Share this article

print logo

Frederick Busch wrote for a time where literature still mattered


The Selected Stories of Frederick Busch

Edited and with an Introduction by Elizabeth Strout


480 pages, $32.95

By William L. Morris


The intention of this collection of short stories by Frederick Busch is to spark an interest in the writer who died in 2006 at the age of 64. In her introduction, the editor asks why Frederick Busch became a writer’s writer instead of an international success. It’s not for want of trying. Busch wrote novels, short stories, essays and book reviews. His photo on the back cover shows a jolly Santa Claus whose gifts are like Faberge eggs that open on perfectly rendered scenes – what you would expect from a man who taught creative writing at Iowa and Colgate all his adult life.

In some respects they resemble the stories of his fellow Brooklyn native, Bernard Malamud, especially the way they end with magical metamorphoses. But Malamud was a generation older and had a more engaging story to tell – the struggle to find one’s place in society. Busch and his generation write about people having trouble acting like adults. They are well-educated professionals whose lives are complicated by self-inflicted wounds.

But that doesn’t explain why Busch and many other skilled writers of his generation failed to capture the public’s imagination. What really happened was while Busch and others were hard at work, literature itself died.

Leslie Fiedler gets the last laugh. In his book, “What Was Literature?” he not only made the correct call but he made it at the precise moment (1982) the concrete was hardening around the change.

Some argue that Busch’s writing is too academic to gain a wide audience. A teacher who is always telling his student to be precise, to use dialogue whenever possible, to show and not tell, to use all the senses especially the difficult ones like the sense of smell (Busch’s favorite,) to change the point of view, etc. can become a little too contrived. He seems at times like a creative writing teacher showing off. The wisecracks are more like a professor being witty than a desperate man at the end of his rope. But we’re talking about missteps made at a very high level.

Take this test the next time you’re in Barnes & Noble or Amazon: pull down a book. Don’t worry – it will work with any book. Read at random. You’ll find dialogue that doesn’t surprise or please, descriptions that are hackneyed and undercooked, a narrative that is entirely predictable and a voice that belongs to a sleepwalker. But don’t read too much. You might get hooked like the rest of America.

Now open any Frederick Busch page (if you don’t have access to one, you can hear him read a story on YouTube). The dialogue stands on its own; the descriptions are like poems that say things you often noticed but didn’t know how to say; the storyline is full of unexpected turns; and the voice is unique.

How can writing this good not be known everywhere? Could it be part of the refusal-to-grow-up syndrome that distinguishes our generation? (Case in point: I’m 70 years old and still playing soccer on Sunday.) We want to read the same things we devoured when we were adolescents: science fiction, horror stories and fantasies like “How I Won the World Series.” If they’re made into movies, TV shows or books on tape – all the better.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg used to remake the movie serials of their youth. Ridley Scott filmed the science fiction books adolescent boys used to treasure. Spielberg rewrites history in the style of the dumbed-down Landmark Books adolescents still read in home schooling. Minimalism is Dick and Jane revisited. The same foul language heard growing up in North Buffalo juiced up “Deadwood”; “Hill Street Blues” capitalized on the short attention span of “Sesame Street.”

Dodgeball was storyboarded like a comic book. Woody Allen gets to live every teenage boy’s fantasy: telling his neuroses to the latest Hollywood waif. Even the worst Hollywood sitcom is written to a fare-thee-well by MFAs from writing workshops. As a game to see which writer can be the cleverest, it’s inventive but not imaginative, and not art.

If Busch had written a generation or two earlier, he would have had a large audience. I remember Falconer’s Bookstore on Elmwood Avenue where my mother would rent a classic by Tolstoy or Thomas Mann or a new publication by Graham Greene or John Steinbeck and return it a week later, thoroughly read.

Hemingway appeared on the cover of Life Magazine on coffee tables across the country Sept. 1, 1952, and the entire text of his latest novella, “The Old Man and the Sea,” was inside. It was not his best work but it got America to read his other books. You have to look long and hard to find anything in the fiction section of the New York Times Book Review that isn’t either borderline pulp fiction or almost unrecognizable as fiction by its obsession with one or another of the modernist movements. The distinction between literature and potboilers has gone. The only books that are both well-written and interesting are in the nonfiction section.

Is it any wonder that Busch was overlooked when he tried to turn back the clock and write like Hemingway and Chekhov?

In stories like “The Ninth, in E Minor,” Busch creates works of pure imagination. The point of view of the daughter confronting her failure of a father adds a new dimension to the writing. The daughter is just as much a piece of work as the father.

“I asked if I could smoke in the Natty Bumppo Room, and she [the waitress] said no. I lit a cigarette and when I was done, and had clicked the lighter shut, she took a deep breath of the smoke I exhaled and she grinned.”

It is an argument between equals, not a teacher showing off in front of students.

Anyone who hasn’t read Frederick Busch is in for a treat. You don’t have to eat the whole meal. Pick and choose.

You will enter a world that is not a beautifully fabricated retreat into adolescent daydreaming. And there aren’t any movie stars bouncing around on long, unbreakable, digital rubber bands.

William L. Morris is a former Buffalo teacher and the co-inventor of the News poetry page. He now lives and writes in Florida.