The Conference on Beautiful Moments
by Richard Burgin
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press
192 pages, 2007
It takes a masterful writer to create characters who, regardless of whether they are likable, keep the reader engaged. Richard Burgin is such a writer. His latest collection of short stories, The Conference on Beautiful Moments, will help solidify the reputation of a writer that grows with the publication of each new book.
The Conference on Beautiful Moments is the 12th book and sixth collection of short stories by the St. Louis University professor of communication and English. As in previous books, Burgin has created characters who, in their quest for truth, identity and connection to others, frequently veer off the road onto paths that the conservative among us would rather believe didn't exist. The moral philosophy of the protagonists in "The Second Floor" and "Mayor Bat" includes perversity and violence as punishments for those who they believe lack moral character. While such scenes are disturbing on many levels, they are never gratuitous. Given the context, the characters' actions are authentic.
Subtle humor, metaphor and irony are other tools that Burgin uses to advantage in constructing his stories. In "Uncle Simon and Gene," a man takes his 13-year-old nephew who suffers from a "personality disorder" to the city museum. Gene's below average intelligence "(though some of his remarks were extremely clever)" and impetuousness cause him to constantly say and do things that either embarrass others or make them laugh. His parents consider him "an accident and a disappointment" and Simon takes it upon himself to be Gene's second father. Simon remembers being just like Gene when he was his age, trusting and innocent: "When you were Gene's age, no matter what your supposed intelligence, you didn't think there was a cave inside people's hearts because there was no cave inside your own." Growing up changed all that. Now at the museum, Simon obsesses about the relationship between a man and the young boy with him standing nearby. At closing time, he finds it necessary to crawl through a maze of dark tubes to find his nephew. "I've been hanging in this cave," Gene says when Simon finds him.
Burgin's previous books include the novel Ghost Quartet (1999) and story collections The Identity Club (2006), Fear of Blue Skies (1998), Private Fame (1991) and Man Without Memory (1989). He is also the author of Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, the first book-length series of interviews with Borges in English. Burgin was just 21-years-old when he conducted the interviews. That book has been translated and published in seven foreign language editions and acclaimed as a standard reference work for the many scholarly and critical books about Borges that have followed. Burgin also wrote Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer, which has been translated and published in four foreign language editions.
Three of Burgin's books were named "Notable Books of the Year" by The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is also a five-time fiction winner of the Pushcart Prize-only Joyce Carol Oates has won more-which was established in 1975 and represents the most exciting and innovative writing in America.
Burgin's talents don't stop with fiction writing, composing and interviewing, either. In addition to being a college professor, he is founding editor of the renowned, internationally-distributed literary journal, Boulevard (he also founded New York Arts Journal and Boston Review) and a literary critic. His criticism and reviews have been published by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Partisan Review, Boston Review and The Boston Globe, for which he was Critic at Large for the Globe Magazine and a columnist for the newspaper.
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, Richard Burgin graduated from Brandeis University and received advanced degrees from Columbia University in New York. The son of successful classical musicians, he started composing short piano pieces as well as writing poems and stories at about age seven. He admits to loving music more than literature (Joyce Carol Oates calls him "a strikingly gifted song writer and composer"), but regards literature as his main art because he believes he has a much greater command of the medium. Having lived in different parts of the world provides him with settings, situations, characters and sometimes even themes for his stories. His settings usually include New York, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Florida, and California -- all of which he has called home at one time or another.
The Chicago Tribune has called Richard Burgin "among our finest artists of love at its most desperate." In The Conference on Beautiful Moments, he continues his dark yet subtly humorous exploration of the war between the sexes as well as our ubiquitous quest for truth, success and identity. He writes with compassion and insight about the homeless and wealthy, prostitutes and businessmen, an autistic child and an art forger. He has a gift for creating powerful characters whose internal narratives burst sharply into conversations both intimate and calculated.
I recently talked with Richard Burgin about his writing.
Mary Ward Menke: Your stories often revolve around men and women's relationships, which have usually deteriorated to the point of no return. Writers are charged to "write what they know." Are your own relationships reflected in these stories?
Richard Burgin: I never write about my lovers. I have never been able to, so I don't even try anymore. I would say that my story ideas are 40 percent experience and 60 percent imagination. My goal is to depict people as honestly as I can, including all their positive and negative traits.
Many critics refer to your stories as dark or tragic, yet there is less frequent mention of the subtle humor.
Many great writers like Bernhard, Beckett, Borges, Proust, Faulkner and Tennessee Williams expressed visions as dark as mine. Their literary tradition inspires me. But joy and humor exist in my stories just as in real life, too. My humor isn't obvious, like slapstick. It's more wit and social satire.
You write both short stories and novels. Is the short story your preferred genre?
I've had more success with short stories, but I wouldn't say it's my preferred genre. I began as a novelist. I published one novel, but I've written a number of them. Ghost Quartet is as good as any collection and was recently translated into Russian. And I've been working on a novel for more than a year that I have reasonably high hopes for.
Which is harder to write?
It's difficult to write anything good. Borges and Singer were successful in each genre, yet both felt short stories are the superior literary form. Singer said a novel is a story, just longer and more complicated.
William Faulkner said, "In the novel, you can be careless, but in the short story, you can't. There's less room in it for trash." Do you agree?
Yes, I do. Novelists don't do it on purpose, of course, but many novels could be cut by a few hundred pages. You can get closer to perfection with the short story. The odds of perfection are proportionately smaller with longer forms.
How long does it take you to write a short story?
From conception to send-off, it takes about four to six weeks. My writing is a mixture of 40 percent planning and 60 percent improvisation. On any given day, I'll invent material I didn't know I was going to write the day before.
How would you explain the difference between literary fiction -- which you write -- and commercial or genre fiction?
Commercial fiction is written for mass appeal. Simply put, commercial fiction is written to make money. It's what makes the bestseller list. That doesn't mean it can't be as well-crafted, or as well-done as literary fiction.
Literary fiction writers have a love of literature and a commitment to its purpose and ideals. The first consideration for them is to create a powerful, long-lasting work of art. The writer hopes to impress his or her vision of the world -- of their psyche, soul, or mind -- upon the reader. That's not to say that the writer of literary fiction wouldn't like to have money or fame, but their first priority is to create a work of art.
Writers can fail at both literary and commercial fiction. Comparing it to music, I would rather hear a good pop song than a terrible symphony. | January 2007
Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor of January Magazine and is president of WordAbilities LLC which provides writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. She recently published The Light at the End of the Tunnel: Coming Back to Life After a Spouse Dies, a collection of essays from those who have survived the death of a spouse.
You can visit Richard Burgin on the Web.