Friday, April 30, 2010

Thanks, but This Isn't for Us

If you’ve gotten rejection letters, then the title of Jessica Page Morrell’s book may sound familiar: Thanks, but This Isn’t for Us. (Subtitle: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected.) The book is meant for people who know that sting that comes with bland, generic rejection letters, and nevertheless want to keep going until they’ve reached publication (and beyond, of course).

Morrell’s book is provocative. Sometimes it’s intentionally so, to the point that it becomes obstreperously badass. For instance, was it necessary or even fruitful to compare writing to striptease? How many times did the author need to mention that she was going to act tough, but that editors out there are much worse? Still, the judgmental and unrestrained voice is effective. It’s funny, too. She has no patience for some types of fiction, and she is quite vocal about it.

All of this works to jolt you into realizing that many things can be wrong with your writing while you haven’t even noticed them. That’s probably what explains the rejection letters, although the letters themselves don’t bother to explain what the problem with a given story was. Morrell takes those things seriously, and fleshes out her points with dozens of examples from both published and unpublished material (quite a few of her clients were pilloried in the book—their names aren’t revealed, but still, poor souls).

The book covers plenty of ground. You get chapters on structure (such as how to divide your fiction into three acts, plot points, and scenes) as well as chapters on details (such as veering away from adverbs ending in “ly”). All of this is useful for people who are committed to writing.

I particularly liked how Morrell understands writing. Yes, there’s a lot of focused activities and long hours and an almost pathological love of words, but it’s also a craft used to entertain readers. No altars, no shivering. Take a look: “[I] want to suggest you need a more working-class version of the writing life. You need to see yourself as a skilled laborer, not an artiste who awakes each morning wondering how best to flirt with your muse. […] This means you write with a fully loaded toolbox of craft and habits and understanding” (34-35). More: “Repeat after me: my job is to entertain” (86). And more: “Grab a clue: stories need to be accessible in order to work. And a story that is a tortuous labyrinth of description is often a sign of a bloated ego” (113).

Notice how Morrell talks straight at us, and she doesn’t settle for half measures. In order to entertain adequately, and to make it in a very competitive book market, you need to produce something brilliant, accessible and powerful. Not easy. But Morrell’s advice is a good way to move closer to getting there. You won’t end up writing Beckett’s brilliant but rebarbative Worstward Ho. You’ll produce good, readable prose that’s fit for the market. And that’s not a bad thing.

One point Morrell emphasizes is plot. Plotlessness is not her friend, and in fact she considers it a deal breaker (her chapters always include a compendium of deal breakers). Characters can’t be wimps, and they have to become entangled in situations so messy that mere mortals wouldn’t know to handle them. Does that mean that they don’t have to be true to life? Morrell would blurt out that no, they do not. Reality is often too boring to make it as fiction, and Morrell wants us to realize that stories have to be hyped up, that problems in them need to be life-changing, that characters need to struggle (in fact, she wants us to have them suffer immensely to get what they want). Dialogue, for instance, is not a mere replica of what we hear every day: “it’s more like conversation’s greatest hits. It’s always crisper, punchier, and embedded with subtext” (166). And still it has to remain credible. And characters have to be people we can relate to. Again, not easy.

There are probably better books with which to get started on the literature about craft (in fact, there’s a recent one I’ll discuss later that suits the purpose marvelously well). But Morrell’s book is refreshing. On a side note, if we go by what we’re seeing in print lately, Morrell’s advice applies better to novels than to short stories. I’ve mentioned before how many of recent published short stories (in all sorts of venues) show precisely the problems Morrell considers deal breakers, such as lack of tension and plotlessness. It may be that short stories are indeed becoming the literature of a clique of loyal readers, and so they don’t demand the sort of thrills the mass market expects. Some people have said this already, and quite eloquently, so it’s nothing new. I’ll keep reading short stories, but it would be good to get a nice thrill from a short story every once in a while.

