What’s the state of flash fiction today? Seems there’s no short answer. But I asked a handful of author/editors who write and review flash fiction day in, day out (see some of their favorites published at The Millions earlier this month). Their responses are expansive, touching on the difference between adapted fragments and “a real flash piece;” transitioning from nonfiction and poetry; erotic gapes; Carver, Sarraute, Oulipo, and Joseph Cornell; fast-food literature; guerilla literacy; readers as co-creators, and the future of flash’s evolving aesthetics.
Nancy Stohlman is the author of three books of flash fiction, editor of three anthologies of flash fiction, and a prominent instructor of flash fiction techniques; Tara Lynn Masih is the founding editor of Best Small Fictions anthology series and the Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction; Lynn Mundell is a co-founder of 100 Word Story and 2017 Wigleaf Top 50; and Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers and the flash collection Fissures.
Jon Roemer: What was the first flash fiction you read? Were you writing it before you knew it as a practice, and then realized it’s a thing? Or did you have model practitioners before you first started?
Tara Lynn Masih: Yes, I was taught to write in what some call “vignettes,” brief scenes that my high school writing teacher encouraged her students to explore… It wasn’t till someone gave me Shapard and Thomas‘s Sudden Fiction that I knew, years later, that what we had been doing in that classroom years earlier was becoming “a thing.”
Nancy Stohlman: Flash fiction arrived for me in 2007 as I was writing my third novel, agonizing over it like a relationship you really really want to work out, dammit! It was during my MFA at Naropa University—I took a flash fiction class with Barbara Henning, and after so many years of writing more—talk more about this, give more description here, more backstory here, explain this more—it was such a relief to write less. I feel like flash fiction saved me from writing all those novels. Because I never really wanted to say all that other stuff anyway. Six months later I co-founded Fast Forward Press…I read hundreds of submissions and I started to lean into flash with my body, listening for my own voice to emerge.
Lynn Mundell: Apparently, I was reading flash fiction long before it was called that since I read Hemingway in high school and then Chekhov, Raymond Carver, and Kate Chopin, among others, in college. During this time I wrote poetry, and much later turned to creative nonfiction. It wasn’t until we opened up shop at 100 Word Story that I really started reading flash in earnest, then expanding to include writing my first flashes—a trio of “scary tales” for an early Halloween issue…That said, I really love a good, fat novel!
Grant Faulkner: I began writing short shorts before I truly knew flash fiction as a genre. I’m a ragpicker by nature, so I’ve always collected odd things that I find on the streets or in flea markets, and I view a lot of my flash pieces in such a way. Life isn’t a round, complete circle—it’s shaped by fragments, shards, and pinpricks. It’s a collage of snapshots, a collection of the unspoken, an attic full of situations you can’t quite get rid of. The brevity of flash is perfect for capturing the small but telling moments when life pivots almost unnoticeably, yet profoundly.
JR: When do you turn to it now? As a writing exercise, or as something that just happens, or with the forethought of achieving something specifically flash? Has your approached evolved or changed?
TLM: Flash is a creative respite for me. It’s been there through some very stressful times, both personally and professionally. I can sit down at my desk without pressure. I can simply enjoy creating something I know won’t take months or years, yet get the same feeling of fulfillment after I’ve completed a flash piece that satisfies me. Sometimes within the hour.
NS: When I first started writing flash fiction I was just pretending to write it—I was basically a flash fraud. My “flash” stories were just cannibalized from my novels and other longer projects and given new titles. And this sort of worked, for a minute, but it felt like cheating (and it was). I think many writers spend some transitional time as flash frauds while learning the form. Eventually you run out of excerpts or longer stories to butcher and you’re forced to do what you should be doing from the beginning—seeing through the flash fiction lens. The switch flips. I knew when I finally wrote a real flash piece and not something passed off as one. It felt different. These days my work keeps getting shorter and shorter. I’m afraid one day an entire story will be distilled down to the letter P. And it will be perfect.
LM: I am intentional when I write flash, although my “failed” flashes are probably just exercises or warmups for the better writing. For me flash writing is very challenging but also understandable, because there is a crossover with poetry writing as far as length, use of metaphor, dramatic leaps, and inventive forms in order to deliver a finished piece. I have also returned to creative nonfiction by writing some in flash form. I write anything between six-word stories and those around 1,000 words. It’s just lately that I find myself writing longer pieces, although I will probably keep writing flash because I love it and I still have so much to learn within the form.
GF: When I get an idea for a story, I always know immediately whether it’s a short short, a short story, or a novel. It’s just an intuitive sense of what form the story needs. The change in my approach over the years comes from my rag-picker aesthetic. I collect words and stray phrases and snippets in notebooks, and often one of those starts to flow into a story. Writing flash has influenced my longer writing. My novels now often move with a flash aesthetic—I like imagining stories in a fragmented, elliptical way—so I think there’s a little flash in all of my writing. I think often of Roland Barthes’s question in Pleasure of the Text: “Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?” It’s an apt metaphor for flash fiction because these tiny stories flow from tantalizing glimpses that lure the reader forward. Writing flash has taught me how to move a story along by implications, through escalating hints, and that what’s left out of a story is often more important than what’s included.
JR: What do you think about working with limits, like 100 words? French Oulipo writers felt constraints could be freeing, that overtly imposing them is a way to acknowledge the constraints on writing everywhere. Do you find limits freeing?
TLM: I love working with word count limits because it is more of a challenge. It’s double enforcement of the rule of concision. Not only do you have to be concise, you have to find ways to tell your story in an even smaller box. I personally don’t feel it’s freeing, it’s just fun and rewarding if it works.
NS: We’re working within limits all the time—publishers define a novel as 60,000 words, for instance, so writers write to that finish line. I love the Oulipo movement, it’s a big inspiration to me. Interesting things bulge against a boundary: you can only paint with the color green; you must finish a film in 48 hours; you have to write a story without using the letter E. Beethoven wrote his most important symphony when he was deaf. I think the magic of flash fiction happens because of the constraint. But flash fiction is influenced by other artistic movements, too—the Impressionists suggested entire scenes with just dots and splashes, for instance. Of course people didn’t consider it “art” for a long time, and that’s where politics comes in. Remember that the novel was once considered a vulgar, lesser art form mostly written by (yikes!) women! I’ll quote Yoda here: We must unlearn what we have learned.
LM: It’s sort of like pruning a bonsai, trying to make this perfect, unique item that can be viewed and absorbed in a sitting or returned to and admired with a longer look. That said, the stakes are high because you can really screw it up if you don’t accomplish a complete story within that allotted word count, and there sure isn’t anywhere to hide from the failure.
