I would like to take a moment to welcome you – or any other followers of this blog – to the IIE Library’s 2012-2013 English-language reading circle. Don’t be fooled by this “English” label, however. In keeping with the International Institute’s general mission of promoting cultural understanding and educational exchange between Spain and the United States, all of the readings that we will see this year are distinctly North American – although as of right now, I have yet to select a Canadian one.
While trying to decide what to read in our group, from the start it was clear that the literary genre most suitable to our aims was going to be the short story. A story’s length permits those of you who are relatively new to reading literary texts in English to proceed without the pressure of hundreds of pages, and if it is a good one, its complexity calls on the reader to reflect on how a text constructed with (relatively) so few words can leave such a powerful impression. Even those of us who are used to reading literary texts in English can still feel surprised, moved, or even confused after finishing a short story. Lucky for all of us, the element of length does permit us to reread the text, at least more easily than in the case of a novel. I strongly encourage all of you to read the stories we will be discussing not once, but several times. You will be surprised to see how much more you will be able to see the second or third time around.
Coincidentally, the short story is one of literary genres that American authors seem to have mastered. No one is quite sure of why this is – many critics have ventured varying hypotheses ranging from a particularly American connection between modernity and concision, to speculations on the relationship between the consumption of cultural products and the American attention span. I am not always so convinced. In any case, the literary culture or cultures of the United States have long nurtured this very special genre, and many of the most highly esteemed writers of short stories have been Americans. I, for one, can imagine neither American literature nor the short story as a form without the works of Poe or Hemingway, O’Connor or Cheever, to mention just a few names in a long tradition of outstanding short fiction writers.
Furthermore, we have decided to use short stories that originally appeared in the well-known American weekly magazine The New Yorker, a widely distributed publication that has a long history of publishing, among its other varied content, some of the world’s most exceptional short fiction. As many of you may well know from experience, in Spain sometimes it can be difficult to order more than two or three copies of a book published in the UK or in North America through your local bookstore. This made the decision to use short fiction from The New Yorker even easier to make, as all of the stories selected can be read online, for free, on the magazine’s webpage. The announcement of each reading will include a link to the respective story or stories. When you print them out, they are usually between 10 and 15 pages.
This leads me to related issue, one, as it turns out, of primary importance to this year’s reading circle. What makes a work of literature American? This is a question that we could spend almost all of our sessions debating, but of course we will not – naturally, we have many other interesting things to discuss. In his introduction to the 2008 edition of the prestigious annual publication The Best American Short Stories, Salman Rushdie asks some very pertinent questions:
“[…] What is an American short story? Is it, at it purest and best […] a story by an American, about Americans, set in America? Or does any story set in the United States, or even though its author is not American, qualify? […] Are stories written by Americans about places other than America still American stories? […] Should the rule be that the story should be first published in America, whoever wrote it? […] Who exactly is American these days, by the way? […] The ethnic mix of this astonishingly diverse country, from Junot Díaz to Yiyun Li, has never seemed as rich as it does now, nor has literature ever reached as far, into as many different worlds. Who today is not and American, one might almost inquire” (xii-xiii).
In light of these ever so relevant interrogations, and explicitly for the purpose of this year’s reading circle, I am therefore inclined to expand (or crack open) the boundaries of the traditional definition of a “national” literature. In these times of economic, political and cultural globalization, cut-and-dried classifications of national belonging become almost impossible. True enough, most of the consequences of this process of globalization are clearly negative. There are, however, new possibilities that I believe can be constructive and liberating. Why can’t an identity, cultural or otherwise, be multiple or fluid? In the case of the topic at hand, Other Voices and Other Cultures in the Contemporary American Short Story, we are going to try, not to assimilate America’s supposed cultural others into an established literary canon, but to try to break down the walls of that canon to adequately reflect and respect the plurality of voices and perspectives present in contemporary American society. I hope you will consider joining us for this exciting endeavor.