Authors: Grace Paley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and poet

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Short Fiction:

The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Men and Women in Love, 1959

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974

Later the Same Day, 1985

The Collected Stories, 1994

Poetry:

Leaning Forward, 1985

New and Collected Poems, 1992

Begin Again: Collected Poems, 2000

Nonfiction:

Conversations with Grace Paley, 1997 (Gerhard Bach and Blaine H. Hall, editors)

Just as I Thought, 1998

Miscellaneous:

Long Walks and Intimate Talks: Stories and Poems, 1991 (with paintings by Vera Williams)

Biography

Grace Paley (PAY-lee) is among the preeminent American writers of short fiction. She was born in New York City on December 11, 1922, the daughter of Russian immigrants Isaac Goodside (a physician) and Manya Ridnyik. With a mix of English, Russian, and Yiddish dominating her domestic conversation and the streets of the Bronx serving as her childhood playground, it is no surprise that Paley’s fiction is rich with ethnic accents and is urban to the core. She herself has said that “in the end, the greatest influence you have is the language of your childhood and the social life of that world.” Although her verbal gifts were evident when she was still a child and were encouraged by older siblings and other family members, Paley did not begin writing stories until she was in her thirties. Paley attended Hunter College (1938-1939) and in 1942 married Jess Paley, a cinematographer, with whom she had two children, Nora and Dan. They soon separated but did not divorce for twenty years. In 1972, writer and activist Robert Nichols became her second husband. In addition to writing, Paley taught at Columbia University, Syracuse University, and Sarah Lawrence College, and she became an impassioned advocate for women’s rights, pacifism, and other social and political causes.{$I[AN]9810000860}{$I[A]Paley, Grace}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Paley, Grace}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Paley, Grace}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Paley, Grace}{$I[tim]1922;Paley, Grace}

Grace Paley

(©Dorothy Marder)

The publication of her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, was the result of a family friend and Doubleday editor having read three stories and promising a book contract if she would produce another seven pieces. Paley was soon heralded as a distinctive and scrupulous stylist, whose characters endure urban vicissitudes bravely, with dignity and self-deprecating humor. Among the most distinguished (and distinguishable) features of the author’s fiction is her quirky, inventive approach to one of the more difficult of literary subjects: the ordinary. One indicator of the remarkably rapid development of Paley’s audience is the unusual publishing history of this first volume, which was reprinted in several paperback editions and then reissued in hardcover by yet another publisher.

Fifteen years after her auspicious entry into the literary scene, Paley’s second collection of stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, appeared in 1974. On the whole, these seventeen stories are formally less traditional, more transparently personal and political, than those in the first volume. In “A Conversation with My Father,” one of the collection’s most successful and conspicuously autobiographical stories, the author self-consciously dramatizes an aesthetic debate between the writer-narrator, who is partial to elliptical, nonlinear narrative, and her father, who appeals for traditionally plotted, resolved fiction. Although the tales are frequently short on plot and conventional development, open-ended, and semantically indeterminate, the inclusive ethnicity of the characters, the unerring authenticity of their voices, and the frequent linguistic surprises combine to give the volume Paley’s imprint.

In 1985, Later the Same Day, Paley’s third volume, was published. Its unity and effectiveness have much to do with the stories involving Faith, the feisty narrator, who had appeared in the two previous collections and who presides over more than half of this volume’s seventeen tales. An indomitable, now middle-aged woman, Faith shows a capacity to worry about her family–elderly parents and her two grown sons, Richard and Tonto–that seems as inexhaustible as her passion for life’s challenges and pleasures. Paley’s standard thematic preoccupations and distinctive voice virtually assured an audience for Leaning Forward, her first book of poetry. Strewn across the idiosyncratic New York City landscape is the usual miscellany of ethnic (especially Jewish) figures steeped in familial or political imbroglios. Moreover, the seemingly artless, offhand observations long associated with her fiction lose none of their luster or effect in the new genre.