GF: The constraints of different forms spark different types of creativity, whether it’s a sonnet, a villanelle, or a 100-word story. These “boxes” make the creative act more difficult, yet the requirements of the form force the writer to look beyond obvious associations. Imaginative leaps don’t necessarily happen by thinking “outside the box” as the popular saying goes, but within the box. I learned this when I started writing 100-word stories after years of writing novels. A novel is like a Southwestern city. You have so much land to build on that you can just keep building further outwards. Writing a story in exactly 100 words is more like building a tiny town hemmed in by mountains and the sea. You have to be very careful with each element you add. You have to eliminate excess. I like to think of my miniatures as one of the artist Joseph Cornell’s box collages—a poetry of assemblages confined in a frame that is its own expansive world. The condensation of a 100-word story can open up the irreducible mystery of a single intense moment.
JR: Most people who haven’t read flash fiction presume it’s like poetry—like an old-fashioned tone poem, impressionistic and without characters and plot. That style of flash certainly exists and delivers in lots of beautiful ways. But flash fiction can also achieve solid narratives, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When you read flash fiction, what do you like best?
TLM: I like the best of every form. In Best Small Fictions, we’ve drawn attention to the haibun story. I love its mix of prose and haibun, another challenge. Form doesn’t sway me one way or another, it’s voice, subject matter, setting, details, etc. The same for any short story.
NS: People who think flash fiction is like prose poetry have not read enough flash fiction. Just because a piece of writing is small doesn’t mean it’s flash fiction. For me the difference is a sense of urgency: Flash fiction is always telling a story. A woman at a cafe watching the way the fall leaves shimmer in the sun could be a prose poem or a vignette or even a character study. But a woman at a café watching the way the fall leaves shimmer in the sun—as a man in overalls is sawing through the trunk—has urgency. Obviously there’s crossover. Can’t poetry tell a story? Of course. Can’t flash fiction be poetic? Absolutely. But the answer lies in the driving force of a piece: prose poetry and vignettes are driven by imagery and emotion whereas flash fiction has an almost desperate need to tell a story before it’s too late.
LM: I like a wide range of styles, from the impressionistic to the “traditional” stories that are very plot-driven, but for me a successful flash has to have a thrust or denouement, even within flash that is more of a hybrid between poetry and fiction. A favorite impressionistic piece is called “Candlelight,” by Christina Sanders, in which the daughters witness their mother glow and then dim over the years as she is thwarted at work, men, and just life. It has characters and moves through time, but this very short flash is told through this one really gorgeous image carried throughout.
GF: Although a good short short has a beginning, a middle, and an end, flash stories are built through gaps as much as the connective tissue of words. They end, as Jayne Anne Phillips said, in a breath that takes the reader in and beyond the story. The most haunting stories are those that don’t provide answers, but open up questions. I like to think of the writer Ku Ling’s words: “A good short-short is short but not small, light but not slight.” In many ways, short shorts are the prose version of haiku. Like a haiku, a 100-word story is an imagist’s medium. Every word, every detail matters, but it moves through caesuras and crevices, and like poetry, tone, diction, and timbre can guide a story as much as a rising narrative trajectory of actions.
JR: When people talk about flash, they often mention the modern short attention span. But reading well-crafted flash is a long, long way from clicking on, say, a simple blog post. What do you think about the attention-span angle? Can you make more demands on the reader in flash, compared to longer forms? Can flash fiction be too dense?
TLM: They’ve been discussing the shrinking of the American attention span since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. Periodicals back then were publishing many “short short stories,” which was the term most of the journals used. So I don’t quite buy that theory. Especially since many readers still prefer reading novels. But I do think it lends itself well to online journals and social media, which has helped spread it around the world.
NS: I think there should be a special level of Dante’s Inferno reserved for the people who make the short-attention span comment. Is the bonsai tree proof that its creator didn’t have the attention span for a full-sized tree? Basically the logic in the short attention span argument is that flash fiction is the fast food of literature, served up for increasingly dumb and/or distracted readers. I believe just the opposite: not only is flash fiction cultivating a new kind of writer but also a new kind of reader. The reader become a co-creator in the process rather than just a passive consumer. The writer throws clues, the reader lines them up. What the author omits, the reader intuits. I think it requires more intelligence from the reader. And anyone who has tried writing flash thinking it will be easy has usually had a very shocking revelation. Like painting the Mona Lisa on a grain of rice.
LM: We have so much thrown at us these days, from work emails that grind through the evening and weekends to a news cycle that brings tragedy right to us even as it is unfolding. That has to impact our ability to focus on the present and to commit to things that take longer to do. But I am overjoyed to report that I still see people reading and even writing during my weekday train commute, and my youngest son, who is 15, read War and Peace over the summer, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Flash is another form to read, not a replacement for people who are distracted. That said, I suppose flash is very well-suited for social media, since you can read a flash on your phone from the many, many online literary journals out there, or even tweet the shortest flashes. I like to think that flash is doing a form of guerilla literacy to all of the people glued to their devices!
GF: In this world of more—more emails, more social media, etc.—people’s reading styles have changed. People scan and read in nuggets, and online platforms are largely designed for that type of storytelling. When we started 100 Word Story, we thought 100 words was the perfect length of story to read online because 100 words is essentially a Facebook post. That said, most flash stories shouldn’t be read in such a breezy fashion. In fact, because they speak to what’s left out, because they often border on prose poetry, the reader needs to pause, reflect, and fill in the gaps—to be a co-creator, essentially.
JR: Should flash fiction be considered and judged in a category separate from the conventional short story and its traditions? Readers and writers bring different expectations to short stories than to novels, and its traditions have shaped those expectations. Is it helpful to construct a separate category for flash? Does that fit with the spirit of flash fiction? Or should I quit poking at it?
TLM: When I dream of the future, I see flash being taught side by side with the longer form. I know some academics still think of it either as a gimmick or as just a really short story. I do believe that there are differences in practice and execution, and just as there are different forms in poetry, there are different forms in prose. Separate it if you wish, but don’t disregard it.
NS: Absolutely, especially when we start looking towards flash books. And absolutely there are politics involved—for starters who has the power of naming and defining? Don’t forget the term “flash fiction” has only recently, in the last 25 years, given legitimacy to the form—until then all these stories were “marooned in a wasteland” as Susan Sontag would say, forced to compete with much different stories. In 2011, an anthology of flash fiction I co-edited, Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award—but they didn’t have a category for flash fiction, so it had to go in “literary fiction” and compete against two novels! Apples versus oranges. Flash fiction writers are using a different set of skills and writing a different kind of story. A word of caution: Flash fiction is still emerging, still soft in the hands, still pliable, still wonderfully gooey and fresh. And while this stage of emergence and convergence is desirable, it also leaves the art form vulnerable to others who will want to define it, start to put rules on it. It’s exciting to envision flash as mainstream, but there is also the very real possibility that we will lose some of the elasticity we currently enjoy.
