On short fiction

From a 1824 letter written by Washington Irving:

I have preferred adopting the mode of sketches and short tales rather than long works. . . there is a constant activity of thought and a nicety of execution required in writings of the kind, more than the world appears to imagine. It is comparatively easy to swell a story to any size when you have once the scheme and the characters in your mind; the mere interest of the story, too, carries the reader on through pages and pages of careless writing, and the author may often be dull for half a volume at a time, if he has some striking scene at the end of it; but in these shorter writings, every page must have its merit. The author must be continually piquant; woe to him if he makes an awkward sentence or writes a stupid page; the critics are sure to pounce upon it. Yet if he succeed, the very variety and piquancy of his writings—nay, their very brevity, make them frequently recurred to, and when the mere interest of the story is exhausted, he begins to get credit for his touches of pathos or humor; his points of wit or turns of language.

From Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose (2001) written by Raymond Carter:

If we’re lucky, writer and reader alike, we’ll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly. Ideally, we’ll ponder what we’ve just written or read; maybe our hearts or intellects will have been moved off the peg just a little from where they were before. Our body temperature will have gone up, or down, by a degree. Then, breathing evenly and steadily once more, we’ll collect ourselves, writers and readers alike, get up, “created of warm blood and nerves” as a Chekhov character puts it, and go on to the next thing: Life. Always life.

From a 1957 interview with Truman Capote in The Paris Review:

When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium.

From a 1891 letter written by Henry James:

Make [the short story] tremendously succinct—with a very short pulse or rhythm—and the closest selection of detail—in other words summarize intensely and deeply and keep down the lateral development. It should be a little gem of bright, quick, vivid form.

From a 1925 letter to his father written by Ernest Hemingway:

You see I am trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides—3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to. 

From a 1958 interview with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Review:

If it is any use to know it, I always to try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eights of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.

From a 1972 interview with Eudora Welty in The Paris Review:

A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion—than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.

From a 1949 article written by Eudora Welty in The Atlantic Monthly:

The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery—not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful.

From a 2006 interview with George Sanders in The New York Times Magazine:

When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you. What I want is to have the reader come out just 6 percent more awake to the world.

From the introduction to Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (2005) written by David Sedaris:

A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.

From Ways of Escape (1980) written by Graham Greene:

With a novel, which takes perhaps years to write, the author is not the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. It is not only that his characters have developed — he has developed with them, and this nearly always gives a sense of roughness to the work: a novel can seldom have the sense of perfection which you find in Chekhov’s story, “The Lady with the Dog.” It is the consciousness of that failure which makes the revision of the novel seem endless — the author is trying in vain to adapt the story to his changed personality — as though it were something he had begun in childhood and is finishing now in old age.

Is literary representation an act of transubstantiation?

Here are some thought-provoking remarks from Louis Mendand’s New Yorker essay, “Imitation of Life,” on John Updike’s cultural project:

“Ulysses” begins with a mock celebration of the Eucharist—and so, in fact, does “In Search of Lost Time,” a cookie dipped in a cup of tea. The idea is that literary representation is an act of transubstantiation. Literature pulls the real up out of the realm of temporality and insignificance and remakes it into a form that will never decay and never die. There is nothing doctrinally religious about this conception of the literary act. It is at the heart of modernism. “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” Henry James wrote to H. G. Wells. That’s what Updike believed.


The most persistent and mindlessly recycled criticism of Updike’s work is that he was infatuated with his own style, that he over-described everything to no purpose—that, as several critics put it, he had “nothing to say.” But Updike wasn’t merely showing off with his style. He wasn’t, as all those critics were essentially implying, masturbating. He was transubstantiating.

There was nothing secret about this. He explained what he was up to many times. “The Old Testament God repeatedly says he wants praise, and I translate that to mean that the world wants describing,” he once explained to an interviewer. In the preface to the collected Rabbit novels, “Rabbit Angstrom,” he talks about “the religious faith that a useful truth will be imprinted by a perfect artistic submission.” “The world is the host,” he has a character say in one of his short stories; “it must be chewed.” Writing for Updike was chewing. You can dismiss this conception of the literary vocation as pious or old-fashioned, but, if you do, you are dismissing Joyce and much of literary modernism.

