When I was working on my master’s degree in creative writing I took a class called, I believe, The Art of Short Fiction. It was taught by a writer, Sam Astrachan, who had achieved some success in France. He was ancient and as boring as a maiden aunt.
The class was three hours long and the first part of each session was given to his tedious interpretation of our sometimes unintelligible assigned reading for the week, read in a quiet, mucusy voice from notes that were nearly as old has he was. When he finished, he asked whether we had any questions and, of course, none of us did because we had tuned out about seven seconds after he started. Once, instead of listening, the other students and I watched a student struggle unsuccessfully to stay awake. He finally woke up when his head, I kid you not, fell forward and bounced off the table we all sat around.
The rest of the class was devoted to us reading aloud our own short fiction and listening to the other students critique it. This was supposed to be the meat of the class, but the other students, perhaps afraid of having their own work criticized, praised each other’s bland writing.
Like everyone else, I got much praise from my fellow students for my short stories, often about a young man, insecure, facing some crisis. Not so much from the professor. After one of my stories, Professor Astrachan said to me in front of the class: “You really should try writing about other things,” which I took to mean my stories must have sounded too alike. I must say, at the time I thought it was a cheap shot. Wasn’t I supposed to write what I know? When others were writing half-baked magic realism or Hemingway lite, or turning in things clearly written for other classes many years before, I was turning out fresh copy and thought it deserved a better reception than that.
Fast forward to this week when I read “The Year of Perfect Happiness,” a collection of short stories by Becky Adnot-Haynes. This collection won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction in 2014 and, well, since I’m being honest, I pulled it off the library shelf because I thought it was a novel and because it was short.
Adnot-Haynes has won some awards for her short fiction and maybe, taken individually, they have merit, but when collected, they become a tedious collection that makes me want to encourage her to write about something else.
The main character in every story is self-absorbed and whiny in ways that are almost pathological. They crave attention, they want things the way they want them and when that doesn’t happen, they act out in secret. One young woman, who feels her husband is not paying enough attention to her, gets sympathy from other pregnant women on Internet chatrooms by claiming to have a disease she doesn’t have. A young man, trying to conceive with his wife, secretly resumes the pole vaulting he did in college, lying to his wife about what he’s doing. A young woman bored by her husband decides to take trapeze classes she discovers are being taught locally then falls in love with her instructor. In another, a middle-aged woman (yay, someone other than a solipsistic young person!) fresh from a divorce of her making goes on a hiking tour where the participants will try hallucinogenic cactus juice.
Aside from the similar plots of so many of the stories, there are logistical problems that keep a reader from buying into any of them, and by the time I reached the last one I wanted nothing more than to get back to the Russian novel I stopped reading to divert myself with this short, intriguingly titled book.
I really must get more discerning. Short books, even those with clever titles or awards trumpeted on attractive covers, can be more work than any long, complicated novel.