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A Survey of Writers on Contemporary Writers

Listening to writers read and discuss their work at Newtonville Books, the bookstore my wife and I own outside Boston, I began to wonder which living, contemporary writers held the most influence over their work.  This survey is not meant to be comprehensive, but is the result of my posing the question to as many writers as I could ask.  

Jaime Clarke

ETHAN CANIN

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BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON: Before I read Ethan Canin, I didn’t understand what was possible in a short story. I’d read the requisite Hawthorne and Poe, then plenty of Faulkner and Hemingway and even, I think, some Wharton and Dinesen. Of course these writers are important, timelessly so, but their stories didn’t simultaneously break and heal my heart. They didn’t liberate my imagination. They didn’t, and this is paramount, surprise me. Those classic pieces of literature made me feel like a student; I worked to find symbols and fancy themes, and the stories provided ample material. When I read Canin—specifically the story “Pitch Memory” from his magnificent first collection Emperor of the Air—I felt vulnerable, deeply and inescapably human.  

The story that did it for me might be called a Canin B-Side.  Although “Pitch Memory” appears in his first and astonishingly good collection Emperor of the Air, it isn’t a story people usually cite when they laud Canin’s work. They tend to focus on “The Year of Getting to Know Us” and “Emperor of the Air”; they talk about the glorious novellas that make up The Palace Thief; and they talk about his affecting novels like Carry Me Across the Water and America America. I admire all of his fiction, and I’ve read most everything at least twice, but for me it all comes back to the exquisite little story in which a woman returns home for Thanksgiving and discovers that her mother is stealing again.  

In “Pitch Memory,“ as in most of Canin’s fiction, there is a revelation on just about every page. These feel neither engineered nor sentimental; rather, they are inevitable, essential to the characters. And there are other hallmarks of Canin’s fiction at play in the story: the clean and incisive prose; the attention to the passage of time, how the past forms and informs the future; the seamless narration, the profoundly humane lens through which the story is perceived; the way minor trespasses reveal our deepest wounds, the way our infractions betray our various losses and fears; the satisfying structure and the emotion that upholds the architecture; the way the revelations feel so inevitable and authentic that you sense they must have surprised the author, too, that they were born of purest empathy.  

But all of this is the language of book reviews and workshops.  Here’s what I want to say: I remember that the story made me want to write.  I remember marveling at how a story so short could contain such multitudes of emotion. I remember recognizing the characters’ hearts, their longing and coping, their brief hopes for solace. I remember scribbling down the author’s name with a plan to scour bookstores and libraries for more of his work. I remember needing to be somewhere—to my job, actually—but instead of leaving, I flipped back to the first page of the story and read it again.  

So I was wrong earlier. Reading Ethan Canin didn’t show me what a short story—what fiction—can do.  Reading Ethan Canin showed me what it must do.  

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