Copyright Brian Kiteley

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About Grace Paley

Grace Paley once said, “I think I could have done more for peace if I’d written about the [Vietnam] war, but I happen to love being in the streets.”  Grace Paley was the author of The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Later the Same Day, The Collected Stories, New and Collected Poems, and a gathering of essays, Just As I Thought.  Her many honors included a National Endowment for the Arts Senior fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship in fiction, the Edith Wharton Award, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for short story writing, a Lannan Award, and a citation as the First Official New York State Writer.  Grace Paley was clearly a writer of great renown, but in some circles she was known primarily for her political activism.  She was a member of the War Resister’s League, the Women’s Pentagon Action, and she was long an influential member of PEN, the international association of writers.  Perhaps the best description of her politics was her own: she called herself “a cooperative anarchist.”  This side of Grace Paley grew out of protests against the American involvement in the Vietnam War, but the end of the war did not stop her involvement in grass roots and feminist causes.  Her linking of personal life to political issues showed both in her approach to politics and in her writing, although her fiction was never didactic.  Its subjects were apparently modest: friendship, child-rearing, divorce, intolerance at a very human level.  Her politics were likewise apparently modest.  As the narrator in the story “Wants” says, “I want to be the woman who brings these two [library] books back in two weeks.  I want to be the effective citizen who changes the school system and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of this dear urban center.  I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.”

George Bernard Shaw used to apologize occasionally when writing friends, “I’m sorry I did not have time to write a shorter letter.”  Grace Paley was a teacher of mine and the best advice she gave me was to be unafraid of writing little.  By that she did not mean spend little time writing.  A critic once said of Grace Paley that her “commitment to political activity and to raising children limited her literary activity.”  I disagree.  Grace Paley wrote some of the densest, most complex short stories in the language, and the writing of these stories clearly took great time and care.  Angela Carter said “Paley’s work makes the novel as a form seem virtually redundant.”

The poetic compression, the amazing efficiency, the vivid voices, and the extraordinary compacting of the comic and the tragic in her fiction mimics its most common setting—New York City.  Grace Paley is a profoundly urban writer, someone whose life and art and voice were formed and tempered by the city around her.  Her fiction is usually about the interrelationship of friends, acquaintances, strangers, and even enemies, all ordinary necessities of city living.  Paley combines traditional oral storytelling aesthetics with a postmodern narrative self-awareness.  This organic experimentalism differs interestingly from that other practitioner of urbane and urban literary redevelopment, Donald Barthelme, longtime neighbor and dear friend of Paley.  Whereas Barthelme was influenced by the world of art and collage, Paley’s fiction seems to have grown out of guerrilla street theater and perhaps an attempt to reconcile politics and fiction.  The very word politics comes from the word city, or polis, and Grace Paley’s cityscapes are political in the way her characters endlessly try to mediate responsible behavior with elbow-jostling survival instincts.  Jonathan Baumbach wrote, “improvisatory casualness is another of the disguises of Paley’s fiction.  The stories seem to have been invented from moment to moment and offer a sense of immediacy and surprise.”  Improvisation strikes me as being the heart of the urban condition and also at the heart of Grace Paley’s fiction, “which happens to love being in the streets.”

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