Seniors are mostly absent from short stories and those in them are stereotypes -- or so I am finding. I'm taking a course in short story in which we are reading through two current books of "Best" short stories, three stories per class. We have lively discussions among the students, all over 55, most in the 65 to 75 range. Today's stories were the first so far -- after reading 12 other stories -- in which older people played important roles. One was a stories by William Trever, called by one critic, "our best short story writer." The older man in it was a cripple who could do nothing but tightly control the money spent by high live-in cousin/housekeeper [and she managed to cheat him -- and possibly murder him at the end of the story]. Not a shining example of old age.
The other was the "Valitudinarian," by Joshua Ferris, a highly acclaimed 30-something writer. The man had just retired so we assume he's about 65. He is a helpless couch potato who does nothing but complain of his health and feel sorry for himself. He has a neighbor lady who seems to have no life beyond her little yappy dog -- and later caring for our hero. The writing is broad, very witty, very clever and very broad. The plot is slender and not entirely believable. My classmates enjoyed the humor as did I when I first read it. But the guy has that slightly nasty satiric tone that I know well from writers I have met who depend upon their wit to win accolades and publications. One women called the piece a "spoof".
Both spoof and satire are attitudes of a writer who knows that he is drawing in broad strokes for the sake of humor. From all I could find about Ferris on the net, I don't believe his attitude toward his work is one of satire. I believe he was applying his wit to what he believes older people to be like -- that, in my book, is not only shallow, it is insulting and it deserves to be called ageist. I pointed this out and finally the conversation turned to the fact that older people are rare in short stories. At last someone said "we need some stories about older people."
I didn't start a revolution but in reading attitudes but I planted a seed of criticism. For this room full of seniors to accept these pictures without awareness of the messages inherent in the writing of younger people is not different from the way women accepted portraits of their gender in literature up until the 1960s when feminist studies came into academe.
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