What Can We Steal From John Updike’s “A & P”?
Title of Work and its Form: “A & P,” short story
Author: John Updike
Date of Work: 1961
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story is frequently anthologized and can be found in countless collections of American short stories.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Description
When most people think about twentieth-century American literature, they think Honey Boo Boo. (Unfortunately, that program is neither from the twentieth century, nor is it literature.) John Updike comes a very close second. The man was one of our literary lions for a half-century and deserves his due. “A & P” is a tight little story about a young man who works in a grocery store. He’s nineteen years old, so he definitely notices when “these three girls” walk in wearing “nothing but bathing suits.” The young ladies make their way around the store and finally approach Sammy (the first-person narrator), who is working the register. Unfortunately, the boss breaks the spell and ruins everything, telling the young ladies that they should dress “decently” when shopping in his store. Sammy mutters that he quits and realizes “how hard the world was going to be” to him thereafter.
A lot of writers fight over how much they should describe their characters physically. Unfortunately, the answer is not an easy one: writers should provide as much description as is necessary to serve the story. It doesn’t matter what color her hair is, but it matters very deeply to Sammy that the young woman he calls “Queenie” is wearing a “kind of dirty-pink—beige, maybe, I don’t know—bathing suit with a little nubble all over it.” The suit’s straps are down, “off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms…” Updike chooses the details that would be noticed by the narrator. You better believe that a heterosexual nineteen-year-old male is going to notice the “clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light.”
Coming up with names and getting them into a narrative can also be a problem at times. How often do you walk around and hear someone’s name unless there’s a really good reason? If you go to someone else’s family reunion, you’re going to hear an awful lot of organic introductions. “Jim, have you met my Uncle Bob? He’s married to my Aunt Sally.” In many narratives, however, these opportunities may not be easy to come by. That’s why Updike (through his narrator) simply calls the primary young woman “Queenie.” Not only does the name reflect what Sammy thinks about the young woman, but it also shapes our understanding of the character. After all, haven’t we all identified the leader of a group and focused on them?
What Should We Steal?
- Include character details that actually matter. Your reader is going to fill in a lot of the blanks, so include the specifics that shape your narrative or characters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What does it matter if your reader imagines that one of your characters appears African-American or Armenian or Argentinian? In this case, the racial appearance of the character will only matter if it is important to the story. Shakespeare only describes Othello as a Moor because…well…it’s the whole point of the play.
- Dole out character names in a felicitous fashion. Imagine you have a character walking through a dark, dank parking lot. What should you call the man who is following him or her in a menacing fashion? Well, you could call him “the man” or “the creep” or “Scary Jerk.” Each identifier will shape the audience’s perception of your story, so choose wisely!