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Stephen Dixon Biography

Stephen Dixon comments:

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1936. Education: City College, New York, 1953-58, B.A. in international relations 1958. Career: Worked in various jobs, including bartender, waiter, junior high school teacher, technical writer, journalist, news editor, store clerk, and tour leader, 1953-79; lecturer, New York University School of Continuing Education, 1979-80. Assistant professor, 1980-83, associate professor, 1984-88, and since 1989 professor of English, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Awards: Stanford University Stegner fellowship, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1975, 1990; American Academy award, 1983; Train prize (Paris Review), 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985; O. Henry prize, 1993.



Work. Ann Arbor, Michigan, Street Fiction Press, 1977.

Too Late. New York, Harper, 1978.

Fall and Rise. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1985.

Garbage. New York, Cane Hill Press, 1988.

Interstate. New York, Henry Holt, 1995.

Gould: A Novel in Two Novels. New York, Henry Holt, 1997.

30: Pieces of a Novel. New York, Henry Holt, 1999.

Tisch. Los Angeles, California, Red Hen Press, 2000.

Short Stories

No Relief. Ann Arbor, Michigan, Street Fiction Press, 1976.

Quite Contrary: The Mary and Newt Story. New York, Harper, 1979.

14 Stories. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Movies. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1983.

Time to Go. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

The Play and Other Stories. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1988.

Love and Will: Twenty Stories. Latham, New York, Paris ReviewEditions-British American, 1989.

All Gone: 18 Short Stories. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UniversityPress, 1990.

Friends: More Will and Magna Stories. Santa Maria, California, Asylum Arts, 1990.

Frog. Latham, New York, British American, 1991.

Long Made Short. Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins UniversityPress, 1993.

The Stories of Stephen Dixon. New York, Henry Holt, 1994.

Man on Stage: Play Stories, illustrations by the author. Davis, California, Hi Jinx Press, 1996.

Sleep: Stories. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1999.


Manuscript Collection:

Milton Eisenhower Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Critical Studies:

"Stephen Dixon: Experimental Realism," in North American Review (Cedar Falls, Iowa), March 1981, and The Self-Apparent Word, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984, both by Jerome Klinkowitz; "Stephen Dixon Issue" of Ohio Journal (Columbus), Fall-Winter 1983-84 (includes bibliography); The Dramaturgy of Style by Michael Stephens, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

(1991) I've just about nothing to say about my work, I only write fiction. I don't write book reviews or any nonfiction. In fact the only book review I've written is a story called "The Book Review," about a character writing one. The only non-fiction work I've written since 1963, when I stopped writing news, and 1968, when I stopped being a technical writer, is a piece called "Why I Don't Write Nonfiction," which proves its point and appeared in the Ohio Journal issue devoted to my work. I write novels and short stories only and I like writing both but for different reasons. Novels because they continue, stories because they end. All my novels but Fall and Rise, started off as short stories and just grew. I would rather the reader interpret what I write than I interpret it for the reader. I don't want to give my life away in a statement. Not only is my life not very interesting but sometime in the future I might use, in my own way, part of my life for my fiction and then a reader might say "That comes from his uninteresting life." Better the reader know next to nothing about my life and how I write, where I get my ideas, and so on.

Best for the reader to read my work and say for himself what to make of it. I have no way, nor do I have the means, nor do I have the inclination to simplify my work by explaining it, elucidating about it, or simply saying what I think about it. I work at one work at a time, story or novel, and when I'm done with it I begin another work. That's how I keep busy and also keep myself from thinking about my work once I finish with it.

(1995) I'm still pretty much the same. Dying to find more time to write, since I also teach fulltime and run a household. My ambition is to teach just half a year so I can devote eight months a year to my writing. I find it difficult to do all at once, but I still manage to complete 250 finished fiction pages a year. I don't know why but I still think I have something to write and a continually changing writing style to write it in.

