Friday, February 21, 2014

Lorrie Moore

Since Lorrie Moore has released a new collection of short stories, Bark, I'll discuss her today in the hope of getting a few things off my chest. This may be boring to most. Feel free to skip it.

I first came across her writing in a bookstore in Louisville, KY in 1986. I was so struck by one story, "How to Be an Other Woman," that I immediately wrote her a fan letter.  The rest of that collection, Self-Help, was not as good, but I enjoyed it. I continued to read all of her work up until late 1998, at which point I stopped buying her books.  I sent her letters for many years, and I think I got a total of three replies, none of which said much. In one letter I sent her a puzzle that I had written that had been published in Mensa Bulletin, and she wrote back to see if she had the right answer. I met her twice in 1990 when she was promoting her book Like Life in Chicago. The first time was at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she seemed avoidant. The second time was a few weeks later at Barbara's Bookstore on North Wells Street, and she acted friendly but had brought her husband along and introduced me to him. I continued to write letters to her but never heard from her again.

There was a period when I lived in Dixon, IL that I got a lot of hangup calls. Sometimes the phone would ring and there would be no one there, and whoever it was would hang up after a few seconds. There were also incidents when the phone would ring just once very early in the morning and stop before I had a chance to answer it. At the time I thought it could be Lorrie Moore, because I couldn't think of anyone else who might do that. I had no social life, no correspondence, and no reason to believe that anyone I knew in Dixon might do that. Telemarketers sometimes hang up, but at that time I wasn't getting any telemarketing calls. I was also struck by the fact that there is a recurring theme of hangup calls throughout Lorrie Moore's fiction that runs right up to the present. I have told people about this, and they usually think I'm delusional, but I still have no better explanation for those calls.

Without going into a detailed description of her work, which I'm sick of now anyway, let me broadly describe what I liked and disliked about it. She can be very witty and quite good at expressing some of the private pains that sensitive people experience in their lives. On the other hand, her characters tend to be stick figures who never develop as people and always remain mired in gigantic ruts. Over the years, she's transitioned from single women who have bad relationships with men to married women who are unhappy with their marriages to divorced women who are unhappy with everything. Her characters never engage each other or solve any of their problems. In addition, she has a love of wordplay and recklessly inserts it into her stories in a manner that further detracts from the believability of her characters. In the real world people rarely make puns. If you look at her work as an oeuvre, which is probably too generous a term, she has beaten a dead horse to such a pulp that it now looks like the skeleton of a mustang that has been dead for fifty years.

Part of my irritation with Lorrie Moore is fundamentally an irritation with the entire American literary establishment that has made her career possible. Negative assessments of her work are rare, and this may have contributed to her sloppy work habits and decline as a writer. She has been an admired and sought-after teacher of fiction for thirty years, even as the quality of her work deteriorated. In addition to her fiction, she writes articles for high-profile publications, where she is paid handsomely to write elliptical reviews of nonsense such as second-rate television programs. I have never benefited from any of her reviews in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, or elsewhere.

It appears that the tide may be turning now. Michiko Kakutani, the well-known reviewer for The New York Times, has given Bark a decisively negative review. I happen to have read five of the eight stories in Bark (only because, for unknown reasons, I have a free online subscription to The New Yorker) and concur with Kakutani, though my judgment would be more severe.


  1. Paul I doubt you can be surprised that ppl rest on their laurels. As I age I see so many bright, young, up and comers and I think wow these kids have energy and talent but generally life is set up that you have to pay your dues. The author you mention is unknown to me but it does not seem strange that she continues to ride high on past success. Maybe I am making your point even stronger by admitting I am anesthetized to this pattern. Btw you are a terrific writer.

  2. I'm glad you like my writing. Actually I prefer to communicate this way because I can fine tune everything better than in real-time conversation. Most people don't seem to care much about that any more. You, Fario, my daughter, and, to a lesser degree, my girlfriend may be the only ones who care about my writing.

    Yes, Lorrie Moore is a great disappointment, but people do tend to follow the path of least resistance. I can't guarantee that I would have turned down a cushy job with high pay where all I had to do was appear smart and write a bunch of crap that would pass for good writing. Yet I really am a divergent thinker and would still figure out a way to blow off the whole system. People with real intellectual integrity could do a better job than Lorrie Moore. Just a guess, but she could be an unhappy old drunk like Christoper Hitchens. Bad habits catch up with people like that.

  3. Yes I think bad habits prob catch up w most of us and for sure his did. For mean and nasty see Salon's 2013 Top 10 Hack List. I thrilled to each take down even though I did not know several.

  4. I think all columnists become hacks eventually. I gradually went through them at the New York Times, and I can't even stand looking at them now. Eventually they all become repetitious and boring, and the worst among them will try anything to seem interesting, even when it obviously isn't. But Lorrie Moore is supposed to be an artist, so she has no excuse whatsoever.


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