Self-Help by Lorrie Moore

Self-HelpI’m a big fan of the designs of the new Faber Modern Classics – which includes Self-Help (1985) by Lorrie Moore – even if the criteria for selection is a bit unclear. Do ArielLook Back in Anger, and The Remains of the Day have anything in common? I shouldn’t have thought so, but I suppose Oxford World’s Classics and Penguin Classics don’t have much in common across the series.

Anyway, even if the selection of titles is a bit bizarre (and, sadly, the quality of the paperback doesn’t quite live up to the design), this is still a really intriguing new series. Thanks for sending me this book, Faber! Self-Help had been on my radar for a while, so I thought I’d pick it up to celebrate its 30th anniversary. (I’m kinda terrified every time something celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, because yours truly will be doing the same thing come November…) Oh, and Moore was younger than me when this was published.

Things I didn’t know about Self-Help #1: it’s short stories. I’d assumed, being a shallow type, that it was a self help book, or at least personal essays. The line between short stories and personal essays might be rather slim, of course: every protagonist in Self-Help is more or the less the same person. Their names change and their families and situations change a bit, but they are all intelligent, self-deprecating, introspective, wry young American women. Basically, they’re all (one assumes) Lorrie Moore.

And that kinda works. I’m not a fan of the exclusively-write-about-what-you-know school (A.L. Kennedy responds to this advice brilliantly, which I quoted when I reviewed On Writing) but here it seems ok; the stories come together to form a single snapshot of a certain sort of person at a specific time.

And the stories themselves? The tone is often self-help style, as the title suggest. For example…

Make attempts at a less restrictive arrangement. Watch them sputter and deflate like balloons. He will ask you to move in. Do so hesitantly, with ambivalence. Clarify: rents are high, nothing long-range, love and all that, hon, but it’s footloose. Lay out the rules with much elocution. Stress openness, non-exclusivity. Make room in his closet, but don’t rearrange the furniture.

The first one, ‘How to Be an Other Woman’, is perhaps most representative of the collection as a whole; many of the stories deal with unsatisfying or disintegrating relationships, and this story does exactly what it says: it’s a sombre look at the mechanics of being ‘the other woman’, looking brazenly at the situation without any attempt to find either a moral or a silver lining. It’s also probably my second favourite story in the collection.

My absolute favourite was ‘How To Become A Writer’, because – it’s about being a failing writer. It’s a bit melancholy, but rings true with anybody who feels like there is a writer inside of them somewhere… without, somehow, feeling self-indulgent on Moore’s part, perhaps because of the wit and (again) self-deprecation:

Later on in life you will learn that writers are merely open, helpless texts with no real understanding of what they have written and therefore must half-believe anything and everything that is said of them. You. however, have not yet reached this stage of literary criticism. You stiffen and say “I do not,” the same way you said it when someone in the fourth grade accused you of really liking oboe lessons and your parents really weren’t just making you take them.

All things considered, there is a lot to like in Self-Help – but it does feel a bit like a writing student trying an extended experiment. It’s clearly a first book, and I’d be interested to see how Moore’s writing developed – particularly when she started considering perspectives other than her own life. As, I’m sure, she did…?

9 thoughts on “Self-Help by Lorrie Moore

  • June 4, 2015 at 9:20 am
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    Interesting… I too had wondered about the choice of books – Ariel over The Bell Jar, for example. The covers *are* lovely but it’s a shame the quality disappoints. And how “modern” should a Modern Classic be? Nevertheless, Moore sounds like an interesting writer – I shall keep an eye open for her books.

    • June 4, 2015 at 11:56 pm
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      It is all rather curious – I’d have loved to have sat in those editorial meetings!

  • June 4, 2015 at 11:12 am
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    Yes, Moore’s work has improved over the years (as one would hope — how depressing would it be for a writer to never develop?) and the subject matter has widened. The collection she published last year, Bark, was very good and her Collected Stories is interesting and enjoyable to read, particularly as it presents the linear progression of her career.

    • June 4, 2015 at 11:57 pm
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      Hi Hayley – that’s good to know! As you say, it would have been rather surprising, and dispiriting, if her work hadn’t changed at all.

  • June 4, 2015 at 3:38 pm
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    I used to do that thing of comparing my age to (real) authors’ age when they were first published. And despairing. There’s always George Eliot to think about, though, to cheer you up :P

    • June 4, 2015 at 11:58 pm
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      Ha! Yes, now I look out for those who started late in life. I do remember coming to terms with the fact that I was never going to be a child prodigy…

  • June 4, 2015 at 4:47 pm
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    It’s very interesting to read your review of this one as the members of my book have been reading Lorrie Moore’s latest collection of stories, Bark. I’d never read anything by her before and despite being interested in several of her themes (failed relationships, disconnected lives etc.) I struggled to engage with the stories. It’s something to do with her style, I think. Maybe I should another at some point.

    • June 4, 2015 at 11:58 pm
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      Intriguing – mixed reviews for Bark in the comments section today! I will have to give it a go and see what I think, at some point…

  • June 7, 2015 at 11:33 pm
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    Love Lorrie Moore, but I don’t think Self-Help is her finest work. Her short novella Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is a fabulous coming of age novella and her short story You’re Ugly, Too is simply brilliant. I heard her read at the South Bank Centre last year and she is a brilliant speaker.

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