P.S.: Morrell has a webpage called The Writing Life. From there, you can jump to her blog: The Writing Life Too. And, while you’re at it, you can write her and ask to sign up for her newsletter, which is loaded with information about writing.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Junot Díaz, “The Pura Principle”

This is the fifth comment I’ve rapid-fired about New Yorker stories over the last few days. This time it’s about Junot Díaz’s “The Pura Principle” (TNY, Mar. 22, 2010). I had thought about publishing a single post, in which I’d refer briefly to each of the stories I’ve discussed. That was fitting, as not one of these stories seemed especially strong. Some, in fact, appeared particularly weak.

I won’t go into details about those that were published in the three issues after the March 22 edition, like the wispy and quirky fable by Janet Frame called “Gavin Highly” (April 5). Ben Loory’s “The TV” (April 12) is an amusing existential tale, which lost its way in the middle, when the man watching TV finds himself in a show about doctors. At that point, the story stopped being interesting, and it reminded me of Agent Smith in the Matrix, thus becoming what seems like a rather boring allegory of the ego absorbing the world like a black hole. There was also Joyce Carol Oates’s “I.D.” (Mar. 29), a story about a 13-year-old whose parents are a mess and who’s taken by the police to ID a corpse thought to be her mother’s. The stream of consciousness used in it was so mechanical and predictable that you can see the stitching: information presented askance, scenes told by snippets and interwoven with what happens in the time of the narrative. “I.D.” read like a writing exercise based on James Joyce’s stream of consciousness, and I didn’t find it compelling, not even at the presumably highly charged climax when the cadaver is revealed.

In any case, what made me change my mind, and prompted me to write story-by-story comments, was this piece by Junot Díaz. It bothered me.

I expected much more from a seasoned and talented author like Díaz. But I would toss this story into a heap that has been growing lately: that of “exotic” stories. The thrill of reading twisted tales about far-away places or exotic cultures (even if the exotic people live in New York) seems often to override concerns about quality. I’ve mentioned this before, with regard to Daniel Alarcón and Nam Le.

This doesn’t mean Díaz’s story was entirely bad. It’s about a teenager (Yunior) who deals with his brother’s leukemia. More than the leukemia, the problem is Rafa, the narrator’s brother, who is a lost cause, a reckless man spoiled by his mother’s lifelong habit of forgiving him for almost everything he does. Things turn rough when Rafa falls for a green-card-grubbing woman called Pura, who wheedles her way into marrying him. Rafa flouts the doctor’s orders (and his mother’s wishes) so egregiously that his mother finally stands tough and kicks him out of the house. Rafa falls ill later and has to go to the hospital. Pura doesn’t visit him. In fact, she disappears, but not before getting some money out of Rafa’s mother. Yunior is inflamed. The story ends when Rafa gets back at Yunior for standing up to him (now that Rafa is weaker, he doesn’t get to hector his brother); Rafa hurls a lock at Yunior from afar and nearly takes Yunior’s eye out.

The tone and the cast of characters are familiar from other stories published by Díaz. The language is often sharp, and some of the situations are funny or stimulating. But come on. This is The New Yorker. One expects the very best. With that in mind, some of the blunders were unforgivable.

Blunder number one is the choice of words. For starters, the narrator seems bent on squeezing as many fucks into a sentence as he can. Third sentence: “we didn’t know what the fuck to do, what the fuck to say.” But that’s not the blunder. Do we really find it plausible when that same narrator who bubbles with fucks goes on, in that same first paragraph, to describe her mother’s as an “event-horizon personality.” Astrophysics? And what about the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo” reference? He also describes his brother as someone who hasn’t been “the most rational of agents.” Economics? Over the course of two consecutive sentences, we stumble on “pulchritude” and “demotic.” Call me a maniac for consistency, but I just don’t find the narrator’s voice credible. Okay, of course, an academic can lace his conversation with as many fucks as he wants. But, in this case, those slips reveal too much of the MIT professor speaking through the tumult of Yunior’s slang.

Blunder number two is the excessive use of Spanish. There is so much of it that I wonder if English-language readers without an iota of Spanish can really follow everything in the story. Such a high dose of a foreign language is unnecessary. I would most likely abandon a story that had this much of, say, untranslated Polish slang. Someone could try to justify the Spanish in Díaz’s story by saying that people really speak like this in Dominican communities in New York, but it seems to be there to give the story an exotic feel. Take the second sentence: “No way of wrapping it pretty or pretending otherwise: Rafa estaba jodido.” Why? Why not just stick to a same language and use its expressive power to say this? It can be done.

