Friday, June 13, 2008

Books: The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

Sometimes, my reading leads me astray. I'll read an article that name checks a book or two, and if they sound interesting, I add them to my reading list. Months later, I read them, hate them, and can't remember whom to blame. But I do know that we can all blame editor Gordon Lish for the publication fo Amy Hempel's tedious, simpering short stories, and I know that I can blame a Slate article about Lish for the dually terrible recommendations of Lish's own My Romance as well as Amy Hempel's Collected Stories.

In the (completely patronizing) introduction to this collection, which includes all four of her books published to date (the woman has been writing for 25 years and all she's eeked out is less than 400 pages of short stories, the shortest one just a paragraph?), Rick Moody writes with gratitude for Hempel's painstaking attentiveness to small things, womanly things (which are, of course, the same?!), nursing each phrase with care while her male contemporaries were, as it were, blowing their loads over hundreds of pages at a time. This put even me, the anti-feminist, on the defense immediately, but as I began to read Hempel's stories, I realized that Moody was right (to a degree); her stories are painstaking, womanly, and about small things. They are not, however, brilliant or refreshing for that. They are cloying; she gives paper cuts where she should have used the knife.

Rather than dwell on any story in particular (really, I would prefer to forget I'd read any of it, and move on to my next post as quickly as possible), I will briefly mention that Hempel clearly has a strong affinity for dogs, who appear as objects of affection and shifting symbols for loss, need, dependence, etc. in more than half of her stories. I don't like dogs. I don't mean to be dim; a good writer might, if she intended, make me love a fictional dog. I don't much care for fat people (between dog-lovers and fat people, I see the hate mail on the horizon, as certain as a tornado), but John Kennedy Toole (a good example of a great writer) made me love the ill-tempered, filthy, obese Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. So I will not blame Hempel's tedium for her attention to small things, womanly things. I will instead remark that she's rather uncomfortably close to Lynne Tillman, and add that, as a female who occasionally tries my hand at that uncomfortable blend of fiction and memoir, I will need to take great care not to write like these ladies, and take instead, if I must have a female role model, the raging Flannery O'Connor for my flag.

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