Last month, Michelle Dean’s book, Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, featured ten women writers who, arguably, changed the New York intellectual scene in the 20th century.
Five of these women, besides writing reviews and opinion pieces on culture and politics, also wrote fiction. In fact, a couple of them were first drawn to fiction and it remained their lifelong love.
Here are some short stories from these five women: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Nora Ephron. With the last, as there are no short stories, we have a novel excerpt instead. As always, please click the title links to read the entire short story free online.
Parker was a versatile and prolific writer who, beyond opinion pieces and reviews, wrote poems, short stories, and even Hollywood screenplays. She was riddled with much self-doubt and was, probably, her own worst critic. Yet, of these five writers, Parker was undoubtedly the most skilled in the short story form. In addition to her trademark wit and wisdom, her short stories were also sharper than her other prose and less comic, more sardonic. This particular story is her best-known and had won her the O Henry Award in 1929.
Dean writes about it in Sharp:
But it plays like a parable of Parker’s disappointment with herself. The story is called “Big Blonde,” and the heroine, Hazel Morse, has hair a color Parker describes as “assisted gold.” Indeed, nearly everything about Hazel seems artificial, an act. We meet Hazel in middle age, after a successful youth spent entertaining men as a “good sport.” … Hazel tires of her own act … secures a number of veronal tablets (a barbiturate, the 1920s version Ambien) and botches a suicide attempt.
Dean goes on to say how there are several autobiographical elements in this story but that neither the character nor the author were enamored of men. Men had, in fact, been such disappointments to both that they had turned to alcohol for solace.
Parker does a terrific job of showing how Hazel’s existence devolves slowly but certainly to an all-time low — even the many men who come and go in her life are from successively lower rungs of society. Yet, while each offers her less of what she needs, each expects the same of her: to be a pleasing, charming, and cheerful “sport”. [A warning: the words used to refer to the people of color in this story are, well, “of their time”, if you will.]
Hazel Morse was a large, fair woman of the type that incites some men when they use the word “blonde” to click their tongues and wag their heads roguishly. She prided herself upon her small feet and suffered for her vanity, boxing them in snub-toed, high-heeled slippers of the shortest bearable size. The curious things about her were her hands, strange terminations to the flabby, white arms splattered with pale tan spots—long, quivering hands with deep and convex nails. She should not have disfigured them with little jewels.
[Also at Librivox Audio.]
West wrote ten novels. She understood the art and skill well enough, having reviewed the works of great novelists like Henry James and H G Wells and their contemporaries from a young age. [Incidentally, her first published work was in the first issue of a feminist journal, The Freewoman, in 1911 and under her real name, Cicely Fairfield. It was a review of a book she did not much care for: The Position of Women in Indian Life Book Review of the Position of Women in Indian Life by Her Highness the Maharani of Baroda and S.M. Mitra.]
So, when Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound were looking for writers to “blast” polite British culture with their new journal of that title, West was a natural fit. That said, this story was her only contribution to or involvement with their movement (known as Vorticism).
In Sharp, Dean has this to say about West’s fiction:
Generally, though, even in praise, reviewers reported disappointment because her reputation preceded her. “It falls short of that measure of perfection so able a writer as Miss West might easily have attained,” a Sunday Times reviewer wrote of The Judge, published in 1920. No one was surprised to find she could write a good novel, but reviewers expected her to write a great one … This was the price one paid for being such a well-regarded critic who wanted to be more than just that. People become accustomed to a certain writerly persona and every bit of subsequent work gets measured against it … West’s intelligence in prose turned to be something of a devil in fiction; readers of her novels wondered where her digressions had gone.
Written in a pre-war Britain, when West was only 22, this story is about a woman’s need for independence and individuality. West also showed the stark inequality between men and women in that society and, particularly, in marriage. It’s a shocking story, even by today’s standards, about a bad marriage where the husband and wife are not compatible in any way. When the husband follows his wife secretly one night to, as he imagines, catch her with some lover, he finds something entirely different. In a fit of (unjustifiable) anger, he reacts in an extreme manner. Throughout, West cleverly shows how exactly this ten-year-old marriage is unhappy by frequently describing the wife through the male gaze.