LM: Flash may be a sister or cousin to short story and to poetry, but it is its own form with its own challenges and expectations, and now standards. As such, we see contests and “best of” nominations and anthologies dedicated to the form, which seems appropriate to me. I tend to read those because it is a sort of curating of the best writers and stories out there, which I might not be able to find on my own. What might be more debatable is what to call flash. Some like to call it short-short stories because that signals that it is not something trendy, which is sort of what flash sort of sounds like, but rather part of the family of storytelling as old as man.
GF: I find it interesting that some keep defining the word count of flash upward—from 1,000 words to 1,500 words to 2,000 words. At the same time, the conventional short story seems to be shrinking in length. Journals that used to accept stories that were 8,000 or 10,000 words long now ask for stories that are less than 5,000 words. Maybe the forms will meet in the middle, but a novelistic short story by Alice Munro is obviously quite different than a one-sentence story by Lydia Davis, so I think of flash as a distinct aesthetic, one that lives on the border of prose and poetry, one that requires a different sensibility, so I turn to it as a writer and a reader with different expectations and needs.
JR: Who are your favorite flash fiction writers? Who has been influential for you?
TLM: There are too many to list. But I’d have to put Yasunari Kawabata at the very top of mine. His Palm-of-the-Hand Stories should be required reading in every English class.
NS: This is a hard question to answer, because what is happening in the flash world right now is a full-on literary movement: every flash fiction writer I know is kicking some serious butt. Literature is changing. It’s an exciting time to throw rocks into the status quo and watch the ripples. The anthology Flash Fiction Forward by James Thomas and Robert Shapard was influential in my flash education but the book that finally did it for me was Lydia Davis’s The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories. I was in Puerto Rico by myself and I read that book and I was like—yeah. I get it.)
LM: This may be the hardest question of all, since there are so many excellent flash writers out there! I am going to skirt around any hard feelings by not naming a friend or 100 Word Story writer. I am a Lydia Davis groupie, and an Etgar Keret admirer. I love Jenson Beach, who wrote one of my favorite flashes, “Family.” I am a big fan of a California writer named Kara Vernor, whose work takes risks and is memorable and sophisticated. I just discovered Helen McClory after reading her incredible flash called “Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break.” I couldn’t find the..
Henry Grunwald, Joyce Carol Oates, Taki, Ned Rorem, Annie Leibovitz, and others recall encounters with Tom Wolfe, the dandyish inventor of New Journalism and novelist, who died Monday at age 87.
1. Tidewater Virginian Gentleman …into the clackety-clack chaos of the [New York Herald] Trib’s city room…Every desk was occupied by a man and every man wore the same shirt and tie. Except two. I spotted Tom Wolfe. He looked different [as did the tie-less and rumpled Jimmy Breslin]. His longish silky hair curled over the well-turned collar of an English-tailored tweed suit. He looked like a Tidewater Virginian gentleman, which he was. His lips were locked in a concupiscent smile. Of course, I thought he must be flicking open his satirical switchblade to dice up the status strivings of some sacred cow who had no idea he was about to be skewered. (Tom had not yet effected the wardrobe of a contemporary Beau Brummell in white suits and spats, not on a salary of $130 a week.)
Wolfe’s prose was the opposite. He invented unforgettable code phrases—“the right stuff,” the “statusphere,” and “social x-rays.” He exuded excesses of hyperbole never before seen on a black-and-white page. He spotted the first “Tycoon of Teen,” Phil Spector, and he was the first to explain the vision of Marshall McLuhan. The most mind-blowing of Wolfe’s early articles examined the LSD life of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
…Tom Wolfe did exchange a few words with me, in passing, and I hung on them. “The Herald Tribune is like the main Tijuana bullring for competition among feature writers,” he told me. “You have to be brave.” (New York, 1964)
2. Many White Suits On my third trip to New York I bought the publishing rights in a book of essays called Candy Stream Line Flake Baby [sic]. The author was a leading exponent of the ‘new journalism.’ His name was Tom Wolfe. In addition to being an excellent essayist and a superb stylist with a range from art to astronauts, he was something of a celebrity about town and a famous ladies’ man. A trademark of Tom’s, then and now, has been the wearing of white suits. I remember our [Jonathan Cape] Publicity Director asking him when in London how he managed to keep his suit so immaculately white. He took her to his dressing room and opened the cupboard. There, hanging in a row, were six perfect white suits.
…He is exceptionally gracious, soft-spoken and well-read, and has immaculate manners. He is also outstandingly intelligent, with the enquiring mind of a superb journalist. He is a passionately caring person. Many years ago [TM’s wife] Regina had a mysterious ailment that we thought the Mayo Clinic in America might cure. Tom went out of his way to introduce us to not one but two of the leading professors there and he wrote to them as if we were his closest friends.
3. Conversationally Frugal The form [“New Journalism”] was invented by Tom Wolfe, a young writer of genteel Virginia background who had become a familiar character on the New York scene in his white suits. As I came to know him—we were never friends but friendly dinner party acquaintances—I was struck by his extreme frugality in conversation. He obviously saved his words for his writing and used his slightly absurd, dandyish appearance as effective camouflage from behind which he observed his surroundings with merciless precision, precision that was heightened by an almost surrealist imagination.
There were other practitioners of the New Journalism, some with greater literary credentials and fewer stylistic quirks, including Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. There were also Wolfe imitators for whom the New Journalism came down to writing themselves into an article, tediously going on about their reaction to the wallpaper or to being kept waiting. Wolfe remained the master. While he was unfailingly polite, I sometimes imagined him as poking me in the ribs and saying: “How are you fellows at Time going to keep up with me? I’m skating circles around you.” (late 1960s)
4. What He Was Trying to Prove …The genre [New Journalism] was famously pioneered by Tom Wolfe in his experimental articles published by the long-defunct New York Herald-Tribune and his books about the 1960s with their wigged-out titles like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test…”One of the points I wanted to prove,” Wolfe told me when I interviewed him in Vancouver in 1972, “was that novels and non-fiction should be written the same way. You are bringing some news to the reader, and you have a solid grounding in fact and detail. It ascends from here.” His boyish, preppy head incongruously sticking out of his signature white suit and stiffed-necked collars, Wolfe kept asking me polite questions about Canada and Marshall McLuhan.
