Thursday, September 27, 2012

One of Those Things I Don't Get

There's this famous story, you know, the one about the guy in the grocery store.

I don't get the appeal. 

Yes, I get the idea that the narrator is a young, straight, male, sexist, ageist asshole.  I just don't care.  I am inundated by a media full of young, straight, sexist, ageist representations (and mostly white, too, though I'm not assuming that about the narrator and I don't know enough about certain geographic areas and hiring practices to know, though my guess would be very white).  If I'm going to read straight, male (white) sexist stuff, it better be damned amazing.  And most of it isn't.

I'm not impressed that he thinks he's doing the world a favor, or that his mommy ironed his shirt.

I'm not impressed that he thinks the world is going to be a tougher place because he didn't kiss the ass of a man slightly higher on the work ladder, because he's still a young, straight male in a world ruled by straight males.  And yes, the world's tough.

And yes, his family drinks Schlitz and isn't rich.  He's still a straight white male in a world ruled by straight white males.  And yes, other people are rich, and doesn't he have it tough, because golly, he's a straight male, after all.

So what's the genius of this story?  Why is this one of the fix or six stories that students always seem to read in certain classes?


  1. I have no idea what you're talking about. If the story is famous, its fame has totally escaped me. Is it one of those things that HS students now read, the way that our generation had to read "The Cask of Amontillado" or "The Most Dangerous Game"?

  2. Do you mean Updike's "A&P"? If so, I think the genius of the story lies partly in the way Updike constructs the narrator's voice. Yes, he's a young, horny asshole, and he doesn't let the young, horny asshole off the hook. If the story succeeds, which for me it does, it's because it persuades me what it's like to be in the skin of that young, horny, male asshole, who doesn't yet understand very much about life, and who shares with us a time he tried to do something brave and failed to be the hero of his story. I don't think he's aware of his privilege because, well, he's an adolescent, and he's profoundly self-centered. I think it's quite a striking story, actually, and a fantastic example of first-person narration.

    I've never taught it, but I do think it's in a bunch of anthologies. I read it in HS in a mass-market paperback anthology called "Points of Departure"; the subtitle is something about stories of adolescence. It included Elizabeth Enright's "The Eclipse," Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The Finish of Patsy Barnes," Carson McCullers' "Wunderkind," and a lot of other really good stories. Maybe reading it in that context encouraged me to read it the way I do.

  3. "A&P" was one of the stories I had to read about 7 times, in high school and as an undergraduate, and then again for my Form & Theory of Fiction class in graduate school.

    While Meansomething's reading of it is an interesting one, I have to agree with Bardiac. This narrator who is speaking the truth to power is speaking out for what, exactly? And to what power -- a low-level boss in a grocery store? And what, exactly, is he risking? That last line, where he's throbbing with the anguish of what he has done to himself, always has struck me as false.

    It might just be, of course, that Updike's writing is not for me. You know that blog Over-rated White Guys? I'd put Updike right on the front page. I've read nearly all his short stories and about half of one of his novels, and I just can't see what he's doing that supposed to be so outstanding. OTOH, I know lots of people who love him to bits, so maybe I'm missing something.

    As for it being in all the anthologies, I think that happens because it is (1) short (2) easy to read (3) present plenty of talking points professors can raise in class. So, perfect for undergraduate English classes.

    But not something I ever used when I taught lit survey classes.

  4. Oh, I really don't like "A&P" either, Bardiac. I'll admit, though, that I feel this way about most of the short stories that end up as fixtures in HS and college literature classes. They are so rarely enjoyable pieces of literature, but they are - as delagar astutely points out - short, easy to read and vehicles for focused literary analysis (and usually out of copyright, too).