The Mystery of Microfiction

As anyone who's been reading literary magazines knows, there's a lot of super-short fiction around. A previous interview I've done with former editor Jenny Catlin argues that partly, it's the result of editors who prefer reading shorter, rather than longer, pieces.  But she makes a good point that it's also due to impatient online readers who don't have time (or interest) in reading longer (that is, over 1000 words) stories.  On your phone, flash stories are a good thing, sort of-- although who wouldn't pick a juicy page-turner for an airplace trip?  Yes, there's Lydia Davis (and she's great) -- but 99 readers out of 100 would pick Alice Munro.

But beyond flash, there's even shorter -- 500 word stories, 100 word stories, 75 words, and even tweet fiction.  Maybe it's the long grim shadow of Hemingway, but some contest have so few words that they're bordering (to me) on haiku.  One magazine 101 Fiction focuses on submissions of, you guessed it, 101 words. A recent context from Penny Fiction allows writers a full 13 words in which to explore the issue of home -- no doubt, they'll be flooded with submissions. 

I get why editors like this.  Less work.  Hey with 13 word submissions, you can read 100 "pieces" pretty damned quickly.

But why do writers confine themselves in this way?  It's a world in which you can write what you like -- any way you like -- and more and more writers are opting for micro-fiction. Almost as if the gaps between words are replacing words, a world of telegraphed messages in which all the luxuries of communication have been stripped away.  OK, whatever, sure, LOL. 

Much ink is spilled on why literary magazines seem forever in search of readers.  I think flash and microfiction might be good places to find the answer.

The New Women's Canon: 100 Books

I've been thinking a lot about the books that "everyone" used to read, that is the works we all knew, and perhaps loved, as the literary canon.  That's been a shifting target lately, as different cultural perspectives have rightfully claimed their position.  But there are still so many wonderful, and underrated female authors who have been cast aside that I feel the need to offer a corrected, revised canon of my Top 100 Book by Women -- with the caveats that  I shy away from reading or evaluating books in translation (and even when I admire a novelist like Elena Ferrante, I have no idea of what her actual style is like in Italian), and secondly, that I am eager to correct past historical errors, even at the expense of ignoring a few contemporary works.  Some of the authors on my list are the obvious ones, like Austen, but others, like Helen Hull and Dorothy Whipple and Sarah Orne Jewett, have fallen out of critical favor or -- in the case of Hull -- even distribution.  Persephone Books is fortunately correcting the distribution problem for forgotten female authors-- but that's just a first, and small, step.   
To be clear, I wouldn't give up any of my favorite male authors -- and why should I?  Reading Mrs. Gaskell doesn't mean that I won't read Bosworth, and reading Nella Larsen does nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for the great Jean Toomer.  But just as, say, Jack London capures a masculine sense of survival and courage, so Sarah Orne Jewett captures an equally brave sensibility of women limited in ways men cannot imagine.  I need both to make sense of the world.  We all do.

Another note:  this is a work in progress, and I may submit revisions during the year as I think, and re-think, on what the New Canon should be.  But enough of introduction.  Here's my Top 100 Must Reads by Women.

