Jan/Feb 2004 Miscellaneous

In Lieu of "Preference"

by Alex Keegan

On a web-site recently, a respondent suggested that the typical woman's magazine story wouldn't do well in a competition marked by me, merely because of my personal preference, because, as she put it, "Judging is so subjective."

"No," I said, "It's not personal preference or subjectivity to wish to see the higher reaches of the writing craft, or even true art. Womag stories simply don't go there."

One of my stories wouldn't do well in a competition run by a typical British woman's magazine, because the judges are not solely judging "literary quality," but rather are assessing suitability for a market.

It isn't "women's fiction" that I disparage, nor is it romance. I have written romantic stories and "relationship" stories. Nor could it be said that I don't like female authors. For example, I absolutely adore the work of Alice Munro, and have written an essay analyzing her work.

If there could be such a thing as a womag story with depth and resonance, then YES, it would do well in a competition judged by me.

I told my correspondent that in my view it's an impossibility to have literary depth in the "typical" Bella story, so of course they would fail in a competition where I was the judge. "But," I argued, "that is NOT 'preference' or 'subjectivity.'"

In response to my correspondent's allegations, here are some things that ALL good stories should have, and they can all be found in Saul Bellow's "A Silver Dish."


1. An opening which immediately gives (at the minimum) a sense of quality in the language and the delivery, and/or character and the setting (or immediate situation), that says resonance is here, something that will make me ache a little or inspire me, that will not be throwaway.

Look at the opening to "Dish":

What do you do about death—in this case, the death of an old father? If you're a modern person, sixty years of age, and a man who's been around like Woody Selbst, what do you do? Take this matter of mourning, and take it against a contemporary background.

How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filling with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off the odours, the moldiness or gassiness, of old men. I mean! As Woody put it, be realistic. Think what times these are. The papers daily give it you—the Lufthansa pilot in Aden is described by the hostages on his knees, begging the Palestinian terrorists not to execute him, but they shoot him through the head. Later, they themselves are killed. And still others shoot others, or shoot themselves. That's what you read in the press, see on the tube, mention at dinner. We know now what goes daily through the whole of human community, like a global death peristalsis.

Listen to that incredible voice! Feel how much is pulled together here: the sad process of slow death, the loss of human vigour, what it is to be a son who sees a father fade away. All good stuff, but who but a great writer would pull in terrorism, television, and this wonderful Chicagoan Jewish voice and finish with "like a global death peristalsis." Could we doubt this is going to be a meaningful, resonant story?


2. Characters who have depth, breadth, richness, and who are both identifiable as types and yet different, somehow distinct. They must experience change or the denial of the opportunity for change (and not in a rigged or trivial way).

In Bellow's "A Silver Dish" we have a vivid character, Woody Selbst, a self-made businessman; his disreputable, passionate father, who left the mother for a lover; religious converts, a crazy or two; the prim widow Skoglund, who pays for Woody's tuition at a seminary (until he leaves after the subtle manipulations of his father); the widow's stiff as a board housekeeper—all of them, ANY of them, I'd die to have written.

But characters are "just" characters until the masters bring them together in vivid, special, unforgettable ways, and Bellow does this brilliantly for us in a story I have probably read now, ten, maybe eleven times.


3. The dialogue (and voice) should be interesting, vivid, fresh. It will develop the story. It will "ring."

In "A Silver Dish," the whole story vibrates. It reverberates with Woody's voice throughout, but when other people speak, they too are fascinating, ringing, memorable. Like when Woody's father is about to desert his wife and three children, and he needs money for gas:

"You're going to be the man of the house," said Pop. "It's OK I put you on welfare. I just got back from Wabansia Avenue, from the relief station." Hence the suit and the hat. "Then he said," You got to lend me the money to buy gasoline—the caddie money you saved."


4. The plot should have sufficient richness and complexity to make me FEEL something, to wonder, to ache, to be with, to hope, to be not-quite sure, yet sense the inevitability of the whole. There will be no cheap trick, no deliberate twist finish or deux et machina.

Bellow's plot explodes with richness, desertion, madness, manipulation, theft, disappointment, and ultimately a harrowing, yet beautiful death. But there is far more than mere machinations of cause and effect; the plot means so much, does so much, and by the end Woody sees why he was always his father's son and no Christian priest.


