I teach an introductory literature course for college students that focuses mostly on the short story. But after having taught it for a number of years with only minor tweaks here and there, I decided it was high time to start revamping it. Thankfully, professors assigned College Communications 3 have a great deal of leeway in selecting what textbooks—if any—they will use, and so the first thing I decided, in order to give myself more freedom, was to dispense with the book altogether. Although the textbook was very useful those first few semesters in helping me organize the course, I wasn’t terribly excited by many of the stories—and, I’m sure, neither were my students. But to keep things somewhat simple, I decided (for this semester at any rate) to retain a few of my favourites from the book for my core lessons, including Alice Munro’s “How I Met My Husband” for my lesson on irony, William Trevor’s “Kathleen’s Field” to highlight symbolism and metaphor, and Guy de Maupassant’s “Abandoned” to highlight setting. The big challenge, however, lay in selecting 18-20 works of short fiction for student presentations, the first nine of which would relate to various take-home essay topics. As it turned out, it was a much more overwhelming project than I anticipated. But it was also a great learning experience—and, I hope, it will be a similarly good one for my students as well.
Part of what made this project so challenging was the sheer freedom I’d given myself. Where does one begin? As an avid fan of short fiction, how could I possibly select only 18-20 stories? I began this boundless task by consulting the four or five tome-like canonical anthologies I have and immediately felt guilty for not having read certain classics, the kinds of stories that get anthologized again and again. In the past, whenever I saw those titles, I’d think I’d read them one day, but in that other self-appointed and never-ending task (the one in which many of us try to plough through as many books as we can in a year) I never found the time to bow out of that race to simply pull an anthology down from the shelf just to read a single story here or there. So at long last that’s exactly what I finally did. For the first time I read such classics as William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Ursula LeGuin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ambrose Pierce’s “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge,” Sherwood Anderson’s “I Want to Know Why,” Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar,” among others. And although doing was something I personal enjoyed (not to mention becoming a kind of mental tick-box I could now check), I decided not to use any of these works. No doubt these stories would all make for great essay and presentation topics, but I wasn’t sure how personally appealing they would be to my students. And when I reflected on my own life as an undergrad and the eye-opening experience of discovering on my own the short fiction of Raymond Carver, Ethan Canin, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, and Laurie Moore, I remember how disappointed I was in not finding a similar sense of wonder in the material I was forced to read when I switched my major from history to English.
So I decided to move away from what I found in anthologies to what already filled my bookshelves: works that I personally loved, were contemporary in nature, beautifully written, and, I’m sure, would relate in various ways to my own students’ lives. Maybe, just maybe, they too will fall in love with reading, and with short fiction in particular, the same way I did.
And so, for the first set of three presentations and the take-home essay question that would tie them together (I realized I could reuse the same prompts, only swap out the stories), I needed three works in which gender was key. But good God! Only three? Which ones? Mona Awad, author of the amazing collection Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, immediately sprang to mind. But again, which Awad story? I love how she explores body-image and the lenses through which women’s bodies are perceived and the pivotal role this plays in self-esteem—something I’m sure a lot of students can relate to. There was, however, the initial problem of coarse language and explicit sexuality in her work, but after receiving the green light from my Chair, I settled on her story “Full Body”—though I would also love to do “Your Biggest Fan” and “The Girl I Hate.” With this notion in mind, I decided to pair this story with Raymond Carver’s “They’re Not You’re Husband” and Joy Williams’ “Health.” In the Carver story, a man sitting in a diner overhears some other men beside him make disparaging remarks about their waitress, a woman who happens to be the man’s wife. Like a butcher assessing a cut of meat, the protagonist gets his wife to go on a strict diet in order to see how the male customers will now react to his wife’s “new” body. In Joy Williams’ “Health,” an adolescent girl is given a series of tanning sessions as a birthday gift. But when a man accidentally opens the door and stares at her naked body for a moment too long, she understands that something has profoundly changed in her life, that she has lost her innocence, and that she’s acquired some kind of ineffable, dark knowledge about the world.
Also important in my selection were stories that reflected the cultural diversity of my students, so for the next set of stories and the essay question tying them together, I chose works in which the cultural and social settings (i.e. class, race, and/or religion) factored into the conflict. After much reading and deliberation, I finally settled on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “On Monday of Last Week” (a Nigerian woman waiting for her American green card works as a nanny for a biracial couple), David Bezmozgis’ “An Animal to the Memory” (a Russian-Jewish kid in a Toronto Hebrew school is both a bully and bullied), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s lovely story “Mrs. Sen’s” (an Indian woman new to the US and who desperately misses home earns some extra money by babysitting an American boy). I would have loved to include in this set Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “Nawabin, Electrician,” a story I was first introduced to earlier this year in the form of a New Yorker Monthly podcast, and is a good example of the way class operates in Pakistan. In the end, though, I felt the Bezmozgis story offered more in terms of irony, and so I simply pushed the Mueenuddin story down among those not associated with any essay topic.
