Amuse Bouche

by | Feb 12, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

“Why are short stories so depressing?”

A few days ago, the novelist Lauren Groff recently repeated that question in a tweet that generated a mini-firestorm within literary Twitter:

Recently, at every single class visit, some new writer asks me why short stories are so depressing and I usually just fumble an answer about how stories need conflict and tend to be written in a minor key (as opposed to the novel’s span of keys). But honestly, I don’t know.

There are obviously lots of sophisticated ways to respond to this question, but to me, the question itself is what matters. The truth is, the same question could be asked of poems and essays. And the best response to the question isn’t to answer why, but simply to make room in what we consider “literary” for the comic, the diverting, the amusing.

Amusement is the theme of the next issue of The Everyone Quarterly, a new literary magazine edited by Joseph Young and published by our partner site, The Art of Everyone. So that will also be the theme for our prompt this week. As always, you could do the prompt just for your own amusement, but this one also has a built-in submissions opportunity if you’d like to aim your writing for publication. More on that in a minute.

What is amusement? I think immediately of the amuse-bouche, which translates literally to amuse-mouth. Remember eating at restaurants? You’ll only find something called an amuse-bouche at a fancy restaurant. It’s that tiny little taste that arrives gratis at the start of the meal and that’s meant to awaken the palate, tickle the tongue, invite the diner to join in the fun of the chef’s sense of play and experimentation. Often, in my experience, amuses-bouches are pretty complicated. Sometimes there’s foam. Once when I was out with my parents, following a very involved explanation by the waiter about the components, one of which was definitely foam, and one of which was some liquid made into “caviar,” my dad said without missing a beat, “Oh yeah, I make this a lot at home.”

But it’s really just the name that’s fancy. The hit of lime in guacamole atop a salty and crisp tortilla chip amuses the mouth, too. Or those honey mustard pretzel bites.

Not to get too lost in the realm of culinary amusement, but the idea is that amusement, gustatory or literary, enlivens the appetite. It engages and pleases the senses. An amuse-bouche or a funny little poem might not the most meaty, the most robust or sustaining, but making it takes an equal level of craft. The delight and pleasure in sampling it must not be undervalued, either.

One of the masters of amusement in short fiction is Lydia Davis. With great expertise, she has fun with words, with sentences, with the readers’ expectations. Take the first of these “Five Short Stories.” A true amuse-bouche of a story from its title onward, “A Story of Stolen Salamis” even describes itself via a meta-reference as “an amusing and colourful urban incident,” and then becomes more amusing by the end with the repetition of the only line of dialogue, which is funny the first time and then becomes almost a punchline, and which doubles as the only bit of direct characterization of the central character. 

Or take any of her “Four Stories” published in VQR, but especially the last one, “Sneezes on the Train.” The amusement is in the magnification of happenings that are so subtle, so easily overlooked, that they become startling and, by the last line, utterly mystifying–and just plain funny–once held up to scrutiny. 

Prompt

Write something amusing, or write about something amusing. The submission guidelines for the Amusement issue offer some possible approaches:

Are we amused? We are!  Or, perhaps, we should say, we’d like to be. We want to read, hear, look at what amuses you. How you amuse the people in your world. We are looking for the funny, or what for you passes the while. A funny poem, a deep stare at your favorite restaurant, how you and your family spend a winter day or a year in the life. 

Or take a line from Davis and use repetition to amusing effect, or tease out hilarity from the most trivial incident. 

Another way to amuse in fiction is with the unreliable first-person narrator. We see this in Huckleberry Finn, or in short stories like “Bigfoot Stole My Wife” by Ron Carlson, in which the reader is clued in almost immediately that the narrator’s wife ran off with another man and was by no means stolen by Bigfoot. The narrator was not exactly a prize of a husband, so we are permitted to laugh at the way he tells himself this willful, self-serving fiction.

Davis often chooses a first-person narrator (“my son’s Italian landlord”), but it’s one who is at a remove from the action of the story. Her narrators are more amused amusing, and bring the reader along for the ride. But what her stories have in common with Twain’s or Carlson’s is the source of amusement: human foibles and idiosyncrasies, sharply observed, writ small. Writ large, human foibles are, depending on the reader’s sympathies, either so pathetic as to make the amusement at the character’s expense mean-spirited, or so heartbreaking to render the character not so amusing at all but, as in Groff’s tweet, depressing. 

If you’re writing nonfiction for this prompt, a good way to amuse is through lighthearted self-deprecation–casting an eye toward your own foibles. Allie Brosh comes to mind, as does Samantha Irby. In this excerpt from her recent essay collectionWow, No Thank You, Irby takes it a critical step further by turning the amusement of her own peculiarities universal by using second-person:

Have you ever considered what a friendship is, or what any of your current friendships are, and thought about how to present that to a prospective new friend? You know, like how you are going to eventually be sending them selfies of you trying on 12 similar-yet-slightly-different pairs of glasses in your ophthalmologist’s waiting room while your garbage insurance is being processed? How do you convince a stranger to give you their real email when you are definitely going to litter their gmail dot com with dumb nonsense? 

You have to be just as careful not to overdo the self-deprecation in nonfiction as you would in writing about the foibles of a fiction character. The point is not to write so caustically that you come off as hating yourself. That’s not amusing! And anyway, the point of self-deprecating humor in a personal essay, even if you don’t dabble in second-person, is that the reader relates and ultimately lightens up in their own feelings of insecurity or shame. 

Amusement, in poetry, is usually pretty different. I think first of wordplay, which is a whole ‘nother prompt. So stay tuned. 

Remember, your posts at the Write Away Studio are password-protected so that they’re visible only to other WA subscribers, which means you can still submit and publish them, or future drafts of them, elsewhere. Elsewhere includes The Everyone Quarterly! Consider getting some feedback on your Amusement draft in the Studio, revising, and submitting by March 10. While you’re there, check out Issue Two: Architecture.

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Don’t forget to register now for Joseph Young’s Writing With Art workshop, which begins February 21. Write Away subscribers get $50 off the course fee. The discount is applied automatically using this link to the registration page.