Lily Tuck on "The Elephant Vanishes" by Haruki Murakami
Our Model Short Story series, in which we ask a prominent short story writer to recommend a classic, continues....
Italo Calvino once wrote that he wanted to edit a collection of stories that consisted of one sentence and, as an extraordinary example, he cites the one-line story written by the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso: “Cuando despertó, el dinosaur todavía estaba allí” (When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there). Extraordinary indeed! That single sentence expresses the process of writing fiction—making the imagined real.
Haruki Murakami has written such a story (in fact, he has written many, but this is my favorite). In "The Elephant Vanishes," the narrator is reading the newspaper when a large headline catches his eye: “ELEPHANT MISSING IN TOKYO SUBURBS.” According to the article, the elephant and his keeper’s absence was first noticed at two o’clock in the afternoon of May 18; prior to that, nothing unusual about their behavior had been detected. The tone of the narrator is measured, matter-of-fact, and, at the outset, he establishes that he is a reliable, scrupulous person: “I am one of those people who read the paper from beginning to end, in order…” Then he goes on to describe the provenance of the old elephant—a reject from a defunct zoo—and the conditions set for taking the elephant by the town council and the mayor, listing all the pros and cons: who will pay for the upkeep of the elephant? where will the elephant be housed? etc. before concluding that the town will take charge of the animal and declare him the town symbol. Again, all this is reported in a clear and dispassionate tone, a technique Murakami uses to highlight the disparity between the way the event is reported and the event itself.
After the elephant and his keeper are discovered missing, the town is in an uproar, people are frightened, the police are mobilized, a huge search lasting several days is conducted to no avail. Many more questions are asked: How did the old elephant manage to slip out of the locked steel cuff around his leg? How did the old elephant manage to clear the ten-foot-high fence around his enclosure? And how was it that not a single track was found outside the enclosure? In other words—how can such a large animal simply vanish?
Natalie Goldberg, whose Writing Down the Bones is a classic for writers, has a new book out. It's titled—only half jokingly— The True Secret of Writing. In it, she distills lessons from her Southwest retreats, and prescribes meditation, walking, and then writing to achieve a breakthrough.
The True Secret is filled with practical tips for cutting through your mental clutter if even you don't have hours to meditate or retreat. Here's one short practice: "Go to the same coffee shop for seven days in a row, the same hour, the same seat and record what's in front of you, what you hear, see, smell, taste. No interpretation." The exercise grounds the mind and puts you in touch with your senses and surroundings.
Our Second Annual Literarian Contest is now open. The winner will receive $1000 and publication in The Literarian. Two finalists will each win $100 and possible publication.
We are accepting submissions through Monday, July 1, 2013.
Please enter only original, previously unpublished short stories up to 5000 words in length. Simultaneously submissions are okay as long as we're notified immediately if a story becomes unavailable. The $15 entry fee goes to support The Literarian.
For details and to enter a story, please click here.
Luis Negrón, interviewed by Matt Nelson
The author of Mundo Cruel talks about why he doesn’t want to become the next Bolaño, how journalism helps his fiction, the brilliance of the Telenova, being a drama queen, and the one thing that keeps him from writing.
"I studied journalism because I wanted to learn how to write better. I never wanted to work in a newspaper though. Sometimes young students come to me and ask what should I study. Literature? Comparative studies? I tell them to just take one course at the journalism school, to see how they like it. Journalism teaches you how to be humble and honest. But of course they never follow my advice...."