This leads me to blunder number three: the mistaken use of Spanish. Not only is Spanish everywhere in the story, but mistakes are everywhere. This is scandalous in TNY, which is so good in its copyediting. Was there no proficient Spanish-speaking copy editor in New York who could look over the final draft of the story? Seriously. I mentioned some Spanish-language mistakes in another TNY story last year (the burden of the exotic again), but this time it’s much worse. I’ll play the obnoxious grammarian now and go through a list of those mistakes.
(1) The sentences “Dios mío, qué me has hecho?” and “Qué tú crees que ella busca por aquí?” are missing an opening question mark, required in Spanish.
(2) The diminutive for taza (cup) is spelled tácita in the story, which means “tacit.” What the author had in mind was tacita, no accent mark.
(3) The phrase “chín de respeto” carries an unnecessary accent mark. Chín is never written with an accent mark.
(4) The diminutive for india (Indian) is indiecita, not indiacita. Díaz wrote the latter. One can see why this mistake happened (it’s an irregular diminutive), but it happened still.
(5) The noun Cubano (meaning a person from Cuba) should have been written in lowercase: cubano.
(6) The diminutive for puta (whore) is putica. For some reason, the story swapped the c for a k, and wrote putika.
(7) At some point, Pura calls her mother-in-law cuñada. The right word is suegra. Cuñada means “sister-in-law.”
(8) The story says “la Doña asked.” If we’re talking of la Doña in Spanish, then Doña should be lowercased: la doña.

Has the thrill of the exotic prevailed over good literary and proofreading sense? Anyway, these blunders tie in with what I’ve written before, that the quality of TNY stories tends to waver. I’ll let that magazine’s fiction rest for now in the blog. Next up is a book on writing technique.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Jennifer Egan, “Ask Me If I Care”

Jennifer Egan’s “Ask Me I Care” (TNY, Mar. 8, 2010) is told by a high school girl who joins a hard rock music scene in 1979. Her name is Rhea, her best friend is Jocelyn, they have a rich acquaintance called Alice, and they all gravitate around a couple of men who backbone a rock band called the Flaming Dildos: the “magnetic” Scotty, who loves bearing his chest, and the “electric” Bennie Salazar, who sports a Mohawk. I went through the names because the story revolves around a domino sequence of crushes: Rhea is infatuated with Bennie, Bennie with Alice, Alice with Scotty, and Scotty with Jocelyn. Jocelyn breaks the loop, because she goes for a sleazy record producer called Lou, who is much older than Jocelyn and abundantly progenied.

The sequence comes crashing down one night when the Flaming Dildos gets a chance to perform at an important club called the Mab (“where all the punk bands play”). Jocelyn makes out with the record producer in public, and so Scotty “now understands for real that Jocelyn has a boyfriend and that it isn’t him and never will be.” So he settles for Alice, who is delighted, and Bennie drifts away from everyone else. That leaves Rhea disappointed, and Alice ecstatic. Jocelyn later runs away from home chasing after Lou.

The story threads end up frayed, but we get a sense that Rhea has become more focused. Lou, of all people, gives her sound advice: she was always depressed by her freckles, but he tells her, “People will try to change you, Rhea […]. Don’t let ’em. […] You’re beautiful. Stay like this.” The story closes at Alice’s house, where Rhea sees what the world looks like during the day: Alice’s little sisters, whom they had always seen asleep, are awake and playing tetherball while wearing green uniforms that Rhea and her friends had merely talked about. It seems Rhea is seeing things more clearly now.

Well, that took a while. The story is not thrilling, but, as you can tell, it took tweezers to reconstruct it for a plot summary. There are good dialogues, and the fringe world the characters inhabit is convincingly portrayed. The point of view of a teenager works too. Not anthology material, but not bad.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Claire Keegan, “Foster”

Claire Keegan’s “Foster” (TNY, Feb. 15 & 22, 2010) tells the story of a young girl who is sent away over the summer to a relative’s home. Because her parents keep having children and they have run into economic problems, the girl’s father drops her off at the house of man called John Kinsella.