1.    Jane Austen EMMA
2.   Jane Austen PERSUASION
3.   George Elliott MIDDLEMARCH
5.   Charlotte Bronte JANE EYRE
6.   Elizabeth Gaskell, THE LIFE OF CHARLOTTE BRONTE
7.   Isabelle Eberhardt, THE NOMAD (diaries)
8.   Louisa May Alcott LITTLE WOMEN
9.   Louisa May Alcott LITTLE MEN
10.    Charlotte Perkins Gilman THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
11.     Helen Keller, THE STORY OF MY LIFE
12.    Virginia Woolf MRS DALLOWAY
13.    Virginia Woolf TO THE LIGHTHOUSE
14.    Helen Hull ISLANDERS
15.    E.H. Young, MISS MOLE
16.    Dorothy Whipple THE PRIORY
18.    Edith Wharton THE HOUSE OF MIRTH
19.    Willa Cather THE PROFESSOR’S HOUSE
20.  Willa Cather OLD MRS. HARRIS (novella)
21.    Pearl Buck THE GOOD EARTH
22.   Dawn Powell THE GOLDEN SPUR
23.   Nella Larsen QUICKSAND
27.    Daphne du Maurier MY COUSIN RACHEL
29.   Deborah Eisenberg Collected Stories
30.  Katherine Mansfield Collected Stories
31.    Eudora Welty Collected Stories
33.   Dorothy Parker, Complete Stories
34.   Jean Stafford, The Collected Stories
35.   Lydia Davis Collected Stories
36.   Alice Munro. Collected Stories
37.    Katherine Anne Porter THE OLD ORDER: Stories of the South
38.   Kadya Molodowsky, A HOUSE OF SEVEN WINDOWS
39.   Mavis Gallant, HOME TRUTHS
40.  Lorrie Moore BIRDS OF AMERICA
41.    Joan Didion THE WHITE ALBUM
43.   Edna O’Brien THE COUNTRY GIRLS
44.   Enid Bagnold, THE SQUIRE
45.   Jane Bowles TWO SERIOUS LADIES
46.   Rumer Godden IN THE HOUSE OF BREDE
48.  Beryl Markham WEST WITH THE NIGHT
49.   Elizabeth Hardwick, SLEEPLESS NIGHTS
51.    Flannery O’Connor A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND
52.   Flannery O’Connor THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY
53.   Carson McCullers BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFÉ
54.   Carson McCullers THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING
56.   Dorothy Hughes, IN A LONELY PLACE
57.    Laurie Colwin A BIG STORM KNOCKED IT OVER
58.   Jan Morris, CONUNDRUM
60.  Cynthia Ozick THE SHAWL
61.    Stella Gibbons COLD COMFORT FARM
62.   Isabel Colegate THE BLACKMAILER
63.   Lionel Shriver WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
64.   Jane Gardam CRUSOE’S DAUGHTER
65.   Barbara Comyns THE VET’S DAUGHTER
66.   Isak Dinesen, OUT OF AFRICA
67.   Joyce Carol Oates THEM
68.  Doris Lessing, THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK
69.   Nadine Gordimer, BURGER'S DAUGHTER
71.     Margaret Atwood, THE HANDMAID'S TALE
72.    Penelope Fitzgerald, THE BLUE FLOWER
74.   Penelope Lively MOON TIGER
75.    May Sarton, PLANT DREAMING DEEP
76.   Jean Rhys, WIDE SARGASSO SEA
77.    Anne Frank DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL
78.   Simone de Beauvoir THE SECOND SEX
80.  MFK Fisher AS THEY WERE
81.    Iris Murdoch A SEVERED HEAD
82.   Djuana Barnes NIGHTWOOD
83.   Gertrude Stein THE MAKING OF AMERICANS
84.  Marilynne Robinson HOUSEKEEPING
86.  Sylvia Plath, THE BELL JAR
87.   Alice Walker THE COLOR PURPLE
88.  Toni Morrison BELOVED
91.    Margaret Millar THE BEAST IN VIEW
92.   Barbara Pym, A GLASS OF BLESSINGS
93.   Ivy Compton Burnett, THE PRESENT AND THE PAST
94.   Laura Ingalls Wilder LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE
95.   Madeleine L'Engle A WRINKLE IN TIME
96.   Helen Hunt Jackson RAMONA
97.   Frances Hodgson Burnett A LITTLE PRINCESS
98.  Lucy Maud Montgomery ANNE OF GREEN GABLES
99.   Gene Stratton-Porter GIRL OF THE LIMBERLOST
100. Noel Streatfeld, THEATRE SHOES

Best Reads of 2017

I truly read a lot of books in 2017.  More than usual, which is a lot.  It was that kind of year.

As is often the case, I spent much of my time catching up with authors I should have read long ago, when everyone else did-- or authors whom everyone has forgotten (who often, but not always, turn out to be female.)  I'm never current, since I read novels I like at least three times which, for obvious reasons, slows me down.

But it was a great year for books, too.  I found a few new (yes, forgotten) novelists and rediscovered others:

Product DetailsI'd abandoned the novels of Philip Roth long ago.  I'd found his (early) novels not funny in the way I liked, not written in the spare word-stingy style I'd been taught to admire.  And, all that Jewish stuff seemed, well, too Jewish.  Salinger was never Jewish in that way-- and I.B. Singer, whom I loved, was Jewish in a mystical, Eastern European way that seemed refined. Roth, by contrast, seemed vulgar (I guess New Jersey seems vulgar compared to Warsaw.)  Plus, there was Roth's famous misogny, which for years, I took on faith.  In 2017, I found his novels (especially, The Ghost Writer and American Pastoral) to be brimming with content, and interesting content, and filled with energy of a sort I'd been missing in American fiction-- a fighting spirit, if you will.  And his women characters, well, I love them.

