and the student, and Zoë realizes that the shoe is on the other foot now. The joke shows Zoë getting tangled in a web of her own thoughts, just as we do in the real world. Michelle Brockway, a writer for Poets and Writers, describes Moore’s characters in the following way: ‘‘Intelligent and well-meaning as the next guy, wisecracking, willfully illogical, these men and women invariably trip over life’s accepted wisdom and assurances—only to come up . . . slack-jawed, gawking at an endgame replete with unanticipated incongruities.’’ This description could be used to describe the multiple female roles that Zoë embodies.

Moore’s story depicts a female driven satire that is a result of mismatched roles or stereotypes that some women, like Zoë, combine, as they search for who they are. The use of stereotypes in a satirical manner brings an ironic tone to her representation of Zoë as a hopelessly lonely woman. According to the stereotype of the traditional woman represented by Heidi, Zoë is a disappointment in society’s eyes because she has not fulfilled the traditional expectation of a happy marriage with several children. However, Zoë does not try to remedy her situation through marriage. A prime example is the interaction between Zoë and Earl, the man dressed as a naked woman. Zoë’s attitude is not typical of the woman longing for a male companion, especially as she switches between playing the aloof alreadydivorced- though-never-married woman and the almost homicidal bonehead at the party. Jumping between non-traditional female roles may occur because Zoë does not know how she is expected to act or what society will classify as an acceptable and desirable flirtation. She experiments with her roles, playing off the reactions Earl gives her. Moore exaggerates a simple conversation to prove how non-traditional responses from Zoë are awkwardly received by others. Moore effectively uses the contrast of modern independent woman and the stereotypical Heidi by using satire in the character of Zoë toward the archaic image of woman.

Particularly intriguing is the explanation of Heidi. Moore illuminates the notion of conflict between the expectations of modern woman and the traditional passive woman. ‘‘You were never to say you weren’t fine thank you and yourself. You were supposed to be Heidi. You were supposed to lug goat milk up the hills and not think twice. Heidi did not complain. Heidi did not do things like stand in front of the new IBM photocopier, saying, ‘If this f——king Xerox machine breaks on me one more time, I’m going to slit my wrists.’’’ Zoë represents the struggle between the woman that was and the woman that is, including her struggle with society’s reaction to the transition between the two types. Moore infers that people typically expect Heidi— the woman who was—and few see or accept the woman who is, or so Zoë believes. Zoë is a representation of the struggle of woman to transcend the Heidi of yesterday to be the woman of today, who does not live for chores to support others, but rather stands before modern technology and cusses until she is emotionally satisfied. As technology advances, so do women. The Heidi stereotype humorously contrasts archaic expectations of woman with current demands on her and her current reality.

In addition, Moore uses Zoë symbolically in another way, to show a darker side of the typical woman that is no laughing matter. A harsh reality presents itself privately to Zoë in the form of an unidentified growth in her abdomen. Robin Werner of Tulane University categorizes the quest to identify Zoë’s growth as Zoë’s struggle to find herself. As a woman who has not yet ‘‘solidified’’ her life by becoming a wife and bearing children and staying home and doing the dishes, Zoë is confused by how people react to her reality and how she reacts to the reality of others. The abdominal growth may be a symbol of Zoë’s unspoken self-doubts. Though Zoë’s reality of being utterly alone is obvious, she harbors a secret that represents all the fears of any woman who shares Zoë’s longing for company. She refuses to tell even her sister, Evan, though at times she seems to want to. Fear and self-consciousness may vary in degree from woman to woman, but, in the end, every woman experiences them. Zoë does not want to attract attention to the elephant in the room—her isolation—but she cannot help but fixate on it. Admitting that she is utterly alone may just touch the surface of the accumulation of insecurities that she has because she does not fit the mold of Heidi—one stereotype of the traditional woman.