Question: If you are a Christian, do you think literary representation is an act of transubstantiation? Should verbal art be compared to the Eucharist?

John Updike’s “non-judgmental immersion”


John Updike visiting Harvard University in 2000. Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe

John Updike is our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. 
— Philip Roth

I am beginning to explore the fiction of the post-war American writer John Updike. “My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,” Updike said in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” Upon his death in 2009, Updike’s friend and fellow storyteller, Joyce Carol Oates, wrote: “I never knew how serious John was about his Christian faith—or, rather, the Christian faith—though some sense of the sacred seems to suffuse his work like that sort of sourceless sunshine which illuminates an overcast day.”

In an article for The New Statesman, Judging John Updike,” David Baddiel writes some things of interest not only as they pertain specifically to Updike but generally to fiction:

The issue of Updike’s greatness hangs over this new biography by Adam Begley, who tries in his introduction to dismiss any anxiety that the subject of this long, insightful and meticulously researched book may be a second-rank talent by asserting: “Predicting his eventual place in the pantheon of American literature is . . . no more useful than playing pin-the-tail with the genius label.” This anxiety, though, reflects a fairly consistent category error in American critical circles. Updike’s central creative project – like that of Jane Austen, George Eliot or Joyce but, I would contend, more extremely, perhaps more artfully, even than any of those – is, in his own phrase, to “give the mundane its beautiful due.”

He is the great poet of the ordinary life, of domesticity, of life as most people live it – as opposed to Saul Bellow, who writes mainly about life as deep-thinking intellectuals, academics and writers live it (and who was considered, mistakenly, a better writer throughout that time when the “Great Male Narcissists”, in David Foster Wallace’s phrase, ruled the literary cosmos). The problem for gravitas-chasing critics such as Bloom and Wood was that Updike writes small – and they mistook this for the size of his talent. “Small” doesn’t really do him justice. A better word would be “microscopic”: using the microscope of his extraordinary prose, Updike reveals and articulates the largest mysteries of life.


As well as being an intricate portrayal of the man, Updike is also a sustained, very fine work of literary criticism. It is particularly good on Updike’s artistic amorality. By “amorality”, I don’t mean that there are no moral principles underlying his work but that there is – as regards the behaviour of his main characters – an absence of blame. There is a problem with the way people read novels now, most obvious in Amazon reviews, in which readers consistently confuse whether or not a novel is good with whether or not they “like” the characters. Generally, readers imagine that if they don’t like the characters in a novel, it is a bad book.

To make matters worse, whether or not they like the characters is usually based on whether or not the characters behave nicely. All of this is a disaster for literature and particularly for Updike, whose characters never behave nicely or, indeed, evilly – they just behave like people do, in a flawed way. “People are incorrigibly themselves” was his motto in creating his people.

In a lecture that Adam Begley quotes, Updike defines his “aesthetic and moral aim” as “non-judgemental immersion” and he followed this throughout his career, achieving its apotheosis most completely in the character of Harry Angstrom in the Rabbit series. No religious writer (he was a practising Christian all his life, and Updike’s infusion of smallness with significance is generated by a sense of seeing everywhere – in a pigeon feather, in a golf swing, in sex – the divine) has ever been so non-judgemental.


He just lets his characters – and their damaging conflicts between duty and desire – stand. As William Maxwell, his editor for many years at the New Yorker, once wrote (in a letter comforting him following another critical accusation of shallowness), his fiction is always “concentrated reflection”: the mirror is never skewed by morality.

This, I think, is another reason why Updike has so many detractors. Ever since F R Leavis wrote The Great Tradition, there has been a school of literary criticism that has demanded that great novelists also be great moralists: that the job of the writer is not just to reflect the world but to tell it the difference between right and wrong.

That is a mistake. A good writer leaves that decision to the reader; a great writer challenges our preconceptions of right and wrong by forcing us to engage and sympathise with characters who confound those preconceptions. The job of the artist is not to pardon or pass sentence upon the world but simply – or not simply, for this is the difficult thing – to show it and its most complex and most difficult truths.

Updike’s lodestar for the novel was, as Begley points out, Stendhal’s contention: “A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet.” Updike wrote in the way he did because his mirror was extremely bright and his road was very long – it was America and the world beyond. He wrote in the way he did, in other words, not because he had nothing to say but because he had everything to say. 


