I went to the AWP in Seattle last week for two days of its three-day run. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference is attended by thousands of MFA students and graduates, by editors, teachers, and publicists, and by quite a few writers who speak on panels, sign new books, and give readings or lectures.
Some of my favorite writers were there: Ben Fountain, Chang-Rae Lee, and Timothy Egan (although I went home too soon to hear Egan). I ran into old friends with new books out: Michael Nava, author of the Henry Rios mysteries and a new historical novel about Mexico, The City of Palaces; and Kelly Luce, signing her collection of short stories Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. I learned how university presses work, why indeterminate endings are a hallmark of contemporary fiction, and what's happening in the field of flash, or very short, or micro, fiction.
The panel on flash fiction was called "Brevity"--no connection, according to the panel's moderator, Jane Ciabattari, to the wildly popular online magazine Brevity, or to its editor, Dinty Moore. Moore was also at the AWP, tabling for Brevity in the Book Fair, and doubtless involved in other activities. That's what the AWP is like. For $3.00, you can buy two short nonfiction flashes stapled into covers by Brenda Miller and Ira Sukrungruang while having a conversation with Dinty Moore. You can blow past Sherman Alexie on your way to the restroom. You can get tangled up in the signing line for Chuck Palahniuk's new book until you realize what line you're in and move on. You can get exhausted and discouraged, but also stimulated and informed.
Anyway . . . the panel on flash fiction featured some cool people--Grant Faulkner, Meg Pokrass, Pamela Painter, and BOBBIE ANN MASON. Ciabattari introduced Mason very briefly as the author of Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country (from which a Bruce Willis movie was made).
Now Bobbie Ann Mason is one of America's great short story writers and the author of several jewel-like novels. In the 70s and 80s, when minimalism was king and Gordon Lish was stripping down Raymond Carver's stories to their mysterious bones, Mason was writing in technicolor about the kinds of people she grew up with in Kentucky and the Mid-South. Her characters were fully fleshed out, as vivid in their failures as in their successes, and, for all their lack of sophistication and direction, dignified. Mason dignified them. Or maybe she translated their dignity into terms New Yorker readers could grasp. Here is a sample from the story "Midnight Magic," from the collection of the same title:
"Steve leaves the supermarket and hits the sunlight. Blinking, he stands there a moment, then glances at his feet. He has on running shoes, but he was sure he had put on boots. He touches his face. He hasn't shaved. His car, illegally parked in the space for the handicapped, is deep blue and wicked. The rear has "Midnight Magic" painted on it in large pink curlicue letters with orange-and-red tails. Rays of color, fractured rainbows, spread out over the flanks. . . The car's rear end is hiked up like a female cat in heat. Prowling in his car at night, he could be Dracula."
The car's rear end is hiked up like a female cat in heat. Only Bobbie Ann Mason could have written that. Only she could have written the novel Feather Crowns, set in Kentucky in the year 1900, when revivalist preachers talked hopefully of the end of the world, and one young woman gave birth to a set of quintuplets, thrusting her, her husband, and their "miracle babies" into the public eye, with tragic results. Feather Crowns is one of the great novels of the last fifty years, comparable, in my opinion, to Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter or Joyce Carol Oates's We Were the Mulvaneys. In her introduction of Mason, Jane Ciabattari didn't even mention Feather Crowns. So much for Jane Ciabattari.
I was puzzled by what Mason was doing in a panel about flash fiction, so I asked her. "I've never been able to write anything shorter than twenty pages," she said. "I'm a beginner at this." She offered a piece of short fiction that I didn't like much, but I didn't much like anything that was read in that hour and a half.
The description of this panel in the AWP program read, "Online and print journals are embracing flash as technology advances and life's pace quickens. Flash writing is often lyrical, much like prose poetry; laced with sensory detail." Mason should be good at it, then, since she can write sensory detail better than just about anybody. But why should she move in that direction?
Concentrated meaning is a wonderful thing, but so are Mason's sweeping characterizations of place, time, and the people that grow out of them. "Life's pace" also "quickened" for Christiana Wheeler, the heroine of Feather Crowns, and because of it she suffered great losses.
I still read novels, lots of them. Do you?
Mason, pictured above, is tiny and thin and past 70. I spoke to her after the panel. I told her I'd been reading her for 35 years, that she was one of my heroes. For me the highlight of the AWP was getting to say that.