Moore represents Zoë as an ordinary woman with very real human flaws, as a type or symbol of the modern woman. Zoë stands in contrast to the stereotype of Heidi, the traditional woman, the woman who used to be, who had no flaws, who lived for others, made no demands to have her own needs satisfied, and never complained. Zoë is seeking the acceptance that Heidi received when her behavior was socially accepted, but she cannot or will not do what Heidi did to achieve that acceptance. Zoë tries several non-traditional female roles to try to gain acceptance, but these do not give her a sense of satisfaction. Her repeated attempts elicit mixed reactions from society, which she does not know how to process into a new attitude or behavior that fits the mold. A conflict is set up within Zoë over who she should be, and this conflict grows like a tangible growth inside her. The growth symbolizes not only the conflict between the traditional and the modern woman but Zoë’s doubts, the modern woman’s doubts about herself, about her ability to measure up to Heidi. Nevertheless, Zoë as the modern woman does not want to do what Heidi did: she does not want to lose her identity in the process of pleasing others, and by not achieving the acceptance she desires, she becomes a symbol of frustration and sadness.

Moore upsets ideal romanticism by using Zoë to explore what might happen to a woman who does not get married and have 2.7 children and a white picket fence. One would traditionally expect a love story, as she states it is, to end with something wistful and romantic. Instead, Zoë gives the story an ugly spin by having the heroine commit suicide. As the reader is stunned by this unexpected outcome, Moore illustrates that not every story and not every life has a happy ending. Don Lee, editor of the literary journal Ploughshares, in his article ‘‘About Lorrie Moore: A Profile,’’ encapsulates Moore’s own assessment of her work: ‘‘While Moore’s fiction is renowned for its wit and humor full with repartee, pithy one-liners, and wisecracks, she considers the essence of her stories sad.’’ Zoë’s character in the end is ultimately sad, as exemplified by her confusion in how to act in response to Earl’s reactions. What is not clear is what she wants from Earl; perhaps she does not know. In her attempt to deal with society’s response to her lifestyle, Zoë represents the antithesis of the woman who has it together, the woman all women are expected to be. Zoë becomes the symbol of the modern woman who is caught between fulfilling the stereotype of the traditional woman, Heidi, and being who she really is, someone who cannot give what others expect or get what she wants.

Source: Ericka Marie Sudo, Critical Essay on ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.

The State of the Story

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6125

Erin McGraw: As soon as we start talking about the short story, the long shadow of the novel shades our conversation. After all, the short story is only short in comparison with longer works, and through the twentieth century the novel has been generally considered fiction’s most ambitious and important form. Nobody talks about wanting to write the great American short story (though maybe people should). Instead, we get opinions such as this, from E. L. Doctorow’s introduction to Best American Short Stories 2000:

While there are exceptions—Isaac Babel or Grace Paley, for example, writers-for-life of brilliant, tightly sprung prose designedly inhospitable to the long forms—we may say that short stories are what young writers produce on their way to first novels, or what older writers produce in between novels. The critic will hold title to all its estates, and the novel is a major act of the culture.

Well. How are we to respond to this assured assertion placed in the introduction to a collection of short stories that novels, not stories, are a major act of the culture?

Richard Burgin: I take exception to Doctorow’s remark. I’m thinking of something Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote masterful novels and stories, said. He felt that a novel really was a story, just a longer, more complicated story. And he felt as a simple matter of logic that a novel would, as a rule, have more mistakes in it than a story. I think he said that Tolstoy’s War and Peace had many more aesthetic mistakes than his ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych,’’ and I would agree. So, in that sense, I think he was arguing that a story is a more perfect form, or perfection can be more readily approached, and perhaps even have the illusion of being achieved there than in the novel.

And I am thinking of another important writer in my life, with whom I also had the good fortune to do a book of conversations, Jorge Luis Borges. He, of course, felt the same way. He’s famous for not writing a novel. So that would be my initial response to Doctorow’s statement. Also, it occurs to me that if time is infinite, and literature keep proliferating with it, it’s going to be increasingly attractive for writers to write and readers to read short stories to get any sense of this monster of literary history that just won’t stop. And that in the future writers even very good writers, will be lucky to be remembered for even a single short story or perhaps for a single line. I suggest this just from the point of view of literary ecology, one might say.

