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In which Netty does not discover the female Carver (again), but is pretty damn happy with discovering Ann Beattie instead …

October 12, 2015

I must say, we do love a good short story here at Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge. And during the eight-odd years of this Challenge, we have read our way through some of the finest proponents of the art-form that the late 20th century has to offer.

A portrait of the author as, well, herself ...

A portrait of the author as, well, herself …

Although now, when I think about it, I realise that mostly we have read white, middle-class, American women. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Are short stories a medium to which female writers are most drawn? I’d need to see some stats on that. I do love a good stat set.

But as always, when we are talking short stories, the omnipresent elephant in the room must be addressed first. Andy and I read Raymond Carver early in this Challenge – so early that it was on our original, short-lived blogsite that now no longer exists, so unfortunately I can’t link to the effusive praise which we both heaped upon the bloke at the time.

Carver is, and may well always be, the first and last point of reference in this genre. He is so far ahead of the game that it will always be Carver first, daylight second. Well, maybe that’s a little unfair. Other writers get close. They can’t surpass him, but they get close.

Ann Beattie gets close.

I had never heard of this American writer when Andy first suggested her for this year’s ANRC. Beattie, now 68, has nine short story collections and eight novels to her name, a body of work that spans 40 years. She has a lengthy relationship with venerable magazine The New Yorker, which has been publishing her short stories since 1974. The aptly named The New Yorker Stories is a chronologically ordered collection that starts in 1974 and finishes, 48 stories later, in 2006; the collection itself was first published in 2010.

In his post, Andy referenced other white, middle-class American female writers that we have read, for comparison’s sake. The only one on whom we violently disagree is Mary Gaitskill (I can’t stand her, Andy thinks she’s some sort of second coming); also Andy had little time for Lydia Davis, who I quite enjoyed. Otherwise we see roughly eye to eye – for mine, Lorrie Moore is probably still the pick of the bunch, but Beattie is roughly her equal. For the record, Flannery O’Connor is also all sorts of wonderful, but she was far from middle class and yes, she’s dead. I still don’t think that excludes her from the broader conversation, however!

Short story writers have an eye for detail that sets them apart from their longer-form counterparts, and often a brevity that necessarily accompanies the genre, although length is not an issue here. Beattie’s short stories are like miniature time capsules, beautifully summing up the era in which they are set – an era, as Andy notes, that seems to broadly follows the age of the author herself (she was 27 in 1974, when the first short story in this collection was originally published). For me it was often quite jarring to be reminded of the ways and means that were perfectly acceptable in the 1970s (smoking around children during a meal, for example).

Beattie is also an expert at capturing the minutiae of relationships and peeling back the layers of something that seems quite ordinary and unremarkable on the surface to reveal its dark, unsettling, or troubled core. In doing so she reminds us of the tensions and angst that bubble under the otherwise civilised veneer of our fellow human beings. Not all of these stories have nice, neatly wrapped, bow-on-top conclusions – but nor would you want them to.

I love a short story that is resolved but yet isn’t – that is, one that keeps me wondering, days, maybe even months, down the track. The best short stories will satisfy you but also keep you guessing – it’s a very fine, delicate balance to strike; few get it right, and few again get it right consistently. It’s a credit to Beattie that nine times out of 10 she falls on the right side of this ledger. Her short stories are clever, touching, wry, humorous – everything you want in the form, really.

I could single out just about every one of this stories, but instead I am going to use just one as an example. It’s not the best here, not by a long shot, and it’s more a rough sketch than a fully formed entity. But I think it perfectly illustrates Beattie’s schtick. Sam, a slightly rag-bag bloke, is out in the country with his brother, his former sister-in-law and their young daughter when they spy a snake among the rocks. While her parents are issuing their daughter with the usual litany of warnings you’d expect, Sam starts telling his niece about snakes. “They have feet, but they shed them in the summer,” he asserts. “If you ever see tiny shoes in the woods, they belong to the snakes.” “Tell her the truth,” implores his ex-sister-in-law. “Imagination is better than reality,” Sam replies. See? In less than a page, Beattie has set up the relationships between all three adult protagonists and told us everything we need to know about their characters. In less than a page.

And, more or less, that’s what she does in the other 47 stories in this collection. It’s quite the accomplishment.

So if, like me, your answer the question “Ann Beattie” was “Who?”, you could do worse than to grab yourself a copy of The New Yorker Stories (the editors at that magazine certainly know their shit when it comes to authors) and dive in. Especially if you’re a fan of short stories. Beattie is an awesome writer – and she deserves an audience in this country.

OK, she’s not Carver. Moot point. No one is. But she gets close.

And sometimes close is close enough.

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