In our Stories That Teach series, we look at what some of our favorite works of short fiction can teach us about craft. In the past, we’ve examined the art of the sentence in Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties” and dissected the creepiness of Laura Benedict’s “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” to name just two. Today, we examine the ineffable lessons that Susan Minot’s “Lust” can teach us about the fictional form, as well as its concrete commentary—still hauntingly relevant today—on relationships between women and men. You can read Susan Minot’s story here (you need to sign in with Narrative; it is free to register).
This story is about the—implicit and explicit—silencing of and disrespect for women that occurs in their romantic relationships with men. This is something that we certainly touched on, but did not linger over, in class discussions.
Discussed by Sadye Teiser
Susan Minot’s story, “Lust,” was always one of the most popular in the undergraduate creative writing courses I taught. When it came time for students to imitate the form of a story that we had read, many picked Minot’s unusual and pithy piece. “Lust” was originally published in 1989, before most of my students were born. But it teaches what is still a progressive lesson, namely: a story can take any form that it likes.
We would always discuss the story’s form and content, but the greatest lesson that I hoped “Lust” would teach my students was an ineffable one. It was a lesson I could not map on a Frye tag, assign vocabulary to, or quantify in any way. I wanted my students to realize that, though a story can take many shapes: you know a story when you read one. You know this because it feels complete.
Susan Minot’s “Lust” chronicles the relationships that its unnamed protagonist has with men while she is at boarding school. It is told in a series of stand-alone parts, from a sentence to a paragraph in length, that together form a cohesive story. They are told in first person and second person, in past and present tense.
There is a section about the protagonist’s parents, and their oblivious remarks about the boyfriends she had at boarding school. Though brief, the passage is brimming with specificity, such as the closing line: “My father was too shy to talk to them at all unless they played sports and he’d ask them about that.” There is a poignant, short section about the songs she associates with certain men. There is a sweeter, melancholy passage about a boy who dies in a car crash shortly after his tryst with the protagonist.
In one passage, she spends the night with a guy who is too shy to make a move until, as they fall asleep, he puts his arm around her—and that is the extent of it. Another passage describes a romance on a camping trip, sleeping bags zipped together. In another section, our protagonist talks, bluntly, about all the different types of penises she’s seen, remarking: “But it’s like faces; you’re never really surprised.”
Some passages are more sinister. One recounts a memory of the boys who lived next door while the protagonist was growing up. They tied her ankles together, and forced her to show them her underwear. Another recalls lines that men have yelled at the protagonist from cars. It ends with this: “So I’d go because I couldn’t think of something to say back that wouldn’t be obvious, and if you go out with them, you sort of have to do something.”