Rules for Virgins: Wherein Magic Gourd Advises Young Violet on How to Become a Popular Courtesan While Avoiding Cheapskates, False Love, and Suicide by Amy Tan
This story’s subtitle kind of tells it all. It consists of an old (32 is old) courtesan discussing the way she will train and support a 14-year-old girl whose virginity will soon be sold. Young Violet never speaks and there is not really any true action: the story is an extended dramatic monologue. Magic Gourd is an interesting enough character to carry it off: strict, jaded, oddly prudish in some ways and almost baudy in others, but ultimately caring. She imagines lots of fascinating scenes, like delicate negotiations at a jeweler, training sessions with a homosexual actor, interactions with other courtesans, sessions in the boudoir with suitors and patrons. The setting is Shanghai, 1912, and the story is rich with details of fashion, behavior, and the lifestyles of courtesans. Like much of Tan’s work, it was inspired by an interesting piece of family history, in this case a photograph of her grandmother in the style of early 20th century courtesans.
Rules for Virgins was released only on Kindle and audio, not as a printed book. This makes sense for its unusual length: too long for a magazine or periodical and too short to be called a novella and given its own physical volume. This flexibility is one of the strengths of digital publishing. I wonder if the success of this story and others like it will mean more short fiction will become available on a similar a la carte basis, instead of being bundled into collections.