Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Will Boast on Beautiful Musicians and Unlikely Dreams

In the 54th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Will Boast, author of Power Ballads (University of Iowa Press), explains why he thinks struggling musicians make good protagonists for short stories.

Since high school, an obsession with music—performing, recording, listening, talking about it endlessly with friends—has run right along in parallel to my more private obsession with reading and writing. The two pursuits intersected in the stories I wrote for my collection, Power Ballads. The accumulated force of all the rehearsals I’ve sat through, all the (largely unglamorous) gigs I’ve played, all the beautiful and frustrated musicians I’ve met, and all the unlikely dreams I’ve seen those musicians try to live out needed to find some kind of literary outlet. It wasn’t that I set out to write about music and musicians necessarily, more that the lives of the musicians I’ve known put them in interesting, precarious positions—artistically, financially, and emotionally—that began to suggest to me individual stories.

One of my favorite books of criticism on the short story is Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice. It’s not a scholarly work, nor does it make any claims to objectivity, but for me it compellingly describes what the short story is good at doing. In his introduction, O’Connor outlines his famous concept, the “submerged population group,” using it to describe the sorts of characters he finds in the early masters of the short tale: Gogol’s petty officials, Turgenev’s peasants, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Sherwood Anderson’s lonely, small-town dreamers. (More contemporary examples might be Denis Johnson’s junkies, Tim O’Brien’s soldiers, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s Indian immigrants.)

The novel, that most middle-class of art forms, has long been obsessed with social climbers and world-beaters, their triumphs, their downfalls, their second and third acts. O’Connor says that the short story concerns itself with a different sort of character: those who get swept to the side of society, who the larger world deems unworthy of having their lives told. Put another way, the main character in a novel stands out from the crowd. The characters in short stories are those most people walk by without even seeing. I very much like what O’Connor says about what the novel is good at:

The novel is bound to be a process of identification between the reader and the character…. One character at least in any novel must represent the reader in some aspect of his own conception of 
himself…. and this process of identification invariably leads to some concept of normality and to some relationship—hostile or friendly—with society as a whole.

He is, of course, saying that the novel needs a hero. Half-hero or quarter-hero or anti-hero, it doesn’t matter—the novel needs a central character the reader can see standing in for him- or herself. The reader of the short story, however, is asked to enter into a very different relationship with its characters. As O’Connor puts it, “The short story has never had a hero.”

With my decidedly marginal experiences in the music “industry” and under the influence of O’Connor and some of the story collections mentioned above, I knew what I did not want to write about: rock stars. In the last couple years, there have been some pretty successful novels on this subject. But, for whatever reason, the rock star—both the actual people and the cultural myth—has always bored and dismayed me. Perhaps because of the mediocrity of mainstream music. Perhaps because I hate being asked to follow fashions and pay homage to those who ride them. Perhaps because the narrative of the heroic individual who risks it all, gets everything they have ever desired, only to lose it all again, etc., etc.—that favorite narrative of the movies and VH1—seems so patently false to me. Perhaps because the stories of those who simply have to learn to live with their own lives seem so noble and true.