I find it hard to answer the question, “What’s your favorite book?” There are books I loved as a child, books I loved before I got my MFA, and books I love now. And the things I appreciate in a book now are not necessarily the same things I appreciated in a novel when I was, say, twenty-one and reading strictly for pleasure. In other words, this question is about as easy to answer as “What do you write about?”
For many years my favorite book was The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer. This is the book I wrote an essay about when I applied to Spalding’s MFA program, so it’s possible I wouldn’t have discovered my current favorite authors, many of whom I learned about during my time at Spalding, were it not for this book.
The Dive From Clausen’s Pier is the story of Carrie and Mike, high school sweethearts who are now in their early twenties. When the novel begins, Carrie is feeling trapped —by her relationship with Mike, by her Wisconsin hometown, by the fact that she and Mike are still hanging out with the same friends they’ve had since middle school. When Mike is paralyzed in a freak accident, Carrie is placed in an unimaginable position: should she do the “right” thing and stay with Mike? Or leave everything she’s known behind and start anew? She makes the decision to move to New York City, where she begins a tumultuous relationship with an older man. I’ve read this book multiple times, and on each read I appreciate the subtlety of the prose and the storytelling. Packer writes beautifully about sex and love, and she raises the kinds of questions that linger long after the last page is read, questions such as, What do we owe the people we love and who love us back? That Packer never tries to “answer” these questions, that space is left for the reader to make his own interpretations, is one reason I’ve read and reread this book over the years.
Recently I’ve discovered an appreciation for short stories. I used to find short stories very unsatisfying. Usually after reading one I’d think, But there’s enough here for a novel! Why did the author stop after only twenty pages? But as David mentioned in his blog post “Delicate Edible Birds,” I have learned a new appreciation for short stories recently, and I genuinely like reading them now.
Who do I have to thank for my newfound love of short stories? Alice Munro, of course. (I hope someone has created a drinking game where every time Alice Munro is mentioned in one of my blog posts, you have to take a shot.)
I love the sly humor in this scene from Munro’s short story “Fiction” from her collection Too Much Happiness where a woman learns one of her former students wrote a book:
How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.
This is exactly how I used to feel about short stories. But as a writer, there is so much you can learn from short stories. Which is easier, you think: analyzing the structure and compression of language in a thirty page story or a three hundred page novel? Also, it’s much easier to be experimental in a short story, to play around with point of view, dialogue, or time. For me personally, writing a short story allows me to be a bit more callous with my characters because I’m less invested in them. I don’t mind hurting them or disappointing them because I don’t have to spend as much time with them as I do characters in a novel.