“The Word’s ability to rise again from chronic, homiletic burial”

Reflecting on the transfiguration of our Lord, Scott Cairns, a contemporary Eastern Orthodox poet, offers some provocations about “God talk”:

What might we make of this apparent “change” in the Christ we speak of as being one of the Holy Trinity? What does it mean to say that God appears to change? 

By and large, the Orthodox Church — in keeping with the rabbinic tradition of its Lord — is relatively comfortable with theological speculation, and somewhat less comfortable with — acutely less tolerant of — scholastic, theological nit-picking and definitive theological certainties. The Eastern Church even has a word for the more provisional, interpretive activity; it is theologoumena (Θεολογούμενα), which is to say, simply, “to speak of God.”

To speak of God is, of course, not a thing one should do — ever — with anything like certainty. It is always a practice to be approached modestly, humbly, and fully aware of the inadequacy of language to “set terms” to the One Who Exceeds All Terms. Our “God talk” must be understood always to be an interpretation, and no interpretation should occasion idolatry — which is what happens when we allow our terms to eclipse the Mystery we hope to serve.

Like the rabbis leaning into their texts to puzzle out a likely midrashim, we do well to preface our every utterance with something approaching “And another interpretation might be.”

I like very much how Chrysostomos, the Archbishop of Etna, defines theologoumena; he calls it the “privately-held, though possibly accurate, views held by some Fathers.” He also makes clear that setting a firm line between dogma and theologoumena is a Western disposition, and that the Orthodox view favors “a thorough, careful search of the Fathers and … an existential immersion into their spirit — to something that ultimately rises above the useful tools of research that we have borrowed largely from Western theological schemata.”

This probably comes as a surprise to many Americans, including most American Christians, largely because most have had no real opportunity to know of the prior, Eastern tradition — which, I dare say, happens also to be their own early tradition, their own, due inheritance. Oy.

As I say, then, when confronted with a mystery, speculative interpretation is to be expected, as is humility.

For this mystery, this Feast Day of the Transfiguration, I would focus on one remarkable and exhilarating bit of theologoumenon offered by Saint Maximos the Confessor, a “Father” who was pleased during his lifetime (circa 580-662) to pore over the Transfiguration at great length, to witness the radiance of the Lord on Mount Tabor as the Uncreated Light of God, and to speak of human apprehension of His Light as an endless development — passing, as Saint Gregory of Nyssa would say, “from Glory to Glory.”

In his Centuries of Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation, the Saint Maximos writes:

[T]he Lord does not always appear in glory to all who stand before Him. To beginners He appears in the form of a servant; to those able to follow Him as He climbs the high mountain of His Transfiguration He appears in the form of God, the form in which He existed before the world came to be. It is therefore possible for the same Lord not to appear in the same way to all who stand before Him, but to appear to some in one way and to others in another way, according to the measure of each person’s faith.

To this provocative speculation, I would add my own, provisional glimpse.

As We See

The transfiguration of our Lord — that is, the radiance in which
he was bathed at the pinnacle of Mount Tabor — did not manifest
a change in Him, but a change in those who saw Him.
—Isaac the Least

Suppose the Holy One Whose Face We Seek
is not so much invisible as we
are ill-equipped to apprehend His grave
proximity. Suppose our fixed attention
serves mostly to make evident the gap
dividing what is seen and what is here.

The Book there on the stand proves arduous
to open, entombed as it is in layers
of accretion, layers of gloss applied
to varied purposes, hardly any of them
laudable, so many, guarded ploys
to keep the terms quite still, predictable.

Which is why I’m drawn to — why I love — the way
the rabbis teach. I love the way they read — opening
The Book with reverence for what
they’ve found before, joy for what lies waiting.
I love the Word’s ability to rise again
from chronic, homiletic burial.

Say the One is not so hidden as we
are kept by our own conjuncture blinking,
puzzled, leaning in without result. Let’s say
the meek, the poor, the merciful all
suspect His hand despite the evidence.
As for those rarest folk, the pure in heart?
Intent on what they touch, they see Him now.

Sacramental poetics

Readers of Bensonian will know that I am passionate about recovering a sacramental vision. Inspired by his Eastern Orthodox tradition, the distinguished contemporary poet Scott Cairns has been developing what he once called “sacramental poetics” and he now calls “mystical poetics.” Here are his remarks from an essay delivered at Calvin College in 2001, “Elemental Metonymy: Poems, Icons, Holy Mysteries.”

