Challenge Question

If you were forced to name your three favorite English-language short-story writers of the twentieth c., who would they be? What would be your criteria? It’s an unfair question, given the embarrassment of riches. For me — with all due apologies to James Joyce, Deborah Eisenberg, John Cheever, John Updike, William Faulkner, Lydia Davis, J.G. Ballard, Mary Gaitskill, F. Scott Fitzgerald and so many more I know I’m forgetting — I’ll answer the second question first. My criterion was simple: who changed the way I look at the world and at literature as its clouded mirror?

My answer is 1) Flannery O’Connor, for writing the most technically perfect and engaging stories of anyone I’ve read; 2) Raymond Carver, for stripping language to its crumbling bones and building a cathedral (see what I did there?) to literature as a force that can transcend one’s personal demons and reveal the human heart in its most savage simplicity; and 3) Donald Barthelmé, for reminding me as a suicidal 24-year old of the reason I took the B Line forty-five minutes to take a writing class once a week, and for transforming my notion of what writing and imagination were capable. When I despair (frequently) of my ability to write something that matters to someone, it’s those three I think of first.

Any of the mentioned writers could be in that top three; it’s just that O’Connor, Carver and Barthelmé found me when I unknowingly needed them. I’m sure later on or tomorrow, I’ll comb through my haphazardly organized (but expansive and ever-expanding) library and find twenty more writers in an instant in every language, each writer worthy of a mention and quality time in a wing chair with mint tea. That’s how I roll, at least. Narrowing it down to one language and one century proved an impossible task anyway. Yet, I believe it’s true that everyone whose only hope is to craft webs of meaning to someone out of words has a few forebears who, unwittingly or not, pushed them along that path.

~ by Benji on 11 March 2015.

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