Bowstring by Viktor Shklovsky
Matt Nelson looks at Russian formulism and the trick of the metaphor
Whether you adhere to Russian Formulism's idea of scientific literariness, or you are way past last season's fab-now-drab form vs. content duality, you cannot deny Viktor Shklovsky's influence on writing. Born in St. Petersburg in 1893, he went to St. Petersburg University and then immediately fought in World World I, during which time he founded the Society for the Study of Poetic Language with noted critic Boris Eichenbaum. Accompanied by Roman Jakobson's Moscow Linguistic Circle, Shklovsky's society formed the basis of READ MORE
Sterling Lord, interviewed by Dawn Raffel
The iconic agent talks about Kerouac and Kesey, the thrill of discovery, and why physical books matter
Sterling Lord set out his shingle as a literary agent in 1952 and has been in business ever since. As he recounts in his memoir, Lord of Publishing, adversity was the mother of invention: He had just been fired from his job as an associate editor at Cosmopolitan (long before Helen Gurley Brown, when women’s magazines were run by men) and decided he needed a more stable occupation. Although he had never even seen a book contract, he did see an opportunity: Having held three magazine jobs in two years, he felt that he knew some of the best magazine writers and could represent them, both for articles and for books. Post World War II, as Americans became more mobile, Lord saw a market for nonfiction that would help explain their changing world.
The man who began his business with $95 (and then borrowed $5000 from his future mother-in-law and another $1000 from his dad), soon grew wildly successful, representing not only bestselling nonfiction writers (including Jimmy Breslin, Pierre Salinger, Nicholas Pileggi) but also Jack Kerouac, whose culture shaking On the Road took four years to sell, and Ken Kesey, the brilliant novelist and Merry Prankster who helped define a generation.
Now 92 years old, Sterling Lord met with me in his beautiful book-lined office at Sterling Lord Literistic to talk about his memoir, the thrill of discovery, the changing publishing scene, and the pleasures of reading a physical book.
I find it remarkable that you started your agency in order to representnonfiction writers, yet you were the agent for some of the novels that changed the cultural conversation in the 20th Century. What is the “it” factor with somebody like Jack Kerouac or Ken Kesey? What stops you in your tracks so that you will represent a book, even if it takes four years to sell?
With Kerouac, I had no idea what would happen to that book. The key thing was that I thought it was a fresh voice, very interesting, and important in terms of the history of literature. Obviously, I believed strongly in what I thought or I wouldn't have stayed with it for four years.
Kesey was totally different from Kerouac, although I liked each of them very much. They were both very serious about their craft. Jack knew why he was writing what he was writing and Ken was, I think, trying to change the world. He was interested in reaching out to people, trying to demonstrate things that would help restore good in their lives.
Smart Phone, Dumb Move
Michele Filgate on the folly of using a bookstore as a showroom
"We live in a time when information is readily available to us—and that impacts how people spend their money. There are many bad or annoying habits that shoppers have picked up, but one of the worst and most offensive acts is when they use their smartphone to scan a book and then..."READ MORE
Christina Baker Kline decodes the most dreaded critique:
"Writers hate being told that their central character is unsympathetic. They not-so-secretly believe that “unsympathetic” is code for complicated and multi-faceted... As a writer, I empathize. As an editor, I’ve had to figure out exactly what I mean by the word 'unsympathetic'..." READ MORE
Caroline Leavitt on Facing the “You’re a Failure” Voice
Someone recently asked me in an interview, “How do you obliterate that voice inside of you that tells you you’re a failure as a writer?”
I laughed when I heard the question because most of the writers I know and hang out with, from prize winners to fledgling authors, all seem to battle the same anxiety that we’re somehow not good enough. No matter how shiny our reviews, how big our prizes, a lot of us scribblers feel like impostors. We worry whether or not we’ve really communicated what we want to say, in the way we wanted to say it. It’s astonishing how often even a great review or a success can be dismissed, because maybe the reviewer just liked us or felt sorry for us or wasn’t being critical enough. Even a prize can mean that we were simply the top of a not-very-good selection of people. Can writers ever feel content? Is there a way to quell the fear so we can buckle down and do our work?
Lately, I’ve begun to think that maybe there’s a way to use that fear. Instead of letting anxiety cripple creativity, maybe that negative voice can help it bloom. Perhaps the thing to do is to make peace instead of trying to go into battle.
Need a place to write? Our writing studio is located in a beautiful, sky-lit space on our top floor. It provides the perfect setting for writing. Read more