Moore: I’ve never been on a panel before, so I don’t know when I’m supposed to speak. Now?

I do think there’s this idea afloat in the culture, which is an erroneous one, that the short story is suited to our diminishing attention spans. But there’s a kind of organic wholeness that a short story requires which contradicts that idea. One can, if necessary, read a novel in five-minute increments. One cannot read a short story that way. So as time fragments and gets scarcer, and our attention spans supposedly diminish, the short story is not something that can rush in and fill the gap. The short story will be a casualty.

The short story is written in a manner similar to the way it’s read, which is all at once. At some point in a short story the writer sits down and writes it all the way through from beginning to end. Whether it’s on the eleventh draft or on the first draft, there’s a wholeness to it, a momentum to it, a seeing of it all the way through from beginning to end. And when you sit and read a short story you read from beginning to end. You don’t read five minutes here and there. But novels are checked in and out of, and they’re checked in and out of by the novelist. A novelist can even sit down and work on it for ten minutes, and then go away, and work on it ten minutes the next day, too. That’s how you can read novels as well, even if it’s not ideal.

I don’t really know what my point is except to argue against the particular idea that short stories are convenient for our shortened attention spans. They really are the opposite of that, I think. You need thirty-five, forty minutes to read a good short story, whereas you don’t necessarily need that to continue reading a novel. And forty uninterrupted minutes are sometimes, perhaps increasingly, diffi- cult to come by.

McGraw: You know, earlier this week the critics Charles May and Susan Lohafer gave their own panel. And Charles, who’s read everything, was talking about what he says was his preference for reading a collection of stories over a novel—just assuming books of equal merit. Which I found astonishing. I think it’s hard to read a book of stories. It’s much, much easier to sit down and read a novel. After fifty pages you know what the terrain is. . . .

Audience Member: I have a question that changes the subject, is that okay? If the novel is something that began in eighteenth-century England and developed from there, you could call the short story a newer form. Unless you see an alliance between the short story and the folktale, the colloquial oral tradition that goes back infinitely. How do you see it? Do you see the short story as a newer kind of twentieth-century form, or do you see it as connected with that old, old tradition?

Moore: Me? I see it as a more oral form. It’s confined to a physical idea, to sitting down, telling in a single sitting, receiving in a single sitting. It’s very much attached to that idea of your body, your half-hour sitting, your hearing in a single shot. I always thought the first collection of stories was The Decameron, which goes way back. And those stories are incredible. And they don’t seem all that different from what writers, short story writers, are trying to do now. And The Decameron, that first collection, makes explicit in the frame the idea of sitting down, and hearing stories, and telling stories. And then it also makes explicit the sense of disaster that’s surrounding this storytelling, that storytelling is one way we keep ourselves alive, to celebrate our living, if not our lives.

Burgin: I suppose one could argue there are stories in the Bible, aren’t there? Isn’t the Bible full of little short stories really?

McGraw: Yeah, but I like the big stories in there, too.

Moore: Outside the parables of the New Testament, however, it doesn’t make explicit the idea of storytelling which The Decameron does.

McGraw: Like A Thousand and One Nights, too, which is sort of pleasant because it’s weird. Audience Member: And how about The Canterbury Tales?

McGraw: The Canterbury Tales. Yes, absolutely.

Audience Member: I think, related to this, I was at a conference where a woman was talking about short story collections. And she mentioned yours, Ms. Moore, as well as The Canterbury Tales, countering people who say a short story can’t tell about life. And what she was saying is that you should look at these collections as a whole, like The Canterbury Tales, that it really is a short story cycle. And I thought in some ways it’s an interesting concept, but it also undercuts the short story itself, as it pushes toward this idea that it has to be large, that it has to be something from which you can take away an understanding of human life. That you can’t took at an individual story and learn something from it. And I wonder what you thought of that way of approaching a collection, especially since you write stories separately, and only later put them in a collection.