When George Silverton opened the door, he found that the house was not empty for all its darkness. The spitting noise of the striking of damp matches and mild, growling exclamations of annoyance told him that his wife was trying to light the dining-room gas. He went in and, with some short, hostile sound of greeting, lit a match and brought brightness into the little room. Then, irritated by his own folly in bringing private papers into his wife’s presence, he stuffed the letters he had brought from the office deep into the pockets of his overcoat. He looked at her suspiciously, but she had not seen them, being busy in unwinding her orange motor-veil. His eyes remained on her face to brood a little sourly on her moving loveliness, which he had not been sure of finding: for she was one of those women who create an illusion alternately of extreme beauty and extreme ugliness. Under her curious dress, designed in some pitifully cheap and worthless stuff by a successful mood of her indiscreet taste — she had black blood in her — her long body seemed pulsing with some exaltation. The blood was coursing violently under her luminous yellow skin, and her lids, dusky with fatigue, drooped contentedly over her great humid black eyes. Perpetually she raised her hand to the mass of black hair that was coiled on her thick golden neck, and stroked it with secretive enjoyment, as a cat licks its fur. And her large mouth smiled frankly, but abstractedly, at some digested pleasure.
McCarthy famously wrote a series of fictionalized stories about her troubled marriage with Edmund Wilson before they had what Dean describes as a “fierce divorce”. Here is a bit more about the story, “The Weeds“, which played a big part in blowing that marriage apart. She also went on to write about other times of her life in novels like The Group and The Company She Keeps with, often, thinly-disguised characters and events. She wrote openly about sex, glamour, and women who did not play by the rules.
Though her fiction was also largely autobiographical, as Dean writes in Sharp, it was different from her memoir pieces and books.
McCarthy was, in any event, up to something a little different. While nowhere near as self-lacerating as Parker’s, her fiction tended to be critical. To the extent it reflected her own experiences, she was clearly standing outside them, evaluating them and evaluating herself, and then fictionalizing events according to the judgments she made. The self-awareness of the fiction was something entirely different from the tone of the confessional work generally: something arch, aloof, honest but ruthlessly so.
This story was written and accepted by The New Yorker before “The Weeds” but published after. It’s also not like most of McCarthy’s other short stories, in that it has more positive themes. A group of people meet on a bus and bond unexpectedly. The narrator keeps expecting “the bad part” to happen but is so pleasantly surprised as to think, on getting home, that perhaps it was all a dream. McCarthy gives us distinct voices and characters and describes their interactions in a way that gets us right there on the bus with them.
Here was a girl named Margie, a girl named Ann, a honeymoon couple, a man named George, the girl called Blondie, and me; a middle-aged woman, a drunken sailor, four Harvard boys, a machinist’s mate (first class), the driver — called Mac, though that was not his name — and several supernumerary passengers, among them noticeably a soldier with a pipe. It was Wednesday night of the week before Easter; it was raining; the bus we were waiting for had broken down at Sagamore — now it would be ten, anyway, before the Provincetown passengers got home to dinner. We sat in our own bus and smoked and complained to the driver, who had swiveled around in his seat and faced us, like a teacher, grinning, as though he sympathized with us and at the same time took no stock in the seriousness of our predicament. He was a young boy in a blue sweater—only the old bus drivers wore uniforms now — yet his smile was one of antique patience, the patience of the public servant who has been through it all before and knows that nobody, nobody in the world, really has to get anywhere on time.
While all the writers featured here were living legends in their time, Susan Sontag was probably the coolest and hippest of them all. She appealed to a broad cross-section of readers because of her depth of intellect, breadth of subjects, and her unique style. Though she is known mostly for her critical essays, her literary career began and ended with fiction. The more her fame as an essayist grew, the more she turned to fiction-writing. Sontag’s last speech titled “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning” was at the first Nadine Gordimer lecture series in 2004 (see the posthumous essay collection At the Same Time) and she said this about fiction:
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgement.
