The Work of Art

By James Bennet

Almost four years ago, in The New York Times Book Review, a celebrated writer lamented the decline in the publication of short stories, and with it, a decline in the quality of the short story itself. Too many of the stories that still threaded the needle to publication, he wrote, felt “not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless.” They seemed “show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers.”

We found that writer hard to ignore, in part because he kicked us in the teeth. (“No need to check out The Atlantic Monthly; its editors now settle for publishing their own selections of fiction once a year in a special issue and criticizing everyone else’s the rest of the time. Jokes about eunuchs in the bordello come to mind, but I will suppress them.” Thanks!)

We also found him hard to ignore because he was Stephen King, and we thought he knew something about entertaining readers rather than merely furrowing the brows of a writers’ group. We are very happy to have original fiction by Stephen King in this issue, for which we’ve assembled short stories, interviews, and images that not only are entertaining in themselves, we hope, but also, together, tell a story about the capricious, improvisational, intensely disciplined process of cultural creation itself.

King’s short story, for example, originated with a bet he lost to his son Owen over the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The loser had to write a story to fit a title invented by the winner. Stephen King, being Stephen King, set out to write “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” as a funny story set in a mental hospital. But then a fatal motorcycle accident near his home in Maine sent him off into darker territory.

Mary Morris also had her title, “The Cross Word,” before she had her tale, but before that she had the idea of writing a short story in the form of a puzzle. She says she had found that puzzles, like stories, helped order her thinking, and it struck her that fitted together, a story and a puzzle’s clues could frame a single narrative.

Alongside these short stories, we have assembled a selection of cultural artifacts to explore other ways that artists and designers create. There’s not a lot of talk here about divine inspiration, or muses of one sort or another. These people hunt for ideas in many places—in paintings, in dreams, in music—but nothing springs, fully formed, from a fevered imagination. Frank Gehry starts out by wondering about, among other things, parking. As he’s composing, Paul Simon will set down his guitar to scribble first thoughts that may amount only to clichés. And then all of them, with their first drafts before them, begin to erase, to revise, to solve problems. How do you invent a surprising, devious cartoon villain? Make him a peacock. But how do you make a peacock intimidating? Give him red eyes, and Gary Oldman’s voice.

This special issue is our first attempt to annually devote a magazine to telling stories, through fact and fiction, about culture. Rest assured, Stephen King, that it will not be the only issue this year in which we publish short stories—provided, of course, we can find more entertaining, interesting, gloriously open tales.

We hope you’ve valued, in the past couple of years, our return to The Atlantic’s tradition of broad engagement with our culture, moving forward in the magazine from our books coverage through our feature stories to James Parker’s Entertainment column. (You can also find cultural coverage every day on our Web site.) The Atlantic began as a magazine of “Literature, Art, and Politics,” and we have no intention of losing touch with the first categories, despite the contemporary maelstrom stirred up by the third.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/05/the-work-of-art/308452/