THE NEW YORKER STORIES – “Greatness within Grasp”

December 14, 2010

The New Yorker Stories

by Ann Beattie


$30, 516 pages

Beattie’s stories (then and now) articulate certain confusions and disappointments that often haunt the reader not as fiction but as things that have happened in real life. Now when I look at a short story writer, I am most concerned with what I, as a writer can learn, and pieces by Hemingway, Faulkner, even my favorite, Raymond Carver, often seem heavy handed, too style conscious, more concerned with the telling than with the subject. Not so Ann Beattie’s work. It makes me want to look around, not for clever twists, but to overhear conversations, catch fading facial expressions, sense relationships that might prove less than what they seem.

“It’s a steep driveway, and rocky. David backs down cautiously—the way someone pulls a zipper after it’s been caught. We wave, they disappear. That was easy.” A novel or piece of book length nonfiction is a world complete in itself. A short story is more like a spotlight that shines on a crowd of people. We see what is there but also know there are things to the right and the left of the spotlight that we can’t see directly. These are the events with the characters of the short story that happened before it began or that will happen after it the words on the page are over.

As writers we have to plant clues for the reader and we depend upon that reader to create what isn’t expressed. It’s this partnering with an audience in the creative process that is invaluable for other types of writing. They depend upon it, but nowhere (except perhaps with poetry) is it more essential than with the short story. The secret of good writing is to get your reader actively involved doing the work for you. Great short stories show us how to do that. With Ann Beattie, words are important, but the story takes place beneath the words, in the imagination of the person who reads it.

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