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The Difference Between a Camera and a Person

Your main character is not a walking cameraThis post might anger some writers (especially MFA’s) but I’m going to put it up there anyway. I’ll begin by asking a question: “Don’t you hate it when you can’t tell the difference between the main character of a story and a walking videocamera?”

I know I do.

Let me clarify: I was reading a literary short story the other day that had been published in a well-known literary journal and was now being included in a “Best of” short story anthology (Best American Short Stories, you might as well know). I got so frustrated I almost threw the book across the room and then (like my dog, Duke, who is a bastard) pee’d on it.

“But Richard, why would you pee on Best American Short Stories? It represents the finest American short fiction being published today!”

As my British friend likes to say, “Piss on that. Wankers.”

I don’t believe in literary fiction anymore. Some of it is awesome. There’s no denying that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz was magnificent (though it took him 10 years to write) or that Jonathan Franzen’s latest book….wait, I hate Jonathan Franzen. Screw all of his books.

OK, I promise I’m not as angry as I seem. But I read a lot of this kind of fiction in grad school (even wrote some) and I’m tired of it. If there’s one sin writers continue to commit–especially in literary fiction–it’s the sin of having a protagonist-who-functions-as-a-camera-and-not-much-else.

Literary fiction, as some of you might know, is basically any variety of fiction where the focus of the reader is directed away from entertainment and toward reflection. The mission of the literary author is not to make you turn pages with the fervency of a soccer mom reading Shades of Gray and forgetting to feed her newborn child for six days while she fantasizes about a rich sociopath putting her in handcuffs attached to the ceiling.

No, the mission of said author is to get you to appreciate the prose and the way it’s been constructed, the way the characters develop, the descriptive prowess of the author, the way the setting has been developed, the book’s overarching theme, etc. etc.

But if there’s one element literary writers love to sacrifice for whatever reason, it’s having a proactive character drive the story.

You see this in literary short stories all the time. The prose is crisp and clean, or lush and elegant, the theme is well-developed, the setting is like a vibrant oil-painting–but what the hell happened to the character? He’s just sitting around talking to people, and occasionally he takes a long drive!

Or maybe there is some mention of the character having bad sex, or visiting an old friend/relative/adopted spider monkey, and revisiting a childhood memory…

Usually they drink. Sometimes they smoke pot, which has something to do with a desperate longing for their teenage years…

But where’s the action?

Everything is observed and reflected upon, but nothing happens!

It ruins the story every time. For me at least.

Want to know what the greatest short story is?

(And don’t you dare give me Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog”. That story was so boring I almost killed my dog afterward just for kicks (He would have deserved it, too).)

The greatest short story ever written is “The Swimmer” by John Cheever.

Wasn't Burt Lancaster awesome?Here’s a story about a guy living in suburbia who’s relaxing by the pool one hot summer day when he decides he’s going to return to his house all the way across the county. But he’s not going to drive there or walk there. He’s going to swim there, which will require him to break into peoples’ backyards and swim across their pools.

It’s an awesome story (they even made a movie about it!). At first people give him cocktails and act all friendly and nice, but then the story becomes dark, dark, dark.

People start to act hostile toward him. You’re not sure how much time passes. There appears to be a change from summer to autumn. Our main character loses a lot of the youthful energy he had at the beginning of the story, which makes you wonder what this story is really about.

He finally makes it back home, but what he finds there when he arrives…

It’s not pretty.

The Swimmer is the most powerful short story I’ve ever read, mostly because the main character, Neddy Merrill, just keeps on swimming, despite how dark and scary the world keeps getting. He takes all of it like a good sport because he knows he’s getting closer and closer to home.

I won’t give away the ending. Read it. You’ll be glad you did. Then imagine a story where instead of swimming across peoples’ pools, Neddy decides to drive back home, have an argument with his wife, get drunk by himself, and then sit by his pool thinking about how soulless surburbia is.

Big difference. Thinking and observing does not a story make (I’m pretty sure Yoda explained this to Luke). Only doing.

And swimming.


What do you think? Since we’ve already established what the greatest short story is, what do you think is the SECOND greatest?

*Photo of photographer courtesy of AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker
*Photo of The Swimmer film courtesy of imdb.com

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1 Comment

  1. Emma

     /  June 26, 2012

    Who’s the narrator in the swimmer? I know I’d better read it than ask…


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