I saw Anthony Doerr at the Elliott Bay Book Company last week. He is from Idaho and he has written a book about the year he spent his Rome his wife and just born twin sons courtesy of the Rome Prize. The book is a well written travelogue that shows the mundane life of a writer in a foreign city trying to write while he is also trying to be a dad and a husband. In short, the book is essentially a printed blog. He writes: “A good journal entry should be a love letter to the world.” As a winner of prestigious prizes (including the Rome Prize) and “One of American’s Best Novelists Under 35” Doerr delivered a reading that I can only describe as writer’s porn — not sex — but the graphic and glossy reproduction of the nitty gritty aspects of a writer’s life. He writes about his writing of short stories. He writes about his reading of Pliny the Elder. I’m sure for Mr. Doerr his writing life is not easy. After all he actually moved to Rome courtesy of the prize in order to write. If his at-home writing life was straight forward I’m sure he could only regard this as a disruption. In turn, Mr. Doerr seemed eager to get the most what is generally the most painful portion of the reading — the Elliott Bay Question and Answer section. Unlike just about any other writer I’ve seen read in the bookstore basement, Mr. Doerr wanted to talk about writing. He wanted to talk about writing a lot. I had to shuffle out the basement, because while I enjoyed Mr Doerr’s writer’s porn, I didn’t want to talk about it afterwards.
Anthony Doerr is a startlingly conservative writer and I don’t know what to make of his writing. I don’t mean politically conservative but in what he writes about and how he uses language. Here is a random paragraph from a story of his that is set in Astoria, Oregon, The Caretaker:
The garden explodes into life; Joseph gets the impressed it would grow even if the world was plunged into permanent darkness. Each night there are changes; cluster of green spheres materialize and swell on the tomato stems; yellow flowers emerge from the vines like burning lamps. He begins to wonder if the large, bushy creepers are zucchini after all–maybe they are squash, some kind of gourd. But they are melons.
I don’t know if I believe this is the way to talk about a writers writing they way I am doing there, that is pulling out a random paragraph. Pulled from context, it is bound it seem a bit lifeless. A tissue sample from a handsome man is likely to seem like a blob of gelatin and not a handsome tissue sample. But this tends to be the way it is done. A writer I know will run a test on books I believe he doesn’t want to read or books he wants to confirm suck, he’ll page randomly through the book to see if he can find any cliches. If he finds ones, he’ll shelf the book. No good. This seems like a process that will always result in false positives. I feel a bit more like cutting a writer some slack. Even Homer nods, someone said. We do what we can, another writer said. Even a great oral story tellers clears their throat and repeats themselves. In Anthony Doerr’s case his line-to-line writing is completely unobjectionable, conventional, the verbal equivalent of a GMC truck. “yellow flowers . . . like burning lamps” is a purely functional simile, the point of connection between yellow and lamp very close to a literal connection. Nothing false flatter than a simile comparing to like things, i.e., liquid like water, for instance. Doerr’s writing does what it is intended to but hardly inspires through a turn of phrase or musical quality or those other difficult to pin-down qualities that say be found at random in, say, The Best American Short Stories 1989 selected by Margaret Atwood.
Uncle Trash rakes everything my brother and I own into the pillowcases off our beds and says let that be a lesson to me. He is off through the front porch leaving s buck naked across the table, his last words as he goes up the road shoulder-slinging his loot. Don’t y’all burn the house down. (“Strays” by Mark Richard, page 283)
Sure third person is more difficult than first person, but still…
I had read a story of Mr. Doerr’s a while ago in the Best American Short Story anthology which is like a game-preserve for American fiction or a gateway drug for readers of short fiction. Even though there are practically no mass circulation magazines printing American fiction anymore, the perennial best-selling Best American Short Stories contains a comprehensive list of the obscure “little” magazines that do publish short fiction. You can find the web address and editorial address of tiny circulation magazines such as The Green Hills Literary Lantern or ZYZZYVA. I first started reading the anthologies when I was nineteen and read Margaret Atwood’s anthology. I don’t know if that was a good year. In retrospect it seems like a high-point but that could just be because it was my first exposure to some of the fiction being written by writers who’s books were not likely to be found in the B. Dalton at South Center Mall. But in the years since the early 1990s, mainstream literary fiction has become not only conventional but has also become accessible to the degree that it all sounds very similar. Mainstream literary fiction is kind of an oxymoron I guess. Fiction that has some kind of market rather than the vast majority of fiction that may be published but it is by and large invisible to the book-buying public. For instance, Gary Lutz published a collection of stories, I Looked Alive, with Black Square Editions a few years ago. Lutz is widely regarded fiction writer. Taste-maker George Saunders writes, “Gary Lutz is a master–living proof that even in our cliche-ridden denial-drenched age, true originality is still an American possibility.” Lutz has been a steady seller at Powells.com. But at a BookSense store is registers as “Special Order – Subject to Availability” (at least it shows up!) Anthony Doerr on the other hand released a book around the same time, The Shell Collector and it is not only on the shelf at the bookstore, but is Available for Immediate Download in three digital formats. (I wonder how that works with BookSense since the program is supposed to be a broker for local booksellers. If you downloaded, does the closest bookstore to your billing zip code get the credit?)
The Best American Short Story series seems to be one of the ways in which this conservative view of American fiction has been propagated. Each year sees the same cast of authors speckled with new authors who write in the approved style. Whoever handles the Best American product line seems aware of this having in the last couple of years begun releasing The Best NonRequired Reading edited by David Eggers. I do not begrudge David Eggers for his successes and hope his press (McSweeney’s) pulls through the craziness associated with the collapse of PGW (a distributor who went bankrupt and has sent closures and acquisitions spilling through the small press). David Egger’s anthology in contrast, stuffed with Egger’s peculiar enthusiasms is at least not as conservative as the Best American Short Stories. He publishes what he likes and what a person likes is, thankfully, a pretty fickle standard. But the current publishing world seems short on writers such as David Egger’s and long on the revolving editors and screeners that make up The Best American series, or O’Henry Awards, and Ploughshares, and so on.
I don’t know if I believe in progress in literature. Anthony Doerr writes very lucid and clear sentences. Their function is not do be doubted. His stories are all about something and they are peopled with unambiguous characters with clearly articulated motivations. Anthony Doerr has been to school, and in that sense, his writing is well schooled. He is a pleasant person to hear read. Like a Hershey Chocolate bar or Bud Light he represents the best of America. There is something to be said, I think, for industrial consistency. You know what you are going to get.