When Lorrie Moore’s The Collected Stories dropped in 2008, wisely genuflecting critics said things like “miraculous”, “genius”, and, “Lorrie Moore set the tone of female-centred comedy for the last 15 years.” We suggested she be made president of the USA. Bark, Moore’s entirely brilliant forthcoming collection of stories, is her first for 15 years (wooo!) and is all set to remind the western world once again that it’s the girls who currently rule the form. Along with Alice Munro, Edna O’Brien and Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore is among the greatest writers of short fiction in English living now. Her stories of middling American lives are brain-popping, sentence-perfect gems that demonstrate the power of the medium: smart, politically engaged, devastatingly sad and yet with a freakishly high yield of lolz. We spent a happy hour on the phone with our heroine and this is some of what she said...
Dazed Digital: The lives of girls and women have always been central to your work. Are things better for them now than when you started out?
Lorrie Moore: It’s hard to know. I can look at people of my generation and at people who are coming up – my son’s generation – and it looks to some extent like it’s both easier and harder for girls than it used to be. It does seem like girls are doing well, but that they have to do well: that they have to work so much harder. In the United States it’s much harder for girls to get into college than it is for boys. Isn’t that strange?
DD: It is. Why is it harder?
Lorrie Moore: They have to compete against each other so much more. The boys tend to drop out – they tend to be indifferent students and associate academic success with girls – and so universities that are trying to get an even number of boys and girls in their freshman classes can only take girls that have really high grades, yet they can take a vast array of boys. I have noticed among my students that the girls are a little stressed. The girls are working harder and they’re more stressed than the boys. Is that a triumph of feminism? I’m not sure. I mean, this is totally anecdotal, but when I consult with other teachers, other parents, they seem to agree. They can see that their girls are working so hard and the boys are a little more relaxed. So I don’t know what the future will bring in terms of boys and girls down the line. What do you think?
DD: I feel like we’re encouraged to believe that we live in a culture where feminism has wrought its wonderful work, but I’m not sure that’s always the case...
Lorrie Moore: I don’t know. The whole project of feminism is never over, I suppose. It’s about making things good for both women and men. And making things just and equal and humane. There’s always little pockets of things that start to get worse rather than better. It’s like civil rights: some things are better, but then you look around and you still see that there are problems, and that there are unexpected things happening. Just because we have an African-American president doesn’t mean that there aren’t racial issues in the United States. I’m not a very good cultural spokesperson in general terms, and that’s why I like to write stories: I like to get very specific circumstances and put characters in them. But I do look around as a teacher and worry a little bit about the girls, frankly. And I also worry about the boys. Because the boys are not readers, by and large. The girls are the readers, not the boys. The boys are dropping out at an unprecedented rate: dropping out of the job market, dropping out of college, dropping out of high school. Girls are hanging in there and doing the hard work. The boys are not. So you end up having to worry about them both. Those are sweeping generalisations, and obviously there are individuals who are doing very well.
DD: How optimistic are you about the state of literary culture in 2014?
You have to remain somewhat optimistic. There are never going to be as many readers of literary fiction as you want or hope, but I think there will always be some. To some extent you just have to be hopeful, and not too greedy. I mean, 200 years ago in the United States there were not that many readers and not that many books. There wasn’t even any copyright – there was just a bunch of pirated books. So things have certainly gotten better since then. People are still reading and they’re still buying books.
“The humour of life is important. You need something to hang on to, otherwise it would all be unbearable! Don’t you think?”
Lorrie Moore: What about alt lit. What does it mean to you?
What? I’m sorry, what does ‘alt lit’ mean? Oh, you mean like, ‘alternative literature’? I hear my students using that term and to my mind it’s just a version of what we used to call ‘experimental fiction’ from the 60s. I think they’re using it to describe certain things that are basically imitations of David (Foster) Wallace, who was inspired by writers from earlier decades. I don’t know: I think there’s a continuum if you look at certain things Donald Barthelme and Gilbert Sorrentino were doing in the 60s and if you look at alt lit now.
DD: I feel like the writers you’re talking about had a more high-minded approach to the experimental than some of the big alt lit types...
Lorrie Moore: But they may be doing things that feel experimental, they just may not realise that some of this has been done before. I don’t know, I mean, it’s important for young writers to feel that they are doing something new. You have to feel like this hasn’t ever been in the world quite in this way, and that’s why it’s interesting and why it’s important. To some extent that will always be true. But you also have predecessors: you have debts to people you may not realise.
DD: There are so many lolz in your work. Why is comedy so important?
Lorrie Moore: The comedy is to make everything else bearable. I collect it. I stumble into it, I encounter it, things occur to me as I’m writing. But in the end I think so many of these stories are just sad stories, so the texture has to be funny or it just would be unbearable. Also I think that’s true to life. The underlying narrative of life is not really that funny.
DD: The end part’s not that funny.
Lorrie Moore: It is not. But day-to-day, the particular encounters and particular things can be really wildly funny. Every day there’s something that’s funny. Mostly it’s a collision of unexpected things coming together, or just the reaction of a person to another person. In general I think these stories are funny only on the surface and not really underneath. But on the other hand, the humour of people with each other, the humour of even just the surface of life is important to attend to. Because you need something to hang on to, otherwise it would all be unbearable! Don’t you think?
DD: There are quite a lot of big writers though who even though we’re all agreed they’re great, don’t really yield that many lolz. I mean, even Alice Munro isn’t really that funny.
Lorrie Moore: I think Alice Munro sometimes is funnier than people give her credit for. It also depends on your sense of humour, but I have laughed out loud with Alice Munro. There are a lot of ways in which you can see she’s quite amused by certain moments between her characters, and then sometimes there will be a line that really sends it home. Alice Munro is just a genius of a particular type: there’s just nobody comparable. I guess, both in life and in art, I do like a certain level of humour. I want that range within my own stories. It’s important to laugh a little.
DD: Agreed. Hey, what about a new novel? We loved the last one!
Oh, it will take a while. I’ve got less than half of one in a drawer. Less than half. But we’ll see what happens. It’s really bad luck to talk about future books, but that’s what I’d like to do next, yes, work on a novel.
Bark is published by Faber & Faber in March