A.M. Homes // Kmart Realism
I came across A. M. Homes in The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (edited by Ben Marcus) and enjoyed her writing style for its minimalism and humour. The story, Do Not Disturb, is about a man whose thoroughly dislikeable wife becomes sick with ovarian cancer. ‘I’m not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer,’ he tells us, ‘but I don’t know what to do when the woman with cancer is a bitch.’ It’s a great set-up, and what interested me most was the narrator’s voice, which resisted any sense of pathos or sentimentality by embodying a sort of facile hopelessness that never crossed into self-pity.
I wasn’t going to write about this story, but yesterday I went to a dinner party where I met a charming nerd who, upon hearing I was doing the course, asked me to list my influences. I hesitated, disarmed by his assumption that I was a legitimate writer, and replied with many of the people I’ve cited in this journal – Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Etgar Keret.
He nodded knowingly and said, ‘So you write Kmart realism.’
The way he said it: it was like he knew exactly what I was about. I bristled. ‘What do you mean, Kmart realism?’ I didn’t like the idea that I could be this easily pigeonholed, nor did I like the sound of this hypermart mundanity.
‘You know,’ he said. Everybody at the table was listening now, my indignant tone like the clinking of a knife against a wine glass. He reeled off a handful of other writers who fell under its umbrella – Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Mary Robison.
‘Can you name a man who writes Kmart realism?’ a girl next to me asked.
He shifted in his seat. ‘Well, Raymond Carver is the father of it all.’
‘So it’s a bunch of ladies following Carver,’ somebody else observed.
‘Aren’t you just talking about minimalism,’ I said. ‘What does Kmart have to do with anything?’
‘It’s to do with attending to the detail of the day-to-day,’ he said. I could tell he was feeling uncomfortable on account of the fact we’d never met before. ‘It’s whimsical,’ he said, ‘and fun.’
‘Does Alice Munro write Kmart realism?’ I asked suspiciously.
He shook his head. ‘No.’
‘Right. Because she writes serious fiction.’ I was smiling, but he must have thought I was offended because he began backtracking.
‘No, I love all those writers,’ he protested, ‘I like Kmart realism.’
At any rate, I found out later that it wasn’t a term he’d dismissively coined over chickpea curry, which made it less offensive, I guess, but also more disappointing.
Kmart realism – ‘a spare, terse style that features struggling, working-class characters in sterile, bleak environments.’ Stories set in shopping malls and movie theatres and fast-food joints. People with problems living lives we wouldn’t envy. And while researching the term (my quest for righteous indignation), it seemed that Kmart fiction and minimalism were treated as the same genre, though as it turned out, not one that was widely celebrated. In a 1986 article 'Less is Less', Madison Smartt Bell derided the minimalist school for its ‘obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among the people it renders, and a studiedly deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world.’ Three years later, Tom Wolfe accused it of having a preference for ‘real situations, but very tiny ones, tiny domestic ones, for the most part, usually in lonely Rustic Septic Tank Rural settings, in a deadpan prose composed of disingenuously short, simple sentences – with the emotions anesthetized, given a shot of novocaine.’
While I don’t disagree with their estimations, I do disagree with the negative tone in which they’re ensconced. Their whole attitude is based on the premise that good fiction has to favour story over style, ignoring the fact that it’s also damn satisfying to read a piece of beautifully written prose that’s witty and bleak. I absolutely adore Carver and Hemingway, and Homes was a treat to read. When it’s done well, it’s tight and fun and in control, and can leave you just as breathless as any other piece of prose.