5. The theme should make me think, make me ache, make me dream, or it will teach me something. And if I don't want to pause a while after reading the story, if I don't want to reflect, then it will have been a failure.

"Dish" does so much. It deals with ethnicity, religion, sexuality, a primitive desire for life versus intellectual and spiritual callings; it deals with the art of living (as opposed to merely being alive), and it deals with inheritance as Emil Zola might have done, and finally, the circle of life and death and living, and dying on one's own terms.


6. The dramatic nature of the story should carry me, seduce me. It must involve me. It will work on the surface, but it will whisper that it has more than one level. It should be layered, undoable, discoverable. Each fresh visit to the story should reveal more (but the first pass should have satisfied by itself). It should consume me, take all my attention, demand my emotional and intellectual input, and the fictive dream, the language, the dialogue, everything should wrap me up and interact in a way that makes me not be reading, but rather seeing and feeling, experiencing a heightened life.

Bellow's piece is incredible. The opening has already "reached me," but on page two Woody remembers:

It was this: on a launch near Murchison Falls in Uganda, he had seen a buffalo calf seized by a crocodile from the bank of the White Nile. There were giraffes along the tropical river, and hippopotamuses, and baboons, and flamingos and other brilliant birds crossing the bright air in the heat of the morning, when the calf, stepping into the river to drink, was grabbed by the hoof and dragged down.

The narrative continues, showing the desperate calf's parents unable to figure things, looking at each other as if asking each other dumbly what had happened. This is typical of the richness, the vividness, the complete, totally overwhelming way that Bellow's works absorb attention. On almost any page he captivates, and the story has more stunning images then many a novel.

The pivotal theft, the fight between father and son, again is drama at its best, but Bellow, as only he can, finishes off the scene with the father buttoning his clothing and the uptight housekeeper entering:

As Pop was reaching below his belt, Hjordis brought in the tray. She was very sharp with him. She said, "Is this a place to adjust clothing, Mister? A men's washroom?"

"Well, which way is the toilet, then? said Pop."


7. The language should be perfect. It should not have a spare, wasted word nor a single accidental redundancy. It should have no clichés, nothing bland, no stock phrases, no fillers, and it should, via the shape and the sounds and the colours of the words, by the music, add meaning beyond mere semantics.

To quote examples of this from Bellow seems superfluous. All of Bellow is so rich, so fresh, so textured:

Then in the heat that swam suddenly up to their mufflered chins Pop and Woody felt the blizzard for what it was; their cheeks were frozen slabs. They stood beat, itching, trickling in the front hall that was a hall, with a carved newel post staircase and a big stained-glass window at the top. Picturing Jesus with the Samaritan woman. There was a kind of gentile closeness in the air.


8. The pace should be not too slow, not rushed, not patchy, not jerky, and the writer should also understand pacING, when to lean on a moment more, when to make the reader pause, where to make the reader eat.

Of course Bellow has mastered this. The story pulls, pushes, pauses where it should, precisely as it should.


9. And the ending... I should reach the ending already very happy, but a good ending should quite suddenly enhance my emotional response a whole level, into the realms of a hit in the gut, of a profound revelation, a light blasting into my head, at the very best, a life-moment.

It was like this: When he came into the hospital room and saw Pop with the sides of his bed raised like a crib, and Pop, so very feeble, and writhing and toothless, like a baby, and the dirt already cast into his face, into the wrinkles—Pop wanted to pluck out the intravenous needles and he was piping his weak death noise. The gauze patches taped over the needles were soiled with dark blood.

There follows the most immaculate writing, heart-rending, utterly beautiful passage as the son climbs into the hospital bed and stops the old man from removing his intravenous feeds. The younger man is winning the final battle:

After a time Pop's resistance ended.

But no,

Then as Woody did his best to restrain him, and thought he was succeeding Pop divided himself. And when he was separated from his warmth, he slipped into death.

That is not the story's end, but already, everything, every single word that has come before in the story is suddenly sent shimmering, ringing, vibrating, and everything, all is so much, so suddenly more, made even more organically important. An ending should be an "ah" and an "oh." This ending is both of these, plus screams, and a hymn, and the most profound, the deepest sense of rightness mere words can create. An ending should send us into a higher state and make us want to breathe deep, to wait a little while with the echo, then re-read the story, because now we realise it is four times better than good.

Now, that isn't "taste," and it isn't "preference." That is the recognition of artistic quality, of what is great writing.


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