I've been reading a lot of short stories these past few weeks--the new Ploughshares (with a fantastic essay by Maine author Sarah Braunstein) as well as the new Glimmer Train. I love short stories because the time commitment is often small but the emotional payoff is usually really big. And, what really gets me is that often I read a story and I don't like it--sometimes I even hate it--but then, the characters hang around in my head, or the ending--that perplexing, convoluted ending!--keeps coming back to me. And the more I puzzle it out, the more I start to like it and even, in some cases, to emulate it in my own writing. Which raises the question--do we have to like a story for it to be good? Isn't the job of writing to raise questions, challenge ideas, make the reader (and maybe the writer) a little uncomfortable? In truth, I think sometimes my intial dislike is really discomfort and I have to give myself time and space to think about the why and maybe turn it around a little.
Speaking of things not liked on first glance, this afternoon on the way home I heard a story on NPR about Kafka. The story was about his papers, and who "owns" them, and what should be done with them. But it made me think about reading The Trial for AP English. Not only reading it, but my friend and I had to team teach it. The first time I picked up that slim little volume, I thought easy. And then. So, not so easy. But that book changed everything for me. What do you mean you don't have to give a character a full name? Obscurity? Disorder? The feeling of the book being put together out of orderI remember sitting at my dining room table and crying as I was trying to piece the thing out. But then, once I had it, once I understood it, it was like I'd found something no one else knew about. And I knew that was how I wanted to write (I'm still working on exactly how to do that). And then, when I learned Kafka had wanted all his papers burned upon his death, I felt a spark of something else--maybe, as writers, we don't even have to know we're good.