The Book Club

Are You Having a Change of Heart?

Dear Judith,

Before I reply to your entry, I have to get something off my chest. I glanced at Slate yesterday and noticed that our dialogue was running under the rubric “Is Borges boring?” Isn’t that a little overcooked? I feel like a Clinton defender dragged onto Hardball with Chris Matthews. (“So, Sarah Kerr, if the trend continues to indicate that Borges is boring, what can you possibly do to turn it around? Are you concerned about the growing perception that you’re boring, too?”)

Your point about Borges’ morality is well taken. I’m happy to talk about Borges’ morals; this is legitimate and complex ground for exploration. I agree that Borges is limited, that he has nothing to say about many important aspects of life (a charge which applies to any number of great eccentrics); I’ll even grant you the occasional repulsiveness. But I can’t take so seriously the suggestion that he is less than brilliant and original.

Let’s talk more about terms. In Slate’s table of contents, I see that our dialogue is described as intellect v. sympathy (as if you could choose one over the other!) To my mind, what we’re really talking about is different degrees of imagination. On Monday, you referred to Frank O’Connor’s notion that the novel is about community, while the short story is about outcasts. You invoked this notion to back up your idea that the short story does things the novel can’t. But somewhere, stashed away in a box (I’ve just moved and can’t find it), I have a Paris Review interview with O’Connor in which he admits to deep disappointment at his own inability to write a novel, which he considered a far superior form. If I remember correctly, he said that it’s hard enough to write his kind of story. You have to observe well, possess fine rhythmic instincts, write lovely sentences. But to write a good novel these skills aren’t enough: You have to dream up a kind of architecture, a unique and convincing mental diagram of the world. This is a much harder thing to do, and O’Connor regretted that he couldn’t pull it off.

As a question of taste, I see why you might not have the time of your life revisiting Borges. But clearly, he came up with a new and influential diagram. That’s why his stories are so impossible to categorize: They’re a mix of tongue-in-cheek with philosophical speculation with the implied architecture of a long novel, all squeezed into a couple thousand words. As for Alice Munro, I always get the feeling that she’s a solid professional writer of the first kind of short story, the kind O’Connor kicked himself for not transcending. She’s a model craftsperson. But I wonder, if you or I locked ourselves away and buckled down, whether we couldn’t turn out a mediocre Munro story, a B-/C+. With time and practice, I’m pretty sure our grades would rise.

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical. I want to write a story, but about what I’m not sure. Then one day my interest is sparked by a woman sitting across the aisle on a Queens-bound F train. She’s about 37, pretty but puffy-faced; I notice that she’s chewed up the cuticle on her left index finger and that acne has thickened her skin. Sitting next to her is a little girl, obviously her daughter. Their hold on each other’s hand is noticeably tight. I’m guessing that the mother loves the girl but that her love twists around before it comes out–gets diverted into a neurotic suspicion of strangers.

OK, I’ve got my character. Now I go home and get to work, looking for (as you put it the other day, praising Munro’s forte) “the moment that rips through the characters’ carefully assembled lives and alters them in slight but utterly definitive ways.” Maybe my train lady fantasizes about the Pakistani who is teaching her Quark at night school. Maybe last night she saw a tragic play and was horrified at her resemblance to the heroine who gets strangled at the end. Maybe in the past she always cooked ziti with meatballs, but now she wants to better herself and has begun to cook with costly fresh herbs, which irritates her husband and points to a growing gap in their aspirations. Maybe she feels trapped and has begun to shoplift potpourri.

You see what I’m getting at. It’s not so hard to outline a lonely woman and fill in telling, funny-sad details. It’s as much of a game as anything in Borges, and an easier game at that. In your closing point today, you seem to agree with me that this kind of story–the story of the somewhat-life-altering moment–also suffers badly from competition with movies and television. I agree with myself, too. In Munro’s new book, the small-town boys who stumble across the dead body in “The Love of a Good Woman” remind me of Stand By Me and The River Wild. And how about “The Children Stay,” in which a bored wife has an affair with an artsy new man in town and prepares to run off with him, but decides not to for the love of the children? I’m shocked to have to report shades of The Bridges of Madison County, which was published as a novel but was in essence a screenplay-in-waiting.

The fact that we agree here suggests that you’ve undergone a slight change of heart since earlier in the week, when you argued that Munro opens up “vast tracts of hitherto uncomprehended humanity.” Is this the case?