Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Why We Need a Manual for Writing (Wo)men

just finishedabandoned: A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin
now reading: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
up next: What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves by Benjamin Bergen

I'd heard a lot about A Manual for Cleaning Women around the time it was published to great acclaim and mass pronouncements of self-on-the-back-patting "I've discovered an overlooked writer!" And it's been on my radar since then, making me think I should maybe check it out.


For me, reading this collection of "short stories" (more on that in a sec) is excruciating, and therefore I am abandoning ship. I made it through 163 out of 399 pages, and I dutifully read some of the foreword, biographical info, etc., so I thoroughly get the "importance" of this. What I don't get is why y'all enjoy it so much. To each her own! Speaking of "her," the reason I was reading this is that it was this month's selection for my Women's Classics Book Group. I therefore had all kinds of motivation to actually finish it, such as the book group ladies, a deadline, adding it to the list of our completed selections (you know I love me a checklist!), the discussion at the meeting, etc. But nope.

However, the book group meeting did help me clarify why I hate it, namely that the selected stories are neither a satisfying whole nor a satisfying sum of parts. You see, Lucia Berlin wrote lots of fragments and story bits over several decades, the vast majority of which drew on her real life experiences (so far, so any writer). Sometimes she was published, and sometimes even acclaimed in small literary circles, and a few academic ones, but obviously did not hit the world fame jackpot or anything. After her death, some peeps saw fit to collect these stories -- so very many -- into A Manual for Cleaning Women, which naturally includes the story titled "A Manual for Cleaning Women" and have I mentioned that it's SO DAMN ANNOYING when short story collections have a title lifted from one of the stories - the pretentiousness starts there and I can't even, because selecting the title of one story to represent a collection either means you see this title as representative of the writer's life and work overall or you were too lazy to think of a title, and it's usually the former, and it's stupid because when writing ONE story, the writer is not writing all of their life's work. And if they were, if that there were anything that centrally important, then it should maybe have been shaped and crafted into a full-length book -- ever try that, Lucia Berlin and other "wondrous" short story writers? No, no you did not. Because writing a book is hard, and writing short stories and snippets and fragments and paragraphs about things that happened to you is not as hard. Crafting a truly great short story IS hard, though, and that's why so many short stories suck.

And all of that is why so many collections of short stories are published. I might even publish one myself someday, because we writers definitely churn them out. I will hope that each story is a good story and do my damnedest to make sure they're all good individually if they're published together in a collection. Lucia Berlin couldn't do that, because she was dead. Would she have wanted all of these stories published? Would she have wanted them ordered and collected like this?

Because here's the thing: as much as this book is excruciating to read in long stretches of snippet-after-snippet-after-snippet, it's also not as if you could read one "story" a day and then move on because you'd be super left hanging, as most of them don't really have things you need to feel complete, such as a beginning, middle, end, plot, or point. They don't really stand individually. But they also don't really go together quite right. They are wisps and fragments of her life. Which brings us to the next part of the problem: she should have shaped these ideas and words and life bits into a memoir. (I can't believe I'm actually saying that anyone "should" have written a memoir. Seriously - if I say that, it's worth at least a glance, based on my usual call for widespread memoir eradication). But she didn't. Yes, I get that she was busy, and an alcoholic. But. She didn't do the work that needed to be done, so I don't need to sit here reading her and praising her to high heaven for her fragments and bits. And I definitely don't need to praise stories that aren't good stories, just because they're collected together and show this woman's life rendered as sort-of fiction.

The strongest moments are the occasional story with either a point ("Carpe Diem") or a beginning, middle, and end ("Friends") or, very occasionally, both, as in "Her First Detox," which also contains some of her strongest writing because she is at her best when describing alcoholism and withdrawal symptoms. I mean, that is her strength, and she actually struggled as an alcoholic and overcame her problem. That is amazing. And she writes so well about it. So what's with the pretending to write fiction and refusing to admit it's true?

Believe me, I've thought about this, as most writers have: am I writing fiction or memoir? Yes, it's OK to use real-life true shit in your fiction. No, it's not OK to make up shit in your memoir. Blending means fiction. So that's where we're at with Lucia Berlin, her fictional blend. BUT! But! But! the entire book group, as my fellow group members heaped praise on the book (yes, I was the lone voice of dissent), they kept coming back to "Her life is so fascinating" and "She overcame so much" in their defense of her. Which means that they, too, see the strength here in her writing about her life. So then, just do it, lady. Or, if you don't, that's fine, but IF you are going to call something a story (or the people who posthumously collect it are going to call it a story), the writer has to have something more than just a way with words and an arrangement of fragments to have crafted a literary work.

But this is not a beautiful literary work. This is Ms. Thang breaking the fourth wall in "Point of View" to tell us, meta-ly, that if great short stories such as Chekhov's "Grief" and, apparently, her stories, were written in first person we'd feel "embarrassed, uncomfortable, even bored" but because the narrator tells us authoritatively and third-personly that so-and-so with blue eyes went to the store or whatever, we "feel, hell if the narrator thinks there is something in this dreary creature worth writing about there must be. I'll read on and see what happens."  A.) She is comparing herself to Chekhov, and I'm thinking, hmmmm, maybe not. B.)Spare me the meta-analysis, but thanks for admitting, Lucia, that your content might be a bit lacking, but hey, nothing a third person point of view can't fix. Sheesh.

She admits in the next line, though, "Nothing happens, actually. In fact the story isn't even written yet." I find that an apt description of much of her book.

As for what IS written, this is a heap of things like "Toda Luna, Todo Año, in which our protagonist abandons her touristy resort and hangs out with divers (real ones, fishing under deep water for seafood) and falls in lust with one who inexplicably teaches her to scuba dive in five minutes and then on one of their underwater adventures, "They embraced, their regulators clanking. She realized then that his penis was inside her." What? Are we still seriously heaping praise on this, Publisher's Weekly and The New York Review of Books and Elle and Entertainment Weekly and The Boston Globe and on and on and on; are we really? She just suddenly realized that it was inside her, did she? Wow. Did she also realize she was secretly a 12-year-old writing in a note to her best giggly friend about what she thought a sexy story might sound like? Because then the sperm "drift[s] up between them like pale octopus ink" and you have got to be kidding me. Don't forget the big payoff ending to this story, when she literally pays off the man - this diver/lover of hers - who comes to her room as she packs the night before she leaves, where he asks for 20,000 pesos to pay off his boat. She writes him a check. Oh, after their supposed "romance," how disillusioning. Kind of like reading this crappy book.

There's a foreword by Lydia Davis that slathers all kinds of fawning lackey praise on the stories, citing examples of "incredible" things Berlin does that would have me giving Davis a C-minus on her paper if she'd handed it in in my English class. There's also a note by editor Stephen Emerson, in which he kowtows to Lucia Berlin and then says he "can't imagine anyone who wouldn't want to read her." Well, you don't have to imagine, buddy, because here I am, in the flesh.