Late to the Party: Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help
Reading Lorrie Moore for the first (and maybe last) time
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Late to the Party is a new Electric Literature series where we ask writers to write about an author that, for some reason, they’ve never read. The idea for the series came about when I mentioned that I’d never read Lorrie Moore and a cry of “WHAT??!?” echoed through the office. On the one hand, I’m a short story writer and editor living in America with one degree in English and another in Fiction, which makes it surprising that I haven’t read Moore. On the other hand, no matter how well read any of us are, we all have enormous gaps. Talking in the office, my co-workers listed authors they’d never read — Margaret Atwood, Herman Melville, Tolstoy, Bolano, “any of the Brontes.” It takes a lifetime to read a library.
But we thought it would be interesting to start a series where authors write about their impressions — positive or negative — of an author they haven’t read, then read one of their most famous works and see how their uninformed opinion holds up. (Hat tip to Court Merrigan’s “My Year in Re-Reading After 40” series at Electric Lit for the idea of the two part structure.)
So why haven’t I read Lorrie Moore? For the most part, I simply haven’t gotten around to it. It isn’t as if my mother’s dying wish was that I read Birds of America yet I refused her even this because Moore once stole my sandwich from the freezer at MacDowell. In the office, I offhandedly said I had the impression that Moore was the type of “MFA writer” that normally doesn’t quite do it for me. I was told that I was dead wrong. I was told Moore was far more widely read than just the MFA universe, that she was read by “all women,” and that she “invented the instructional second person short story.” (The last bit seems like saying a doctor invented genital herpes, but to each their own.)
I’ve always been someone who rolled my eyes at the “MFA writing is all the same” camp. The range of authors who have attended an MFA — from Flannery O’Connor and Ben Marcus to Joy Williams and George Saunders — encompasses almost any style of literary fiction out there. And as an editor, I’ve read countless Raymond Carver clones from writers without an MFA. So my comment was lazy.
Still, there is a certain style of witty-but-not-actually-funny kinda-dark-but-not-really-dark literary realist story composed of poetic-but-definitely-not-too-poetic sentences that dominates much of what gets published in literary magazines and submitted to undergrad or MFA workshops. Normally there are couples having bad sex, parents divorcing, and grandmothers dying of cancer. Some of this is great, even transcendent, but I’ve just read enough of it in my life.
Still, there is a certain style of witty-but-not-actually-funny kinda-dark-but-not-really-dark literary realist story composed of poetic-but-definitely-not-too-poetic sentences that dominates much of what gets published in literary magazines and submitted to undergrad or MFA workshops. Normally there are couples having bad sex, parents divorcing, and grandmothers dying of cancer.
So my assumption — again, I want to stress that this is just my uninformed impression of an author I have never read — was that Moore was in that camp. About the only thing I’ve heard about Moore is that she’s very funny. So I assume she is a funnier Raymond Carver or a less biting and brilliant Joy Williams. Somewhere between those two.
At the bookstore, they had the two collections I’d heard praised, Self-Help and Birds of America. I picked up a copy of her breakthrough book, Self-Help, since it was about 1/4th the size and, as her early work, I figured it would be more daring and experimental. I’ll let you know what I think.
How to Dislike a Lorrie Moore Story
Reader, I hated it.
Or, to phrase it like a Lorrie Moore character: “Feeder, I skated it.” (More on Moore’s obsession with nonsensical puns in a bit.)
I went into this series expecting to love Moore and to realize that all my impressions and stereotypes were dead wrong. Instead, I’m hesitant to even write about the book, since I’m sure to offend a lot of my friends. But, oh well, the point of this series is to give an honest reaction, and Moore has achieved enough acclaim, sales, and awards that I doubt she will care what I think.
When I wrote my pre-reading impressions, I gently mocked the kind of story that is ubiquitous in undergrad creative writing classes and MFA programs: “Still, there is a certain style of witty-but-not-actually-funny kinda-dark-but-not-really-dark literary realist story composed of poetic-but-definitely-not-too-poetic sentences that dominates much of what gets published in literary magazines and submitted to undergrad or MFA workshops. Normally there are couples having bad sex, parents divorcing, and grandmothers dying of cancer.”
If you replace “grandmothers” with “relatives,” this is a Nostradamus level prediction. Virtually every story here features bad sex, divorcing parents, or relatives dying of cancer… often all three at the same time. If you’ve ever read slush for a lit mag or gone through an MFA, you will recognize all the moves and styles in these stories from vague but kinda poetic titles (“What Is Seized,” “Go Like This,” “To Fill,” etc.) to a complete lack of plot or story.
