Saturday, August 8, 2015

Shirley Jackson Takes The Stage In Let Me Tell You

The pinnacle of short story publications for a literary writer is The New Yorker. The famous magazine has published stories from National Book Award winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, and many more literary legends since its inception in 1925. While picking the best piece of fiction that has ever appeared in its pages is unfathomably difficult, and probably even arbitrary given that it has published so many fantastic pieces of short fiction, it can certainly be argued that one 1948 New Yorker story is the most widely read of them all. "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson is read by nearly all students in America in either middle school, high school or college. Many students, like myself, have had it on the syllabus in more than one grade level or institution. Ask someone who does not read about "The Lottery" and chances are that they will be able to describe its plot. For those reading right now, do you remember Shirley Jackson's defining story?

August 8th marks the fiftieth anniversary of Shirley Jackson's untimely death, and this week, a new posthumous collection entitled Let Me Tell You was released. Edited by two of Jackson's children with a foreword from her biographer and literary critic, Ruth Franklin, the collection features fifty-six pieces, forty of which were previously unpublished. The pieces were carefully chosen from the fifty boxes of Jackson's papers that are stored at the Library of Congress. Let Me Tell You is broken up into five sections: unpublished and uncollected short fiction, essays and reviews, early short stories, humor and family, and lectures on writing craft.

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For a writer that was inclined to introduce supernatural elements into her tales, the fiction displayed here is a step back from the classic Jackson angle in some respects. Yes, there are still stories that provide shock value as they use magical realism and aspects of dystopia, but what is more present is the feelings of restlessness in everyday life. They deal with the human condition and all of the obsessions and worries that we deal with on a daily basis whether we realize it or not. To her credit, the fiction in the collection is superb in its portrayal of life at home, and intricately relies on our little idiosyncrasies as individuals. Shirley Jackson's fiction has always startled, delighted, and provided long afterthoughts to readers across the world, so it is no surprise that even her early fiction shows glimmers of this impressive talent.

Even though she is most well known for her fictional tales, the essays are what really stand out in Let Me Tell You. Perhaps it is because it is the closest we can get to sitting down and having a conversation with the late writer, or maybe it is because she opens up the window of the mind of a brilliant writer such as herself. Her commentary and candor in these pieces is a treat.

In her essay about fan mail, we learn that Jackson's life revolved around fiction. She states, "I don't think I like reality very much. Principally, I don't understand people outside; people in books are sensible and reasonable, but outside there is no predicting what they will do." She continues by describing a real life anecdote about her research for a story in a drugstore. Jackson says, "For instance, I went the other day into our local drugstore and asked them how I would go about getting enough arsenic to poison a family of six." After the customers and employees did not behave like characters in a book since they really paid no attention to her comments, she concludes that she likes the way fiction works.

Fiction writers are often more closed off people given the nature of their work, but peering inside the mind of Jackson clearly shows where her fictional themes come from. She was interested in how shock value her stories could create, and the way she viewed the real world correlates directly to those common themes of Jackson's fiction. It should not be hard to guess that she did not respond very much to fan mail but judging by the examples of real letters included in the collection, one can hardly blame her.

Jackson details her ideas on the craft of writing in an essay that starts with the declaration that "I find it very difficult to distinguish between life and fiction." Not to say that she was out of touch, but that everything that surrounded her in real life ended up being a snapshot that she could use in her fiction. She even reveals that "The Lottery" was born one night when she was reading a book about human sacrifice which led her to contemplating which member of her own small town would be sacrificed in a similar situation. She concedes that no one in North Bennington, Vermont had ever heard of The New Yorker or read her groundbreaking story, which proves my previous declaration incorrect. Apparently, Jackson's next door neighbors did not know that they resided by a literary legend in the making, as shocking as that may seem.

It is true that some of these revealing pieces make Jackson seem somewhat brash, and perhaps even unfriendly, but it is all a matter of perspective and context. A fiction writer's primary job is to create a world that is fully imagined and in Jackson's case, capable of maintaining the suspension of disbelief to allow complete immersion into her stories. She did not hesitate or worry about what people would think of her because of her fiction, and for that, Shirley Jackson became one of the most original voices of her generation. Let Me Tell You is a proper name for a collection that does everything in its power to display an unfiltered and unapologetic look at one writer's work, opinions, and views of the world around her.

In the final essay of the collection, she writes, "Far and away the greatest menace to the writer -any writer, beginning or otherwise-is the reader. The reader is, after all, a kind of silent partner in this whole business of writing, and a work of fiction is surely incomplete if it is never read." She even comes to the interesting conclusion that a beginning writer is always at a disadvantage to the reader, given that a reader has likely read many great books, which in turn, makes the beginning writer more susceptible to this level of self-consciousness about the quality of their work. The thing about Shirley Jackson is that she never made us think that she was a writer just starting out which makes these sorts of views all the more relevant. Let Me Tell You follows the Shirley Jackson mantra of shocking and startling readers, and for that, it succeeds.

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