Grace Paley, a tremendously talented writer of short fiction, passed away last week and I thought it would be appropriate to look at her for this week’s short fiction focus. I was initially introduced to Paley in one of my very first graduate school courses and I remember being astounded to discover that the things a writer leaves out of a story might be just as important as the carefully included words and descriptions. Paley often seems to work her stories around this great looming heap of unspoken emotion and thought. For the most part, her stories center on a very specific moment of the day but yet they manage somehow to lay open the very essence of a character’s entire life. She writes about women and the men they are in relationship with, the children they have brought into the world and the complicated alliance they hold with their inner selves.
In the introduction to The Collected Stories (published in 1994), Paley addresses one of my own concerns about the perceived distinction between men and women’s literature:
As a former boy myself (in the sense that many little girls reading Tom Sawyer know they’ve found their true boy selves) I had been sold pretty early on the idea that I might not be writing the important serious stuff. As a grown-up woman I had no choice. Every day life, kitchen life, children life had been handed to me, my portion, the beginning of big luck, though I didn’t know it.
I was a woman writing at the early moment when small drops of worried resentment and noble rage were secretly, slowly building into the second wave of the women’s movement. I didn’t know my small-drop presence or usefulness in this accumulation. Others like Ruth Hershberger, who wrote Adam’s Rib in 1948, and Tillie Olsen, who was writing her stories through the forties and fifties, had more consciousness than I and suffered more. This great wave would crest half a generation later, leaving men sputtering and anxious, but somewhat improved for the crashing bath.
Every woman writing in these years has had to swim in that feminist wave. No matter what she thinks of it, even if she bravely swims against it, she has been supported by it – the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness.
It would be difficult for me to select a single Paley story as a favorite. I read many of them over and over and I especially enjoy the set of stories that center around a particular character named Faith. In general, I simply love looking at how she manages to begin a sentence or a paragraph one way and then suddenly hustle the reader off an emotional ridge we didn’t even know we were standing on. She does this again and again, in all of her stories.
Here’s just one example, from Living (1974):
After we talked, I felt worse. I left the kids alone and ran down to the corner for a quick sip among living creatures. But Julie’s and all the other bars were full of men and women gulping a hot whiskey before hustling off to make love. People require strengthening before the acts of life.
Paley uses the bedroom, the kitchen or the front garden as places where life really happens. Her characters are precariously situated and unloved, angry and unsure and she animates them with all the love and care they deserve, making them hers and through her skill and affection, ours as well.