How to Write Serious Literary Fiction in the 1980s
Moore is so popular that perhaps her work is cliche because she invented the cliches. Certainly she must have helped spread them. That said, Self-Help was published in 1985. By then, Raymond Carver had published all of his major works. Joy Williams, Frederick Barthelme, and Alice Munro had all been publishing for over a decade. Mary Robison, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Ann Beattie were well established. The blueprint of MFA realism was already there. Additionally, there is a story in Self-Help about being in creative writing classes in which the cliches of MFA realist stories are mentioned and, to Moore’s credit, mocked.
Cliche inventor or not, what distinguishes Moore’s stories from the other 80s literary realist short story writers? Compared to the authors listed above, Moore’s work stands out as being far more, well, privileged. While the 80s K-Mart realists were known for writing about poor and working class Americans who were often overlooked in literary fiction, Moore sticks to your average educated white upper/middle class characters who don’t really seem to have jobs or problems beyond their family or lovers. (The few times jobs are mentioned, they’re just fodder for arch jokes or else details that never impact the characters’ personalities or actions.)
Beyond the white middle classness of her work, there are two things that seem to make Self-Help unique from Moore’s contemporaries: puns and the second person POV.
How to Tell a Joke aka How to Spell a Coke
Get it? “Spell” and “coke” rhyme with “tell” and “joke” so it counts as a joke besides not being witty nor making any sense in context. Time and time again in Self-Help, the reader is confronted with an awkward line or an irrelevant detail only to learn it was set-up for a pun:
“You’re turning into a cat mom. Cats, Trudy, are the worst sort of surrogates.”
Tell him you’ve always wanted to run off and join the surrogates.
The castle’s doorman’s fly is undone. Smile politely. In the elevator, say “The unexamined fly is not worth zipping.”
“So, you’re a secretary?”
Squirm and quip: “More like a sedentary”
These jokes almost never advance or complicate plot/setting/mood/etc, and since almost every character has this “quirk,” it doesn’t distinguish one from another. It’s random humor divorced from plot or character, like Family Guy jokes written by a PhD student.
It’s random humor divorced from plot or character, like Family Guy jokes written by a PhD student.
How to Write a How To Story
The second distinguishing feature is the “how to” format that Moore is apparently known for inventing. Six out of the nine stories feature the second person, and four have “How” in the title. Today, this story style is extremely popular in undergrad creative writing classes. But I can believe this is because of Moore’s influence and that people weren’t writing them in her day.
However, few of the “how to” stories in this collection play with the idea or form of how to guides. Most of them read as if they were traditional third person stories that the writer later searched through in order to change pronouns from “he” or “she” to “you,” without making any other substantive edits. That’s fine, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
Stylistically, the most interesting story is the last one, “To Fill,” where Moore adopts a nicely bizarre and ungrammatical voice that features plenty of oddly poetic lines. It opens: “There is no dignity in appetites. That blanched pathetic look at salad bars, those scramblers for some endless consumption I am no exception.” And yet Moore can’t avoid passages like this:
Do I grow slinky? I think of carrot sticks and ice and follow Jeffrey’s lead. I am snapping my fingers, wiggling, bumping, grinding. Mom, giggles Jeffrey. That’s too kinky.
And later, alone, the night outside grows inky, like my thoughts, my thoughts.
I am dying for a Twinkie.
How to Make Fun of Yourself
By far the funniest story in Self Help is “How to Become a Writer,” in part because it seems to be mocking every other story in the collection. The (second person) protagonist is a writer who has no concept of plot or much of an imagination, but instead populates aimless stories drawn from real life with bad puns. The protagonist keeps a folder of writing ideas like “Possible plot? A woman gets on a bus” and turns in stories to workshop with titles like “For Better or for Liverwurst” and “Mopey Dick” — the latter is about “Monomania and the fish-eat-fish world of life insurance in Rochester, New York. The first line will be ‘Call me Fishmeal.’” This is all deflated by the other characters who are bored by the fake wit and lack of any story in the protagonist’s workshop submissions.
So, Moore is certainly aware of her habits, even if she doesn’t change them in this collection.
How to Admit Moore Is Certainly Not a Bad Writer
While Moore in Self-Help does almost everything I dislike in the genre of “MFA realism” fiction, I don’t want to pretend this is a bad book. The puns aside, Moore has many strengths. She is great at writing the small but meaningful moments, has an eye for the well-plucked detail, and peppers the stories with plenty of nice lines, metaphors, and scenes.
I think what left me ultimately feeling cold to these stories is the fact that despite their strengths, they don’t seem to add up to much.