Moore: A lot of short story writers are interested in the idea of a collection. I’m not, so much— at least not for myself. For me, each story comes separately and I don’t even know if there ever will be another story after I write one. I don’t know. I’m starting from scratch every time. Eventually, when you have enough short stories you can sort of see what they have in common, and see how they form a collection. They form a temporal document. Over a ten-year period these were your obsessions and your concerns; here are your little summaries of life. And you put them together and give them a title. Now, then, afterward someone else can come along and just read them as or see them as a collection, or see the collection as a genre, or as a form. I’m not that interested in that, except maybe with respect to other people’s collections.

I think the danger, also, as a writer, of seeing stories as a collection, is that it starts to corrupt the genesis of the story. If you’re trying to find a story that fits the other stories, there’s some kind of corruption that’s already gone on. It’s a worrisome idea. I was just talking to a writer who was actually doing that in his collection. He said he had a story that he was going to fit in and— Burgin: Mix and match.

Moore:—link, link the theme of this story and that story. But he was getting stuck. Well, of course, he would get stuck because he’s making something else. He’s removed from the original impulse of writing a story.

Burgin: That’s what the editors try to do later, with a story. I really like what Lorrie is saying about the individual stories and the potential corruption of a collection. I also think that a single good story can tell us just as much about ‘‘life’’ as a single good novel.

First of all, novels don’t tell us what ‘‘life’’ is. They talk about a section of it, a little bit of the writer’s personal emotional real estate, as it were, but hardly the entire earth. So, thinking of one example off the top of my head, Faulkner’s great story ‘‘That Evening Sun’’ tells me personally a lot more about racism, among other things, than Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which was not a bad novel. But, you know, as far as learning something about life, I think this single short story teaches a lot more and is a far more powerful aesthetic document than Lee’s novel or many other novels about racism. You don’t need a collection of stories to illuminate reality. One really good one will do it.

Jim Schiff: I have a question. Since you all not only read a good deal of short fiction but write it, I wanted to get a sense of some of the differences you see in the two forms, between the short story and the novel. And just going over some of the things that have been said over the last week, I know that Charles May, when he was here, was talking about the short story not really having much to do with realism. I think he felt like the novel had a lot more to do with realism. And, I think, even going back to when Updike was here, I mean if you look at the Rabbit novels they’re full of sociological data and details. They’re very contemporary, maybe even more so than his stories. And I remember somebody else talking about the passage of time and how a Tolstoy novel obviously conveys that passage of time in a way that short stories don’t, I think, or at least does it differently. So I wonder what kind of differences you see in how the two forms operate?

Burgin: Erin, why don’t you take it? You haven’t spoken in a while.

McGraw: Well, you’ve got me thinking about Alice Munro. Because nobody writes stories that cover more time than Alice Munro does. And she tends to do it, I think, in lurches. You’ll spend a great deal of time in a long scene in an Alice Munro story, and then vault ahead, with no transition at all, ahead or backwards fifty years, or you’ll get a space alien or something. And I don’t think that she is all that unique in using the story form as a way to hopscotch through time, though few do it so audaciously as Munro. She is such a case by herself.

Moore: She is unique.

McGraw: Yeah, and she’s wonderful.

Moore: Someone once said that Munro does start out every time to write a novel, and I don’t believe this, so maybe I shouldn’t repeat it, but someone believes it: that Munro’s stories start off with the ambition to be a novel, then they somehow get distilled down. Which, if true, is perhaps why they don’t resemble anyone else’s stories: they have an unusual handling of time. I mean, time is usually more the subject and the medium of novels than of short stories. But Munro has a kind of story that has always had the satisfactions and elements of a novel. And it’s because she’s started off with novelistic ideas and just ended up, I think, with a kind of sculpture in the end. I think that’s how she creates her narrative time, sort of sculpturally. And she ends up with something that’s a long short story that’s not like anybody else’s. . . .

Audience Member: Yes. What about the collections of linked stories? I mean, Winesburg, Ohio, The Joy Luck Club, there’s a bunch more. Go Down, Moses. Is it a fad? Is it another genre? What is it?

