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By Heather Fowler
The Girl with Brown Fur
By Stacey Levine
Starcherone Books / Dzanc Books
(Originally written for Daniel Casey's Gently Read Literature.)
Ah, the MFA story collection; has a more beguiling trickster ever existed in the literary world? Originally a cutting-edge means of education at a time when "creative writing" was largely seen as an unworthy subject for university study, over the last 75 years this distilled, often intense artistic format has become a victim of its own success, resulting in a world now so oversaturated with short academic pieces that the genre itself has largely become a self-parodying one, the universe now filled with an unending series of obscure trade paperbacks destined to be picked up only by that author's professors and friends (as well as the occasional random book reviewer). And so do these academic and basement presses keep fighting the good fight, putting out hundreds and hundreds more of these compilations with each passing year, the results sometimes great in quality but with it becoming more and more difficult to justify their existence in general, given how little you usually have to travel anymore to find an existing story collection that's already exactly like it.
Take for example two volumes I recently had the chance to look through, Heather Fowler's Suspended Heart from Aqueous Books, and Stacey Levine's The Girl with Brown Fur from Starcherone Books, itself an imprint of Dzanc Books. Both writers are award-winning academes, one from California and the other from the Pacific Northwest; and frankly, both of their collections feel like the pat results of a year's worth of workshopping with their fellow professors and students, a typical grind through the MFA sausage factory that tends to produce stories that all sorta vaguely sound like each other, and that all tend to coalesce in one's head not long after finishing them into a big blurry blob of magical realism and ten-dollar vocabulary words. I mean, take Suspended Heart for example, which I suppose I would call the better of the two, although truthfully there's not a whole lot of difference between them; it's essentially a book's worth of metaphorical fairytales and fables, which in good Postmodernist fashion examines a series of blase real-world issues (bad jobs, terrible boyfriends) through the filter of made-up genre concepts, such as the title tale for a good example, in which a woman at a mall one day literally loses her heart, placed into a glass jar by a janitor and put on display in the hopes of finding its owner, and eventually becoming the source of all these freaky emotional things that happen to couples whenever they walk too close to it.
It's not a bad story by any means, and Fowler is a more than capable writer; but I just can't help but to feel that I've already read stories like these a million times before, which always seems to be my issue with MFA story collections much more than the quality of the collections themselves. And this is even more pronounced with Levine's book, which frankly just a week after finishing I can barely even remember anything about, other than a vague recollection of finishing each story and thinking, "Really? Was that it?" And that of course is one of the lingering problems of the MFA short story that profoundly contributes to their short mental lifespans; that since character development tends to be much more treasured than plot in most academic writing programs, and since the most prominent style in academic writing is ho-hum social realism, and since most academes tend to live sheltered, uneventful lives, the very subjects of the stories themselves tend to command little attention on their own to begin with, the problem then compounded by the lackluster personal style and tendency to overedit that is so endemic to so much academic writing.
It's a question that budding young writers really owe to themselves to ask, when they sit down to start putting together their first professional manuscripts; that now that they have their training under their belt, how are they now going to differentiate themselves from not only what's come before, but from all their contemporaries churning out those five thousand new fiction titles that are currently being published each year in the United States, every single year without fail? It's a question that academic programs tend not to address, because in many ways it's not the academic world's job to address it -- it's their job instead to crank out well-trained writers, and to make sure by graduation time that they are literal Masters at the fundamentals of the English language and the three-act structure -- but as Fowler and Levine's earnest yet forgettable volumes prove, for a writer to have a true success in the 21st century, they need to know more than just how to dot all their I's and cross all their T's.
Out of 10: 7.5