How to Like Quiet Realist Fiction
Moore, like many writers of literary realism I’ve read, fills her stories with little details, quirky character traits, small events. Many of these are interesting, some very moving. The problem, for me, is that they aren’t linked to a story. Too often, they feel interchangeable. I mean that literally. I’m pretty positive I could swap around lines and paragraphs from these stories and readers wouldn’t notice. The details don’t feel chosen to affect the story, but rather are just there because the writer thought the detail was in itself interesting. They don’t build to something.
(And, yes, I’m positive I’ve been guilty of this in my own writing. As a writer, it’s always tempting to cram an interesting detail, a clever metaphor or, I guess, a corny pun into a story even when it doesn’t serve a purpose.)
When a story is written this way, no matter how memorable the parts, I’m left forgetting the whole.
How to Read 1980s Fiction in 2017
There is another element of my dislike of these stories that isn’t specific to Moore. I imagine I’d have a similar feeling with a re-read of Beattie, Carver, or Munro. And that is how irrelevant they feel in 2017. With a reality that is growing increasingly absurd, surreal, and darkly comic, these quaint, quiet “realist” tales of people entirely unaffected by the world around them feel, frankly, unreal. And in a time when the world seems on the brink of chaos, the US political system is completely dysfunctional, and religious and ethnic minorities are being terrorized at home and abroad, it’s simply hard to care about the plight of educated middle class characters who can’t decide if they want to keep having a sad affair that they never enjoyed in the first place.
With a reality that is growing increasingly absurd, surreal, and darkly comic, these quaint, quiet “realist” tales of people entirely unaffected by the world around them feel, frankly, unreal.
How to Actually Like a Lorrie Moore Story: Birds of America
Because several EL staff members told me Self-Help wasn’t nearly as good as Moore’s middle period work, I decided I should at least read one story from Birds of America. After writing the above, I read the first story, “Willing,” and I was almost shocked that it was the same writer.
While this story is about, yes, an upper class woman having an affair, the character (an actress aging out of the sexist film industry) is a fully realized creation. She has (or had) a job, and the job impacts her and her actions. She has thoughts and feelings that feel unique to her. Moore’s writing still sometimes has a hodgepodge feel, where sentences and paragraphs don’t necessarily follow from each other and there are asides that feel like they come from the author not the character. (“The thing with tapas bars was that you just kept stuffing things into your mouth.”) But here the arrangement feels purposeful and masterful. It works to create an effect. In Self-Help, it sometimes felt like Moore was taking clever lines she’d written down in a notebook then forcing them into whatever story she was working on. It does not feel like that here.
Even better, I found “Willing” truly funny, and I believe that’s because the humor comes from the actual actions and drama of the characters instead of weird puns or wry jokes being made by the author. I burst out laughing at this point, when the actress finds out the car mechanic she’s been sleeping with — whom she doesn’t actually like — slept with another woman:
A bone in her opened up, gleaming and pale, and she held it to the light and spoke from it. “I want to know one thing.” She paused, not really for effect, but it had one. “Did you have oral sex?”
He looked stunned. “What kind of question is that? I don’t have to answer a question like that.”
“You don’t have to answer a question like that. You don’t have any rights here!” she began to yell. She was dehydrated.
For my money, both the surprise oral sex question and the “She was dehydrated” line are perfectly placed.
I also quote that passage to note a tactic — frequently used in this story — that Moore seems to have popularized along with the “how to” format: the use of a sudden florid line to heighten emotionally important moments. This move is as common as the page 2 flashback in MFA literary realism, but I can believe that Moore popularized it. It works well here. Moore used these in Self-Help too, but there were so many jump-out-of-the-page lines in each story that none really jumped out. And they weren’t placed as strategically for emotional impact.
If I had a criticism of this story, it would be that these power lines are sometimes vague and too metaphorically confused for my taste. The bone that turns into some kind of megaphone is a bit awkward, but I can kind of go with it. A better example: “There was something numb and on hold in her. There were small dark pits of annihilation she discovered in her heart, in the loosening fist of it, and she threw herself into them, falling.” This, to me, reads a little too much like goth poetry. And there’s just too much there. The feeling inside her is “numb,” “on hold,” “small dark pits of annihilation” and near her “loosening heart” that she then throws herself / falls into. Do we need all that?
This is not to say that I think you can’t be over-the-top with your power lines. I quite loved this beautifully ridiculous moment:
Might be willing…” he was saying. But she was already turning into something else, a bird — a flamingo, a hawk, a flamingo-hawk — and was flying up and away, toward the filmy pane of the window, then back again, circling, meanly, with a squint.
Still, “Willing” is a very well-written story that makes me understand Moore’s appeal and influence. It may be MFA realism, but it’s a lot better than most of her imitators…or her own early work.