Gloria Frym is one of those writers you can’t believe you never heard of. She’s published 13 books spanning poetry, short fiction, and criticism. She’s also the teacher and literary friend you wish you had. How Proust Ruined My Life is a collection of twenty literary essays written over Frym’s decades-long career as a teacher, writer and thinker. Some of the essays were commissioned, others were delivered as papers at conferences and still others appear for the first time in this collection.
It is a rare delight to come across a collection of essays so generous in their insight written with such grace. Frym’s writing is straightforward and informed. Her tone is conversational and wise. And like Cane, the Jean Toomer novel Frym considers in one the central essays, the collection itself “relies on the logic of collage” , delving into various writers and writerly enthusiasms elucidating clues to their strategies and successes. Because Frym’s interests are wide-ranging and generous, the essays consider everything from poetry in the San Francisco County Jails to Whitman to Lorine Niedecker.
The collection opens with “Glass Breaking Boy: Teaching Poetry Inside” about the writing classes she taught in the San Francisco County Jails, in which the reader is introduced to Frym’s combination of empathy and rigor. By her own admission, Frym is “a deeply political person,” and the essays often showcase her chops as a feminist critic. These essays, however, are neither didactic nor academic, but rather, display a range of enthusiasms, interests, and emotions from humor (a description of Abbé Bournisien, town priest in Madame Bovary as a man “who has about as much spiritual depth as dandruff…”)  to awe (“To read and to engage in the created world is to partake in the architecture, the ordering the shaping, the form that nourishes us as humans and gives us meaning.”) 
If this is a collage, the focal point is the excellent essay adapted from classes given at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University called “The Haiku of Fiction: A Poetics of Prose”. Here Frym states what comes closest to an overarching critical theory: “It is my contention that a poetics for the twenty-first century depends upon hybrid, plotless, and unclassifiable forms” . What follows is a lively and lucid case for the ungenrified short pieces written by Amiri Baraka, Raymond Carver, Lucia Berlin (who receives her own essay in the book), Diane Williams, Virginia Woolf, Lydia Davis, Sandra Cisneros, and others. This is, not surprisingly, the intense kind of work Frym herself creates so well— a prose with a poetic sensibility that eschews categorization. Frym calls for a literature of the future that might be “part of a trans-genre community” . Speaking less about the length of a story than about its intensity, she discusses the above authors’ works as examples of attenuation and compression—both a radiating outward and a careful knowingness of text. The essay takes insight from Poe to Pound and draws examples from Sherwood Anderson to Jamaica Kinkaid. Like a true collagist, Frym quotes as easily from a letter Chekhov wrote to his brother as from an interview Grace Paley gave to The Paris Review. Frym’s thinks broadly, passionately, and convincingly about a poetics of fiction that rejects categorization and marketing, that replaces plot with mystery, rhythm, and radiance. The result is a lively elucidation and celebration of hybridity, fragmentation, and fluidity.
In the eponymous essay, Frym describes discovering in a Proust study group that an appreciation of the famed author simply requires “patience and desire.” She goes on to say, “Relatively intelligent persons who read regularly can easily enjoy him. He does not have to be academicized. But he does have to be loved” . One could say this is Frym’s lifelong project, not to academicize the text but to love it.
Indeed, Frym’s approach to literature—whether experimental or canonical, poetry or prose or the poem in prose—is wide-armed and democratic. As she reads Proust, she reads all her favorite artists: “What I did was read. And talk about what I read. And discuss certain literary, historical and social issues the book illuminates. And lavish in the writing” . Reading Frym’s essays, I found this lavishing contagious. I underlined phrases and made notes of translations and editions and articles Frym cites that I could hardly wait to read and reread.
The most exciting moments in this collection are when Frym allows her own lyric sensibility full rein. It is when she is most convincing and most inspiring. “Each time we read or write a story,” she says in, Breaking and Entering: Openings in Short Fiction, “we are unsuspecting innocent children, magically parachuting down into the field of the text, just after the wind has caught our chutes and opened them up” . The questions Frym interrogates through her criticism and creative celebration are, in the end, the larger spiritual motivations for reading and writing. The best of these essays take the reader by the hand and walk beside us “to the threshold of our own spiritual journey” .
The essays in How Proust Ruined My Life are succinct and filled with respect for the reader. Just as she says of Chekhov, it is a moral value of Frym’s, “not to talk down to people, not to condescend, and not to patronize them with too many words” . Still, upon finishing many of these essays, one is left wishing she’d go on just a bit more, continuing to talk us through all she’s read and what she makes of it. Then again, readers, says Frym, “…surely and perennially desire beyond our means” . This reader certainly did.
Lynn Schmeidler’s work has appeared in Boston Review, KR Online, Conjunctions, the Georgia Review, The Southern Review. She’s published one poetry book, History of Gone (Veliz Books, 2018) and two poetry chapbooks, Wrack Lines (Grayson Books, 2017) and Curiouser & Curiouser (Winner of the Grayson Books 2013 Chapbook Prize). She has been awarded residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar in Fiction at the Sewanee Writers Conference.