Lately (the past decade or so), I’ve suspected a relationship between my sense of poetic practice and my sense of religious practice. This is not such a new idea, of course; in fact, my thinking has been assisted to a great degree by some relatively old ideas (Coleridge’s natura naturans, etc.) and by certain ideas that are, frankly, ancient (the mystical theology of the Eastern Church).

Throughout Christendom, both historically and at present, the Church’s central sacramental rite, communion, has been and continues to be variously apprehended—by those who celebrate it as well as by those who do not. And while I am quite confident that this rite is of a species of phenomena (that is, Mystery) never to be actually understood, I might offer two examples of how it is discussed, trusting that by these examples I might better indicate my sense of what I mean by the poetic, and what I mean when I say that I sense a connection between Sacrament and the poetic. If, as may happen, such a comparison occasions a glimpse of sacrament that some of us had not previously appreciated, then all the better.

When I was a child attending Temple Baptist Church in Tacoma, Washington, we spoke of the matter, rather simply and, as it were, King James Biblically, as “The Lord’s Supper.” Along with this gesture, we rather pointedly characterized communion as a solemn meal shared, and, I think, deliberately emphasized its primarily retrospective, its commemorative activity. My own understanding of that communion service was roughly this: once a month, we shared grape juice, which reminded us of Christ’s shed blood, and we chewed and swallowed tiny squares of hard cracker, which reminded us of Christ’s broken body.

Neither the juice nor the cracker was, of itself, mysterious, though both may have served as signs directing the mind to a very great Mystery. These days, most “poems” I come across in a given week seem to work that way, too. Their words point to an event, or to a stilled moment, or to a sentiment, which, mysterious as it may have been, remains an occasion distinct from the “poem” and its language. In most cases, then, the poem serves as the cracker, prepared so as to be ingested in order that the mind might be thereby directed to another, more real event, an event whose import and whose agency are always, necessarily, fixed in the past.

The poetic, however, is something else: it is an occasion of immediate and observed—which is to say, present—presence; it is an occasion of ongoing, generative agency. And this strikes me as a condition that is far more suggestive of Eucharistic communion as it is understood and performed in the Eastern Church and in those elements of the Western Church that embrace a sacramental theology. The wine becomes the mystical blood of Jesus Christ and the bread becomes His mystical body. One might be satisfied to say that the elements symbolize those realities, if only one could recover that word’s ancient sense of mutual participation, if only our word symbol hadn’t been diminished over the centuries to serving as a synonym for sign. At any rate, as we partake of those Mysteries, we are in the present presence of Very God of Very God dipped into our mouths on a spoon, and we partake, locally, in His Entire and Indivisible Being, which is boundless.

Moreover, we are by that agency changed, made more like Him, bearing—as we now do—His creative and re-creative energies in our sanctified persons. This is appalling, and it serves to exemplify what I would call the poetic: the presence and activity of inexhaustible, indeterminate enormity apprehended in a discreet space.

Whether a literary work occurs in prose or verse, whether it is also characterized as fiction, as nonfiction, or as drama, whether or not it may also support additional, extra-textual narratives or propositions, it is poetic to the extent that it occasions further generation—to the extent, in other words, that it bears fruit.

One can hardly read a passage of Virgil or of Dante (or certain poems of Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, or Bishop, etc.) without experiencing a responsive flight of the imagination; if the reader is also a poet, that flight may well result in a responsive (or, as George Steiner might say, a therefore critically responsible) poem; if the reader is also a scholar, that flight may well result in a similarly co-creative reading that provides for rich and enriching readings thereafter.

Like the Holy Mysteries, then, poems—if they are truly poems—have agency, bear energy, are concerned more with making something with and of the observer than they are concerned with referring her to a past event, to a proposition, or to any previously discovered, previously circumscribed matter.

Like the Holy Mysteries, then, the poetic is involved with communication—not, however, in the sense that that word has become misunderstood as the uni-directional distribution of information, rather, in the sense that something of each communicant is imparted to the other, and necessarily in the sense that new creation is the result.