Burgin: I think it can work commercially just by some of those examples. It’s not something I’ve ever done. But I know some writers want to do that because they figure, ‘‘Well, I can sell each story individually, and sell the book as a whole.’’ So, you know, it has that commercial dimension to it or whatever else you want to call it.

Audience Member: Are you interested in that? Burgin: I don’t have a particular interest. They haven’t been among the best story collections that I’ve read, the so-called theme stories. They get tiresome because they’re repetitive. You know, every story collection you pick up, there’re going to be two or three stories of personal victimization and adultery in the suburbs. But eleven of them? I mean, it gets a little old.

Moore: I think those kinds of linked stories are novels, and they’re just taking a story collection as their structure—I mean a novel can take any structure it pleases, and a novel-in-stories is taking the structure of stories and just linking them together. Lives of Girls and Women, which is Alice Munro’s second book, is that. And it’s just astounding. And there are other ones, too, obviously. But I think they’re novels essentially. But the experience of reading them is much more like reading short stories. And they’re written so carefully. Each of the ‘‘chapters’’ is a story complete unto itself. Sort of beautiful. In a way it’s more accomplished than either a novel or a collection of short stories because it’s done both things.

Audience Member: But then it does seem like a training ground for a would-be novelist. I know Pam Houston tried, well, she did write a collection of short stories, but they were linked stories. But what was interesting was that all the same characters were in each story. So you could read it as a short story. But I think, in her mind she felt that, well, I can’t speak for her, but I think the idea was, ‘‘Yes I need to write a novel, and maybe if I do it this way it will be a novel.’’ I don’t know if that is why her memoir or short stories are linked. But it seemed to me something that was actually edging toward a novel, but didn’t quite make it.

Audience Member: A Peruvian writer, Laura Risco, originally wrote a collection of short stories, and all the short stories had a little girl. And then after she presented them to the editor in Peru, the editor suggested to link the short stories, and then it ended up like a novel. And it was a successful novel.

Moore: I think that happened with Amy Tan’s book, The Joy Luck Club. She offered it up as stories initially, right? And the editors said, ‘‘We need this to be a novel.’’

Audience Member: There’s that book of Alice Munro’s, The Beggar Maid.

Moore: The Beggar Maid is like Lives of Girls and Women.

Audience Member: I read somewhere that she wrote a lot of those stories where the characters did all, in fact, have different names. And she said something about—

Moore: ‘‘Who am I kidding?’’

Audience Member: Yeah. Like she was standing in the grocery store, literally, or something, and said, ‘‘They’re all the same person.’’ And they had to do something to the galleys. It was ready to go, and they had to get it out for the Christmas trade in Canada. And she said that if you look at it carefully there are some mistakes, a pronoun here or there, something’s wrong in one or two of the stories where they rushed to get it out and to make those changes. Yeah, yeah, I’ve never looked closely enough to see if I could find the mistakes.

Moore: Her publisher must have fixed the mistakes in subsequent printings. . . . Audience Member: I think there’s one point that needs to be made about the short story, and that’s how we can experience it. How the story can exist for us. And the reading last night was a case in point. That is, my reading of the story and the author’s reading of the story are two different things. I’ve long known, of course, that everybody reads a story differently from the next person. So that with a short story, you can hear the whole thing, the whole definition of something you can read in one sitting is likely true. And that’s okay, that’s not a bad definition, actually, for a short story.

And so we can listen to the whole thing and hear the whole thing. But not only can we hear the whole thing, we can hear the writer herself, in this case, reading the whole thing. And last night, when Lorrie was reading ‘‘Dance in America,’’ it became a different story and I watched and followed it in the book. You made some changes, in case you didn’t notice.

Moore: Oh I noticed.

Audience Member: And you put in some ‘‘he saids’’ and ‘‘she saids’’ that weren’t there. Were you reading from the text? Moore: You’re every writer’s nightmare!