5. Very Proper, No Sweat On one level, Tom Wolfe operated very much like Hunter [Thompson] did. Tom got his stories from odds-and-ends moments. But Tom wasn’t at all like Hunter temperamentally. Tom was very proper. He always wore long-sleeved shirts, and even if it was 95 degrees out and a 100 percent humidity he never sweated. Everyone was sweating through their clothes and Tom was completely dry. Hunter sweated a lot…
I went with Tom to Florida to cover [for Rolling Stone magazine] the launch of Apollo 17, NASA’s last manned flight to the moon. That’s when Tom started doing the research on astronauts that led to The Right Stuff. It was interesting to be with Tom because you got in everywhere. There were all these parties before the launch. (1972)
6. Flow of Fashion Everyone has a different definition of what the New Journalism is. It’s the use of fictional techniques, it’s composite characterization, it’s the art form that’s replacing the novel, which is dying…
…along comes Tom Wolfe, the Boswell of the boutiques, with a history of the New Journalism that never mentions Kempton, Cannon, or Stone. Or Lillian Ross and Joe Mitchell, who wrote for the rival New Yorker. Or any [Village] Voice writer, for that matter. Like any faithful Boswell, Wolfe only mentions his friends.
…He is a gifted, original writer, but he has the social conscience of an ant. Wolfe is a dandy. His basic interest is the flow of fashion, in the tics and trinkets of the rich.
But if Wolfe represents a conservative, or perhaps apolitical approach, there is also the committed school of Stone, Kempton, Royko, Halbertsam, Wicker, Cowar, Hentoff and many others. …
7. Nice Person April 13, 1978. Yesterday, to Ann Arbor, there to meet with Tom Wolfe, who gave the Hopwood Address in the Rackham Bldg., the same building I spoke in two weeks ago exactly (surprising, that the seats weren’t all filled for his talk): Wolfe in his trademark vanilla ice cream suit with pale blue shirt and pale blue socks and white shoes (rather rushing the season, those shoes), a nice person, warm and congenial and, offstage, not at all pretentious. His talk was low-keyed and superficial, perhaps aimed for a somewhat younger (or less intelligent) audience. I am thinking of writing him a letter…We talked a bit, though not at great length. The two of us were “guests of honor” at the Inglus House dinner following the reception, which meant that we were many yards apart, at either end of a very long table.
I used to read Wolfe and think, “Well, fuck you! God touched you and made you a fucking genius, and that’s the end of it!” Then in the mid-eighties I walked in to the offices of Rolling Stone one afternoon and saw him working at a desk. He was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments at the time, and I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look I know I have in my eyes when the shit is hitting the fan. And I thought to myself, “God bless you, Tom. You’re a working stiff after all.” (New York, mid-1980s)
…a short note from [wife] Alexandra saying that Tom and Sheila Wolfe had called to offer their support. The great Tom had already rung me while I was waiting for my appeal [of a conviction for cocaine possession, which resulted in three months in London’s Pentonville Prison], a kindness I shall not soon forget…Like all large talents, Tom is supportive of lesser ones. And he’s no prima donna. He is as kind and considerate and gentle in his dealings with people as his literary style is precise and devastatingly accurate.
He and his wife and their two children live across the street from us in Southampton [N.Y.], but they prefer a quiet life and I don’t see much of them. But I treasure their friendship. …
I like everything Tom has ever written, but my favorite remains his demolition job on the ‘radical chic’ of Mr. [Leonard] Bernstein’s cocktail party…
10. Candle in a White Suit Had a terrific drink tonight with Tom Wolfe, who is tall and thin like a candle in his white suit, with a dryness suddenly illuminated by joyous shafts of pure malice…I told him I was having dinner with Martin Amis. “Ah, the rising novelist of thirty-four. Funny how you are a hardened thief at thirty but a rising novelist at thirty-four.” Outside it was pouring rain and we lingered over our drink at Le Périgord. He told me he is finishing his new novel about New York and the “masters of the universe” of Wall Street [The Bonfire of the Vanities]. (New York, 1983)
11. Lost Scene …Wolfe’s attack on The New Yorker [in the New York Herald Tribune in 1965]…
…In the lead paragraph of his first part, he had described in lavish detail a scene in [editor William] Shawn’s office. A prospective contributor was visiting. While Shawn huddled behind the stack of manuscripts on his desk, the visitor, nervously and unthinkingly, lit a cigarette. After a couple of drags, he noticed to his dismay (though Shawn said nothing) that there were no ashtrays in the room. Desperately he reached for an empty Coca-Cola bottle and deposited the offending cigarette, point down, into its base. The barely smoked weed—all smokers will recognize this picture—continued to burn, and, as the visitor watched in mounting anguish, and Shawn smiled enigmatically from behind the barricade of his manuscripts, the brown smoke curled acridly into the unventilated room. …
And yet, as we learned from Dwight MacDonald, Wolfe had never been there. He had, unforgivably, made the incident up. …
…Wearing his trademark white suit, Wolfe is as insouciantly charming in our [1987 CBC] interview as his writing is energetic in print. After much palaver…I pop the question. Does he remember the scene? Of course. Where did he get it? He has, he confesses disarmingly, no idea now. He’d have to look at his notes. Concerned lest I take an already self-indulgent interview further down the lane of autobiography, I turn to other matters. (Toronto)
12. Sartorial Splendor 24 February 1990. Lunch with Tom Wolfe, who is here [Tokyo] to work up a novel. It has some Japanese in it, and he has come to see some Japanese. Tallish, wide forehead, gray eyes, and much sartorial splendor. He mentions this. “I guess I am old-fashioned,” he says in reference to his Edwardian vest, his watch chain, and his wide-brimmed hat. But it is also a way of dress that alerts people. I had taken him to the Press Club, not the brightest or liveliest place, and everyone recognized him at once and several came sidling up.
He is also interested, understanding, curious. Says very little about himself unless one asks. Wants to learn. Is here for that reason. Is particularly interested in what happens to art here, how it turns into money…
…to be an honoree at a find-raiser for Marymount College…
The pre-prandial cocktail hour at the swanky Palace mezzanine…Wolfe, whom I’ve never met—nor were we introduced—sitting three chairs away, arranged for his famously friendly eyes never to cross with mine, which made clear that he would not be extending his hand, nor encouraging me to do so. What, I wondered, have I ever done to him? Ah yes, it must be that crank letter to the Times, years ago, when I took to task his review of Cecil Beaton’s memoir wherein he twitted queers. Still, is that enough for him to ignore my presence now, rather than, like a suave European, to separate professional feuds from social niceties? He meanwhile might argue he didn’t know who I was. (New York)
“Nobody else is here,” the elderly woman said into her phone. “It’s embarrassing!”
