There are a lot of amazing story writers–more every day, I think. What makes a short story brilliant? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. Some want to define it or find a formula; I used to be one of those. Anymore, I’ve given into my tendency to feel instead of think. Rather, my tendency to feel while thinking, and think about my feelings.
You know the Myers-Briggs test? I like to think I’m an INFTP, because when it comes to the think vs. feel questions, I always think, “Why not both?”
Reading her short stories, I get the feeling that Amy Hempel is the same way. If you haven’t read her stuff, I want you to click on this link and read “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” over at Fictionaut. I’ll wait.
Finished? Did you cry?
Whenever I read that story, I feel this almost-numb sadness throughout, the narrator brushing her fingers over the artifacts of her life and the life of her friend, trying hard not to feel what is happening. And then, (spoiler alert, if you didn’t actually read the story, though this is not a plot-heavy piece and thus I don’t know if you can “spoil” it) she goes back to the story of the chimp and through that animal’s denial that its baby has died (the first of the five stages, after all), the whole emotional weight of the story hits me and I cry big, fat tears.
Every single time.
It’s really hard to choose a favorite author–or a favorite anything, for that matter. I laugh listening to my kids declare that this, that and the other thing are their favorites–the list is endless. I’m kind of like that, too, I suppose.
I can’t say that Amy Hempel is my very favorite because there are so many amazing authors to choose from, but she certainly ranks. She skirts around the edges of things in this beautiful, quiet way that might frustrate a lot of readers–I’m guessing some of you might have tried to read the story, got bored, and stopped. And that’s okay. But me, I like that slow build to something that kicks you in the gut. Amy Hempel’s stories are like poetry. Really effective poetry.
Some days, my favorite is Lorrie Moore. Some days Stacey Richter. Mary Gaitskill, Aimee Bender, Alice Munro. Stuart Dybek, to add a man to the list. Lydia Millet.
Who are your favorites? Is there one that comes out unrivaled? Can you articulate what you love about their work, or is it just a feeling, that you come out of their stories feeling a certain way?