An Introduction to Fiction by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia

An Introduction to Fiction reminded me why I felt put off by a lot of the literature I studied in high school English classes: modern literary criticism is oppressive in its political correctness, and the stories themselves are almost uniformly depressing.

On page 274 of this textbook, Ursula K. Le Guin, in her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, provides a possible explanation for literary gloom: “[W]e have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.”

Tolstoy is one of those sophisticates. You will surely recall this famous line (from Anna Karenina): “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

We believe this, do we not? Genre fiction stories in which the characters catch the killer, go on adventures and return triumphant, defeat cosmic evil with the help of magic swords and stalwart companions, and/or fall in reciprocated love with their true soul mates are derided as shallow and commercial, no matter how inventive, entertaining, or uplifting we find them. We are apparently supposed to prefer deep explorations of the multitudes of ways people’s lives can and do go wrong. Blech.

In short, the textbook was mostly a downer. Nevertheless, some of the analysis of the components of fiction was interesting, and I did like a few of the stories. See below for more on what I liked and what I learned, as well as when and why I read the book.

Stories I Liked

“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane
No matter what you do, you win some and you lose some.
The warm tone overpowered the despair of the struggle with an uncaring sea.

“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Perfect equality, if it were possible, would be insufferable.
I didn’t enjoy reading the story, but I applaud the theme.

“The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence
All the luck in the world is useless without wisdom.
or: Pursuing money is missing the point.
I didn’t admire the theme, but I admired the lucky main character.

“The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Anton Chekhov
Finding your soulmate too late causes as many problems as it fixes.
“[E]verything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people.”

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
Even when soldiers don’t die in war, their innocence does.
I liked the details about all the things they carried.

“First Confession” by Frank O’Connor
Religion is only as scary or as comforting as its practitioners.
I liked how the main character’s expectations were subverted.

What Stood Out

On page 122, from “On Writing” by Raymond Carver:

Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.

On pages 210–211: [Four important elements of style: diction, sentence structure, tone, and organization.]

On pages 213–214: [Theme can be an idea (a noun phrase), but let’s think of it as a sentence.]

On page 289: [The total effect of any successful novel is a sense of the actual.

On page 406: [In contrast to a novel, a short story is constructed with the aim of achieving a particular effect.]

When and Why I Read It

This is a textbook my brother used for a class in college. I read it because I’m involved in the Singapore Writers’ Group and I wanted a better sense for what fiction is supposed to consist of, especially short literary fiction, since often I read long and commercial fiction. The book doesn’t cover how to write fiction; where there are writing assignments they’re about how to write critical essays.

Genre: fiction, non-fiction (literature, literary criticism)
Date started / date finished:  07-Nov-16 to 07-Dec-16
Length: 802 pages
ISBN: 0321209400 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2005 (9th edition)
Amazon link: An Introduction to Fiction (9th edition)