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Jack Matthews: Great American Short Story Writer

2010-Nov Update. Now Jack Matthews has his own website on ghostlypopulations.com.

2010-Feb Update. See also this Introduction to Jack Matthews and a 5 part interview I conducted with Jack Matthews on Teleread.org

I’ll say something more substantial later on, but in the last two weeks I’ve been reading nothing but stories by Jack Matthews. Matthews is an Ohio author who has  published about 15 or so books. He published novels in the 60s and 70s, and then published several story collections in the 1980s.  They are just knocking my socks off!

I’m on my third story collection (Crazy Women) which tell a variety of stories about women who lose it. You never are quite sure how they are going to go crazy, just that something is going to set them off. And every time the story ends, I am ready to be jolted. image

Here’s a fantastic audio interview on Wired for Books with Jack Matthews. Another special treat is Matthews reading the intriguing tale, Girl at the Window from Dubious Persuasions.  (The girl at the Window story is Real Audio, so suffer through it; it’s worth it).

Now here are 2 utterly amazing facts about Jack Matthews:

  1. Even though his books have been reviewed on Time, New York Times and other distinguished places, and even though his books have gotten blurbs from James Dickey, Eudora Welty, Anthony Burgess and Tim O’Brien,  in fact none of his out-of-print books on Amazon.com have customer reviews. Not one.
  2. Almost all his books are available for next to nothing from Half.com or Amazon. You could buy every single major work of Jack Matthews for under $50 (paying only shipping and handling to half.com.  (Tip: buy as many as you can from a single Half.com seller such as betterworldbooks).

I have three story collections left (and the quality so far has remained constantly high). The stories were written at the height of his career, so I expect the novels won’t compare; still, it will be nice to get back to them. Also, in the 80s and 90s he dabbled in several things (plays and books about book collecting), so he has a lot of things to read. The great thing is knowing that so many books remain to be read.

Matthews is good at writing about odd ordinary  characters and depicting life in small town  America. I’m reminded of the terseness of Raymond Carver, but the artistry is far too apparent in Matthews to be minimalist.  I see  a lot of Nathanial Hawthorne in Matthew’s stories  too. The stories  are easy to read and more about philosophical predicaments than actual people.  My knowledge of American short story writers is embarrassing. Let me see, there’s Updike, Oates, Fitzgerald, Jumpha Lampiri, Steve Dixon, Steve Millhauser,  Flannery O’Connor, Mavis Gallent, Mary Robison,  Lydia Davis, Cynthia Ozick,  Russell Banks, Joy Williams,  Ann  Beattie, TC Boyle,  Sandra Cisneros, Margaret Atwood,  Alice Munroe, Stuart  Dybek who else?  Here’s a chronological list of short stories in American literature. Matthews manages to stay under the radar because his stories don’t  tackle bold themes (like  Ozick or O’Connor), they don’t contain verbal pyrotechnics (Millhauser, Updike) or melodrama (Carver);  they are not hilariously funny (Dixon, Boyle,  Robison) or ethnic (Ozick, Cisneros).    On the other hand, it’s easy to smell a Jack Matthews story from a mile away. Understated, fixated on memory and ambiguity, deeply cerebral, yet always accessible.

Matthews doesn’t throw out a lot of extraneous dialogue or humor or color. They are just odd stories. They are  easy to read (and that is crucial), and yet each stories has  layers and complexity if you go looking. From a Crazy Woman story called Marriage of Solipsists, here’s a gem of a sentence:

But Ethel and he, Greg, were now home clear, having raised their children for better or worse (mostly mediocre), and having shepherded them into their own lives as best they could (not very damned well), they could now share their solipsisms together, relieved periodically by parties and trips and medical examinations and naps of lunar desolation.

Naps of lunar desolation!

(Seriously, that is just a random sentence that tickled me).