She was the first one to arrive at my reading at the Philadelphia Library, a week after the release of my third novel, and two weeks after the pinnacle of my writing life, when that novel was praised in both The New Yorkerand The Washington Post, two articles that I had assumed would create something like buzz around me or my writing. It was 6:58, and the reading started at 7:00.
Earlier that day, I had gotten messages from nine different friends, all saying they’d planned on attending but something had come up and they couldn’t make it. Each of their explanations was understandable—sick children, stuck at work, car troubles—but also it seemed cruel that every one of them would have an emergency on the same night. My wife was there, in the second row and I sent her a text from the front of the room: can we just leave?Will anyone notice?
I did not leave. I had promised to do an event, and the library had made space for me, and even if only one person was in the audience, I had a responsibility to deliver. But in those next two minutes—as I kept hoping for, say, a bus full of book critics to break down outside—I was thinking grim thoughts about the creative life.
I have been very fortunate as a writer: since 2010, I have had three books picked up by three different publishers. I have gotten coverage in major publications and been invited to do events in many bookstores along the east coast. I made enough money on my first book contract to buy a pretty nice couch.
Before I ever published anything, I’d assumed that if I ever finished a book, there would be so much demand from family and friends alone that we’d have to go into a second printing before the release date. But I am here to tell you: most people in your family will never buy your book. Most of your friends won’t either.
I have a handful of friends and family members—people I consider close to me, people I see regularly—who have never come to any of my dozens of book events. I don’t know if they own any of my books because I haven’t asked, but I have a pretty good guess. After my first book came out, I would peruse friends’ bookshelves, trying to determine their organizational system (if it’s not alphabetical, then where is my book? Maybe they have some special hidden shelf for books they truly cherish?). On a few occasions, I called them out for not having it. This accomplished nothing, besides making both of us feel bad.
The point of this piece is not to shame those people or to complain about not getting enough support. It’s just to say: whatever you think it’s like after you publish a book, it’s actually harder than that.
During the entire process of producing a book, the writer becomes a swirling vortex of neediness. First you’re begging for time to write, then you’re asking people to read and edit, then you’re querying agents, then you’re asking (oh god) for blurbs, then you’re contacting reviewers, then you’re emailing everyone you’ve ever met, then you’re posting on Facebook (again and again), and then you’re asking people to show up to some bookstore on a Wednesday night to listen to you read words at them. Later, you’ll ask them to write reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Every day, you are making demands on people’s time and money. It’s terrible.
For most of these people, the only appealing aspect of the book is that your name is on the cover. Maybe they’re not readers. Maybe they like gritty mysteries and you’re writing literary fiction about a divorced Brooklyn couple. Maybe they like reading but don’t have time, due to career, kids, community activism, or something else. Relative to the amount of time and anxiety you devote to the project, you’re really not asking for much. But it’s important to remember: nobody in the world will ever care about your book as much as you do. Very few will ever understand exactly what it means to you.
People will like your Facebook statuses and retweet your tweets and they’ll even leave very nice comments. These likes and comments do not translate to sales. It’s the most passive way for anyone to show support. Over time, the novelty wears off. It’s exciting for non-writers to say they know an author, or for writers friends to remember back when you were starting out and working on your first, bad stories. Very little can sustain that enthusiasm over the six (or more) months during which you’re posting about the book.
I admit to having felt betrayed by my friends’ indifference, especially after the first book, but I remind myself that I do the same thing all the time. I have friends in bands that I haven’t seen live in years. I’ve never been to any friends’ improv shows. I skip a lot of readings, even when I know the readers. I have friends with books I haven’t bought or read. I have explicitly lied to colleagues about having read and enjoyed their books. The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.
At a family party recently, a cousin asked why I didn’t bring copies of my newest book to sell. I don’t like the idea of showing up to family parties like a cotton candy vendor wandering from table to table looking for handouts. I’ve done this before (at my mom’s wedding, I sold two books, including one to the pastor), and it has always felt cheap and more than a little passive-aggressive. I’ve decided that the misery of haggling over prices with a cousin is not worth the benefit of one more sale. When the cousin said he wasn’t sure where to get the book, I told him he could probably order it with one click on his phone. I did not close the deal.
The event I did at the Philly Library started late, as every reading does, as we hoped for that sudden influx of people. For the first time in my life, a (small) busload of people actually did show up. The library partners with a local retirement home, and so about a dozen people filled in the seats. Then a colleague arrived, followed by a writer friend. Then a friend from college, who I only see now at these events. Then a childhood friend, who always shows up even though he works long hours in the suburbs and has four young kids. Two people even bought books.
An hour earlier, I’d been drowning myself in self-pity, vowing to never put myself through this again. But then, in front of a modest crowd in the modest basement of a local library, I thought about how lucky I am to have any of these opportunities. I felt incredibly grateful to everyone who showed up, even the woman who made the upsetting phone call (she sat in the front row and listened intently and asked three questions). As always, I felt incredible gratitude to my wife, who has sat through so many more of these events than any person could ever be expected to endure. I felt fortunate to have friends who still keep showing up, sometimes making an hour commute to get there, even when all they’re getting out of it is fifteen minutes of me reading from a book, and maybe my signature. Some people couldn’t make it, but some did. That counts.
The next night I did a reading in my adopted hometown in New Jersey and eight people showed up. I gave them the best performance I could. What other option is there?
Most of the writing life is disappointment. Publishing a book, which should be your most triumphant moment, is an anticlimax. There are no fireworks and no awards, no parades down Main Street. Many people close to you will disappoint you. But there are people who will come through, and they will keep coming through, and sometimes you’ll be surprised who falls into which category. I’ve learned to cherish those friends and family members who are always there, or even sometimes there. It takes real sacrifice on their part to support this weird thing I do. It takes money and time for them to seek the book out, to ask their local shops and libraries to carry it, to share it on social media.
People will read your book. Almost certainly not as many people as you wish. But sometimes a friend from high school or a former teacher will surprise you by showing up to a reading, or posting a review online. Sometimes a stranger will email you out of the blue and say they loved it, and in those moments it will feel like you’ve accomplished something impossible. It will feel better than you ever thought it could.
I don’t think there is any way to convince all the people in your life to buy your book, let alone care about it half as much as you do. Though their validation feels great, it’s important to remember that it’s also not the point. As a writer, you need to approach every project with the understanding that you’re doing this work for yourself, and everything that happens once it’s in the world is out of your control. Whatever project you’re working on now doesn’t derive value from your friends’ approval, but rather from the love and energy you pour into it. You can do the work, and you can keep showing up, and that’s all you’ve got. Most of the time, it’s all you need.
