This week-end I had the opportunity to see/hear Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story at my local university. This is an NPR series (I’d never heard it; my local station doesn’t carry it — but, yeah, now I know I can download podcasts and so can you…) in which professional actors read “classic and bold new short fiction.”
Friday night’s program focused on Life in the South and featured stories by Southern writers Percival Everett, Donna Tartt, and Flannery O’Connor. Plus, it was FREE. What’s not to love here?
I’ll tell you more about the program in a minute, but first I want to get these background observations out of the way: The auditorium was full, and I was one of the youngest audience members. The Harlem Globetrotters were also on campus Friday night, and battling the traffic on College Road, it felt like most of North Carolina was headed for basketball instead of fiction, which they may well have been.
Actual college students, on the other hand, appeared to be spending the evening slightly off-campus in other than academic pursuits. A friend and I decided to hit the Ale House for a quick dinner before the program.
Ha ha. Friday night? Happy hour? March Madness? We couldn’t get anywhere near, let alone in, the parking lot. So we ended up at Hibachi Bistro instead, which was fine since the tempura was awesome and they had a special on import beers.
Which meant that an hour later, after a beer and with a full stomach, I was sitting in a warm, dark auditorium on a soft comfy reclining seat and could easily have dozed off….
But I didn’t, and I’m glad. I admit, I hadn’t read any of the three stories before, and hadn’t even heard of Everett, so I had a fair amount of new ground to cover.
Here’s what I learned from the evening. Maybe it wasn’t what I expected.
David Rakoff was the host and he did point out the irony of a bunch of New Yorkers flying down to the South to read stories about the South to a bunch of Southerners. He also said, before beginning to read Everything That Rises Must Converge that he wouldn’t try to read it with a Southern accent he didn’t own. “You’ll see,” he said. “By the second page, I will have completely disappeared. Trust me.”
He was right. (But David, sugar, just in case you’re reading this — once you cross the Mason-Dixon line, you must. speak. more. slowly. We need that down here so we can digest each delicious word at our pace, not Manhattan’s.) Rakoff was GONE, the geezer audience was gone, and I was on that bus with Julian and his mother. Phony Southern accent – not needed.
After he finished reading O’Connor’s story (the last on the program), he just stood there and gave us all a chance to swallow, digest, and shuffle on back to 2010. Wow.
Then, he did what was supposed to be a ‘fun’ quiz with the audience. He read single sentences and had the audience shout out the title and author of the novel the sentence was taken from.
Folks were shouting out the title and author before he’d even finished the sentence. Now, I didn’t have a clue on a single one of those sentences. Not one. I’d read some of the books, but I sure didn’t think, oh, yeah, so-and-so said that on page 183 of This Memorable Novel.
But apparently a lot of people in the audience did, and that made me think about those memorable sentences and those memorable novels. What made them so memorable? And that maybe I should be trying to learn the craft of writing more from those memorable novels than from books on the craft of writing.
So, James Scott Bell and the rest of you, I’m putting you on the shelf for a while. I know you’re there, and I know I’ll come back to you eventually when I need your help, and you’ll be there to give it to me.
But for now, I’m gonna read some of those memorable novels and see what they can teach me.