“I like writing best because it’s the hardest art. There are more balls to keep in the air at a time.” So said Carol Emshwiller in the introduction to her 2011 Collected Short Stories. I reviewed it that year for The Short Review, the online journal I set up in 2007 with the purpose of filling the review gap when it came to short story collections. I decided that we – I ended up managing/wrangling over 40 reviewers worldwide – would review anything and everything, older books and new, across all genres. I didn’t know then that this would mean me being exposed to writers, to stories, to genres I had never contemplated, widening my mind as a reader, and, vitally, giving me permission to do new things myself in my own short stories.
I am writing about her here, at Anthony’s invitation, which normally focuses on poets and poetry, not because I am attempting to proselytize on behalf of the short story! (Well, not entirely…) I am also now a poet but quite new to poetry and so when Anthony asked if I wanted to write a guest post on a poet who I thought should be better known, I asked if I might switch that to a short story writer who I think should be better and far more widely known, especially in the UK. I hope the enjoyment and the lessons I learned from encountering Carol Emshwiller, an American short story writer and novelist who turned 94 this year, will be of interest to you whatever you write or read, wherever you are.
“Grandma used to be a woman of action. She had big boobs, but a teeny-weeny bra. Her waist used to be twenty-four inches. Before she got so hunched over she could do way more than a hundred of everything, pushups, situps, chinning….” This is the beginning of Emshwiller’s short story, Grandma (read the full story here ), and it stopped me in my tracks. What is going on here? I remember thinking. There’s so much said, so succinctly and intriguingly – here’s a grandmother that doesn’t sound anything like the elderly people I have encountered! From the way the intro is written, we also immediately know our narrator is her grandchild. We also understand that something has happened to grandma, she’s not what she used to be. Talk about a lesson in compression. Could you resist reading on?
This was so utterly different from anything I’d read. I’d thought of myself as a “literary” writer, although I didn’t really know what that meant. I did also want fiction to be, well, fictional, imaginative, but had never gone anywhere near “science fiction”, or “genre fiction”. Emshwiller’s work had been described to me by the even less enticing phrase “feminist science fiction”, which I had imagined – as a Star Trek devotee during childhood – as involving women at the helm of spaceships. Well, no. This from her beautiful, moving story, Creature: “I want to comfort her. Put my arms around this green scaly thing. (My son had an iguana. We never hugged it.) She reaches toward me as if to hug too. But even those little arms… those claws… And my head could fit all the way in her mouth, no problem. I flinch away. I see her eyes turn reptilian – lose their wide childlike look. She says, ‘Kh…khss ssorry.’”
What I understood was that Emshwiller had been labelled as a “science fiction writer” early on, and this label had persisted, even though she didn’t always see herself that way. But she did love the genre. “One thing I like best about science fiction,” she writes in the introduction, “is that you can write a story that comments on our world here and now… Often from an alien point of view.” She was delighted with a description of her own work as something that “estranged the everyday”.
It seems to me that this is what all writers do, in whatever form and in our own way. We look so closely at the world around us and transform what we notice into more than just our thoughts and impressions, into something that might affect a reader, might cause them to look at the familiar a little differently. Does it matter if it’s from the point of view of a superhero, a scaly creature, or even a starship commander?
I can see now, looking back over the past 5 years, how Emshwiller’s stories, among others, opened me up. I often write – in poems as well as short stories – from the point of view not just of humans who are very unlike me, but inanimate objects (chairs, stones), animals (chickens, cats) and sometimes I have no clue who or what my narrators are at all. But what Emshwiller – and all great writers – are always writing about are the universals: love, death, greed, war, friendship, loneliness, tribalism etc.. How to live. The best writers, in my opinion, don’t give sermons, hammer home messages. They come at it slant, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson. And why limit ourselves as to the angle of that slant? Why not bend and stretch?
What I learned is not to worry about labels, genres, in anything that I write – although this was difficult when I came to poetry and grappled with the question of what a poem “had” to be, a question I had long since abandoned with the short story. Having gathered enough “evidence” that what I am writing is poetry, I feel myself letting go here too. A poem can be a story, can be fictional, or autobiographical, or something else entirely. A story can be a poem. This isn’t something a writer should concern herself with, other people are perfectly happy to do it for us! Bend and stretch. To start with, go off and read some of Carol Emshwiller’s stories. Then see what happens.
Tania Hershman is the author of two short story collections and a poetry chapbook, co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers and Artists Companion, and curator of ShortStops, an online hub for all things short story in the UK & Ireland. www.taniahershman.com