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Grace Paley; Acclaimed Short-Story Writer

Grace Paley, 84, became known as a feminist writer, although she found the description confining.
Grace Paley, 84, became known as a feminist writer, although she found the description confining. (2003 Photo By Toby Talbot -- Associated Press)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2007

Grace Paley, 84, an American writer who achieved literary renown as a master of the short story and created a small but influential body of work that illuminated the frustrations and joys of women's lives, died Aug. 22 at her home in Thetford, Vt. She had breast cancer.

Ms. Paley's output was relatively small -- several dozen short stories and a few collections of poetry and essays -- but the quality of her work attracted superlatives from the country's brightest literary figures.

Novelist Philip Roth praised her for an "understanding of loneliness, lust, selfishness and fatigue that is splendidly comic and unladylike." Writer Susan Sontag called her "a rare kind of writer, a natural with a voice like no one else's: funny, sad, lean, modest, energetic, acute."

Ms. Paley began writing professionally in the mid-1950s. She was often regarded as a feminist writer because her stories brought early and rare insight into how urban women struggle with emotional and physical vulnerabilities, demanding children and lovers, and absent, often misogynistic husbands.

She found the feminist label confining, yet she gave credit to the movement for elevating her stature. "Every woman writing in these years has had to swim in the feminist wave," she wrote. "No matter what she thinks of it, even if she bravely swims against it, she has been supported by it -- the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness."

Her earliest stories were rich in humor and irony. In "The Loudest Voice," a Jewish child's vocal stamina makes her the ideal narrator of a school Christmas play. Ms. Paley gradually gave way to grimmer themes, including rape and mental illness. She also ventured into character studies less driven by plot.

She tended to draw more mixed reviews for the later work. Still, Robert R. Harris, an editor for the New York Times Book Review, once noted that Ms. Paley's literary reputation remained largely untarnished because "her best stories have staying power, and a few can justifiably be called brilliant."

Her first collection, "The Little Disturbances of Man" (1959), contained some of her most anthologized works, including "Goodbye and Good Luck." The story is narrated by the vivacious Rosie, who has a long affair with a married Russian actor known as "the Valentino of Second Avenue."

"Goodbye and Good Luck" contained many of the hallmarks of her prose -- the uncluttered sentences, the flawed but sympathetic female narrator and the pitch-perfect Bronx street vernacular of her youth, which U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky once called "the lyrically yakking cadence of New York City speech."

The title of the collection referred to a line in another short story, "An Interest in Life," in which a housewife named Virginia sums up in the opening sentences the husband who has deserted her: "My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn't right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly."

Virginia later takes a lover who discourages her from trying to get on a game show called "Strike It Rich," because the program is meant to help people who "really suffer" in natural catastrophes, not those enduring "the little disturbances of man."

Ms. Paley wrote her fiction slowly and sparingly, spending a great deal of time focused on her deepening political involvement as a pacifist concerned with environmental and anti-military causes. There was a 15-year gap between her first short-story collection and "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" (1974), which received mixed reviews as she experimented with style and darker content.


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