He serves on the Board of Advisors for Fictionaut. He’s the author of a slew of novels and short story collections, and a memoir. He’s taught a generation or two how to write, including a distinguished cast of Fictionauts, down at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, any one of whom could do a better job of writing this than me. He is also Executive Editor of the acclaimed Mississippi Review.
So you’re a writer and you think you’ve got problems? Try being a younger brother of a man whose stories still stand like monuments out there in the land of literature. So, OK, you’ve got this famous brother, and you’re in the same line of work, and what are you going to do? The brother already did it, and did it better, and what’s the odds of two Nolan Ryans showing up in the same family with the 101 mph fastball, you see what I’m saying?
Someone once asked Heidegger about reading Nietzsche, and Heidegger says to the guy, first go read Aristotle for ten to fifteen years.
Which, in a sense, is what Frederick Barthelme did. He knew that no one could ever do what the brother did, and it was pointless to try, so he did the literary equivalent of reading Aristotle for a few decades, out in the woodshed.
When he emerged, a few decades later, he was holding “Shopgirls.”
If you want to write, but you honestly believe you can’t wait ten years or ten minutes — well, first of all, you’re wrong — but if you’re in a hurry, read Barthelme’s own account of how he came to his hard won personal aesthetic.
Or, just read “Shopgirls” ten to fifteen times.
How influential was this short story? Published almost 28 years ago, literary critics still write about it. B.W. Jorgensen has a terrific article on “Shopgirls” published in New Ohio Review, wannabe writers in thrall with the second person ape it, and one famous comedian felt he had to expropriate it for himself. A few years ago Steve Martin jacked Rick’s title, lopped off an ‘s’ and published the book and made a movie version too, casting himself opposite the lovely Claire Danes.
In his remarkable collection of stories, a retrospective look at 29 of the finest stories written by an American writer, The Law of Averages, Barthelme reflects on the many characters he has created over the years, and how it all comes back to that barbecued chicken in the clear plastic in “Shopgirls.” That’s some chicken.
Forgive me, please, for going on like this. It’s just that whatever I’ve learned about writing goes back to the chicken also, and to this story, and what followed from it. As for its author, well — all together class — we love him as hard as we can. — Gary Percesepe
Here is Rick’s introduction to the story:
Like most stories, “Shopgirls,” first published in Esquire in 1982, is less “about” something than it “is” something–a pinball journey with an amusingly repressed but intensely sexual pre-stalker stalker and a few young women who are all too aware of their intoxicating power. These folks gather, exchange numbers, stories, frames of reference, then bounce away from each other in a way as accidental as their coming together. In the course of these events the principals reveal themselves to each other and the reader, suggesting the ways in which our brittle connections are made and severed, our families are lost, and our personal histories have their claims on us. In sum, it’s sort of like real life.
Line Breaks is a regular feature in which accomplished authors introduce and share their first published stories with the Fictionaut community. Line Breaks is edited by Gary Percesepe. You can read Frederick Barthelme’s “Shopgirls” on Fictionaut.