Writing is such grueling, lonely work, that it’s not hard to see the appeal of any thinking that encourages you to engage with other carbon-based lifeforms. Plus, didn’t graduate school insist that writers are socially constructed anyway, the products of power and privilege? You might as well accept that you’re a node in a network.
But you don’t have to buy into the myth of the Byronic bard to worry about the way our novelists and poets—valued for their independence of vision and language—now pine to be part of the crowd. What do we lose when writers are afraid to stand alone?
As people who will die someday, and whose loved ones will die someday, we all live with at least one large dark truth from which we often try to avert our gazes. This tension—knowing a thing, but living as far away from that knowledge as possible—surfaces in literature too. There are various ways in which people on the page manage to construct for themselves lives on top of, on a slightly different plane from, their more unsettling truths. The new plane seems to require scaffolding of some kind.
For some accomplished novelists — and Ferris is one of the best of our day — short stories are mere doodles, warm ups or warm downs, slight variations on themes better addressed at length. In culinary terms appropriate to the collection’s title, appetizers. Not so for Ferris. Dynamic with speed, yet rich with novelistic density, his stories make “The Dinner Party” a full-fledged feast, especially for readers with a particular taste for the many flavors of American crazy.