I ran into Amy Hempel this evening. As usual, she radiated graciousness. Also as usual, and maybe this is just her talent influencing my perception, she was absolutely stunning. We made small talk for a few minutes about various topics before continuing on our ways, but the encounter got me thinking about perspective in fiction.
Hempel makes no secret that for her, composing fiction begins with voice (and a good last line). After spending so much time reading her work, along with that of Lydia Davis, George Saunders, and Sam Lipsyte I’m convinced that one of the reasons I find so much other contemporary fiction hard to engage is that there is so little voice. Yes, it’s true that many of the authors I just listed write primarily in the first person. Maybe that has something to do with the degree of intimacy they seek with their characters, maybe it’s more about the fact that they are just in love with the way their characters sound. Either way, though, writers like Jane Avrich prove that third-person reportorial fiction can be just as engaging, whether it openly features opinion and personality (as many of Fitzgerald’s better stories did) or not.
A few months ago, I started reading Adam Haslett’s You Are Not A Stranger Here, but I had to toss it aside after two or three stories. Nothing about the language drew me in, leaving to the characters and the plot the work of engaging me. Sadly, they weren’t up to the task. Compare it to a band with serviceable lead and percussion sections, but whose rhythm section has decided to sit one song out: the song is going to sound off-kilter, feel less catchy, be less powerful.
The elements of a fiction (indeed of any piece of art) need to work in concert with one another if the piece is to be successful. While Amy Hempel says that plot is the last thing she thinks about, there are clearly definite plots to all of her stories. What she is adept at doing is giving us a snippet of that plot and bringing up the volume on all the details–ensuring that we hear the way that every note in the snippet interacts with every other note–so that we can hear the whole plot playing out in just those few moments.
It may have spoiled me for anything else, but I love her for it.