It turns out that Kinsella and his wife recently lost a child, who drowned in a well; the girl finds out through a gossipy neighbor. This makes the relationship between the girl and the Kinsellas both intimate and eerie. One gets the impression that they are projecting their love for their dead son on their guest. The girl picks up quickly on the manners and habits she is supposed to have at her new home, and cherishes the attention she gets, which doesn’t exist at her parent’s house. This is at once enticing and troubling for her: “Kinsella takes my hand in his. As he does it, I realize that my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants Kinsella to let me go, so that I won’t have to think about this.”

When the summer is over, the girl is called back to her parents’ house. She has grown attached to the Kinsellas. The final scene, when the summer parents leave her, is carefully pieced together: the girl’s feelings blend in with the Kinsella’s longing for their dead son, while the biological father comes “along strong and steady,” threateningly, to take up his place.

It’s told—fairly plausibly, in terms of language and sense impressions—from the perspective of the girl, and in the present tense. The story blossoms slowly, but it is stirring, even though not much that is concrete or suspenseful happens. Near the end, tension does build up when the girl, dressed in the dead boy’s jacket, goes to the well to fetch water and falls in. I wondered if the story was going to take a supernatural twist. It didn’t, but I still wanted to know if she was going to die as the boy did. This theme is picked up at the end, when the girl hugs Kinsella: “I hold on as though I’ll drown if I let go.”

It’s not a wonderful story, but it’s skillfully built. A couple lines are worth quoting: “I am in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be”; “I wish I was back at home so that the things that I do not understand could be the same as they always are.”

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kevin Barry, “Fjord of Killary”

Kevin Barry’s “Fjord of Killary” (TNY, Feb. 1, 2010) is a fast-paced tale about a poet who buys an old hotel in a remote corner of western Ireland. Locals gather to drink at the hotel bar, which is tended by the narrator in the evenings, but the customers constantly dismiss him and his urbane ways. The hotel is staffed by promiscuous and scowling Belarusians.

The narrator is evidently in a midlife crisis: he hasn’t published anything in five years and he’s always trying to turn into a romantic version of himself (“I’d had a deranged notion that this would establish me as a kind of charming-innkeeper figure”). Buying the old hotel was part of his crisis.

The short story focuses on one night in which a storm ravages the town and the hotel floods. Led by the narrator, the people at the bar take refuge in a function room upstairs. As the night progresses, the narrator is swooped up again by a lyrical urge and he ends by saying that the “gloom of youth had at last lifted.” He grew up.

The highlight of the story is the dialogue, which is funny and brisk when left to the locals. But there are plenty of things to improve. I found myself squinting at an outrageous simile in the very first paragraph: the rain “came down like handfuls of nails flung hard and fast by a seriously riled sky god.” I may have swallowed it without the “seriously riled.” Maybe. (A later reference to paganism may justify the simile thematically, but stylistically it made me grit my teeth.)

Here’s another example of something to improve. After a nice and jagged conversation among the customers about how long it took to get from A to B, iterated about ten times, the narrator slides this in: “The primary interest of these people’s lives, it often seemed, was how far one place was from another, and how long it might take to complete the journey, given the state of the roads.” We had already seen this at work (and we do repeatedly throughout the story); why bother describing it?

The biggest flaw, though, was that the story seemed to ramble and stuff itself with unnecessary descriptions. In fact, I would’ve suggested beginning the story at the end of the second page, when the story says, “Bill Knott was now reckoning the distance to Derry if you were to go via Enniskillen.” Sure, spice up the opening to make it stronger. Add a dash of the good dialogues from the previous pages. But the story could be told in its entirety from that point on, and we wouldn’t miss a thing. That’s a good sign that the author and editors would’ve done well to befriend the delete button. A leaner, more powerful story would emerge.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

E. O. Wilson, “Trailhead”

E. O. Wilson’s “Trailhead” (TNY, Jan. 25, 2010) is a very peculiar kind of story. It’s about ants. No overarching parallels with human beings, no allegories: just ants. We can presume it was drawn from Wilson’s forthcoming novel on the same subject. I’ll say this for “Trailhead”: it’s daring. It treats the exciting world of insects as fiction, and runs with it. The story is also instructive: you learn quite a bit about ants, and this from a world renowned expert on these insects.

