Sur-Reality and the Short Story

I’ve always liked the phrase “criminally underrated” as it implies, absurdly and poetically, that the failure to accord a person their proper credit should be punishable by law. The phrase came to mind when considering Valerie Trueblood, not least because her latest collection of fiction is called Criminals. (Its subtitle is Love Stories.) A long-time editor for The American Poetry Review and co-trustee of the poet Denise Levertov’s literary estate (the two were close friends), Trueblood did not publish her first book until she was 60, although she’d been writing for decades. That debut, Seven Loves, was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award in 2006. A subsequent collection, Search Party, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2013. Despite these accolades, Trueblood remains largely unknown in Seattle, where she’s lived for more than 40 years. Criminals, praised in The New York Times as “an exercise in literary restraint and extreme empathy,”is filled with lapidary sentences and love-stricken people. It comes out this month via Counterpoint Press.

You’ve been writing, studying and theorizing the short story for years. In “What’s the Story? Aspects of the Form,” a 2001 essay for The American Poetry Review, you use an epigraph from Louise Bogan that reads, “I believe in the short story…To hell with the novel.” What argument do you make there?
I started with what [short stories] aren’t: fledgling novels. Just as the lyric poem isn’t an epic or even in the same universe with one, the short story isn’t in the universe of Moby-Dick. It’s an art form and has its own space which it occupies to every corner.

I’m not sure why people are wary of it, especially the longer ones, when we’ll grab a 600-page novel. It may be because the short story is very often about what went wrong. I know Moby-Dick deals with what went pretty badly wrong, but the short story doesn’t explain or justify or, most importantly, resolve such things. It can easily preoccupy itself with something that happened off-stage, like a diving board shaking after the dive. And it can end before or after you expect it to.

In a recent essay for The New York Review of Books, Charles Baxter wrote that short stories “thrive on impulsive action that comes out of nowhere, that is unpremeditated, unplanned and unconsidered and is therefore inexplicable.” Do you agree?
Charles Baxter should know. His stories are wonderful. He says that hell is “story-friendly.” One of his characters says, “I don’t know any normal Americans.” That must be Baxter’s feeling, as he knows Americans down to the bone. But he is kind. He’s also a poet, and that brings me to the short story’s closer resemblance to the poem than to the novel. It approaches the irrationality, the sur-rationality, of the poem. 

Like a poem, it does love the sudden. It does relish those moments when one life collides with another or an impulse or accident drives a character into the kind of wild freedom that we usually forbid ourselves. The short story stands up for those moments. Many contemporary novels find us responsible for whatever wreckage occurs in our lives, or they promise that a long-ago secret will be found out and aha! that will be what caused it all. But the story is after something else. It’s less interested in character than in what befalls us. 

We don’t have a hand in a lot of that, and some of it is terrible. But the great stories—terrible as, say, Paul Bowles or Denis Johnson might make the events in them—aren’t an awful bath in woe. They somehow talk back to the pain of life. As the great short-story writer Joy Williams said, particularly the horrible parts must be told beautifully.

In Criminals, the characters are not, by and large, hardened criminals, but they’re prone to destructive, impulsive behavior. What draws you these kinds of unsympathetic characters?
Well, “Criminals” is the title story, and the others fell roughly into a group in which someone loved outside the sanctions, or in which love was unsought or seized or was a remedy-in-progress for the hatreds we have around us, such as war. I wouldn’t say these people are destructive, or I hope not. I do have sympathy for them! To me, being told that love stories are passé or belong on the romance shelves, as we have seen in famous essays like “The End of the Novel of Love” [by Vivian Gornick] is frightening. Stories of love at its extremes of daring or mistake or loyalty constitute much of world literature, and, in its ordinary, daily power over us, most of human experience.

Do you see your work as reclaiming the love story for serious literature?
No! But yes—if love were actually lost to us as a serious topic, I’d get out against serious writers, whoever they are, with a picket sign. Many people are writing stories of love, whether they want the label or not. How strange that it’s even a label. It’s like the label “woman writer.” [Karl Ove] Knausgaard just wrote 3,000 pages in which love recurs unstoppably no matter how the mess piles up around it. When a man writes of domestic life, he’s said to be writing of society. Think of Trollope. The New Yorker called his largely domestic novels “the politics of existence.” I love that. 

Valerie Trueblood reads and talks with another writer of short stories, Ann Pancake, on Jan. 26 at Elliott Bay Book Company.