* * *

Stephen Dixon is a master of self-generating fiction. While eschewing the flamboyantly anti-realistic experiments of authors such as Ronald Sukenick and Robert Coover, Dixon nevertheless refuses to propel his narratives on the energy of represented action. Instead, he contrives circumstances so that everything that happens within his novels grows from the initial elements of his fiction. Developing from itself, his narrative ultimately has no pertinent reference beyond itself; yet that growth is so organic that it offers all the delight expectable from a more realistically referential piece of storytelling.

Dixon's method can be traced to his way of writing sentences. Often his action will take place grammatically, as subjects have to battle their way past intransigent verbs in order to meet their objects, and as modifying phrases pop up to thwart syntactic progress. There are always modifications to everything, Dixon has learned, and his genius has been to apply this insight to the making of narratives.

His first novel, Work, finds this scheme in the workplace, as an image for both how hard it is to find employment and what a struggle it is to keep it. Hunting down a job takes his narrator fully one-third of the novel, and that turns out to be the easy part. Once he has signed on as a bartender in a New York City chain of restaurants, he has to cope with a prime ingredient of Dixon's fictionally generative world: in this case a self-contained universe of rules and relationships, which include how to mix drinks, charge for special orders, move customer traffic, scan the papers for conversation items, spot company spies, handle rush-hour jams, deal with the restaurant chain's union, thwart robberies, soothe tempers, counsel neurotics, and keep the whole mad dance of waiters, dishwashers, assistant managers, cashiers, and customers in step. And this is just three or four pages into the story. Work provides the ideal self-generating system for a Dixon novel.

Yet such a system also exists within the intimate relationship of a man and woman. Too Late borrows two favorite topics from Dixon's short stories—breaking off relationships and suffering through the endless complications of love—and rushes them through a breathless experience in the urban jungle, during which four days pass in an alternation of quick excitement and maniacal torture. The narrator's girlfriend has left him during a movie, the violence of which has sickened her. But she never arrives home, and tracing her disappearance becomes a full-time job. Not for the police, who want to brush it off as a jilting. Instead, the narrator's capabilities for worry (another self-generating machine for fiction) run through all the lurid possibilities, from abduction and rape to murder. The very worst fears are just what happen, as the ghouls who feed on sensational news rush into the narrator's life, and he himself experiences a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation which costs him job, friends, and peace of mind. Too Late succeeds as a tangled web of disruptions and distractions, the very stuff of Dixon's fiction which is shown to be a built-in potential of city life.

Quite Contrary: The Mary and Newt Story assembles 11 related stories to form something less than a novel but much more than a story collection. Their unity, although established by subject and circumstance of action, comes from their address to the main concerns of Dixon's work: the fragility of human relationships and reality's dangerous tendency to run off into infinite digressions and qualifications. Quite Contrary treats the three-year off-and-on affair of a couple, familiar in Dixon's fiction, whose involvement breeds complications. Even their first meeting leads to a debate as to how they will leave to walk home. As their relationship develops, each finds fault: he is too demanding, she is noncommittal. Even breaking up becomes an endless complication, for if Newt tells a friend that he and Mary are "this time really through," a friend reverses his syntax to show that "Nah, you two are never really through. You're a pair: Tom and Jerry, Biff and Bang. You just tell yourselves you're through to make your sex better and your lives more mythic and poetic and to repeatedly renew those first two beatific weeks you went through." Here is Dixon's method established in the form of his sentences: the declaration that the pair (one and the other) are sundering their union leads directly to a restatement of that proposition in negative form, rebonding the relationship through a series of other conjunctions: mythic pairs, conjoined reasons, and most of all a grammatical structure which by virtue of more "ands" can string itself out indefinitely, just like their relationship which is commemorated in the final phrase.

Fall and Rise, a much longer and more ambitious novel, extends itself to its fullest fictional scope while requiring the least external circumstance. The affair which prompts it is the narrator's first sentence, "I meet her at a party." Its present tense is deliberate, for the narrator's voice moves through a constant set of possibilities to fill 245 closely-set pages with the action which devolves from just four or five hours of experience. Because so much of the narrator's action is made up of diffidence and fantasy, it has the character of fiction. In a Jamesian manner, Dixon examines every nuance, even of situations yet to transpire, and as a result the reader is caught up in the narrator's own imaginative experience. For one chapter, the narrative action is transferred to the object of these imaginative desires, and complications are amplified by having her point of view. The achievement of Dixon's work is that the smallest circumstance can expand to fill the space available, a reminder of fiction's infinite plenitude.

