Some works of criticism conjure in the reader's mind imaginary lecture halls in which the sonorous tones of a complex argument reverberate. Michael Stephens achieves something quite different in The Dramaturgy of Style; a well-respected writer himself, he takes the reader into the "ideal writer's bar," a poetic-dramatic-fictional haunt in which the reader is encouraged to leave well-worn generic distinctions at the door, to meet old and new literary friends, to listen to finely layered conversation that freely mixes metaphors of sight and sound.
Stephens' critical watering hole is always presentational rather than representational, a dramaturgical performance in itself that insistently shows rather than tells. Framing short fiction within the "push and pull" of poetry and drama, he defines style as "the seeing voice charged by rhythm of experience," an insight that takes William Carlos Williams' poetic dictum of "no ideas but in things" well beyond familiar and safe formal boundaries. As he speaks with and through respected influences and admired peers to reaffirm the origination of meaning in the literary artist's speaking voice, he shows how aspects of poetic practice—understanding of breath and syllable, for instance—and of dramatic concerns—depth illusion, the voice in relation to spectacle—are at the core of the best short fiction. Stephen's ideal bar is not a cacophony of formal confusion; rather, it is the best kind of smoke-filled room, one in which conversation flows organically [End Page 693] through a variety of topics and concerns, a place where, Stephens demonstrates, it pays to listen.
The book's subtitle is a bit misleading, for the reader discovers within Stephens' bar as much discussion of poetry and drama as he does of short fiction. In his introduction, he offers short presentations of the influential voices in short fiction of Beckett, Kafka, Borges, and Babel, but not until the poetic theory of Pound, Williams, and Charles Olson is set in place as a larger frame. The large middle section of the book, "Voices of the New Muse," however, is where Stephens' speaking voices become a full, entertaining chorus of contemporary expression. Beginning with discussions of three poetic heirs to Pound and Williams—Paul Blackburn, Joel Oppenheimer, and Gilbert Sorrentino—Stephens demonstrates in discussions of the new fiction of Hubert Selby, Jr., Korean writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Stephen Dixon, and a variety of Vietnam War writers how aspects of voice forged within poetic practice are employed to bririg the "rhythm of experience" to prose narrative. Stephens' own critical voice is a well-modulated instrument, lavishly familiar when discussing the poetic achievement of "Gil" Sorrentino or the fictional voice of "Cubby" Selby (he calls the latter's Requiem for a Dream "the greatest American novel of the century"), consistently insightful regarding the rootless warrior—the "American ronin"—in Vietnam writing, and touchingly elegaic on Theresa Cha's Dictee, a work assessed within the context of the young writer's premature death by a murderer's hand. Stephens' chapter on new dramatists Sam Shepard and David Mamet links successfully those authentic voices of American country and city to aspects of Harold Pinter's and Samuel Beckett's works, as well as to a wider circumference of poetic influence.
The final short section, "Envoi: The Act of Darkness," both extends the poetic-dramatic-fictional linkages and provides further insights into their gestation and evolution within Stephens' own development as writer and teacher. The Dramaturgy of Style is a personal, often quirky excursion through some unexpected critical portals. On one wall in Stephens' imaginary writer's bar is Pound's exhortation, "MAKE IT NEW." In substance, style, and, above all, voice, the critic does just that.