Audience Member: Well, I’m interested in how writers represent their stories aloud. Because we get back to the old notions that all of our fiction is basically oral. And when you read a story I think you have to hear a voice telling it to you. And if you can hear the author, in this case, it makes it a different kind of story. For instance, last night your story was funnier than I’d thought it was. I’d thought it was kind of sentimental when I read it. And you can hear the details repeating in it. And you can hear the whole story’s implicit in the first line. And it comes home in the end and you can hear that. You can’t do that with a novel.

Burgin: No, that’s a really good point you’re making.

Audience Member: And so, so it’s like Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura. What’s the authentic reading of this story? What should we hear, and what should we be perceiving when we read this? How does it exist? And when you hear the author read it, it’s something else. And certain other things came out where you could hear the parts are being juxtaposed as you went along, and you could hear the connections. And so, I think, the great defense of the short story is that it takes us back, close to the oral tradition. And secondly, it’s something we can experience as a whole. And it’s something that the artist herself, or himself, can present to us, something that you can’t do with the novel. You’ve got to have breaks in reading the novel. You’ve got to stop some place. You can’t just read seven hundred pages of a Pynchon at the same time.

McGraw: Desirable though that might be.

Audience Member: But at any rate, the short story is something that, it seems to me, is one of our most extraordinary forms of literature because of the fact that we can hear the whole thing at one time. That we can hear the writer present it to us, too, which I think is invaluable. That’s why all this stuff is worthwhile. To bring people, writers, here to read them, to see how the writers represent what’s on the page. And it’s surprising what will happen. I’m sorry, I’m lecturing. But it’s surprising the way some writers sometimes can’t read their own stuff. And it’s sometimes surprising how good things are by the way the writers read them. So I think that it’s not just the voice in the story, it’s also how the writer himself, or herself, hears this thing, and then represents it to us. And we can perceive that in one sitting, at one time. And that’s why I think the short story is so very important, and why it stays around.

Moore: I think it’s a musical form, which perhaps ties it to performance. That is a very important point. And it does connect, again I think, more with theater, more with poetry, more with music. Whereas novels are not connected with those things, are not performed successfully that way. I will add that when a writer reads his or her own work the writer is seldom offering up his or her own reading as definitive or exemplary, the way the story should be read, or must be read, or the way it should exist. When I write a story I’m hearing a voice that I can’t actually reproduce in a room for anyone. When I read it out loud I’m doing my best, but it’s just not even very close to how I want the thing to sound, but it’s my attempt. But I’m so pleased that you felt the story was improved by the reading, and that means I have somehow at least gone in the right direction. But the writer hearing his or her own voice reading the work is always disappointed. It’s not really the perfect voice you want to hear for the perfect reading.

Burgin: I agree with Lorrie. I also feel that when I read from my story collections I’m not offering a definitive reading. And, like Lorrie, I also will make little changes that aren’t in the printed text. So maybe what I’m offering is my definitive reading at that moment, because it’s always evolving. And that’s something tying in with some of what you said, and some of what Lorrie said, about the short story being somehow related to performing arts. Just like an orchestra will play Stravinksy’s ‘‘Rites of Spring,’’ or Mahler’s Second, or whatever, a little differently each time, that’s what’s going to happen in the short story. Because even though there’s a version between covers, that doesn’t mean that it ends. It still exists in the writer’s mind and you’ll get these subtle changes. If not in actual language or words being omitted or added, in the inflection in the way one reads it. In that sense it is a kind of evolving performing art in a way that, just because of the logistics you alluded to, a novel isn’t.

McGraw: And sometimes you’re just off. Sometimes you read it and you know you’ve muffed it. You’ve screwed up words, or you didn’t, you couldn’t get yourself present enough to do a good job. The actor Richard Shiff read a story of mine a year ago, and I was flabbergasted. He read that story much better than I ever have. He was getting laughs, oh! And I’ve really studied that. And I have been trying to imitate his reading of my story because he did it better. So, I very much think that a public reading of a story is a performance and that we are not trained as performers. We are trained to be solitary people who sit in a room.

