The Urban Neurotic Jew in Woody Allen’s Short Fiction

Woody Allen is one of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century. He is a highly praised director and scriptwriter, a successful actor, a dedicated clarinettist, an appreciated playwright, and an awarded short fiction writer. His entire work testifies for the efforts he put into creating an easily identifiable style, which never fails to provoke laughter and which distinguishes his work from that of other artists, and into the creation of a remarkable fictional persona, the Jewish New Yorker, the neurotic eccentric, constantly obsessing about love, art, death, the existence of God, the fate of the universe, and the meaning of life. As he is a celebrated film maker, his literary contributions are often ignored. The fictional persona that he created in his movies is very apparent in his short stories as well. It became the hallmark of Woody Allen’s entire work, cinematic as well as literary, and proved capable of drawing considerable recognition and identification from his targeted audience/ readers. He fashioned a comedy of ironic, self-deflating juxtapositions, a wit displaying a self-knowing intellect while at the same time mocking the pretence to deep knowledge itself.

woody-allenWoody Allen, has so far published three books: Getting Even (1971) is a collection of short stories; Side Effects is an anthology of comical short essays written between 1975 and 1980; and Without Feathers (1975) is a collection of essays and, it also features, two one act plays. This book is also one of his best-known literary pieces. It spent 4 months on the New York Times Bestseller List. Most of his literary pieces were first published in The New Yorker.

Though not as well known as his films, Woody Allen’s short fiction represents a significant part of his work. Woody Allen’s short stories, essays, and casual pieces range from parodical philosophical essays to mock-journalistic, and starkly surrealistic pieces, to parodical reinterpretations of hardboiled fiction and other formula fiction types. Although his fiction tackles a wide range of subjects, they all spring from a common reservoir of existentialist concerns and revolve around the absurdity of life and the decadent self-absorption of modern man, the miasmic awareness of mortality and the subtle perversion of religion, the intractability of romantic relationships, sexuality, morality, and obsessive psychological pain. His stories are told in one of the most comic dialects known in literature, a dialect originating in Jewish humour, modernized by the syntax of stand-up comedy, and urbanized by the comic tradition of the New Yorker short story.

Woody Allen’s short fiction is configured as a densely comic exploration of the laden existential concerns which trouble the neurotic urban self. His lively and intense literary style aligns his writing to the tradition of famous American comedians and humorous writers with whom erudition, existential anxieties, psychoanalysis, and sexuality have been domesticated and introduced into mainstream American comedy. He is part of the Robert Benchley and S. J. Perelman lineage that founded and consolidated the comic tradition of The New Yorker, and he enriches this tradition by exposing it to the aesthetic exuberance of literary postmodernism. Woody Allen’s short fiction brims over with postmodern playfulness and his short stories can be easily used as a guidebook to postmodernist literary strategies. At the same time, his texts are underpinned by a thick layer of references pertaining to the author’s ethnic cultural legacy, which he uses for the consolidation of the authenticity of his work.

While the splendid array of film awards is often considered his greatest achievement, Woody Allen’s literary skills have also been awarded. One of his best known short stories, The Kugelmass Episode, published for the first time in The New Yorker, on May 2, 1977, brought him the O. Henry Award for Best Short Story in 1978. This award stands for the crowning of his literary efforts. It indicates the exceptional merits of his short story and represents an important critical recognition of his talents as a short story writer. The O. Henry Award was founded by the Society of Arts and Sciences in 1919 and is meant to support the evolution of the art of the short story by annually honouring one English language short story published in American or Canadian periodicals. The O. Henry Award represents an important achievement in a short story writer’s career and it places Woody Allen’s name on the firmament of the American short story tradition, along with famous and widely appreciated writers such as William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Irvin Shaw, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, or Saul Bellow. Some of Woody Allen’s short stories have been anthologized in well-known and highly appreciated editions. For example, Woody Allen’s name, along with that of Groucho Marx, is mentioned in the section dedicated to Jewish humor of the Jewish American Literature. A Norton Anthology. The same section of this anthology contains Woody Allen’s short story The Scrolls as an illustration of one of the best manifestations of Jewish humor in short fiction. The seventh edition of The Norton Reader. An Anthology of Expository Prose also includes one of Woody Allen’s texts, “Selections from the Allen Notebooks” in the section entitled “Prose Forms: Journals,” together with texts and excerpts signed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.

