Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Grace Paley - The Collected Stories - review

Traditional holiday reading involves the huge, wrist-bending saga, but my favourite books to take away on a break are collections of short stories. There's something about the ephemeral nature of short stories that fits perfectly with that strangely detached-from-reality feeling of being on holiday. This year I'm opting for three very different collections: Sandlands by Cambridge academic and novelist Rosy Thornton, Rogues - a mostly fantasy collection edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, and here The Collected Stories of Grace Paley.

A while ago on Facebook some of my friends with far more experience in good fiction than me were enthusing over the short story writing of Grace Paley, so I determined to give her writing a go. I'm glad I did - but, if I'm honest, the stories just don't work for me and I gave up about two thirds of the way through. I had two problems with these mostly short short stories set in a seedy period New York (contemporary when written) - the style and the content.

The style problems were a mix of language and Paley trying a bit too hard to be 'literary'. As far as language goes, the experience of reading this was a little like reading Shakespeare - it takes a while to tune into the style - the use of words here just isn't quite normal. All too often I'd have to read a phrase two or three times and would still think 'I haven't a clue what that means.' Because I was having to concentrate on every word, the reading experience was less enjoyable than usual and it also meant that I found myself going into editing mode: 'That's a comma splice - how could she do that! There shouldn't be a capital letter after that colon!' Perhaps worst of all, I hate the affectation that Paley regularly exhibits of writing speech without inverted commas. Sometimes the writing verged on the arch with statements such as 'Nighttime came and communication was revived at last by our doorbell, which is full of initiative.' No it's not.

As for content, I'll be honest I'm not particularly interested in what it was like to live in the poor parts of New York back in the day, but more critically it's the type of content that doesn't do it for me. I'd draw a parallel with a run-in I had with BBC Radio 4's series The Listening Project. Some while ago I was on Radio 4's Feedback programme moaning about The Listening Project, which I find deadly dull. I called it Big Brother for the chattering classes, as it replaces well-written material with the wonders of 'reality', but in a very middle class way. The content of Paley's stories provides soap opera for the same kind of audience. And that's just not something that engages me.

I don't deny that these are well-crafted stories, or that some will find them wonderful. I hope you will. They just don't work for me.

The Collected Stories is available from and

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