Friday, September 08, 2006

Amy Hempel

Recently sampled the oeuvre of Amy Hempel because Chuck Palahniuk recommended her in his collection of essays (the article linked to there is anthologized in the collection). And, when a writer I like recommends another, I have a look.

Well, I'm torn. I admire her writing, but I don't enjoy it on a visceral level. I enjoy it on the level that you enjoy a decent pun or play on words, but I didn't ever lean into the book and get that exhilaration you get when a good writer grabs you by the nose hairs. And she's a good writer; it's just that this corner of writing - minimalist (she prefers "miniaturist"), purposely obscure in meaning - has never held a lot of heat and warmth for me.

Of the 15 odd stories I read, only one really affected me, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried", which happens to be her first. Hempel often tries to "get you" in the last paragraph of her stories (which I love, btw, at least she understands there has to be payoff even from the small investment of reading a short story), and she certainly got me. I'm tempted to go off into spoilerland, but I don't want to rob her story of the punch if you intend to read it.

If you're interested, here's a short bio on her site, the wikipedia entry, and the story that Chuck Palahniuk says is her other best story, "The Harvest." (If anyone actually understands what supposedly the last paragraph is about - Palahniuk says it takes a while for it to dawn on you - I'd love to know.)

Oh, and here's a recent interview with her. I really liked this part:

[Inteviewer]: When you teach creative writing, is there one piece of advice that seems to resonate more than others, seems to work, with students?

Hempel: Not so much a piece of advice as a question to keep in mind, which is the most basic of questions: Why are you telling me this? Someone out there will be asking, and you better have a very compelling answer, or reason.

There are people who have been raised by loving parents to believe that the world awaits their every thought and sentence, and I'm not one of them. So I respond to that. Is this essential? The question might be, Is this something only you can say — or, only you can say it this way? Is this going to make anyone's life better, or make anyone's day better? And I don't mean the writer's day.

And, yes, I'm sorta recommending her collection. Don't let my limitations and prejudices stop you.

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