Woody Allen’s cinematic excellence always takes precedence over his literary work, but on a close analysis one finds that his short fiction mirrors a set of factors represented by the immediate literary context of The New Yorker magazine, the larger literary context of American postmodernism, and the cultural heritage of his Jewish upbringing. One of the major influences in his writing, the literary tradition of The New Yorker, a magazine which has always been the preferred venue for the publication of his short stories. Being published in The New Yorker represented one of the greatest literary achievements for the beginning of young Woody Allen’s writing career and influenced his writing to a great extent. The New Yorker is widely recognised as one of the most prestigious literary magazine for a century now. The magazine has nestled the works of some of the most influential writers of the twentieth century such as Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Milan Kundera, Alice Munro, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, and John Updike.

For Woody Allen, the acceptance of his texts by the fiction editors of The New Yorker meant being offered a way into the most esteemed literary circle of the century and was an important factor in the shaping of his writing . Woody Allen’s short stories conscientiously respond to the aesthetics promoted by the magazine. His short fiction is urban par excellence and its humorous qualities are beyond question. It brims over with erudition and catches the atmosphere of metropolitan sophistication. In a very Allen-specific manner, he combines postmodernist techniques and existentialism in what comes to be a mark of his artistic authenticity. His fiction participates in the postmodern dialectics between contestation and reinvention by adopting a deconstructionist attitude, by contesting the value of grand narratives, and by attempting to cope with the dubieties, the disillusionment, and the vagaries of post-war realities through the reconstruction of worlds in a new imaginary register governed by the comic-parodic mode, by irony and playfulness, and by an acute sense of the absurd.

 The late Sixties were marked as a period of tempestuous social, political, and cultural changes in American history, closely mirrored by the cultural productions of the age. Sensitive to these social changes, writers had begun to challenge all traditional literary conventions with unprecedented exuberance, striving to demonstrate the contradictions of a world in flux and the fictional nature of reality itself. By placing their stakes on imagined alternatives and ceaselessly shifting perspectives, postmodernist writers challenged the concept of reality, identity, and totalizing truths. Woody Allen’s career as a short story writer began under this new paradigm and witnessed the effusion of postmodernist experimentation and playfulness. His short stories can be read as an allegory of postmodernist literary strategies and that his writing closely reflects the postmodern ideology as set forth by Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. In fact, Woody Allen goes one step further towards exposing the aesthetic perils of postmodernism’s willingness to indulge in extreme experimentation and, at the same time, goes one step back, towards the much cherished sense of responsibility and authenticity stemming from existentialist philosophy, which he uses as a binder for the de-centered postmodern universe. Within the larger post-war American literary context, Woody Allen’s literary work subscribes to the playful aestheticism of postmodernism and would perfectly fit a Procrustean bed forged by the major theorists of postmodernism, if it were not for the existentialist ethos underpinning his entire work

In the spirit of postmodernism, Woody Allen’s short fiction is able to shape-shift and camouflage under a large variety of literary forms in order to expose literary conventions. His texts often come out as hybrids, stylistic mélanges, and triumphs of seemingly incompatible discourses. He actively experimented with style, narrative, and literary genres. Given the author’s ability to master postmodernist literary strategies and reflect the ethos of postmodernism to a great extent, his short fiction can easily serve a didactic purpose. Still, there is something peculiar about Woody Allen’s postmodernist fictional universe and this peculiarity consists of the existence of a centered consciousness to govern it and of a set of thematic strings which bind it into a surprisingly coherent whole.

To conclude, one can safely contend that, although not as well-known as his films, Woody Allen’s short fiction is just as worthy of critical consideration and his stories embody and transform, in his own unique manner, some of the most important forces which shaped contemporary American culture.


Categories: Literature, Short Story

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