Collected Millar: Legendary Novels of Suspense: A Stranger in My Grave; How Like An Angel; The Fiend; Beyond This Point Are Monsters by  Margaret Millar

Hooray, the novels of Margaret Millar are available.  I first found Millar in a Library of America Collection of Female Crime novelists, and that was lucky. She's a gem.  Yes she wrote page-turning mysteries, whose secrets reveal themselves on the last page, but she was a fine, mischievous social satirist; her views of women, and the sexual/marital constraints facing women are prescient.  Like Roth, Millar was prolific-- lots of novels to read, many of which (although not all) are first-rate. Her style is fluid, her characterizations on point, and she should be in the American pantheon of mystery writers along with Chandler, MacDonald and Hammett.  In particular, A Stranger in My Grave knocked me out.

Product DetailsSomeone in a Facebook group turned me on to writings of South African writer, Barbara Trapido.  She's a comedic writer with an arch tone in the Austen tradition.  Brother of the More Famous Jack portraya an intellectual Jewish family, with two sexy sons, without any of the condescension that I (as a Jewish reader) expected-- and despite the formula (brainy girl chooses the wrong son, but ends up with the other,) the novel feels fresh.  My other favorite, Temples of Delight, plays on Mozartean themes to create an enchanting story of love and faith, lost and found.  I can't say all of her novels rise to this level, but so what?

In 2016, I read the feminist novel, Islanders by Helen Hull -- a book that should be required reading for any women's studies course (although my guess is, it isn't.)  Persephone Press also released the novels of Dorothy Whipple, a British writer who lived around the same time as Hull, and who's also a "must read" for anyone concerned about who women were before we had women's studies. Without preaching, Whipple writes of how tough it was for an educated woman to live and work, if her marriage went the way of all flesh.  All very well to say a woman could be (or ought to be) independent -- but Whipple's account (in The Priory) of the dreary, low-paid work available to formerly pampered housewives is an eye-opener.  And to her credit, Whipple allows her heroine to realize that what she labels suffering (for example, the stuffy room) is ordinary life for working-class women.

Product DetailsI adored the books of James Hilton as a teen.  I almost didn't return to them for fear I'd find them kitsch. Luckily, I did, and upon rereading, they felt deeper, stronger, and even more poetic.   Lost Horizon conveys, with an uncanny empathy, the hopelessness of those who returned from the Great War; and with my knowledge of the trenches, the story was far more moving than I expected.  The hero's early promise, his disappointing career, his reclusiveness, his spiritual search-- nothing maudlin about it, and it all felt modern. As for Random Harvest, well, few romances have the emotional resonance of Hilton's, tinged as it is with the sadness of war.
What a terrific writer he is, and how is it he's never mentioned?

Rediscovering Female Authors: Margaret Millar

How Like an Angel by [Millar, Margaret]I am a huge fan of the mystery/noir author, Ross MacDonald whose real name was Kenneth Millar.  In case you did not know, he had a wife.

Her name was Margaret Millar.

In their lifetimes, Margaret Millar was as famous as her husband, and of the two, better-paid.  Two of her novels were adopted by Alfred Hitchcock for his TV series (The Beast In View, Rose's Last Summer) and another, The Iron Gates, was optioned by Warner Bros.   The Beast in View won the Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 1956. She was elected "Woman of the Year" by the Los Angeles Times in 1965.   In 1983, she was awarded the Grand Master Award by Mystery Writers of America.  She published over mysteries over a productive career; and yet, Millar's star faded while her husband became part of the crime pantheon (i.e., Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald.)

Until the Library of America published its groundbreaking Women Crime Writers, I had not heard of Margaret Millar.  How is that possible?

Beast in View by [Millar, Margaret]It strikes me as bizarre that Margaret Millar isn't better known.  I love Ross MacDonald's baroque plots, and nothing can diminish my enthusiasm for his work. Having said that, Margaret Millar is a more natural writer: more skilled at subtle characterization and dialogue than MacDonald, more fluid in her prose.  Her novels are alive with social satire, and a view of American marriage and "gender relations" hard to find in American fiction-- and harder still in the landscape of mystery novels.  As for plotting, no one is tighter.

Millar's heroines, in particular, are vivid-- and their fragile, unhappy marriages, more so.  In The Fiend, for example, a woman's philandering husband has divorced her, but continues to "haunt" her life, while another woman pretends her all-American guy isn't fooling around with the rich, sexy next-door neighbor (whose marriage has different flaws.) In How Like An Angel,  a clever, loyal wife tries to bolster an incompetent spouse. Beast in View deals with sexual repression in a completely fresh, frightening way as a young woman runs literally from herself.  Each novel  has its own flavor, its own distinctive mystery.

