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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How Grace Paley turned modernism on its head

Some years ago, in the 80s I think, when I was the books editor at the Journal, Brown U held a conference on postmodernism - I think it was in part a tribute to faculty member and postmodernist par excellence John Hawkes, who was retiring - and the event created a stir and even drew some protesters who asked: Where are the women? Good question; the entire roster for the event was made up of male writers. The fact is there were few if any female postmodernists - and on reflection that speaks well for female writers, as postmodernism - writing reflecting on its own composition, breaking with conventions of narrative and structure, etc. - proved to be a dead end, w/ the postmodernist writers hardly held today in the high esteem they once received. We've moved on - through magic realism, international fiction, feminist and queer fiction, to cite a few literary forces that have emerged on the past 3 decades. One of the writers the protestors suggested should have been invited was Grace Paley; re-reading her first story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, I don't see any connection between her work at postmodern fiction. She was not interested in playing with literary form - she was telling stories, w/ vivid characters, concise action, and well developed point of view. She was a pioneer in many ways; as noted in yesterday's post, she was one of the first to write frankly and openly about female sexuality. Gradually, she became increasingly political in her writing, with more and more of her stories focusing on the oppression of women, particularly single moms trying to raise a family, abandoned in fact or in spirit by ne'er do well husbands. She's an East Coast counterpart to her contemporary Tillie Olsen - and nothing like the postmodernists, who had little interest in political literature (Coover a possible exception). Stylistically, the most distinct element of her early short stories is their abrupt beginnings: Sometimes it's hard to figure out who the characters are, when their names are even, until you're well along in the story. It's as if she's dropped you right into an ongoing action or conversation. If "modernist" fiction, short stories esp., is noted for its "open" endings - all modernist writers are the descendants of Joyce - Paley turned the convention on its had an gave her stories an "open" beginning (and sometimes ending as well). Today, her stories still feel funny and fresh - though some of the politics and attitudes feel dated and, in fact, disturbing: e.g., the story about an A.C. repair man who seduces a young girl, gets hauled into court on a statutory rape charge, and makes it all good by pledging to marry the teenager. For a politically astute woman, Paley seemed blithe and oblivious about the obvious sexual exploitation of young girls, which goes unchecked and uncensured in her early fiction.

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