The story starts on edge, with the death of the queen ant. It then rewinds and describes how the colony was created by the queen ant. It was a struggle, and it paid off with a successful and buzzing colony that lasted decades. Then the queen ant died, and she was replaced by the winner in a struggle among a handful of pretenders to the throne. The colony is doomed to die, though, because the new queen is only producing male drones, incapable of inseminating her. A vibrant neighboring colony eventually takes over.

I said it was instructive. It is. But that’s also one of its defects as fiction. A didactic tone, not very seductive for a short story narrator, sometimes takes over: “Even with a brain one-millionth the size of a human’s, an ant can learn a simple maze half as fast as a laboratory rat, and remember the directions to as many as five different destinations when she forages away from the nest.” How can this not veer you away from the fictional world and into the world of popular science?

There are other problems. Sometimes I felt cheated by how the narrator projects things on ants that appear to be all too human. Take these examples: “[the ants] knew that something was not right, that something unnamed had settled upon them, but they did not yet realize the extent of the problem”; “Lamentation and hope were mingled among the Trailhead inhabitants.” Does it make sense to picture an insect lamenting? Hoping?

Sometimes the language seemed amiss. “Pax Formicana”? Really? And how about these amateurish metaphors? The “male was no more than a guided missile loaded with sperm, his life’s work a single ejaculation”; “The Queen was a parachutist who slipped her harness upon landing.” I had trouble digesting those.

I finished the story not enthused to read more of this sort of thing, but rather interested in reading a full-blooded scientific book on ants. Wilson has several to choose from, in fact.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hobart 10

There’s quite a few good stories in Hobart 10, which was a nice surprise, as this was my first Hobart. The contents of the volume are varied: it includes comics (all of them flimsy), short short stories (none worth commenting on, honestly), and short stories. Looked at from another angle, kudos to the staff for the publication itself, which was nice and robust, but there is some carelessness in copy editing the stories (it gets better toward the end, but some have a heavy helping of typos). Here are brief comments on each of the short stories.

Daniel Nester’s “Mooning: A Short Cultural History” is a dreadful piece that the editors must have considered funny and clever. It gathers random thoughts on mooning: lists, dictionary definitions, etcetera. They’re numbered. I found it insufferably dull.

Claire Vaye Watkins’s “Graceland” may be the best story of the bunch. It’s about a woman who copes with grief about her mother’s death by worrying immensely about the fate of the world (first sentence: “All the great land mammals are dying” [15]). The narrator has a fascinating relationship with her sister, Gwen, and has a boyfriend, Peter, who’s a scientist. In retrospect, the story seemed to emulate the confessional style, with a biological edge, of “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing” by Lydia Peelle. Despite that connection, I still enjoyed Watkins’s story very much. The tempo and the casual insights were masterfully executed.

Colleen Hollister’s “Magicians” has a young woman participate in the gargantuan, town-wide mission of moving a river. She is interested in a guy who participates in the task. Not much else was memorable.

Lori Ostlund’s “Upon Completion of Baldness” is narrated by a lesbian whose girlfriend (Felicity) leaves her after a trip to China from which Felicity returns bald (she shaved her head for money, which she later uses for down payments—a car, an apartment—that allowed her to become independent from the narrator). The narrator is supremely controlling (both of her life and of the narrative), and one can see why Felicity would get tired of this. The narrator is an English high school teacher, and there’s a brilliant scene in which her students write on the board that she’s a lesbian. When she sees what they wrote, she ignores the content of the sentence and forces them to correct it so that it’s written properly. There is pathos in how Felicity leaves the narrator. It’s not a great story, but it’s good enough.

Alicia Gifford’s “Gravitas” is surreal. A woman loses her gravity (she starts to float, literally) “as her mother takes to her deathbed” (55). This loss of gravity is narrated matter-of-factly, and the main character has to take measures to prevent floating away. The story ends after the narrator moves to Hawaii, and she has to tie herself to a turtle in order to escape from a volcano eruption. It’s a short tale, and the plot is good. It takes skill to pull off a simile like this: “Millie knows that her mother loved her, but life had worn her out and loved had become a luxury, like a solid gold pen brought out only to sign special documents” (56).