Audience Member: Well, you have to become a performer, then, if you’re going to read them in public. Because you have to respect your reader and your audience.

McGraw: Well, sure. And how many of us have sat through deadly readings where you’re like this [looks at her watch] that whole time?

Moore: I have to say I’ve felt the opposite experience with actors and actresses reading my work. I have found it unbearable because it was too actressy, too performed. There is another sort of place that you’re trying to get to when you read your work aloud. And I can’t exactly get to it, but neither can a number of actresses. So it’s not just about being an actress. It’s some other level that the story has to live on, which actors sometimes bypass and writers can’t quite get to.

Audience Member: Getting back to the question of political correctness. Erin mentioned that often it is the narrative point of view which controls the narrative of the story. But there is this strange, irony-impaired point of view in our culture, that the writer, whether a short story writer or whatever, is always announcing his own point of view in everything that he says. And that the voice of the story is always the voice of the person behind the story. Burgin: Yes, it’s unfortunate that that exists because that’s one of the pressures, I think, that, subliminally at any rate, make writers write politically correct stories where the ‘‘right people’’ are always noble and wise. It’s because of this fear that, ‘‘Oh, well, no one would even think that I’m just writing a story, so I can’t have my characters use this word or think those thoughts.’’ Audience Member: Nobody could imagine that this is just a character I’m writing about. They’re always saying, ‘‘Keith!’’

Jim Schiff: You know, I agree with the point about political correctness and see how that operates. But I also wonder if there’s something counter to that. I mean in terms of The New Yorker, how that’s changed from the pre-Gottlieb years, in terms of what you can say, and so on, and the outrageousness of humor with a number of Lorrie’s stories and George Saunders and others. So I wonder if there’s something working against that also. McGraw: Thank you for saying that. I understand what you’re getting at Keith, but I’m startled to hear you talk about American literature as being an irony-free zone. Because my experience is that most American literature is drenched in irony. I would like to see rather less of it.

Burgin: Yes, ironists have their own political correctness.

McGraw: Yes, yes!

Burgin: The compulsive ironists are totally unaware of their own cliches. They’re only aware of writing they deem to be too earnest.

Audience Member: Well I’m thinking of the fear of the reader. There’s often a fear of the reader’s reaction.

McGraw: Have you ever feared the reader’s reaction, Lorrie?

Moore: Maybe I should, but no. I have a fear of my own reaction. I’m sort of out of this conversation, I guess. I don’t really know what any of you are talking about. I don’t feel an invisible fence of political correctness that I’m confined by. I feel like when you write a story you’re just going out there, and you’re on this journey, not this frightened little tour around your yard. So I don’t know. I don’t feel those things as a writer.

Burgin: Well, the writer shouldn’t feel them. I’m saying these are cultural forces.

Moore: Political correctness should be, and mostly is, I think, a movement toward sensitivity and openness, not away. I have to say that I did just write a tiny piece of nonfiction that I dashed off in an hour and after it appeared several people said to me, ‘‘Oh, did the anti-defamation people call you yet?’’ So I went, ‘‘Really?’’ One can offend when one isn’t aware of it, and then be made aware. That’s OK. I think that afterwards it’s good to, you know, have the conversation if, in fact, you have stepped on some toes and you didn’t realize it. But no, one shouldn’t censor oneself. But one should be as intelligent as possible and not get defensive about carelessness.

Burgin: But I’m saying these forces are out there among editors, among publishers, among peoY ple who are on awards committees and professors who determine the courses that are taught at universities, and finally, not hearing anything else but that, readers themselves. And eventually some of that trickles back, and affects some of our less courageous writers, as opposed to you, Lorrie.