“Puzzled as to why her mother had not figured out “Miriam” on her own — or why, after Capote became famous, she did not say much about her letter and his answer — Ms. Akers sought clues.” The New York Times writes about recently discovered letter from Truman Capote to a young reader who misunderstood his first published story. Read our own Michael Bourne on the tragedy of Capote’s life.
“That no-way-out is really the difference between boys and girls in working-class culture, because a working-class boy could run, or could when I was growing up.” Guernica interviews Dorothy Allison about literature as glory; survival, opportunity, and gender; and working-class heroes vs. heroines. For your reading consideration: Bill Morris‘s essay on the riches of “white trash” literature.
“Patriarchal domination, even — despite appearances — in the West, is still very entrenched, and each of us, in the most diverse places, in the most varied forms, suffers the humiliation of being a silent victim or a fearful accomplice or a reluctant rebel or even a diligent accuser of victims rather than of the rapists. Paradoxically, I don’t feel that there are great differences between the women of the Neapolitan neighborhood whose story I told and Hollywood actresses or the educated, refined women who work at the highest levels of our socioeconomic system. ” In a rare interview, Elena Ferrante discuses the #meToo movement, Naples and her writing process for the Neapolitan novels in a rare interview translated from the original French.
Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, Belly Up is as exquisite as it is absurd. The real glides so closely against the imagined that when a grieving widow hears her neighbors through their shared wall, she finds it necessary to check that they are real people and not younger manifestations of herself and her husband. She wonders whether she has invented them, and, as readers, we are not quite sure. We’re never entirely certain where these stories of recognition and reinvention are going to go, of what the rules are. What keeps us here is the intelligence and precision of Bullwinkel’s prose, which allows her to mine the deeply strange and deeply intimate with abandon and exactitude.
In a recent tweet, award-winning author Victor LaValle posited: ‘The last word of your first book was the theme of the whole thing…” If that is the case, the theme of Belly Up is “thread.” That seems apt. Belly Up is woven together with thick, peculiar strands. In the hands of a less-assured writer, these threads might feel loose, disconnected—under Bullwinkel’s guidance, they pull together to arrive at moments of profound revelation.
These stories are bound by their unwillingness to conform, by their insights into the human mind, by their wicked authenticity. Belly Up is full of reckoning, full of curiosity, full of characters attempting to pull themselves out of the mundane, out of what is expected of them. This feels akin to yanking a plant out of the soil from its root; the experience is intensely odd and simultaneously invigorating.
Belly Up is perhaps best described by a moment in one of the collection’s best stories, “Arms Overhead,” in which two adolescent girls imagine themselves as plants:
As Mary read from several psychology journals that posited theories about why one might have the desire to eat oneself, Ainsley put her head in Mary’s lap and listened.
At the close of the collection’s first story, “Harp,” about a woman whose day, and perhaps, life, is upended by having witnessed a car crash, I jotted down the word: curious in the margins, followed by a cascade of my thoughts: unexpected, unsettled, unusual. Then I paused, indented my pencil and wrote: But, something opens, something begins. All of Bullwinkel’s stories unlock something. The strongest pieces fling the whole thing open. Burn the house down. Others are a mere suggestion of what lies outside, a hint that things are not as they appear. That is like life. Sometimes blaringly loud and other times alarmingly silent.
That silence was most deeply felt in the collection’s shorter pieces, which serve as interludes between the more traditional narratives. In their brevity, the often dreamlike vignettes create a gulf between the reader and the work. This may be, in part, because they pulse with intelligence, which can make the text feel inaccessible, or for the reader to feel unwelcome. In their condensed form, the stories were darker, the fantasies more unusual, the phlegm, phlegmier, but they lacked the emotional depth that is so propulsive throughout much of the collection. I was reminded of the ferocious Lydia Davis, whose Varieties of Disturbances dips into philosophical introspection that resists traditional narration. Reading Bullwinkel also called to mind the work of Diane Williams, specifically, her most recent collection, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, in which the prose is equally poignant and exacting.
These stories are populated with the strange: a child with a black tongue, an insatiably hungry church, the commingling of the dead and the living. It is in this strangeness that we are reminded of our humanity; while we are enchanted by the elaborate conceits, we become vulnerable to Bullwinkel’s talent for emotional wounding. She crafts unexpectedly tender scenes that are ripe with revelation.
Bullwinkel finds herself in a lineage of authors who won’t conform. To borrow the title from Lydia Davis’s most recent collection: they Can’t and Won’t. Perhaps what sets Bullwinkel apart is her willingness to fling her narratives off a cliff and to have her characters land, not on stable ground, but on something closer to hot lava than to dirt. The surrealism that floats through these stories feels in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which transcends genre and vibrates with emotional intensity.
Belly Up’s standout is “What I Would Be if I Wasn’t What I Am,” an epic narrative of marriage, of identity, of grappling with whom we become in the face of both marriage and loss:
It is difficult for me to distinguish which parts of myself are the original me, which parts of myself predated [my husband], and which parts were developed while I was with him. And, for those parts of me that were developed while I was with him, how am I to tell which parts I would have developed on my own, without him, and which parts of myself never would have come to pass if I had never met him?
Embedded within all of these surreal narratives are similar moments of contemplation, of reckoning, that sting with incredible precision.
In the collection’s opening story, the narrator muses: “I wondered if maybe I should suggest that my husband and I stop talking. Perhaps we should only communicate through touch and feel. Maybe that is a truer way to be with someone.”
At their most profound, the stories in Belly Up name and subsequently interrogate states like adolescence, marriage, self-identification, motherhood. When a mother stares at her son who has just arrived home after driving drunk, she is unable to separate the possibility of what could have happened to him, from what actually did: “…All I could see was a corpse, [my son] dead, an alternate history that had been so close to happening that it drove me mad. People should be driven mad, temporarily, when they see things like that, their son in a near-miss state.”
By the time we are two stories into Belly Up, when the dead return, we are expecting them; if we flinch, it is not from disbelief, but from the thrill of finding out what it is they’ve come to tell us.
In thinking about Bullwinkel’s debut, I found myself returning to the work of the great writer Augusto Monterroso, particularly his collection, Complete Works and Other Stories. Monterroso’s stories venture similarly into absurdity, joy, and exuberance, while also being wedded to philosophical rumination. The juxtaposition of the surreal and the introspective strikes a remarkable a balance that is alive and well in Bullwinkel’s collection.