Amy L. Clark’s “Our Lady of Sabattus Street” involves a teenager in a Catholic household, in a school that’s taking measures to prevent fires. Not much dazzled me here.

JoeAnn Hart’s “Location! Location!” is about a deranged sort of character who renamed himself Adam. He lives in the woods, and is watching a dead deer rot away; it was killed by hunters. Adam wonders about all sorts of things, looking for facts (and paying way too much attention to the Farmer’s Almanac). This sense of wonder is implausibly told in present tense, crammed with facts and observations. It felt like a low-IQ version of Beckettian rambles in the Trilogy. There’s a good line: “Some people think maggots are nasty, but if there were no maggots, we would be smothered by the weight of the dead” (91).

B.J. Hollars’s “Gutted” is about a guy who didn’t go to college and gets hired to demolish a few rooms at his old high school. One of his classmates is doing the same thing. Their life unwinds apathetically, picking up high school girls and having a few drinks here and there. The character, pitiably, tries to call old classmates picked from the yearbook, but they’re always gone: in foreign lands, doing stuff. He isn’t.

Mike Young’s “Stay Awhile If You Can” is probably the longest story in the whole journal. It has a hectic, somewhat Pynchonesque pace as a mural painter who works in a card store tells the story of his deadbeat uncle (who got fired as the town’s official mural painter) and his relationship with a tiny but very willful and energetic girlfriend (they get in funny arguments all the time). The story is that: funny. It also manages to be trenchant, as the main characters find themselves in a barn that houses a group of punks (literal punks). As part of the tale’s quick pace, some nouns and adjectives are deftly verbalized, like so: “They [the punk kids] angst around town, driving an outdated police car they bought at an auction” (125); “Seamus lurches up, feebles a fist at Luke and manages to bat away the can” (138). The viewpoint needed fine-tuning; it sometimes speaks directly to the reader, a practice that is invariably difficult to handle (and not done successfully in this case).

Blake Butler’s “Smoke House” is a horror story. As an editor, I would’ve sent it back for another draft. The horror never actually unfolds, and this doesn’t seem to be a clever gnomon but rather the result of a narrator trying to be too clever while the story shivers out of his hands. A teenage boy dies in a fire, one of several that spontaneously start in a house that seems cursed after a baby girl was born. Bad things happen all the time.

And that’s the magazine. By the way, Hobart 11 is out now (or almost); it’s a themed issue, on the outdoors.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Thing with The New Yorker



I used a short break from the hustle of everyday routines to pore over a heavy pile of unread New Yorkers. Flipping through almost ten of them back to back got me thinking about the magazine itself. Besides, the time to renew my subscription is coming up, so one of the main issues here was this: Should I renew it?

I subscribed to The New Yorker almost a year ago. I celebrated it on the blog as a great literary decision. It was—you get access to wonderful stuff, in both fiction and nonfiction. There’s no doubt that TNY’s coveted fiction slot has hosted great authors and great pieces. And the nonfiction is often dazzling and thought provoking. And yet…

Someone, an editor, told me recently that she abandoned weekly and daily publications because she felt just too guilty about not reading them properly. Magazines inevitably started to stack up. That made me realize that my own pile was not (just) a matter of my own inadequacy in fixing my schedule, but of an honest difficulty in managing the massive amount of reading material that’s available every day (from mailing lists to newspapers to magazines) while having a job and a family. Don’t forget chores, errands, and writing. I remembered that something like this also happened when I subscribed to The Economist a few years ago. I let the subscription die off because of the guilt of not reading the novella-sized magazine that sprouted in the mail every week.

So that sense of surfeit is one thing that weighs on the issue of whether to renew the subscription. There’s more. Without a doubt, each edition of TNY has very good articles. When Gawande, Gladwell, and Menand write, I turn to them at once. The “books” pieces are generally quite good, with several books on a same subject reviewed by an expert. But not all of the articles in TNY spark enough interest for me to read them through. Do I really want to negotiate an eight-page article on buying swimsuits this summer? Or four pages on wrinkle treatments? Even when I like the subject—say, the somber elephant trade—, come on, 21 crammed pages about it? (I'd rather wait for the research to improve and read a book on the subject.) What I end up doing is starring three or four articles from the table of contents when I get the magazine, and reading those.

