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See an index of fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


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May 26, 1999

Introducing Unbound Fiction

This week, with the publication of Alex Keegan's "Meredith Toop Evans & His Butty, Ernie the Egg," Atlantic Unbound launches Unbound Fiction -- that is, short fiction published exclusively here on The Atlantic Monthly's Web site. As Atlantic Unbound's fiction editor, I've been asked to offer a few words of introduction -- and perhaps some insight into the thinking that lies behind this new feature.

Most of us have at least one favorite story. I have several -- by García Márquez, Borges, Lorrie Moore, David Leavitt -- but if I had to pick, I'd pick two very different stories: "Pygmalion," by John Updike, and "Experiment," by Julian Barnes. I read "Pygmalion" for the first time fifteen years ago, while sifting through my family's "library." Something about coming across a story on one's own, discovering it in a pile of books and papers like a sleuth, will often endear it to its reader for life. My reaction to it went something like, "What's this?" followed by "Aha."

I was too young when I read "Pygmalion" to understand that stories can be classified like birds or flowers or computers, as subspecies of a larger genus, but I recognized that it was different from other stories I'd read. "Pygmalion" is what is known as a short short. In just a page, Updike manages to tell an entire story, a feat achieved in large part, no doubt, by a single word: the title. It's as though someone has slipped us the key piece of a puzzle up front, allowing us to read Updike's version of the Pygmalion myth through a ready-made scope. The collapsing of one frame of reference on top of another is an easy way for Updike to convey more in the span of a page than he would have been able to accomplish otherwise.

Years later, while trying to spend leftover francs in the Orly airport before leaving France, I bought a collection of stories by Julian Barnes, which included a story called "Experiment." It begins, "His story didn't always begin in the same way," and follows with a series of puns on French words. Like "Pygmalion," we're immediately clued into what the story is about. In this case, it's perception. The narrator's uncle recounts, for the umpteenth time, a variation on the story of his life: how he spent a few days with the Surrealist group in Paris during the 1930s, becoming a footnote in a heavily annotated study after succumbing to an intellectual challenge and participating in one of their wacky experiments. For the reader "Experiment" is a clever exercise in layers.

Despite the playfulness of their authors, both "Pygmalion" and "Experiment" are quite traditional stories: they have a definitive beginning, middle, and end, and, most importantly, in each one something happens. On the other hand, as a short short and an exercise, they fit comfortably into different categories. Unbound Fiction will embrace such stories, not because they fit or don't fit into a mold, but because as illustrations of form they succeed.

If I were to say Unbound Fiction will consist of X, every reader would approach the stories with an idea of what they should or should not be. That Unbound Fiction will be short is inevitable -- readers of work published on the Internet seem to prefer brevity -- but it will not purport to be classifiable. These stories experiment with style and language, blend poetry and prose. They will include skinnies, blasters, parodies, sketches, and, now and then, a regular, albeit shortish, story. Think of Unbound Fiction as a forum -- and a celebration of form.

Go to the short story by Alex Keegan.


Join a conversation on fiction in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

See an index of fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Katherine Guckenberger is a staff editor of The Atlantic Monthly and the fiction editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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