Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Peter Ho Davies & Fiction's Geneology

What is it with Chicago weather? Yesterday it was above 70F, as if summer had crept by spring and was ready to spread out along Sheridan for a while. Then last night and early this morning we had a spectacular twilight thunderstorm, which kept threatening to leap through the bedroom window, though it did cool things off, and by the time I stepped out of my office at 3 pm to grab a quick lunch, it was barely 40F, as if fall were stumbling back into winter's arms! It was so cold that my hands froze as I walked to downtown Evanston, eating my apple and trying to figure out, for the umpteenth thousand time how Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, or his predecessors, the native peoples, had lasted for more than a week during the winter and "spring" months on the shore of Lake Michigan. (When a certain excellent writer's book on the city's Black founder appears, I guess I'll find out.) I finally ducked into Barnes & Noble, which was nearby, and as usual did not find any of the books I was looking for (though I almost bought a second copy of Thomas Sayers Ellis's new collection The Maverick Room but said I'd let someone else happen upon it and leave with a book they wouldn't want to put down for a while), so I purchased a fiction collection I'll be teaching next fall and then headed next door for some tacos before returning to the university.
This afternoon at 4, I went to hear a lecture by Peter Ho Davies, one of the most acclaimed younger British novelists and a professor at the University of Michigan. He is serving as the distinguished visiting writer at the university's Center for the Writing Arts, and gave a strong reading several weeks ago. Today, Peter delivered a lively, brief talk on his idiosyncratic geneology of the short story. Though I admit to a wandering mind because of residual sleepiness (that thunderstorm last night and this morning), and not because of any longueurs or deficiencies in Peter's talk, here's my summary: he decided to teach a course at Michigan on the history of the short story because it interested him, naturally, as a fiction writer. He found little critical work on the short story (the English novel has received considerable treatment by Watt and others, and I have come across some articles in the media of late with other kinds of geneologies of the short story, but in general they're not so common). So he taught the course and the talk, like a precipitate, resulted.

This led to his major point, which was, paraphrasing Fyodor Dostoevsky, that contemporary short story writers (and not the Russian short fiction tradition) emerged from Nikolai Gogol's "Overcoat." In other words, that story, which appeared in the 1840s, has served as the foundation, in Davies' view, for the two major strands of contemporary short fiction, as it was both a realist and fantastic story written into one.

In the realist sense, it contained historical and political issues in a manner he described as submergence, and he went on to talk about how realist short fiction provided a means for addressing the concerns of all kinds of submerged groups, in terms of class, race, religion, sexuality, immigration, and so on. Yet a parallel aspect of "The Overcoat" was its incorporation of fabulist elements, as in Gogol's subsequent "The Nose," thus begetting an alternative tradition from Franz Kafka through Jorge Luis Borges to George Saunders. Although Davies mentioned Poe's influence as well, Gogol he argued took precedence over Poe, who Davies saw more as the originator of the detective story, though I would also point to horror fiction and Gothic strains in American realism as Poe's direct prodigy.

This notion of the short story as an initial, exploratory, politically infused form in which to insert particular, submerged minoritarian concerns that were not aspects of the pre-existing nonfiction or fictional discourse was fascinating, though I don't think it always holds--what about African-American literature, for example, where the earliest fictional works, from what we can tell, were novels, the longer prose fictional form that Davies rightly suggested existed in a symbiotic relationship with short fiction? Although there were some early short stories written by African Americans, I believe the prose tradition primarily includes sermons, the slave narratives and autobiographies, and, beginning in the era of Gogol and Poe, a few novels. Could chronology, and the subsequent models be the issue here? (Or am I totally spinning his argument into something else?)

Another interesting detail was his discussion of the conte, a French form perfected by Turgenev, which tended to be brief and open-ended. (A colleague, in the question and answer session, pointed out that Russians had a culturally specific term for the long, open-ended fiction of Chekhov: the povest [повесть]*.) He concluded by proposing that although the "hysterical realism," to use critic James Wood's term, of such writers as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith was in vogue, and served as the template for what might be called (or derided, depending upon your orientation) as the "workshop story," with its techniques of avoidance and foreberance (formal perfection, easy irony, etc.), perhaps given the bizarre and absurd political conditions we were living in, more fantastical fiction might be appropriate. (I have been thinking along the same lines since around 2001.)

Davies' argument was tidy, provocative and persuasive, and got me to thinking about a lot of things, including where many writers I admire might fit into his bifurcated system. Some of them just wouldn't fit at all. And this results from the fact that not only is the model too simple (though useful), but I think he left out a number of short-fictional predecessors to the short story tradition, including oral myths and folk tales, fables, various kinds of personal accounts, histories, case studies, and so on. I imagine when he publishes the talk at some point he'll have worked through some of these, or other points. A student asked about Washington Irving, who provides a more direct line in the American tradition, but Davies suggested that no one reads Irving any more (hey, I did a few years ago), another way of saying, I think, that that link was lost, though I'm not so sure. I actually cannot remember any of the other questions, because I was starting to slump in my chair. Then after speaking to some colleagues and students I headed out to my car, and that cold air rushing off the lake woke me right up.

It's good for something, I guess.
*I tried to find this word online, but it appears to have the broader meaning of "legend, tale, novella/novelette," etc. If anyone has any clues about the definition in relation to Chekhov, I'd greatly appreciate them.


  1. As a T.A. in the English department at NYU I feel you're pain! I love this blog!!! I'll be back!

  2. Hey Frank, thanks for posting. I went to NYU back in the day! If you see Phil Harper and Jose Munoz give them my love!