The 2005 Fiction Issue

An introduction

"Something has gone wrong of late with short-story writers. Something has happened to them; and what that something is, still more why it is, are worth considering, short stories being now, as they have long been, the most widely consumed single item on the American literary menu."

These sentiments, jaw-breaking syntax aside, were not wrestled from the pages of a rebellious quarterly or from a mischievous Web site. They appeared in the June 1941 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in an essay titled "The American Short Story."

The author, Edith Mirrielees, supported her indictment with a number of familiar charges: "slatternliness in the use of words, slapdashness in the shaping of sentences ... stories infected by the implausible, the unprepared for, the contradictory"; no gift for humor, a shortage of gusto, and the absence of substance.

Mirrielees's most surprising charge, however, was that the principal culprits were editors who, in a mad rush to publish short fiction, increasingly took on work of little merit. The writers who profited from this market bonanza were "highly paid and highly touted." "Grown rich, grown oracular," they were "everywhere in evidence."

Sixty-four years later some writers are no doubt overpaid, though they might well ask, "compared with whom?" And are not their riches, after all, a modest percentage of what readers pay to buy their books? Where, then, is the problem? And if bad writers are becoming prosperous while better writers starve, can the fault be held to lie with editors paralyzed by market pressures?

In the world of the short story the answer is surely no; but much has changed since 1941. Only a handful of popular magazines pay more than a few dollars for fiction, and many quarterlies or other "little" magazines offer only a free copy or two. Hardly any writer, surely, writes short stories as a means to great wealth. Yet the form flourishes; never before in history have so many short-story collections been in print. Magazines of one sort or another publish more stories each year than ever before. The editors of at least a few of the quarterlies are being paid a living wage, and at least a few edit full-time. Fueling this industry are more than 300 graduate writing programs (did any exist in 1941? more than one or two?) that provide instruction in the craft of the short story and often employ writers who could not survive if their income came only from the work they most value.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "How Did Your Life Turn Out?" (November 25, 1998)
An interview with Ethan Canin, who believes the only story worth writing is the history of a human being.

Interviews: "Bringing Life to Life" (December 14, 2001)
A conversation with Alice Munro, whose stories are fueled by her fascination with the way people portray their own lives.

Possibly this says less about the vibrancy of the written word than about an economy productive enough to absorb the loss from the work force of a few thousand writers-in-training. The industry has, of course, produced brilliant successes—writers whose mastery of the form has brought them respect, popularity, and even relative prosperity (Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Ethan Canin, and Grace Paley come to mind) though none of them has ever written a novel.

In the face of all this productivity a question remains: How good is the work being published in the several hundred periodicals that regularly offer fiction to their readers? One reply will be: How do we judge? The form has proved so elastic that even experienced and discerning critics have a hard time deciding what a story is or ought to be—and thus on what basis to decide whether it is successful. With uncertainty about form has come a suspension of familiar ground rules. Is "realism" what is real? Or is it the effect of what is real in a world of magical happenings? Do characters have to be people? Why not imagine that the walls are speaking to us—or unborn infants, or oceangoing rafts, or perhaps a prickly armoire? Sensibilities, after all, are everywhere.

Presented by

C. Michael Curtis is The Atlantic's fiction editor. More

C. Michael Curtis"Writers crave the intelligence and ardor of this magazine's editors and readership as well as the privilege of inclusion in its pages," says best-selling author Louise Erdrich, who, like so many young fiction writers, was introduced to national readership and subsequent success in The Atlantic Monthly.

Under the direction of senior editor C. Michael Curtis, The Atlantic Monthly's fiction has been nominated for a National Magazine Award virtually every year; in 1988 The Atlantic won this prestigious prize. Year after year short stories from the magazine are chosen for inclusion in the important annual prize collections. Curtis himself was the editor of American Stories: Fiction From The Atlantic Monthly, which was published in 1990. A second volume came out the following year, and 1992 saw the publication of Contemporary New England Stories. A companion volume, Contemporary West Coast Stories, was published in the fall of 1993. A fifth collection, entitled God: Stories, was published in December, 1998, by Houghton Mifflin, and a companion anthology, Faith: Stories, was published in 2003, also by Houghton Mifflin. His own essays, articles, reviews, and poems have been published in The Atlantic, The New Republic, National Review, and Sport, among other periodicals. Curtis is also renowned for his teaching: he has taught creative writing, ethics, grammar, and other subjects for more than thirty years at Harvard, MIT, Cornell, Tufts, Boston University, Bennington, and elsewhere, and now teaches writing at Wofford College, in Spartanburg, SC, where he occupies the John C. Cobb Chair in the Humanities.

Curtis earned a B.A. in English from Cornell in 1956. He came to The Atlantic in 1963 after four years of study toward a Ph.D. in government, also at Cornell. Previously he had worked as a reporter for The Ithaca Journal, and as an editorial assistant at Newsweek. While he was a graduate student, The Atlantic Monthly published three of his poems and employed him briefly as a summer reader.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In