Monday, October 10, 2016

Pulitzer Project: The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford

As I've been working my way up the Pulitzer list, every so often I hit a winner that has me wondering if the Pulitzer committe does lifetime achievement awards. The book that wins isn't particularly good, but the author has been around for decades and has done good work in the past. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford seems to fall into that category. It's not a bad book, but for sure it doesn't make it on to the really good end of the spectrum.

So what's wrong with it?

Basically, it's incredibly depressing. Stafford writes reasonably well but her characters are all just so unlikable it's impossible to stay interested in what's happening to them. Either that, or if the characters are halfway human, something terrible happens to them for no particular reason. The whole book is one example after another of "Life's a bitch and then you die." A young woman is happily planning her move away from her nosy, interfering elderly relatives, she's barely a week away from her wedding, and then she gets a phone call that her fiance dropped dead that morning from a heart attack. A lonely child finally makes a friend, except the friend turns out to be a manipulative thief who steals things from the kid's house and also manages to get her blamed for shoplifting she didn't do. A woman escapes a bad marriage, is engaged to a decent fellow, ends up having that engagement end abruptly, and then enters into another bad marriage. And so it goes -- every silver lining has a cloud.

Then when you add in the dated language and the not so subtle racism, it's definitely slides towards the "don't bother" end of the scale. In one short story, a little boy who's been orphaned is put a train to go to a government run Indian school in Kansas. When he gets to the school, every Native American he encounters there has a a ridiculous, remarkably offensive name, names that strike me as being a 1950's era attempt at humor but that come across now as just flat out stupid. They might have been appropriate in an episode of "F Troop," a show that spoofed Western cowboys and Indians stereotypes, but dropped in an apparently otherwise dead serious story? Nope. If the story dates from after World War II, Stafford should have known better.

Then again, when most of the characters are drawn from what was apparently Stafford's own milieu, poorly paid intellectuals and writers who muddle along as adjunct faculty or starve in garrets in Paris while feeling smugly superior because they've read Proust, maybe the clunkiness and general dreary tone are understandable. What I don't understand is why the book circulated as much as it did back when the Spies Library in Menominee first accessioned it.

As usual, I had to request the book through Interlibrary Loan. The L'Anse Public Library did not have it in its own collection (and for a change I'll say that was a smart move by whoever was ordering books back in 1969). The back of the book still has the original checkout card pocket with the due dates stamped on it. This book circulated like crazy for about 3 years -- it definitely wasn't gathering dust on the shelves. Then the date stamps stop, and they stop early enough that you can tell interest waned long before libraries went to computerized systems that don't use rubber stamps. (Slight digression: the L'Anse library still stamps due dates in books, but the L'Anse library is small and poor.) I don't recall ever hearing about the book before I saw the title on the Pulitzer list so I am mildly curious about what type of promotion the publisher did. Then again, I hadn't heard of House Made of Dawn either, and back then I was old enough to be paying attention (sort of) to best seller lists and whatever was being pushed by Book of the Month.

So what's my recommendation for this book? Don't bother. Unless you're doing some weird obsessive thing like I am, working your way up or down the Pulitzer fiction winners list, it would be a waste of time.

Next up? Technically, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, but it's one I read back in the '70s. So I'll skip over it and hope I can manage to read Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter. Wish me luck. Several friends have recommended Welty over the years, but so far I've found everything of hers that I've tried to be close to unreadable.


  1. Life is too short for bad books.

  2. that's why I quit reading the Cornwall books..there was no one likeable in the books..I hated everyone.


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