It is surprising that there are not more well known editors-turned-writers. Toni Morrison is the great one; Diana Athill is another shining example, best known for her lively memoirs, especially Stet: An Editor’s Life. With the exception of a 1967 novella, she appears to have published no fiction except Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, her collection of short stories, written in 1958 and just reissued as a very attractive paperback. Her mastery of the language makes it a very smooth read, but it is far from inspired.
Having nothing recent to compare with, it’s hard to know whether Midsummer is so mannered because that is Athill’s fictional sensibility or whether, being a little over half a century old, it is simply dated. Not in the language, which, polished and deft, easily stands the test of time, but rather in the way she depicts people and society. Her description of a passer-by as “… Negro or half-Negro…” gave me pause. In the story “No Laughing Matter” the old-fashioned situation, where the young woman visits her boyfriend in his rooms but cannot even sit next to him right away because the landlord will be huffing and puffing up the stairs in a moment with a tray of tea things, is interesting at first. But the only dramatic tension in the story stems from the young woman’s extravagant worry over the prospect of having sex. It may have been close enough to the reality of young women’s experience to keep a reader’s interest in 1958; it is not enough today. Would it yet be if it had been better written?
Athill’s skill with sentences is not matched by her capacity to construct a story. Her shadow is often visible at the back of the page as she labours to build her narrative, fitting the pieces together like so many child’s building blocks. Her characters, both male and female, tend to live lives of comfort and not-too-deep despair, lacking love and, mostly, choosing to do nothing about it. Their passivity is striking but the stories make nothing of it, virtue or vice. Cumulatively, it comes across as a lack of force in both plot and characterization.
Yet Athill is clearly a writer of intelligence. For my money, the very best piece in the book is the new preface to this edition, in which she speaks in her own voice about her experience of writing these stories. Her apt and beautifully observed descriptions of the desire to write, the process of writing, and the role of the author are moving and illuminating. It is easy to see why she is a celebrated writer of memoirs.
The Things We Fear Most is the new collection of short stories by Athill’s contemporary, Gloria Vanderbilt. Heiress, designer, and funder of her publisher’s rich new short fiction competition, Vanderbilt has also previously published memoirs and novels. But unlike Athill, Vanderbilt’s writing is neither skilful, polished, nor deft. The “stories” in The Things We Fear Most are more properly vignettes — not only the very short ones, fragments that are often surreal and yet, even so, boring — but also the story-length texts, which unfortunately lack plots, full narrative arcs, and developed characters. They are quite empty of content and riddled with clichés; one protagonist refers to herself as both a “hot tamale” and an “ice princess.” She says, “We made passionate love.” The first sentence of her story “The Hour Between,” which opens the book, is “I was gathering tulips in the garden, finding happiness in beauty as my love lay in the grass beside me.” In this single sentence the character experiences “happiness,” “beauty,” and “love,” three of the largest concepts in human culture, and yet it remains entirely abstract and fails utterly to evoke even a spark of emotion. The dialogue is stilted and unbelievable, individuals and their relationships are so shallow as to be almost nonexistent.
There is a severe lack of subtlety. Much is told, little shown. Tropes feel mechanical rather than organic. In the story “Burne-Jones and Mickey Mouse,” the protagonist, Jill, estranged from her mother, is a painter. She has two women friends. She feels motherly toward Rachel – except sometimes she feels like she is the child and Rachel is the mother. Mimi and Rachel are “diametrically opposite in character and temperament…” Rachel is fragile, Mimi is (cliché alert) “tough as nails.” No, wait, Mimi is fragile and Rachel is tough. Jill is painting a portrait of Mimi – but the picture turns out to be of Rachel. Jill tries to repaint it, but instead of looking like Mimi, it comes out a portrait of – guess who? – her mother. Jill wraps the canvas in bubble wrap (Vanderbilt rarely makes use of the telling detail; unfortunately this one is almost comical) and ships it to her mother. As a dream journal this might have some therapeutic value for the writer, but it does not make for much of a story.
One is forced to wonder if there wasn’t a connection between the supply of prize money and the publication of this very unsatisfying book.
Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, by Diana Athill, House of Anansi Press
The Things We Fear Most: Stories, by Gloria Vanderbilt, Exile Editions
Elise Moser’s novel is Because I Have Loved and Hidden It. Her short fiction has been published or broadcast in Canada, the U.S., and across the Commonwealth. She is the co-editor of Minority Reports, the collection of Quebec Writing Competition-winning stories.