Like the Holy Mysteries, then, the poetic is utterly involved with presence, not merely its history, but also its currency, and its continuing, life-giving current, its influence. To the extent that its activity moves at all along the temporal plane, that activity will be more accurately understood as moving forward than as moving back.

In a 2016 interview for Image, Cairns revised his original terminology:

Image: You wrote in Image some time ago about “sacramental poetics.” What is sacramental poetics, and in the decade since you wrote that piece, has that notion changed or evolved for you?

SC: Well, my thinking has changed a bit; for one, I’m less pleased with the word sacrament (a legal term coined for a mostly unfortunate western theology by Tertullian, after all) and prefer the more likely mysterion, or mystery. So, I suppose for now I’ll roll with “mystical poetics,” though even that is too susceptible to all kinds of goofiness.

Now, as to what I’m after with any of these gestures: So long as we understand our literary texts to be merely tokens referring to our prior ideas, we are denying the efficacious power and presence occasioned by our words. On the other hand, when we come to appreciate that our words have power, presence, and agency to shape our persons (including but not confined to our person’s ideas), we get a glimpse of the inexhaustible One in whom we live and move and have our being.

A mystical poetics, then, carries the premise that the stuff of language, duly engaged by the worker in language, can be a source of revelation. There are, of course, all kinds of preconditions for language doing that in any reliable way; for starters, the worker should be working on what we in the business call purification, thereafter, illumination, and, God-willing, theosis.

For all the yammering host of self-identified “theologians” we suffer, there is no such thing as a theologian who has not undergone purification, illumination, and has tasted theosis. To presume to write theology, depending upon scholarship and speculation, without having lived this sanctifying process, is to guarantee heresy—not to put too fine a point on the matter.


Poetry is a pilgrim’s journey

In Short Trip to the Edge: Where Heaven Meets Earth—A Pilgrimage, Eastern Orthodox poet Scott Cairns writes:

Among my students—among even the brightest of them—many start out by supposing that poetry is a species of denotative art, a laboriously embroidered species of that genus perhaps, but a primarily expressive, referential understanding. Most imagine that the role of the poet is to express her unique feelings, or to share his comprehensive and world-correcting understandings. Some few still imagine that their job is to seek out vivid experiences that they can then document.

My sense of actual poetry is that, before it can so much as begin, it must be recognized as a way by which we concurrently construct and discern experience; it is not a means by which we transmit ideas or narrative events we think we already understand, but a way we might discover more sustaining versions of them. 

Like most endeavors of the spirit, poetry itself is a pilgrim’s journey. We gather our gear, and we start out—alert to where the path will lead. 

Blessed be the tie that binds

For my final exam in American Literature, I held a 90-minute seminar on Thornton Wilder’s drama, Our Town (1938). Here was my question:

The hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” (1782) appears four times in the drama: the choir practice in the Congregational Church (Act I), the whistling of Mr. Webb (Act I), the wedding of George Gibbs and Emily Webb (Act II), and the funeral of Emily Webb (Act III). What is the tie that binds the village people of Grover’s Corners—and is it blessed?

Answers varied, including time, nature, charity (agape), and God. I maintain that liturgy is the tie that binds the village people of Grover’s Corners. This answer should be no surprise to those who know me because I am a liturgical creature in the Anglican tradition. I have in mind what Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith means by cultural liturgies—those “formative pedagogies of desire that try to make us a certain kind of person,” those habituated rituals that inspire and order life.* His examples are consumerism in the shopping malls or the market, nationalism at sporting events or public schools, and worship in the Christian community. In Wilder’s drama, the cultural liturgies are birthdays, child rearing, romance, marriages, and funerals—all designed to hallow time and retard its ferocious speed. Liturgy, it seems, can turn the enemy of time into a friend.

*  Footnote: In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Smith writes:

Liturgies—whether “sacred” or “secular”—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies. They prime us to approach the world in a certain way, to value certain things, to aim for certain goals, to pursue certain dreams, to work together on certain projects. In short, every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person. Hence every liturgy is an education, and embedded in every liturgy is an implicit worldview or “understanding” of the world. And by this I don’t meant that implanted in them is an understanding of the world that is pretheoretical, that is on a different register than ideas. That is why the education of desire requires a project hat aims below the head: it requires the pedagogical formation of our imagination, which, we might say, lies closer to our gut (kardia) than our head.