What can you say about a story that didn’t seem like a good story? When I read something that I love, I know how well I love it, better than anyone else. It’s possible for a guilty pleasure to make you feel guilty about enjoying it, whatever it is, but no one will ever convince you that it doesn’t give you pleasure, if it does. But when you dislike something, you are speaking from a position of ignorance if you say so. I am saying so.
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In his introduction to the recent Granta Book of the African Short Story, Helon Habila suggested that “despite its influential effect on recent African writing, the Caine Prize seems to have been founded on a common fallacy regarding the African short story”:
“On its website, [the Caine Prize] advertised its focus ‘on the short story, as reflecting the contemporary development of the African storytelling tradition’. This statement would seem to link the African short story to oral tradition in Africa and the folk tale in particular. Before you know it, the short story is declared a ‘more distinctly African form’. Similarly, critics seek to find oral narrative devices in every African work of fiction.
“I witnessed this rather reductionist view of African writers recently at a conference in Europe when I was invited to take part in a panel on oral literature. I had assumed that I and my fellow African writers would be asked about the influence, if any, of oral narrative devices in our writing, or to discuss the handling of it by earlier writers like Achebe and Ngugi. But no. We were simply put on stage in front of a few hundred Swedes and asked to discuss oral literature. We didn’t. After a few false starts, the discussion finally found itself contemplating the literary and aesthetic values of rap music and slam poetry.
“This leads to the question what exactly is the African short story? What makes a work particularly African? This is not a new query. Writers and critics have been asking exactly this since the emergence of African fiction, and I don’t intend to repeat all the same arguments here. The important thing is this: we must never confuse the African short story with the folk tale. A folk tale is episodic; it often uses dues ex machina to extricate characters from sticky situations; it is didactic; and it mostly uses faeries and animal characters. Mastery of the folk tale doesn’t necessarily make one a great short-story writer. And so most of the short stories in this collection are folkloric only in the sense that Kafka’s man turning into a bug is folkloric; they use folkloric elements as Ursula Le Guin uses the archetypal myth of the scapegoat in her story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’.”
I don’t think this is an especially rigorous definition of either the short story or the folk-tale, but it will do, and it’s a good place to start in thinking about why I, at least, found little to praise in last week’s story (and why it took me until today to write about it). This short story was not a good short story, because it didn’t do the things a good short story does. But I don’t put it this way because I think it’s a bad story, exactly; it takes two to tango, and it’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools for a shoddy product, as I feel like I must have read somewhere. Because reading is also a kind of craft, or a dance with an author, and there can be plenty of blame to go around. If the story steps on your feet, you need to also consider the possibility that you, yourself, bear some of the responsibility for that dread outcome. And what if someone else likes it? What if Leila Aboulela has decided it’s one of the five best stories submitted this year, and what if you happen to feel like Leila Aboulela is someone who’s likely to at least have a good reason for thinking it’s a good story?
Why is that? I’m not interested in trying to tell you that I’m right to feel this way; I’m just telling you what my reactions to reading this story were, why they were negative. The one part of the story I truly did like was the moment when the narrator’s wife-to-be—the saintly Faulata—informs the protagonist that she’s getting married to someone else. Until that moment in the story, she’s been a kind of saint figure— no, scratch that, she is literally called “Saint Faulata” four or five times in the story, as she cares for her blind husband-to-be, dutifully, selflessly, and with a kind of depth of tenderness that is hard to imagine a real person having. Saintliness irritates me, because it doesn’t seem real.
I’m trying to emphasize, I guess, how essentially parochial my desires must be, exactly as yours must be as well. After all, who died and made me king of what a good short story is? Why would what I like in a short story—what I’ve spent years learning to like, in a sense—be any kind of reliable measure for what a story should be or shouldn’t be? I’ve read enough Bourdieu to be convinced that literary taste isn’t an objective thing, that when we read a book and decide we like it, we’re playing a complicated game with our peers, our teachers, our friends, those to whom we condescend, and those who we fear; we’re building on what we’ve read before, weighing and comparing, and discovering what we’ve never come across, but want to. But what we want in a story—and what we resentfully demand when we don’t get it—is nothing so simple as the treasure locked in the basement of the short story itself, if only we were smart enough to find the key. What we want in a story has a hell of a lot to do with who we are, who we think we are, and who we want to be. And all I can say, I suspect, is that this one wasn’t much for me.