Speaking of closing-down and boxing-in, on Monday when I read Charles McGrath’s slightly incoherent and somewhat passive aggressive review of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, I got all riled up. I’m a little calmer now, or maybe I’m tired. Five days in which you have undergone a uterine biopsy and the development of a strange, itchy rash up and down both arms will do that to you. But, really — the Times could’ve saved a lot of space if they’d just edited McGrath’s piece down to its essence: “I have old-fashioned taste. I like conventional short stories. The short stories in this anthology are too unusual and too show-offy for me. Can I go play golf now?”
McGrath reveals his personal tastes in his very first paragraph, when he laments the fact that John Updike’s Early Stories: 1953-1975, which he calls “a monumental collection by one of the form’s great masters,” never made it to the Times best-seller list. (He also rushes dismissively through a list of other collections of newer short fiction that did, a move that undermines his contention that no one reads short stories any more. Come to think of it, it also undermines the notion that modern readers of short fiction would agree with his assessment of Updike.)
McGrath’s preferences are further demonstrated by how he chooses to describe the one story in the collection that he seems to like without reservation — Jhumpa Lahiri’s “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.” He calls it “so traditional, so well made, so clear and unassuming in its writing, that in this racy volume it seems almost retro.” You get the sense that McGrath is a big fan of the “retro.” I immediately visualized a stack of ancient, well-worn copies of BASS piled next to his toilet.
When McGrath isn’t complaining that the rest of the stories in the anthology are too opaque and impenetrable (he says of a couple that they “disdain to offer the reader anything as cheaply entertaining as narrative”), he’s complaining that the others are too entertaining (he deplores their “gimmickiness,” their “cleverness” and “jokiness,” and their “frantic eagerness to please”).
And then, in his conclusion, he once again hammers home his point when he declares: “For most of the last century, short-story writers in English – or the great ones anyway; writers like Hemingway, O’Hara, Salinger, Cheever – were busy dismantling the Victorian machinery of the story [blah blah blah blah] to create a kind of story that was deeper, quieter, moodier . . .” (Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a woman on McGrath’s list of greats, as Gwenda Bond remarked in her own post on this subject.)
The most positive thing McGrath can bring himself to say about the stories in this anthology is that they are difficult to ignore — indicating, perhaps, that he would much prefer to ignore anything that isn’t immediately familiar and recognizable to him. Why assign a review of an important anthology of new and interesting fiction — risky fiction — to someone who’s so reluctant to step out of his comfort zone?
It’s too bad that the Times has such an impact on book sales. I know it’s been kind of the thing to do lately, to knock their book reviews, but really, this kind of stodgy, short-sighted stuff only serves to demonstrate the Times’ increasing irrelevance to literature, in any matters other than financial ones.