Unlike  most crime writers, Millar did not create a trademark detective. Her novels have wildly different settings (one involves a religious cult) and so are less "identifiable" (in say, the way Chandler's L.A. mysteries are.)  One reason, perhaps, she was forgotten.  Or, it could be, as the astute Terry Teachout has written, that Millar's  success kept in her hardcover, and away from the emerging pulp fiction paperback world (in which reprints were cheap.)  Whatever the reason, her obscurity is undeserved. She is a terrific writer, among the best in American crime fiction.

Happily, times change. Most of Margaret Millar novels are now available through Soho Syndicate in Kindle editions-- read them, and see for yourself.   

On Reading Dorothy Sayers in the Age of Opinion

Image result for lord peter wimseyIt grates on me, this wearying Age of Opinion.  On any subject -- you name it-- we must take a stand. Books?  Fracking?  Snowden?  Everyone's got an opinion.

I marvel at all these opinions. It is the certainty that amazes me.  My poor little opinion is slippery, it changes with the next Op Ed piece. I'm forever changing my mind, swinging from one point of view to the next.  Then, sometimes, I fret that I don't know what I'm talking about. (What is fracking, anyway?) Or I don't think my opinion matters much-- a sobering realization, but true.

Image result for dorothy sayersWhich doesn't mean that I slide through life effortlessly.  Like everyone else, I read things that grate on me.  I find characters in novels expressing terrible ideas. After all, fiction is a mirror, and human beings are a mixed bag.  People hold all sorts of contradictory opinions, and never bother to line them up-- ideas are flimsy things compared to emotions, they fall apart easily.

Which brings me to the case of Dorothy Sayers, born in a different era. I've been re-reading her mysteries, and yes, her upper-class Brits seem to have a dim view of Jews.  My guess is many (or perhaps most) upper-class Brits did.  I wish they didn't, but history suggests they did. I feel these snide sidecracks are a weakness of Sayers, but are they a fatal flaw?

I know. I'm supposed to have a violently strong opinion about this:  I am Jewish, and naturally, I hate stereotypes about Jews. I see that many readers on the website Goodreads are appalled by Sayers, some to the point of closing the book on her altogether. I am not unsympathetic to them -- but then I think, characters aren't "real," they're invented. Should I blame an imaginary Lord Peter for saying things that I wouldn't say? And then the mirror aspect: I cannot blame Sayers for allowing her characters to voice what they surely would have.

Besides, these aren't mysteries about Jews, nor do they have Jewish villains.  The snobbish throwaway comments are incidental to the plot. Do they mar my enjoyment?  Yes, somewhat-- I want Lord Peter to be above such pettiness, because he is admirable in many other ways.  Do they spoil the mystery or the romance or the wit?  Not really.

As for my opinion of Sayers's literary merit, well, I don't have one yet.  All I can say is I'm thinking about it.

Interview with Stephanie Gangi, Author of THE NEXT

In honor of the paperback release of THE NEXT, one of Library Journal's Best Books of 2016, I am posting our earlier interview with Stephanie Gangi. You can find her lovely personal essay on this website.
First, a few words about her:  Stephanie Gangi lives, writes and goes to her day job in New York City. She is a poet, a fiction writer, and at work on personal essays and her second novel.
SARETT:  It’s hard to believe this is your first novel-- the writing’s so vivid.  Had you written other novels before THE NEXT?
Gangi: Well, thank you, but No! I have made a dozen starts over the years, crates full of beginnings. I always knew I was a writer, but I spent much too long considering it my ‘hobby’. Crazy!
SARETT:  Which came first for you -- the story or the character of Joanna?
Gangi: Joanna came first. I wanted to write about a complicated, complex woman, an angry woman who can not reconcile the disappointments that life delivers, and is determined to finally unleash her rage. I myself am not terribly angry (until the election, of course), or if I am, I manage to redirect or channel that anger, as many women have been trained to do. I wanted to to just let my Joanna rant against heartbreak, aging, sickness, invisibility, inevitability.

SARETT:  The novel is about after-life, of a sort.  Do you believe that we do experience “life” after death?  That we have souls, for example?  
Gangi: I actually don’t believe we experience life after death, but I must say, as I get older and wiser and more reflective, it’s become harder for me to accept that all the energy we’ve generated – all the love – just dissipates. I guess I think – hope – there could be some sort of cosmic consciousness, to where all our best energies – our souls – are drawn when we leave this plane of existence. A giant magnet, pulling the best part of each of us into a big love cloud.
SARETT:  Many writers love ghost stories- and so do I! I’m a huge fan of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories.   Were you a fan of ghost stories before writing THE NEXT?  
Gangi: Honest answer is no, although Wharton is the exception. I thought the ghost concept was a strong metaphor, though, and the more I wrote into it, the more comfortable I became with it. Women of a certain age made invisible by society, existing outside reality when you are sick, technology harboring the ghosts of our many selves in the machines. And I loved the idea of a contemporary ghost in NYC, mingling with all the other ghosts, playing with how she would operate, how she would use her invisibility to take what she wants. Or thinks she wants!