Audience Member: This is going fully on something that Rebecca asked, and that Lorrie partly touched on, too, when you were talking about reading sort of experimental short stories back in the seventies. Do you see, as far as trends go, and big established names in short story writing, do you see length becoming a trend with them. For instance, Alice Munro, her earliest stories in Dance of the Happy Shades were much shorter than what she’s doing now, in the last book for instance. She keeps getting longer, and longer, and longer. And that’s not a complaint. Even somebody like Ann Beattie, who was one of the so-called minimalists when that term was especially derogatory, she’s even working longer. And in her just-published collection, Perfect Recall, the stories are the longest I’ve ever seen her write. And even Amy Hempel who works really, really tiny, tried a novella in her last book. Do you see that? Does that have something to do, possibly, with being established and with feeling free to work longer? Or is that a trend among younger, more inexperienced writers as well?

Moore: I have no idea. I don’t think an artist makes these decisions in response to trends, careers, editors, magazines. I think they have something they want to write, and they find a form that can best contain it. The long short story is a wonderful form. Ethan Canin works really well within that form. He’s written some of the best, as have Stanley Elkin and Andre Dubus. And Alice Munro was always working in that length. In Lives of Girls and Women, there’s a very long story called ‘‘Baptizing,’’ which is one of her best stories. I think the long story is hardly new.

Audience Member: Yeah. I’m just wondering because of Carver and Beattie, that sort of trend from the seventies into the eighties that was very small, compact, pared down stories. Very few adjectives, very short, compact sentences. So I’m just wondering because that seems to be gone from stories you see nowadays. I mean, you don’t see those in The New Yorker anymore.

Moore: You don’t?

Audience Member: I don’t see them as much anymore. Or maybe I’m just not reading them.

Moore: I know The New Yorker has space constraints like it’s never had. So I think the long story is not going to work happily with any commercial magazine if it’s not working well in The New Yorker. So maybe among literary magazines you’ll find the long short story more often.

Audience Member: So a twenty to twenty-five page manuscript that was okay before is now way too long. I think to tell that you have to keep your story shorter to fit in the constraints of today’s lack of available space is really a shame.

Burgin: That’s something you have to resist, again, like political correctness. You just have to write what you want and let the chips fall as they may.

McGraw: Well, that’s what I was about to ask you, Richard. You’re seeing all these things cross your desk. Are you seeing a lot of long stories that can’t find a place in the slicks, or are you seeing very tight stories á la Carver that are also not, by and large, showing up in the slicks?

Burgin: I think I see all kinds of them. We get about six thousand a year and pretty much see a lot of different kinds. I couldn’t generalize really.

McGraw: Fink. You’re exactly the one who should be generalizing. Carol?

Audience Member: I have a dim-witted question and an impertinent question. The dim-witted question is, since all three of you have written in both forms, I’m wondering what you feel you can do in a short story that you can’t do in a novel and vice versa?

Moore: This metaphor has been used by so many people but it seems the most accurate to the experience of writing short stories versus writing novels. A short story is like a love affair. It’s got this quick excitement to it and closure; one throws oneself into it, and then is done with it. I’m not going to continue to describe a love affair. But the novel is much more like marriage. It’s a daily, daily struggle, taking place over years. It’s work, as everyone tells you about marriage, but forgets to tell you about novel writing. And there are all kinds of other metaphors you can come up with. I once thought that the short story was like a biopsy. You know, you go in, and you get a kind of layered sample of the body. And that a novel was more like cloning. You started with some cells, and you had to grow, over time, the whole body.

For short story writers I do think that writing short stories is just much more satisfying. You know, all the rewards are faster. The sense of accomplishment is there. And you can feel, you can internalize the form, you’ve written more short stories, always, than novels and so you feel familiar with the form. And there’s a kind of happiness and, I don’t know, a sense of familiarity with the whole thing. And novel writing is just painful. It’s mysterious and it’s just never ending. Short story writers working on a novel are always in great pain. But sometimes, as Erin was saying, you have something you need to explore that won’t fit into a short story. It has different parts. It may have different points of view. It may have two different themes, two different worlds. It may have time as its subject. And so you just need to work in the novel form. It’s a miserable business. . . .

Source: Erin McGraw, Lorrie Moore, and Richard Burgin, ‘‘The State of the Short Story,’’ in Boulevard, Vol. 17, No. 1–2, Fall 2001, pp. 1–27.

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