Tuesday, December 21, 2010

8# Stephanie Vaughn: ''Dog Heaven''

I ignore the ongoing debate about MFA programs in the United States. There are too many courses; over 8,000 new MFA students come out certified Writers every year. There have been all those long caustic analyses of the phenomena by acidic people like Anis Shivani in the Huffington Post- a phenomenon which is actually pretty simple. Take human restlessness, a desire to be good at something, a natural unwillingness to work in an office or have bosses, and there you have the mass applications to MFA programs. During its inception places like the Iowa Writers Workshop inspired some great stories and novels, it attracted some brilliant writers, and now it is trying to relive its golden years. As many great writers come out of the fog of an enthusiastic 8000 as came out of an inspired few hundred. The economy of great work is not altered by how many people are taught how to write. Anyone going into a writer's workshop is either someone that would have written anyway or can't write either way. But before I trail into yet another discussion of the discussions I have claimed to ignore, let me present one of the truly glittering golden nuggets from a golden era in creative writing programs, one of the great successes along with Denis Johnson, T C Boyle and George Saunders: Stephanie Vaughn. Her collection ''Sweet Talk'', called ''Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog'' in the first UK editions, is one of those rare works that live up to every bit of praise but never has enough people praising it.

Thankfully many people, including myself, have come to know the story ''Dog Heaven'' through Tobias Wolfe's reading on the New Yorker books podcast. And there is something attractive about the other titles he mentioned, like the other story featured, along with Dog Heaven, in The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories, called ‘Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog’.

So even before I was familiar with any of the other stories there was that intrigue, the curiosity about this writer I’d never heard of who wrote pitch perfect short stories, who’d never written anything since, who had a novel set in Italy coming out, sometime; it all took on a mythical quality. But then when we read the illusions closely they unearth one of two things: something deceptive, something stringing you along. Or something authentic, the truest rendering of experience possible on the page, and it is the latter in which these stories fall. They are each crafted within the limits of our time and place but transcend the earthbound on a trajectory to great art.

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