Kevin Doyle Blog

Writing and activism

Don’t Mention The War at Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival

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2003 invasion of Iraq

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Sometimes the best way to get your hands on the cream of short story writing for the year is to get along to the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival, held in Cork.  This year the short list of six writer (see below) for what is regarded by many as the most prestigious prize for the short story in the world, included five writers from the United States.

There is no doubt that the short story is a valued form in the States.  Publications such as the New Yorker have in particular promoted the discipline and must be credited for their support for the short story over the years.  Frank O’Connor himself benefited enormously from US patronage when he struggled to make a living here in Ireland all those years ago.  Furthermore we cannot easily dismiss writers of the caliber of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jane Anne Philips and Annie Proulx – to name just a few of the accomplished writers who have penned stories from over in the States.

But – and here’s the thing – it stuck me forcefully this year, with the US having such a strong presence in the final shortlist, that there is something wrong.  The United States after all is at war.  Actually it is fighting not just one war but two – in Iraq and Afghanistan.   These wars, it must be underlined, are major conflicts.

In 2003 the United States led coalition invaded Iraq. It deposed the regime there and installed another one.  Massive civilian casualties were suffered and many atrocities occurred.  It was discovered that torture and the ill-treatment of prisoner by US forces was rife – recall the Abu Ghraib revelations.  In sum Iraq has been bombed into a relic of what it was once by the US war machine for dubious and long discredited objectives.  Then there is the war in Afghanistan.  Attacked in 2001 it has been in a state of crisis for nearly 9 years.  Again the casualties have been massive.  Torture has been rife and there is the ongoing plague of drone bombings which have in fact escalated in intensity since the Barak Obama’s election.  Significant numbers of civilians have been massacred.  We are talking here of outrages as serious as what Guernica represents to modern warfare.  Now however it seems as if atrocities of the scale of Guernica have become so commonplace that they are hardly commented on any more.  But they are still outrages and they are still happening.

What has all this got to do with the short story?   Well, for me, it is this.  Here, on this occasion in Cork, we have five US short story writers shortlisted for a prestigious international award.  These are very good writers – some are new and have produced debut collections while others like TC Boyle and Ron Rash are established.   But is there one significant story about the above wars in the collective output from these writers?  Well, so far, if it is there, I haven’t been able to find it.  And by the way if someone does find such a story, then do let me know.

The pat explanation of course is that stories or literature (and art), if you want, are above these base matters.  Or another generous explanation might be that the material for stories about these wars has yet to filter down through the great sponge that is contemporary life and civilisation.  In other words, with regard to US output these stories will come in time – as indeed they did when we look back at the invasion of Vietnam by the US.

The above points are indeed reasonable.  Or are they?  Do they explain the avoidance of these US wars – that’s the question? Or maybe avoidance is too strong a word – is it?   ‘Omission’ perhaps?  Lack of interest perhaps?  Well what then?  Why silence about such important and vital events?

I accept that this blog observation of mine is not a scientifically valid study of contemporary US fiction and it’s engagement with war.  Fair enough. Nor is it intended to be of course!  And perhaps there is an explanation, or part of one, in the process of selection for the Prize – from long list to short list even.  There were, I think, over twenty US writers on the long list so, maybe, along the way the writers of war stories were weeded out.  I don’t know if that is so.  And so maybe I am getting the wrong end of the stick here?

But my main point has been taken up elsewhere too.  The dearth of novels about the current US wars has already been previously noted.  US writer and small press publisher, Tony Christini has pointed out in a number of articles that there is serious lack of material emerging in the States to do with the current wars.  Tony Christini’s points to a number of reasons for the paucity of fiction relating to these wars.  Publishers are business people (as we all know – don’t we?) and as such they are uncomfortable with any rocking of the boat.  And on the writer side, a focus on these wars  can lead to the stigmatization of the writer as ‘political’ or as ‘having an agenda’.  Apparently such qualities are good for your career.  So is the issue censorship or perhaps more worrying still: self censorship?

Returning to the collections at this years prize, something else struck me though.  And this in some ways is the most disturbing thing.  It is not just that the collections concerned here don’t touch on the various wars now being waged by the USA.  Rather there is also the inverse problem: this indeed is even more damning of the state of writing in the US to my mind.  What I mean is: the picture that emerges of the Untied States from the collective output of the shortlisted US writers for this years Prize is of a society NOT at war.   Indeed the concerns of many of the characters is rather of a world not unlike our own.  (Note that Ireland is not currently at war or in the process of invading any other countries – that I know of anyway.) What I mean is that the characters obsess about normal and everyday concerns (mean neighbours; bad parenting and so on and so forth).  And perhaps this is the double injustice of the literary output from the States as exemplified by this shortlist.  In these times the ugly truth of a nation at war and a society driven by a voracious military-industrial complex is not only not being examined, it could even be argued it is being airbrushed from the picture we are being offered to see of that same society.

As a short short writer myself and as someone who has always admired Frank O’Connor’s engagement with the political, I must say I am unsettled by what I’ve read, and by this short list.  But lastly let me say a few words about the worthy winner, Ron Rash.  His stories in this collection are a cut above the others IMHO – going by the US entries anyway.  While I couldn’t find any stories in his collection, Burning Bright, about the current US wars, this in a way is not surprising since his work has a focus on the southern, US Civil War dynamic.  Fair enough I suppose.  Indeed Rash’s collection points out well the problems in what I am attempting to draw attention to here and I accept that. Burning Bright is very good in its own right and indeed all the collections are worthy.  It’s just as I say: how can you, you know… (… THE WAR).  It’s still on everyone, isn’t it?  Right now.

The Short List:

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (Picador UK, 2010) by Robin Black
Mattaponi Queen (Graywolf Press, 2010) by Belle Boggs
Wild Child (Bloomsbury, 2010) by TC Boyle
The Shieling (Comma Press, 2009) by David Constantine
Burning Bright (HarperCollins, 2010) by Ron Rash
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009) by Laura van den Berg

Note: TC Boyle had to withdraw from the final contest due to an his inability to travel to Cork for the Festival.

The Long List is here.  (Scroll to the end.)

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2 Responses

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  1. Hi Kevin,

    Since you are asking, one of the characters in the first story in Belle Boggs’s collection is a soldier wounded in Iraq.

    As for the dearth of US writing about the war, the US governmemt went to great lengths to ensure that everything would remain business as usual in the States. The war does not affect many Americans in any concrete way. Beyond that, there have been many US nonfiction books about the war and at least a few movies. –Richard

    Richard Allen

    Richard

    October 5, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for the pointer to the story – Good News for a Hard Tine by Belle Boggs. It’s interesting.

      However in terms of your more substantive point I think that the nub of the problem lies in your statement that “the war does not affect many Americans in any concrete way”. Is this really true? I accept on one level it is and I think I would also go along with your observation that the US government has had a big role in creating and maintaining this situation. But on many other levels I don’t think the war or its enterprize is hidden in the US. At least that’s my impression.

      kfdoyle

      October 6, 2010 at 3:02 pm


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