SARETT:  Your angry heroine did bring to mind the great Fay Weldon.  Was she an influence in your writing?  Any other style muses?
Gangi: Thank you for that! There’s a deep morality in her work, and a worldview that is tough and authentic and feminist. On top of that, she’s a satirist and funny, which is so hard to do. I’ve heard from readers that they’ve laughed out loud reading The Next, so if I’ve come close to Weldon stylistically, I’m thrilled.
As far as ‘style muses,’ I can only respond as a reader. I’ve been drawn to an ironical, cynical voice that thinly veils blinding passion and despair! I’m thinking of Heller, Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, DeLillo, and an heir of theirs, the great Anthony Mara. Combine all that with my love of commercial fiction (Gone Girl comes to mind), and I’d say my “style” lies therein. I aspire, anyway.

SARETT: Joanna, your ghost heroine, is hell-bent on revenge-- and yet the object of her affections is a second rate guy.  To me, that felt like a feminist statement (funny, but biting) about how much time women waste on unworthy men -- was that your intent?
Gangi: I’m not sure I was successful with the Ned character if he comes across as ONLY unworthy. I hoped to show that Ned is driven by his own demons – alcoholic mother, closeted dad, a deep-down romantic streak he tamps down for his ambition. It’s true that ultimately, he is a guy -- non-communicative, selfish, a survivor at all costs. Ned is aware of what he has lost and how he himself is responsible. I hoped he was redeemed somewhat by his awareness?  
And yes, it was my intent to “use” Ned as a feminist’s foil … but also to show that Joanna was complicit. After all, she was pursuing vanity by getting involved with a younger guy, and on a deeper level – his desire helped her feel healthy. Stay alive. Helped her talk herself into believing their love could heal her.
I will say that the verdict is split. Half of my readers hate him, the other half are sympathetic to him.
SARETT:  Most novels have a mix of real and invented details?  What’s the mix in THE NEXT?
Gangi: Maybe, 60/40? The outline is close: I’ve had breast cancer. I have a big dog. I live in Manhattan. My own parents died suddenly. I’ve been divorced. I have daughters. But, I have also had great men in my life. Sure, I’ve had disappointments, but I’ve not experienced the level of betrayal that Joanna does! Unlike Joanna, I’m a blessings-counter. Unlike Joanna, I have no doubt where love lies – I have two wonderful daughters, family and friends that support me and care for me, a world of love I could never neglect to tend to my fury. Unlike Joanna I try and take a hard look at my own part in life’s disappointments. What choices did I make that I don’t want to repeat? She doesn’t wake up to that until it’s too late.

SARETT:  Lots of writing rules out there.  Is there any writing rule that you secretly enjoy breaking?    
Gangi: Yes! I did unleash an angry woman. I knew that would be controversialm and I was worried it would render The Next un-commercial. But the team at St. Martin’s embraced the book from the beginning, never once suggesting I tone Joanna down. Also, I alternated first and third person perspectives. I’ve heard from one illustrious editor that it’s almost impossible to do well, so I’m glad I stuck with the choice. I didn’t want a full-on rant to overtake the story. I needed to head-hop between characters, to show the impact Joanna’s death has on them. Grief is a complicated process – we don’t turn into saints when someone we love dies. We who are left behind remain our messy selves, and I wanted to show that through Jo’s daughters, Ned and even Tom, the dog.

SARETT:  Humor is a tough game-- and there’s that saying death is easy, comedy is hard.  How do you keep it funny?
Gangi: I think I am funny in real life. I can be irreverant and quick, maybe a little bawdy at times. I think life is funny, and people are funny, and even illness is kind of ridiculous. I think women are very very funny, and thankfully, recently, less afraid to reveal it lest men find it unattractive. I tried to channel all that, and then make it less specific to me, more universal. I’m glad you think I’ve succeeded! I wanted The Next to be funny and tragic. Like life.

SARETT:  My blog readers are always looking for new books.  Are there new fiction books that you’d recommend?    
Gangi: These are my most recent reads:
Bad Marie by Marcy Demansky
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolsoy
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (nonfiction)
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (nonfiction)
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Poems)

Find her:
Twitter: @gangi_land
Instagram: stephaniegangi

Buy the paperback at Amazon and if you enjoyed The Next, please leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. They are so important for debut authors.

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