Paley is widely recognized as a “writer’s writer,” a master stylist of fiction. A few critics, however, found her work uneven, particularly in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and Later the Same Day. For the most part, the problem seems to lie with Paley’s very short pieces, often dismissed as “arch” or “cute,” a circumstance made worse by their being interposed between the more substantive longer stories. Another recurring charge has been that the characteristic jokes in her tales are evasions rather than responses to life’s indignities. One reply to this criticism is to remind such critics that two of Paley’s undisputed strengths are her abiding hope and her comic imagination and that, occasionally, jokes have been among the most poignant human acknowledgments of tragedy.

In 1980, Grace Paley was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She received numerous honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961; a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1970; the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1986; and a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987. The Collected Stories, published in 1994, was nominated for a National Book Award and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Paley was honored with the Lannan Foundation Literary Award for Fiction in 1997. Paley died from breast cancer at her home in Vermont on August 22, 2007.

BibliographyAarons, Victoria. “Talking Lives: Storytelling and Renewal in Grace Paley’s Short Fiction.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 9 (1990): 20-35. Asserts that Paley empowers her characters through their penchant for telling stories. In telling their stories, her characters try to gain some control over their lives, as if by telling they can reconstruct experience.Arcana, Judith. Grace Paley’s Life Stories: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. A biography of Paley which includes a bibliography and an index.Bach, Gerhard, and Blaine Hall, eds. Conversations with Grace Paley. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. A collection of interviews with Paley from throughout her career as a writer, in which she comments on the sources of her stories, her political views, her feminism, and the influences on her writing.Baumbach, Jonathan. “Life Size.” Partisan Review 42, no. 2 (1975): 303-306. Baumbach approaches Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by concentrating on the innovative narrative voice and how it enhances the themes that run throughout the stories.DeKoven, Marianne. “Mrs. Hegel-Shtein’s Tears.” Partisan Review 48, no. 2 (1981): 217-223. Grace Paley wanted to tell about everyday life but in story forms that were not the traditionally linear ones. DeKoven describes how innovative structures enable her to achieve uncommon empathy with her subjects.Iannone, Carol. “A Dissent on Grace Paley.” Commentary 80 (August, 1985): 54-58. Iannone states that Paley’s first collection of stories reveals talent. Her second, however, written when she was deeply involved in political activity, shows how a writer’s imagination can become trapped by ideologies, not able to rise above them to make sense of the world. Iannone’s comments on the intermingling of politics and art result in interesting interpretations of Paley’s stories.Isaacs, Neil D. Grace Paley: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. An introduction to Paley’s short fiction, strong on a summary and critique of previous criticism. Also contains a section of Paley quotations, in which she talks about the nature of her fiction, her social commitment, and the development of her narrative language. Emphasizes Paley’s focus on storytelling and narrative voice.Marchant, Peter, and Earl Ingersoll, eds. “A Conversation with Grace Paley.” The Massachusetts Review 26 (Winter, 1985): 606-614. A conversation with novelist Mary Elsie Robertson and writer Peter Marchant provides insights into Paley’s transition from poetry to short stories, her interest in the lives of women, and the connection between her subject matter and her politics.Meyer, Adam. “Faith and the ‘Black Thing’: Political Action and Self-Questioning in Grace Paley’s Short Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Winter, 1994): 79-89. Discusses how Paley, through the character of Faith, examines someone very much like herself while distancing herself from that person’s activities.Paley, Grace. “Grace Paley: Art Is on the Side of the Underdog.” Interview by Harriet Shapiro. Ms. 11 (May, 1974): 43-45. This interview about Paley’s life and politics succeeds in presenting her as a unique personality.Schleifer, Ronald. “Grace Paley: Chaste Compactness.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. As Schleifer puts it, “Both little disturbances and enormous changes are brought together at the close of [Paley’s] stories to create a sense of ordinary ongoingness that eschews the melodrama of closure.”Taylor, Jacqueline. Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives. Austin: University of Texas, 1990. Taylor focuses on what she calls Paley’s “woman centered” point of view. Asserts that “Conversation with My Father” allows discussion of many of the narrative conventions her fiction tries to subvert. The story reveals the connection between Paley’s recognition of the fluidity of life and her resistance to narrative resolution.
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