The characters in Belly Up demand our attention, they demand to be seen, to be recognized. What is perhaps most moving are the moments in which these characters learn to know themselves better. Throughout our reading, we accompany them on their journeys for truth and in the wake of each discovery, we begin to question our own lives, our own interpretations of reality.
When you write a book, there are certain questions you can expect: How long did it take you? Will you write a sequel? And—the inevitable—what is it?
What it is: thousands of hours tapping away on a keyboard between swiping student IDs at the Sarah Lawrence gym, months of crippling doubt, dozens of rewrites, maddening rounds of edits, the culmination of years of dreaming and plotting condensed into a 300-page manuscript with which I’ve imbued the emotional vulnerability of a pubescent diary.
No, they will persist. What is it?
I rehearsed this answer in my query letter, tweaked depending on the interest and need of the agent addressed: Complete at 80,000 words, this—
Sometimes it was a literary novel. Sometimes a literary commercial novel. Sometimes a literary novel with commercial appeal. Once, upmarket women’s fiction.
It’s adult literary fiction, I tell people. I think of the many times I’ve been prompted to make such unambiguous designations, usually without issue: I am Female. I am White. But something doesn’t feel right about defining my novel, about giving it a genre (a word that has always conjured for me cover images of bursting corsets and rippled abdominals). Something doesn’t feel right about defining novels at all.
As a bookseller, I compartmentalize novels everyday. If it’s not Science Fiction, Mystery, or Romance, then it falls under the catch-all umbrella of Literature. I watch our erudite Upper West Side clientele squint warily at the shelves. The other day, a man held up a novel with a beach on the cover—a cartoon woman sunning herself on a striped towel pictured—and sniffed distastefully. As though a thought bubble appeared above his head, he tossed the novel back on its stack of identical copies in a way that said, You call this literature?
If prompted, I couldn’t say with any tact what distinguishes literary from commercial fiction. Literary fiction values prose over plot, I might say. Commercial fiction is about the story, whereas literary fiction is about the characters. Like an indie flick verses a Hollywood blockbuster, one novel wears a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and the other mirrored Ray-Ban Aviators. A literary agent I once interned for cut to the chase: “We’re looking for new literary voices,” she told me. “Try to find submissions with a mention of an MFA.”
As reluctant as I am to call my novel commercial, to call it “literary” can feel snobbish in its insistence. Who am I to say that I am more Mary Gaitskill than Mary Kay Andrews? Who am I to say what my novel is at all?
That’s the thing I’ve learned: once you release a novel into the world, you relinquish your control over how it is defined. What my “adult literary fiction” novel has become: Coming of Age. Contemporary Women. Romance. Suspense. Genre Fiction. My novel is amorphous, ready to be whatever it needs to be given the audience. What I can’t decide is whether this ability to sit on many different shelves is a benefit or a hindrance.
Claiming multiple genres feels akin to presenting a business card with the title Artist/Writer/Dancer/Freelance DJ—a worse offense, perhaps, than asserting literary value. But in working in a bookstore, in placing books onto their various shelves and thinking, This doesn’t belong here, I’ve come to appreciate what a misnomer and a crutch a genre can be. When I pressed a copy of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan into a customer’s hand and told her, “It’s a sort of literary science fiction novel,” she stopped me there. “I don’t read science fiction,” she insisted, and I realized not even the modifier of “literary” could combat the negative connotation of genre fiction.
Few books are what they initially appear. I almost didn’t pick up Ben Dolick’s The Ghost Notebooks, put off by the word “supernatural” on its back cover and its placement on the Sci-Fi shelf. When a friend gave me the ARC of Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature that the bookstore had received, he said, “You read thrillers, right? This sounds like a thriller,” and I almost felt insulted. I put off reading the copy of Paullina Simons’s The Bronze Horseman that my coworker lent me, its promise of a “historical romance “ enough to raise my skepticism. “I promise, it has literary merit,” she told me. It took me a while to admit what I always knew: that to me, “literary” is synonymous with “well-written.”
I grew up a competitive dancer. I did jazz and tap. Tap is explicit enough, but when it comes to jazz, people often respond with splaying and wiggling their fingers, evoking John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Jazz is just the name given to quick, upbeat numbers, I would explain. It’s not necessarily to jazz music. One of my dance routines in high school was to an M.I.A. song.
But that’s not jazz, they’ll say.
The question is whether genres need to be abandoned, or if our definitions of genres need to be expanded. Few novels fit snuggly into one category, though there are no doubt novels that do: Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance. It was Octavia Butler and Junot Díaz who allowed me to start to question those classifications in college with Kindred and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, respectively. I hadn’t known that literary novels could have time travel and magic and, knowing this, it didn’t seem fair or even possible that Kindred and Keith Roberts’s The Furies could occupy the same shelf. It only occurred to me then that I’d always thought “literary” also meant taking place in the real world. The Furies is science fiction. Kindred is more complicated than that.
Besides the interest of the consumers, another thing that cannot be controlled is the age. I struggled to decide the age of my potential audience in the query process, again modifying how I framed the novel depending on the person I was trying to please. This is an adult novel with young adult appeal. This is a young adult/adult crossover novel. Some editors suggested that I needed to decide. My thought: couldn’t it be for both?
I’d like to think that by resisting definition, I’ve opened my novel to the possibility of universal appeal. But there is no shelf for YA/Adult coming-of-age literary commercial women’s novels, no reader seeking this niche market. By being perceived by different audiences and consumers as so many different things, I worry that my novel isn’t really anything at all.
Categories are needed to an extent. Not all dances at a competition can be entered into the “open” category. Not all novels belong under the literature umbrella. Some designation is needed to direct consumers toward what they like, what they want.
But there’s no formula to say what sends a novel to the Romance or the Literature shelf. Who can put a value on prose? Who determines what is plot-driven and what is a character study? Perhaps all booksellers and publishers and marketing teams can do is find the closest fit, categorizing by the predominant quality of the novel, and what consumers need to learn to do is keep an open mind. Not all science fiction involves alien invaders. Not all YA novels are strictly for young adults.
When I recommended Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles to a customer at the bookstore, I emphasized its complexity. “It’s a near-future apocalyptic coming-of-age novel,” I told her. “It has sci-fi devices but is distinctly literary, and it has a young narrator but she has an adult disposition.”
I expected a “I don’t read science fiction.” Instead I was told, “That sounds interesting.”
In any case, let’s stop using Women’s Fiction. The idea that there are books written solely for women is a fiction itself.
There are two traits in her character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her tea.
—Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra, January 1796
The company was seated for dinner on the second night of the camp, and as we discussed the villainous General Tinley from Northanger Abbey, the subject turned quite suddenly to torture.