It is with Frog and Interstate that Dixon takes the novel form well past his standards for short stories, in both cases by contriving unique structural experiments. A massive work of 769 pages, Frog could be described as an initial collection of 14 stories followed by a novella, two additional stories, a second novella, a full-length novel, and a concluding story. All sections cover the life and times of a protagonist nicknamed "Frog," though only in the closing piece do readers learn the meritorious nature of this name. In the meantime, Frog himself is put through variations of circumstance, history, and identity, making the larger work contradictory in a close sense but universal in its ability to encompass all fictive possibilities. In character, the protagonist is much like the figures appearing in typical Dixon stories: so conscientious that he becomes worried to distraction, so earnest as to be compulsive, so anxious for everything to be right that he makes almost all things turn out hilariously wrong. Yet even more so than in a thematically organized collection, Frog gives a complete sense of this style of being, not just in itself but because of the historically improbable but imaginatively apt connections the reader is invited to draw. These same readerly connections motivate Interstate, a novel whose eight chapters retell a highway tragedy in competing forms. In the first, a father suffers when his little girl is shot and killed by a gunman in a passing car. Five subsequent versions focus on the different aspects of the tragedy, each with the hope that its effects can be mitigated, if not fully escaped. In the seventh, the killing is avoided, but at the cost of something worse. Only in the eighth and final chapter does all end well, allowing the reader to savor scenes of quiet domestic bliss that without the preceding versions would never merit fictive treatment. The protagonist is the usual Dixon type, but here pushed into literal life-or-death circumstances.

As prolific as his work has been, Dixon always has a great range of stories from which to assemble a new collection. In The Play his focus rests on narratives generated by the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. The volume's initial stories deal with a narrator leaving a relationship, while later pieces find a similarly dispositioned character dealing with other problems, more material and external, which nevertheless follow the same pattern of involved disinvolvement. Love and Will sees his characteristic protagonist more involved in the outside world, with the addition of stories told from a shared perspective, such as "Takes," in which a young woman's rape and attempted murder is considered (and worried about) by a range of bystanders who have varying amounts of information and differing degrees of involvement in her life. All Gone is Dixon's most thematically diverse yet technically unified collection in that almost every one of its 18 stories has its action derive from partial, confused, or incorrect information. Yet Dixon's writing habits often bring him back to familiar characters in typical predicaments; Will and Magna, the couple who appear in the title story of Love and Will, have a book to themselves in Friends, where their life yields a post-Beckettian sense of going on in narrative language within the very snares that language sets for us. Even though dialogue or other narrative situations threaten to trap these characters, Dixon's genius is, like Beckett, to write their way out of it with an energy which produces a sense of life in itself. The multiplicity of such life is celebrated in Long Made Short, a story collection focused on the idea of subtraction—specifically, how many elements can be withdrawn from the narrative and still let the story survive. "Man, Woman, and Boy" displays the elemental nature of this technique, as a scene that begins with a marital breakup is put through structural mechanisms of reversal, subtraction, and retraction until a more desired result is achieved—the method of Interstate in miniature.

Dixon's reputation is built on his short stories, over 300 of which have been published and 60 of which are collected in The Stories of Stephen Dixon. This large assemblage, drawing on the work of nearly four decades, shows his method in highest profile and establishes his talent for self-generative form. In "Said" he runs through the rise and fall of a relationship simply by dropping all content and running through the "he said/she said" rhythm of a fight. "Time to Go" uses fantasy to recapture the memory of a long-dead father, as an image of the old man accompanies his son and the young man's fiancee as they select wedding rings, the father forever hectoring about price and size in a voice only his son can hear. In all cases they are self-generating, perfectly made examples of fiction's ability to delight simply by its own working.

—Jerome Klinkowitz

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