Short stories writing is a lost and underappreciated art  form. One problem is that individual stories are hard to remember and distinguish from one another. Also, critics find them hard to talk about; they are more comfortable talking about expansive and coherent characters that undergo substantial character development over the course of a novel.  A Kafka or Borges story is easy to single out because they are so philosophical; a Matthews  story is  also philosophical, but only implicitly; he shows the real life dilemmas of real people,  not just the allegorical kind of a Kafka story.  We feel for these people’s plights. The author’s job (according to Matthews) is simply to  describes what happens to them (with a hint of commentary and irony at the end). As I read, I enjoy  the gravitational pull of the plot without knowing where I’ll be ending up. These are slow stories…and once in a while I get lost (but not often). I was going to say that each story ends in a bang, but that is not exactly true; it ends with a discovery that gradually  dawns on you. Part of being a good writer is writing an ending that flows logically from the rest of the story.  You can always tell the second rate story writer (or even the second rate story of a first rate author)  when you conclude,  “That ending was  tacked  on; this story didn’t earn the ending which the writer gave it.”

But with a Matthews story, it’s not a matter of whether the story was entitled to have this ending. It’s a matter of trying to interpret a secret or trying to make sense of why a person has acted a certain way. One “literary” story in Dubious Persuasions concerns a professor who wants to edit a poetry collection of a former student who killed himself. The professor thought the student’s poem were brilliant and needed to persuade the mother to give him (and the publisher) permission to publish them. But the mother refuses. Why?

This short story is about the professor’s lack of understanding (and even furor) at the mother’s refusal. But there is a revelation—and a pretty amazing one (I’m not telling). The revelation raises all kinds of questions…about the motives of the people involved, about the importance of literature, about living in truth and the origin of literary talent.  This story is atypical (and perhaps too much about academia), but it reveals how a Matthews story works and how ordinary events can point to extraordinary questions.

Finally, I wish to make a political point. Many regional writers in America are doing amazing things; does anybody hear about these artists?  Maybe in the Internet era the “regional writer” seems like a quaint rustic notion, but before the Internet,  geography definitely affected the world of a short story.  There was a California story, a Louisiana story, a Massachusetts story, a Texas story.  I don’t want to say a Jack Matthews story is uniquely Ohio-an, but it’s definitely different  from what turns up in Massachussetts or New York.  Not as cosmopolitan yet just as learned; not as melodramatic yet just as eventful; not as social, yet capable of sketching  complex relationships.  I confess to being fascinated by some  stories simply because they are about unfamiliar regions and landscapes.

Jack Matthews is still alive (and writing in obscurity, presumably). But his stories have a classical and conventional feel to them. But what about  the contemporary story? To be honest, I have no idea what is happening with the short story in the  21st century. (I am too busy writing my own to keep up). But here are several paths I can see the American short story headed towards:

  • Cyberpunk short story –the disconnected, solipsistic insomniac cosmopolitan hypertext story (a la  Cory Doctorow,  David Foster Wallace RIP) incorporating  futuristic and elliptical communication methods and gadgets. (See Escapepod podcast for examples).
  • This American Life/David Sedaris/NPR  stories — light-hearted and satirical oral personal stories that don’t try to be deep or psychological but are tightly constrained within a time-frame.  Maybe it sounds as if I’m putting this genre down, but really, I’m not.   (See the Moth podcast for an example of what I mean).  These stories are not self-consciously literary but contain literary touches which even  an 8 year old could appreciate.
  • Postmodern/Fan fiction — short stories that use characters from TV shows or films.  These stories were always being written, but the difference now is that audiences already have a significant personal stake in having the TV series outlast the cancellation by the TV network. Short stories are a way to resurrect these character and keep Buffy or  Captain Kirk alive and  having new adventures. I fully expect a respectable number of fan fiction stories to outlast the commercial venture that inspired them.
  • Prose poems/experimental fiction – I really don’t see this form as having influence today (although as recently as the 1980s, I think it still did).  However, this kind of stuff will always be written; these short stories will be more like Joycean prose monologues than classical stories; the voice will be furious and frenetic, but the problem is that people have less patience for  forms heavy on style and voice.   Keep in mind that these experimental forms could work very well in a listenable podcast format  (Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, Steve Dixon, who else?)
  • Sex and the City/chicklit stuff. Actually I like Candace Bushnell’s book on a superficial level; it kept me reading at least.  These  mildly titillating  stories tell superficial stories of love and sex.  If this story gets too deep, it feels heavy and overly complicated.  These kinds of collections should feel insubstantial (like something you can finish in 3 hours).
  • Minimalist literary fiction. By this, I mean the refined New Yorker story.  Tightly drawn characters, simple language ( lots of dialogue), unconventional situations about ordinary people who are not particularly introspective.  In this catchall category I include many of the masters: Millhauser, Oates, Matthews, Robison,  Barthelme . These four  are complex writers with accessible prose and lots of imagery and contrived details. Millhauser uses magic and supernatural to achieve a German Marchen feel; Oates stresses domestic bliss/tragedy with a hint of horror, Jack Matthews shows the philosophical predicaments that real people find themselves in.  Robison/Barthelme aim for humor and the slightly scandalous and satirical.  These are serious and prize-winning stories; but despite the fact that the New Yorker still publishes these stories, most people (even literary people)  don’t have   time or patience to delve into them regularly.
  • nanofiction (miniature ebook forms). You may not be aware that “cell phone novels” have been taking off in Japan and China. That is the future.  It is possible to do complex and interesting narratives using a cell phone; you just have to think of how to compartmentalize individual plot elements  into bite-sized pieces (See Kundera novels or Penelope Fitzgerald’s Blue Flower for examples).  These stories are wait-for-the-bus stories or stories you can pick up at a random moment and easily resume where you left off. Adrian Graham’s The Revelation and a 100 other stories is a good example. (See note below about twitter and nanofiction).
  • Blog stories/chronological memoirs with a fictional twist. The easy availability  of blog software makes it tempting to turn a series of journal entries into a soap opera or a inner monologue of a  character.  Events described don’t have to be real, or the blog can purport to be real but leave the reader guessing. The appeal of this form is how it can dupe readers into believing the description of events.  Erotica fiction works well in this context. Usually a young woman starts a blog about her fictional sex life, and she attracts a following of horny men (and perhaps jealous women). The story continues in the comment section with flirtatious remarks  flying about  everywhere.  The problem with this format:   1)blog software always starts with most recent posts first; it’s hard to invent a plot where the last post should be read first.  2)finishing the blog/story removes the incentive to interact in real time.  The author must maintain the blog in order to maintain and grow an audience. Few projects are worthy of such single-minded attention.
  • Picture-driven stories/comics (see note 2 below).

Minimalist literary fiction (which admittedly is a giant  amorphous  category)  still holds a lot of promise; let’s not write it off yet.  Perhaps  the typical  New Yorker story is  designed to  appeal to the educated affluent liberal subscriber, but at least it aims for profundity and layers of meaning.  But very few people seek out the intellectual stimulation of a New Yorker story  or have the time to dedicate to it.  People  grow impatient with these stories. Why must I think so much? Why must I concentrate so much on nuance and language?

So much of our appreciation of a short story revolves around the  magazine that publishes them.  Sometimes a magazine can give rise to a new aesthetic.  Escapepod is doing remarkable things with sci fi stories; they have promoted a whole new aesthetic for stories (one that fuses technology with questions about self and cultural identity and political control). The New Yorker is…well the New Yorker.  Lately I’ve become enamored of Brevity (a creative nonfiction site edited by Dinty Moore) I probably should praise the university literary magazines for their support of the short story (while at the same time admitting that I rarely  have time to follow them) .  Their end product is usually high quality, but the publication process is slow and inefficient and sometimes too provincial  (Here’s a good up-to-date list of literary magazines).  A significant number of Sci fi/detective/erotica short story magazines have managed to outlast the Internet revolution and even retain a solid base of subscribers.  Finally, I’ve become enamored by fictionaut, this amazing community of writers  who are publishing short stories within the walls of the member community; the site has been in beta for over a year, but the fictionaut blog has led me to some remarkable stories outside the walls of the beta  fictionaut community.

