The Little Disturbances of Grace Paley


Short stories are not rock, punk or pop. Stories are the Blues. Most of its heroes are secret discoveries made from whispers and backyard myths. Occasionally there’s a Muddy Waters or an Eric Clapton to wake the world up again to these short outbursts of prose, but there’s no doubt that for the story specialist — the past was hard, the present is bleak and the future just as filled with the Blues.

Any time one of these Blues singers strike it hot they’ll be asked to make it rock, turn it soda-pop, or get hip and growl. Stop playing that backyard stuff for an Aussie pub circuit. Because it’s only the novel that sells, kid. There’s bigger stages. Arenas and telecasts. Some of them even get made into films. If you listen carefully you can even hear the gold bell ring.

I won’t nominate literary equivalents for Charlie Patton or Son House. No point in confusing two kinds of arcana but it’s enough to say that both the short form and Blues come from a purer form of necessity. Deeper intimations of survival, at least. Especially when there’s no concession to rock, punk or pop. The short story specialist says, this here is everything that needs to be said. Sit down at the table and I’ll show you. And the tale’s done — over the space of a glass of wine. Sometimes it’ll be said over a bottle. But there’s no three courses, three ring productions, and no-one need worry about the dishes.

Grace Paley died two years ago. She was a lifelong activist who described herself as ‘a somewhat combinative pacifist and cooperative anarchist’ but never faltered in that commitment to social justice. Relentlessly opposing wars from Vietnam through to Iraq, and ceaselessly campaigning for women’s rights. And all along the way, she was a poet and a short story writer of the highest calibre. Those politics found places within her work that were not didactic or blatant, but always fired with that same unfaltering commitment. Her stories are interconnected by characters and theme sets, an array of vividly speaking people in a breathing New York City. The stories display a subtle understanding of complexity and a clear sighted vision of essential simplicity. Clear sighted, vulnerable but not fragile, driven but patient, full of heart, lusty with kisses, politically engaged, culturally sophisticated and crystalline with poetic vision. She never wrote a novel and so died unknown by most readers.

There are superb writers of the short form that should to be known. They deserve to be talked about broadly and acknowledged for their lives as well as their dedication to pure work. And particularly for this strange commitment to a form of writing that is always going to be on the fringes of our awareness. Because the music that they have played for us, was of the most elemental kind. The songs of their lives offered without asking you for anything more than a few minutes of your time.

Alec Patric

AS Patric is the award-winning author of The Rattler & other stories (Spineless Wonders, 2011), Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge, 2012) and Bruno Kramzer (Finlay Lloyd, 2013).

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  1. Well said… it’s interesting that if you google the most written about people in history the top 3 are poets, and 10 out of the top 25. I guess we’ll have to wait 100 years to read the good stuff (reference to the back of TT.O’s business card!)

  2. Paley’s prose and poetry are electric and quotable. Her life was always open hearted and responsible to this world.
    Her posthumous poetry book “Fidelity” witnesses old age. She grabbed at truth at each part of her generous life. Always involved not a spectator.

  3. Eeek, that makes it a year since I last thought, “I must read some Grace Paley stories”. Where did that go? Very nice post, Alec – now if only I could retain all the finer stories I read as easily as I get through them, that would be marvellous – I want a dedicated short story hard drive when we all line up for our chips.

    I really enjoyed that essay by Ramona K, Jeff.

  4. Favourite Grace Paley quote (one of many faves) “I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don’t be surprised–change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused. Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don’t notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary’s ear for thirty years. Who’s listening? Papa’s in the shop. You and Seymour, thinking about yourself. So she waits in a spotless kitchen for a kind word and thinks–poor Rosie . . . ”
    A perfect opening paragraph, from the story ‘Goodbye and Good Luck.’

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