Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Short-Short Storyteller

November 30, 2013 -- Before the year is out, a few pictures from this month's biannual John R. Milton Writers' Conference, hosted by the University of South Dakota English Department in Vermillion (above), and the 2013 Western Literature Association Conference held in Berkeley in October (below). RBM presented a critical paper, "The Short-Short Storyteller: Walter Benjamin and the Rise of Brief Prose," at both conferences. He also read from The Land of Infinite Variety, a nonfiction manuscript in progress, at the Milton Conference's panel on the genre: "'Traveling from Here to There': The Empathy of Writing Geography and Self," chaired by Dr. Fred Arroyo. Here's an excerpt from "The Short-Short Storyteller" along with a few slides from Berkeley:
Thus proceeds the magic, the aura, the spellbinding peculiarity of Benjamin’s essay. Its glimpses of the future of narrative prose and enduring proposals about its history continue to prompt vigorous dialogues that circle back upon themselves--testing out agreements, then proposing new theories of artistic production that collapse at odd moments, like an extended metaphor. And running parallel to this discourse is another, even stranger way of thinking about Benjamin: the counterfactual imagination, which has the doomed German critic showing up at a Dairy Queen in West Texas to diagnose Americans with collective memory loss, or moving to Los Angeles with contemporaries Adorno and Horkheimer to help write the history of urban decay. Perilously, we have embarked on yet another such inquiry, one that acknowledges the influence of Benjamin’s last days on literary criticism, but attempts to recover from the industry more valuable aspects of the cultural apprehension that foregrounds “The Storyteller.” My own essay undertakes a demonstration, more specifically, in stories by Etgar Keret, Sherman Alexie, and Brian Doyle, of certain enduring elements of narrative prose: brevity or compactness; accumulation, or the piling up of multiple tellings; practical wisdom derived from experience; and another feature we might call "indeterminacy," a kind of preservative against sudden extinction. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for any expatriate who finds his way of conversing with the world confined to the page: orality, that "told out loud" quality of so many stories and novellas, from Robert Louis Stevenson ("the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island"), to the Russian masters ("each of us in turn had to tell something fantastic from his own life," begins Nikolai Leskov), and beyond.

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