Reading habits depend  on geography. Where are you reading things? If you are riding the bus for 30 minutes, you are ripe to read  a 3000  word  New Yorker story (or novel chapter).  Even inside a car, you can be receptive to shorter literary forms  (witness the success of This American Life and Escapepod).  You can follow a blog from your job or your cell phone or even your Kindle.  Conversely, the ambient noise or interruption from children can limit you to superficial genres.

Where are your alone moments? Do you still feel like reading during those alone moments – is this the only means of escape? Where  do you spend time reflecting about life and the world of possibility? When do you long for escape? For a few months I worked at an awful soul-sucking job. I spent my work hours dreaming of what I would do afterwards and making notes for letters and short stories which I kept in my desk or my pocket. When lunch break came, I put the cone of silence around me in the eating area and read a book.  Nobody disturbed me. I read more productively (and energetically) during that sliver of time than I ever  did at home. By that  time of day, I was hungry for literature. I craved distraction. I needed another way to look at the world, another place to go, another style with which to phrase one’s thoughts.

Now though, my lunch time is spent reading email and watching Youtube videos — watching a flickering screen.

****

November 2009 Update. I have decided to write a series of essays about Jack Matthews with the ultimate goal of writing a book.

NOTES

1 I do not include Twitter in the nanofiction category. Twitter has supposedly emerged as a new literary genre. With poets, that is probably true; constrained short forms are what poets excel at. Aphorists or writers of prose poems might find possibilities here.  But for storytellers, twitter has no future. Sure, fictional characters can exist on Twitter and say things in character (see my postmodernist/fan fiction category above). But they are not actually doing anything; they are just making shallow remarks and  pretending to exist on  21st century time.   It is merely a way to suggest a narrative without actually delivering.  The problem with twitter is that the size limit for individual posts prevents  a writer from establishing  a varied sentence rhythm. Every twitter-blast has a uniform look and feel.  You know the text contains interesting ideas, but do you have the patience to sift through it? At best,  it is a vehicle for linking to more  substantive prose entries in a longer narrative or letting people search for reader feedback about a particular thought. One of the more interesting uses of twitter is an author who polls readers for what the next line of a story should be. (That of course assumes that a writer has already amassed a considerable following – ah, what a fanciful dream!)

2 I do not wish to spend too much time talking about comics, even though some could (convincingly) argue that it has emerged as a dominant literary genre. Many  daily 4 panel strips  compress  plot advances  into 4 panels (although I really have no idea how engaging they are to readers…except the light-hearted Peanuts, which I followed in my childhood).  Contemporary comics  have more in common with longer literary forms than short stories (even though one can read through them much more quickly than a novel).  It would no doubt be fascinating to see how my own text-only short stories would appear in comic form, but if  my original goal was to limit myself to text, there is no need to “colorize” what was originally pretty brilliant black-and-white to begin with.   My main reason from excluding comics from the discussion here is my own ignorance.

*****

Online Bibliography:

According to this page, Jack Matthews published several stories online on Agni under the pseudonym Matt Hughes.

Here’s a long literary introduction  to  Jack Matthews (written by Stanley W. Lindberg).

Review of Crazy Women by Doris Grumbach.

Introduction to the poetry of Dave Smith by Jack Matthews.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • David W. Berner 8/12/2011, 7:43 pm

    I am an author/journalist/broadcaster and at Sea Island, Georgia this weekend to speak at a writing conference. I take a few minutes to browse the used book story in the village, and randomly pick out a Jack Matthews short story collection: Bitter Knowledge. Never heard of him before, but was intrigued by the beginning of a story in that collection. I bought it along with a book my Tom Miller, Traveling with the Enemy, about travels in Cuba. I haven’t started the Miller book yet, but Matthews is wonderful. Reminds me a little of Raymond Carver or John Cheever. If you find some Jack Matthews…buy it!

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