Then there’s the problem with the fiction piece. Cliff Garstang, on the blog Perpetual Folly, writes weekly comments on TNY fiction, and some of them have become discussions about how disappointing some of the pieces have been. A bunch of novel excerpts pose as short stories, and I get the impression that sometimes the interest in promoting a book or an author trumps the commitment to publish a powerful short story. Many of the fiction pieces are not very good. Of the ten I read over the last couple of days, I wouldn’t describe a single one as great fiction. (I’ll post a barrage of short comments on them later.)

So where does all of this leave me, in terms of the question I asked at the beginning? Difficult choice. The editor I mentioned earlier had a practical way out of this mess: buy the anthologies at the end of the year. Their editors go through the trouble of sifting through the massive haystack and finding the best of the best. That’s not a bad call. The Best American Short Stories volume generally has a fair share of TNY stories, and its readers therefore don’t have to suffer through the feebler ones carried by the magazine. Then there’s the O’Henry volume, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Nonrequired Fiction, Best American Science Writing, and a long list of titles that cover both fiction and nonfiction. Sticking to those produces an unwieldy stack of its own, but at least you’re getting what a big group of people considered superlative. That’s probably better for the clutter at home, for the environment, for the guilt of not being able to wade through each new issue on time.

And what about TNY itself? If everyone turned to anthologies, the magazine would go under. Sure, that’s painting an unnecessarily dire portrait. At 85, the magazine is hale enough to survive even the current economic crisis. But they could come up with good ways to accommodate different kinds of readers. An online subscription helps with the clutter and the environment, but you’re still stuck with the guilt of a deluge of reading material.

I would readily accept a middle way: charge me a modest fee for every article I read—25 or 50 cents a pop, for instance. Plus, give me access to it for a year, along with the chance to save it and print it. That way, I can choose what I’ll have access to. Some people turn to Perpetual Folly for an assessment of a story before reading it on TNY, so if a story does pique your interest (if it’s not a bland novel excerpt, for instance), then you’ll pay a quarter or two for it. You can even keep an open tab with your credit card. This may even make TNY editors more self-conscious about the fiction they publish: is this good enough for readers to pay for it on its own? I know, this makes it sound too simple, and the whole publishing industry is coming to grips with the effect of free Internet access. But I for one would go for this kind of deal.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Same old?

Is it just me? Why do I get the impression that almost every short story I read nowadays boils down to something like this?

So I was walking around town the other day, doing what I generally do, when this quirky little thing happened. I know, I know, not a big deal, but it’s complex and symbolic deep down, when you come to think of it, especially when you come to think of something like that happening to someone like me, with that warped personal history of mine (let me hint at it now). But, hell, that’s life, it’s so confusing and it goes on, and everything else will just continue pretty much the same way it was.

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I’ve been reading a bunch of stories lately, but I haven’t brought myself to write about them because none has sparked enough interest to do so. I preferred not to write half-hearted comments, like I did a couple times earlier in the year (although last month I did share some discontent here and there). The one story of the recent crop that probably intrigued me the most came out in One Story 132: Molly Antopol’s “The Quietest Man.” There were some flaws, sure, but it was a good, solid story.

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UPDATE (April 14): Here is Katharine Coles (“Short Fiction,” in Teaching Creative Writing, Ed. Graeme Harper [2006]), in an article I read a couple days after this post:
“The now ubiquitous ‘workshop story’, competent but uncompelling, arises, our critics tell us, not in spite of but because of our labours: our workshops create and enforce conformity, channelling students into predictable avenues and preventing them from achieving the heights they might, without our meddling, achieve. ‘Workshop stories’ infest literary journals and first books […]” (8).
Coles later says she does believe workshop stories have become too conventional, but that workshops are not altogether a bad thing: they don’t stifle truly talented authors, and they push some students into the realm of competence or beyond (11).
On another note, I forgot to mention I had complained about story molds before on the blog, as I did here (in Spanish, and in passing).