“You know, surely,” said the lady in the blue bonnet, “that Jane based the general on a real-life model?” One gentleman at the table made a face to indicate he knew where this was going and had no interest in coming along. Others nodded their heads, and the lady leaned forward, lowering her voice and glancing behind her, as though the general himself might appear at any moment.
The tale begins in farce and ends in tragedy, but the short version is that the Austens’ neighbors in Hampshire included one family of straight-up villains who were deep into torture. The scion of this family was a stammering young man named John Wallop, Third Earl of Portsmouth. From childhood, when he boarded with the Austens as one of George’s pupils, the earl showed signs of idiocy and occasional psychosis—one reason his family engaged trustees to oversee his estate, including the solicitor John Hanson, who was also Byron’s lawyer, and who sometimes hosted Byron for hunting parties in the neighborhood.
“Of course, the English aristocracy is full of nincompoops,” the lady told the table, “but Wallop was simply a fiend.” As a young man, the earl rejoiced at any chance to inflict pain. He starved his servants, tormented frogs with a fork (here, one woman at the table stopped eating), and would visit slaughterhouses to whip the hogs who were about to die, telling each one in turn: “Serves you right!” Often he beat his oxen about their heads with an axe. His fascination with death was such that he would attend the funerals of strangers and, when there was not a dead stranger at hand, would have his servants stage a mock ceremony so that he could laugh at it. The earl also took to beating his servants. He pursued these pastimes with no appearance of remorse, or understanding of what remorse might mean—a bright-eyed young torture enthusiast. Or, if you join Miss Blue Bonnet’s more sympathetic view, “a silly broken creature without a heart whose father probably broke him in the first place.” (One woman at the table winced at this description of the madman. Another gentleman, who had not been listening, asked me to pass the bread.) When chance provided, the earl would prey on the sick or the convalescing: when one of his coachmen broke his leg in an accident, the earl waited until the doctor had set the leg, then went into the room where the man was recovering and rebroke it. His main erotic pastime involved hiring women-servants of the neighborhood to draw his blood using lancets and then carry it in a basin under their petticoats while he watched; this is also how the earl thought that insemination happened.
Even though he was almost certainly impotent, the family wanted to make sure the earl had no legitimate offspring, so, when he was 31, they married him to a 47-year-old woman who did her best to keep him in line while the second brother, Newton, waited to succeed to the title. During this period, Jane Austen and her family went to several dinners and balls at the Wallop family seat, and Austen’s letters show no sign that she knew what the earl got up to; in one instance she notes his wife’s new dress, while after another of his balls, she acknowledges that she got carried away with the wine: “I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to-day.”
But the earl was soon to go from villain to victim. Upon the death of the earl’s first wife, Hanson, the family lawyer, spirited him to London, where the lawyer then insisted on introducing his three daughters to the earl and told him to pick one. The earl chose Laura, who was deemed the prettiest, but somewhere en route to the chapel, the lawyer pulled a switcheroo, and the earl found himself shortly thereafter reciting the marriage vows not to Laura but to her elder, apparently plainer sister Mary Ann. Byron, whom Hanson engaged as a witness at the wedding, recalls that at the rushed ceremony, the earl recited his vows like a schoolboy doing Cicero— “[Portsmouth] responded as if he had got the whole by heart; and, if anything, was rather before the priest.”
Byron saw the wedding as just another instance of an idiot nobleman about to enter a joyless marriage and could hardly have known that Mary Ann rivaled her new husband for sadism. She took to beating him, kept a whip under her pillow, and installed her lover in the house, a man named William Alder, who (so the servants said) would sometimes creep into bed with Mary Ann while the earl snored at her side. At one point, Alder began torturing the earl regularly and keeping him under lock and key. Eventually, the earl regained sovereignty over his own house and banished his wife, along with the three children she had produced with no help from him. In a sensational trial after Austen’s death, the earl was accused and then acquitted of madness. He lived to 84, and in his final years became a sort of crazed faux monarch who called himself the King of Hampshire.
A few of us had heard the story before, or part of it; the Portsmouth saga appears in Claire Tomalin’s celebrated biography of Austen, but David Nokes’s biography ignores the more lurid aspects, and a lot of Janeites, even if they know about the earl, have little interest—he was just a kook in the neighborhood, of little significance because the families were not close. Others, like the lady in the blue bonnet, think of the tale as a reminder that even in bucolic Hampshire lurked deception, madness, and violence so unimaginable as to verge on comic.
The table was silent after the tale was concluded. One gentleman had left his seat, and the lady who had put down her fork at the mention of tormented frogs began, tentatively, to eat once more.
“But could Jane have known?”
“Jane must certainly have known,” said Miss Blue Bonnet.
“Jane could not—she writes about him in a letter, I forget which, and mentions nothing of—”
“But he was at school under Jane’s father! He boarded in their house as a boy—”
“Exactly—back when he was just a stammering bedwetter, not the worst villain on the earth.”
“So you don’t think General Tilney is drawn from the wicked earl?”
“I should think the general would be much more interesting if Jane had based him on the earl. In the book he’s just a coldhearted grasper.”
“That’s true, no one mentions him torturing the hogs.”
“Or torturing the coachman!”
“Though Catherine does imagine him abusing his wife.”
I entered the fray. “He does sound like a character who might have appeared in the Juvenilia.”
Miss Blue Bonnet looked at me as though I’d just saved her family from debtors’ prison. “My dear, exactly! I’ve said it myself. Where else could Jane have got the inspiration for those bloodthirsty villains?”
I demurred. “Well, Swift, for one.”
The lady considered. “Yes,” she said, “yes, Swift is there.” She paused to sip her wine. “But you must remember that Cassandra burned a lot of Jane’s letters. It is thoroughly possible”—she turned to the woman who had blanched at the frogs, and repeated—“thoroughly possible that Jane knew of the earl, and wrote all about him.” I gave a half-bow to concede the possibility.
I was beginning to learn the secret of mealtimes in Austenworld. In some ways they offer the most gossipy and delicious interactions that world has to offer. The shared passion, the disputed biographical details, the disagreements over recipes and interpretations—these bubble during the lectures and panels but wait until a teatime pause to express themselves in full. Meals are also the most democratic part of these gatherings. At the table, one’s manners are on fullest, clearest display (are you a bad listener? do you chew with your mouth open?), but digesting in company is also democratic, a reminder of equality (we are all animals together at the trough). In Austenworld, then, meals are much more about the rank and file than about the elites. Here, conversation goes to the quick, to the bold, and to those who care the most—not to those with credentials or book deals. It’s anarchy, it’s art, it’s where the most interesting conversations happen, and where judgments are discussed, refined, and rendered without mercy.