• Great Beginnings: Was This Man a Genius?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Great Beginnings     Comments 5 comments

    Was This Man a Genius?It’s been awhile since we last trotted out a Great Beginnings, and it’s been an even longer while since we last trotted out a Great Beginnings that started a great discussion. Perhaps I’m not doing such a bang-up job of choosing interesting book openings? If that’s the case, I will of course take suggestions. If there’s a book whose opening knocks you flat and you think we should discuss how and why, email me.

    This week I’d like to take a peek at the opening graf of Was This Man a Genius? Talks With Andy Kaufman by Julie Hecht, a writer who is steadily climbing my favorites list. Her story collection Happy Trails to You is one of the better books I’ve read this year, and I’ve heard that Do the Windows Open? is even better. Plus, you’ve gotta admire a writer whose book titles close with a question mark 50% of the time. (Her fourth book is a novel, The Unprofessionals.)

    Anywho. Below is the lead paragraph of Was This Man a Genius? What works? What doesn’t? Do you believe, like Hecht did at the time, that short stories are valued by society, or are short story writers regarded with suspicion? Or both? Leave your discussion points and questions below, and tick the “Notify” box to receive a message when new comments come in:


    IN THE WINTER OF 1978, I was invited to a lunch for contributors to Harper’s Magazine. I believed that short stories were valued by society and that was the reason for the invitation. However, at the time, as is still the case, writers of short stories were regarded with suspicion. During the lunch, Lewis Lapham, the editor, suggested that I write a “piece” on this or that for “us.” I didn’t like the words piece for us, and I reminded Lewis that I wrote short stories.


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    J. Sommers

    Short stories were once valued by society. Now the only society in which they’re valued is the one comprised of short-story writers. And “writers of short stories” are most definitely regarded with suspicion … especially by other writers of short stories.

    So, she’s right on both counts.

    Carrie Winters

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. When my writing friends ask what I’m working on, the question is always tinged with suspicion, doubt and dismissal. Like, “Ewww, what are *you* working on? Forget it, it doesn’t matter because you don’t matter.”

    When my mom asks, it’s more like “What are you working on wait nevermind I don’t really care because I wouldn’t understand anyway.”

    It’s a good mix.

    Martin Barkley

    Hecht doesn’t say in the intro why she thinks short story writers are under suspicion. Her editor’s suggestion that she write non-fiction instead is a good clue, though. Non-fiction, a large chunk of the reading public would tell us, is rooted in facts–literal, only slightly-nuanced facts–whereas fiction is mired in imagination and gobbledygook. Short fiction, even if it parses the human condition in ways that no other form can, is a waste of time when compared to REAL stories. (No wonder Hecht resisted Lapham’s suggestion and put her book in a drawer for twenty years.) The academy, I believe, is… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    We are regarded with suspicion, I think, because writers of short stories are a.) widely believed to be difficult to understand/penetrate/access (perhaps both the writing and the writer), and b.) baffling for the decision to work in the short form. I’m talking about a mainstream readership here as opposed to an inner circle of writers and/or academics. It bugs me to no end that the short story seems to be pigeon-holed as a lesser form than the novel, the assumption being that shorter equals less important or even lazy. If you write 20 pages, why not write 200, right? As… Read more »

    […] my own blog I laid out the opening graf of the book and tried to start a discussion around it. The discussion went […]

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