In the posthumous 2017 short story collection, Debriefing, Sontag’s editor, Benjamin Taylor, notes that she was not a dedicated short story writer. She only turned to this form to avoid, he writes, what Chekhov called “autobiographophobia”. And yet, much of her short story work is filled with autobiographical details.
This particular story is very well-known because of both its subject matter (the AIDS epidemic during the ’80s) and the experimental form. Narrated entirely in conversational fragments, it’s about a man lying sick in a hospital. The title is borrowed from Anthony Trollope’s Victorian novel. (I’m not entirely sure of the reasoning behind this.) The disease is never mentioned by name and we learn about the man’s condition through the voices of his friends, all of whom have different takes or reactions. Sontag began writing it the night she learned of a close friend’s AIDS diagnosis. This story was also anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of 1987 and included in The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties. The common ideas about morality and mortality that Sontag shines a light on here were, of course, explored more deeply in her non-fiction books too: Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors.
At first he was just losing weight, he felt only a little ill, Max said to Ellen, and he didn’t call for an appointment with his doctor, according to Greg, because he was managing to keep on working at more or less the same rhythm, but he did stop smoking, Tanya pointed out, which suggests he was frightened, but also that he wanted, even more than he knew, to be healthy, or healthier, or maybe just to gain back a few pounds, said Orson, for he told her, Tanya went on, that he expected to be climbing the walls (isn’t that what people say?) and found, to his surprise, that he didn’t miss cigarettes at all and reveled in the sensation of his lungs’ being ache-free for the first time in years.
Ephron needs very little introduction. Across the world, people have watched at least one of her movies. She wrote a whole lot of essays too, of course, but film is where she made her mark. Though a good number of her movies are dismissed by some as “chick flicks”, there’s a lot of insight wrapped up in the witty comedy and, yes, sentimentality.
Heartburn is her only prose fiction. It is an autobiographical novel — a roman à clef, really — about her marriage with one of the Watergate scandal legends, Carl Bernstein.
In Sharp, Dean writes:
The only novel Nora Ephron ever published was about Carl Bernstein and the way he’d ruined her life … They were both on top of the world — until he cheated, and then they weren’t. This, at least, is the situation Heartburn drops you into: the blood-and-guts end of what could have been a perfectly good marriage … Heartburn is one long joke, interrupted by recipes, about the despair inherent in having to leave one’s philandering husband while handling two toddlers … Heartburn was the epitome of the line Ephron always used to describe her own mission: “Everything is copy.” She’d taken a horrible experience and turned it into something everyone loved.
The book was a bestseller. Arguably, it changed the way people thought about divorce in America. Ephron wrote the movie screenplay too, of course, and it was made with all big names (Streep, Nicholson, et al.) One notable aspect of the book was how it wove in many food recipes as the protagonist — Rachel Samstat — was also a food writer.
The first day I did not think it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it. “The most unfair thing about this is that I can’t even date.” Well, you had to be there, as they say, because when I put it down on paper it doesn’t sound funny. But what made it funny (trust me) is the word “date,” which when you say it out loud at the end of a sentence has a wonderful teenage quality, and since I am not a teenager (okay, I’m thirty-eight), and since the reason I was hardly in a position to date on first learning that my second husband had taken a lover was that I was seven months pregnant, I got a laugh on it, though for all I know my group was only laughing because they were trying to cheer me up. I needed cheering up. I was in New York, staying in my father’s apartment, I was crying most of the time, and every time I stopped crying I had to look at my father’s incredibly depressing walnut furniture and slate-gray lamps, which made me start crying again.
It’s notable that three out of five of these stories are about women being treated badly by men in intimate relationships. An inexhaustible and perennial subject, yes, but that gives all of these stories enduring relevance. The other two stories — how strangers come together on a short bus trip and how friends look at illness — also say a lot about human behavior in unique ways that transcend time limits. And, above all, these works show how each of these writers was just as good at fiction as she was at writing non-fiction.