Charles Baxter’s excellent New York Review of Books piece on the fiction of Katherine Anne Porter isn’t freely available online, but it’s worth seeking out. The Library of America has just published Porter’s Collected Stories and Other Writings. Here’s an insightful snippet from Baxter’s review focusing on “impulsive behavior” in Porter’s stories and as a compelling component of short story writing in general:
Her tales tend to take place on a small dramatic stage with characters who find themselves claustrophobically entrapped. These protagonists typically discover themselves to be at a logical or emotional stalemate at the very moment when they must make a decision; if they don’t make such a decision, it will be made for them. Refusing to do what the moment demands, they enact a buried impulse, often violent, or they go into a kind of impersonal delirium quickly followed by remorse. The reliance of her characters on impulse puts them rather neatly within the short story genre, which as a form tends to downplay history in favor of sequences in the present tense. Dramatized impulsive behavior requires very little background material to be plausible, and short stories thrive on it. […]
The problem with impulsive behavior, her characters discover, is that it reveals another distasteful and incompatible self unknown in daily life, whose desires are—for one reason or another—unpresentable. The question then quickly becomes whether anyone can live, can coexist, with that (unfortunately genuine) self once it has been revealed. The answer is usually “No.” Porter’s understanding of this throttled condition is of a very high order, and it is here, I think, that she can be compared to the greatest of short-story writers, particularly in what may be her finest story, “Noon Wine.”
Along with “Noon Wine,” which Baxter discusses at length, he rates four other Porter stories as “unsurpassed in American literature in their genre”: “Rope,” “Flowering Judas,” “Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.”
Baxter is in agreement with critics who say Porter’s 1962 novel, Ship of Fools, has deservedly fallen out of favor. She spent twenty years writing it. The book became a bestseller and made her rich and famous in a way her short stories never could have done. But its reputation has suffered and it’s rarely read or discussed today. Baxter suggests that a moralizing tone had overtaken Porter’s fiction and sucked out the artfulness. Possibly. I’d like to think Ship of Fools might yet get a second life. In fact, one could argue that Stanley Kramer’s lousy film adaptation has done more to dampen interest in Porter’s novel than the novel itself. To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel from the same era, has an insufferably high-handed moral tone about it, but the book was turned into a supremely entertaining movie that’s still frequently screened in classrooms as an adjunct to the text.