Also important to me were stories in which race was an aspect of the conflict, though not necessarily the central one. And to make things even more interesting, I wanted stories that could overlap with other possible essay topics. So in addition to the aforementioned Adichie story, this set consisted of ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” and Nadine Gordimer’s “Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants,” the latter being a good example of the kinds of ironies and hypocrisies characteristic of a racially divided society like South Africa’s. And because both the Packer and Adichie stories depict black female protagonists who find themselves sexually attracted to other women, for the third story in this set I chose one in which both sexual and cultural identities could make for a fourth essay topic: Yiyun Li’s “Son.” In this story, a Chinese-American gay man goes back to China to visit his mother, a woman who has renounced the Communist party in favour of Christianity.
For the remaining three weeks of presentations, the last 13 stories are not associated with any essay topic. And so, I thought I’d choose works that reflected my students’ areas of study which, for many of them, are in the medical fields, including the paramedical, pharmacy technician, and message therapy programs. I selected Denis Johnson’s “Emergency,” Lucia Berlin’s “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977,” Michael Christie’s “Emergency Contact,” Laurie Moore’s “Dance in America” (I would have liked to have selected her “People Like That Are the Only People Here” but decided it was much too long), and Antonya Nelson’s “Crybaby.”
This brings me to the final week of presentations, and although I easily could have selected even more stories that thematically dealt with health- or medical-related issues, I more or less decided (although I continue to vacillate, even now, at the last minute) on a miscellany of stories I’m interested in for purely selfish reasons. Let’s face it, as a writer of short fiction myself, I have vested interest in what I’m teaching, and part of what motivated me to dispense with the textbook was to explore works that I personally marvel at and wish to examine more closely, to figure out what makes them tick and, just maybe, adopt some of their tricks in my own work. And so, I’ve more or less settled on Nadine Gordimer’s “The Pet,” Joseph O’Neill’s “The Sinking of the Houston,” Colin Barrett’s “The Clancy Kid,” and Breece D’J Pancake’s “Trilobites.” And if student numbers at the end of the semester warrant it, I might need to add one more. But which one? Jeffery Eugenides’ “Complainers”? Or what about Andrea Lee’s “Brothers and Sisters around the World”? Oh! And then there’s Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Or Neil Smith’s “Isolettes”? Or Frederick Busch’s “Ralf the Duck”? All of these stories, I remember, blew me away when I first read them, and I’d love to share them with my students.
But as stories and writers kept springing to mind, this made my task increasingly onerous. I even started to feel guilty about leaving out certain writers, which included, surprisingly, two of my favourites: Mavis Gallant and Deborah Eisenberg. (I felt their works were either too long or did not relate to the various areas of interest I discussed.) And because I have a number of Korean students, I would have liked to include at least one story by a Korean writer—Krys Lee, Paul Yoon, and Bandi are three whose works sit on my shelves—but, again, I decided not to because the stories I remembered best were either well beyond the approximate 20-page limit I set for myself, or the subject matter might not interest students.
Sadly, I’ve also not included any Roberto Bolaño, Charles Baxter, Richard Bausch, Ann Beattie, Jorge Louis Borges, TC Boyle, Ethan Canin, Dan Chaon, Chekhov, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Ben Fountain, Richard Ford, Tessa Hadley, Ha Jin, Nam Le, Nancy Lee, Rebecca Lee, Leonard Michaels, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Vladimir Nabokov, Katherine Mansfield, Leonard Michaels, Yukio Mishima, John McGahern, Edna O’Brien, Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor, Frank O’Connor, Grace Paley, Tom Perrotta, VS Pritchett, Paul Theroux, Colm Toibin, Wells Towers, John Updike, Denton Welch, Tobias Wolff, Stephanie Vaughan, Alejandro Zambra, just to name a few.
And, God, that makes me sad…
But again, my decision to exclude these writers was mostly because I couldn’t think of any particular story that related to any of the topics I talked about—at least not without undertaking some serious rereading. And that’s when I realized this project was starting to become an obsession, as if my choices were ultimate and final, as if I myself were putting together an anthology that couldn’t be emended in future semesters. Nevertheless, it is disheartening the degree to which the works of some of these authors have started to slip into forgetfulness, even though I remember enjoying their books at the time. And yet, by the same token, it has also been extremely rewarding to resurrect those stories that I did select and to now actually do something with them, instead of just letting them languish on my shelves. Perhaps my students, too, will discover that sense of wonder I felt when I first read them. And so, one final lesson that has come out of all this is the value in rereading. Instead of always looking forward to reading the next thing, hoping to find some new and amazing writer, it’s important to also occasionally reread what already sits on one’s shelf. As Nabokov once said: “One cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”