By Susan Steinberg
Graywolf Press, 152 pages, $14
In the current literary environment — conservative by inclination, market-driven by intention — it’s often hard to see the true accomplishment of a work of fiction through the buzz and packaging that surrounds it. The book is a product targeted toward a pre-existing class of reader. “Good” no longer means an artful synthesis of form and meaning, of style and substance, of truth and beauty; “good” means the book has fulfilled the expectations of the genre it was intended to embody, and thus can be sold to readers who want that genre without challenging or disappointing them. This applies as much to “serious” literature as it does to low forms, like romance or sci-fi or vampire lit.
And the most serious of literature — that which wholly engages with the way words can be used to evoke and inform our fractious, often alienated, experiences of the world; that which asserts an unyielding individuality or acknowledges and explores the limits of what a story can do; that which, in short, is capable of giving the reader a singular, meaningful reading experience — is simply dismissed as “experimental,” meaning, in this case, complicated, unmarketable, pandering to no specific block of consumers.
I mention this not because I’m a great defender of experimental fiction. I find most experimental fiction to be airless, academic, incompetent, or all three. No, I mention this because the rap on Susan Steinberg) is that she’s an experimental writer — which means, if you’ve heard of her at all, you’ve been told, implicitly, that her work is too much trouble to pay attention to — and I believe that’s unfair.
Steinberg is one of the best fiction writers in America today. She writes only short stories, and over the course of three slim collections, she has developed a style that’s so full of swagger, neurosis and hurt that you almost don’t realize how accomplished she is at leading you through her fictional universe, or how complete that universe is.
As with Steinberg’s previous work, the stories in her new book, “Spectacle,” are primarily first-person narrations delivered by an unnamed author stand-in, the facts of whose life remain consistent from story to story. In this way, as well as in the elliptical, fragmented structures she often uses, and the reliance on voice to squeeze meaning from the words, and her fidelity to the short story, Steinberg owes a debt to Grace Paley (another Jewish woman, whose work would be relegated to the “experimental” ghetto if she tried to do today what she did in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s).
Steinberg and Paley are after similar things. There’s a strain of feminism running through their work. But if Paley’s feminism was the enlightened hopeful sort embodied by her urban Jewish generation, Steinberg’s is darker and more conscious of all the things empowerment is incapable of solving.
She’s like Paley’s nihilistic, abandoned granddaughter, left to fend for herself in the bombed-out ruins of a culture in which women have been told they can be, and do, anything they want but don’t feel like this is necessarily true.