In 1858, a year after the founding of The Atlantic, 26-year-old Louisa May Alcott’s literary confidence was growing. “I even think of trying the ‘Atlantic,’” she wrote in her journal. “There’s ambition for you!” The magazine “of Literature, Art, and Politics” had staked out an enthusiastic commitment to publishing fiction: Four stories—one of them by Harriet Beecher Stowe—appeared in the first issue. In a rapidly expanding magazine market, The Atlantic was soon a major force in shaping the American literary canon. (And, yes, Alcott did try The Atlantic, and succeeded.)
Now we’re setting out to publish fiction with far greater frequency than we’ve managed in the past decade, starting today with “Birdie,” a new story by Lauren Groff.
Contemplative reading might be viewed as a minor act of rebellion in the internet age. At a time when every available surface is saturated in information, it sometimes seems as though facts are absorbed osmotically, even accidentally, just by moving through space and time. And although the internet is not the perfect opposite of the novel, as some people have argued, it makes fairly efficient work of splintering attention and devouring time. Literary reading—of fiction and of poetry, the kind of reading that commands moral and emotional reflection—is far too easily set aside.
In addition to the several short stories that appear in the print magazine each year, we’ve decided to create a new destination for those who seek the intellectual nourishment that fiction provides. Alice Munro, famous for her nonlinear approach to storytelling, used a metaphor I’d like to borrow: A story is not a path you traverse, but a large house to explore. After you inhabit a story for a while, and you peer through the windows of that house, as Munro put it, the world outside looks different. This is a way of seeing that we strive to cultivate through the regular publication of original fiction.
The thinning of print magazines this century has often meant a culling of fiction. There has sometimes been a vague sense that rapid technological change would push people toward nonfiction instead; that concrete facts might be valued over imaginative exploration and existential truth.
We still need stories, and fiction specifically—storytelling is a defining characteristic that makes us human. In addition to Alcott’s work, The Atlantic has published stories by Mark Twain, Henry James, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jack London, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, Roald Dahl, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Joseph Heller, Kate Chopin, Kurt Vonnegut, Chinua Achebe, Lorrie Moore, Philip Roth, Louise Erdrich, Eudora Welty, John Updike, Richard Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Jay McInerney, Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, Sue Miller, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, Cristina Henríquez, Walter Mosley, Lysley Tenorio, E. C. Osondu, Akhil Sharma, and numerous others alongside our journalism for more than 162 years.
Fourteen years ago, the magazine published “L. DeBard and Aliette,” a short story by a then-unknown writer named Lauren Groff. C. Michael Curtis, who first started editing fiction for The Atlantic in 1963 and who has become a literary legend in his own right, accepted and edited the story. Groff went on to write Fates and Furies, Florida, and other works to great critical acclaim. She has since won the Paul Bowles Prize for Fiction, the Medici Book Club Prize, the PEN/O. Henry Award, and the Pushcart Prize. (You can read this Q&A with Groff about her writing, also published today.)
I’ll leave you with reflections she shared with me about what the appearance of that long-ago story—which you really should read—meant to her as a writer, then and now:
When C. Michael Curtis pulled my short story “L. DeBard and Aliette” from the slush pile in 2005, I was in my first semester in graduate school at Madison. In the years since I’d graduated from college, I’d been a bartender and administrative assistant and had worked my brain and fingers raw, trying and mostly failing to write well on my own. In that time, I finished three and a half apprentice novels and countless short stories, none of which was very good. Finally, with the story that The Atlantic took, I had at last written a story that was not only good enough but good enough for Curtis’s sharp eye and exacting standards.
When the story was published in 2006, it would be one of my first pieces in a magazine, and would later be selected for The Best American Short Stories. My agent contacted me after he read it and we fell into our long and affectionate relationship; not long afterward, he sold my first novel. My entire life as a writer unfolded from that moment of acceptance from C. Michael Curtis and The Atlantic, and the sheer luck of that snip in time feels holy to me. I’m over the moon that The Atlantic is renewing its centuries-old commitment to fiction: I am thrilled that we will be discovering more new voices with The Atlantic’s guidance and under its aegis. In times as dark and fearsome as these, it’s not enough to be gardeners of the intellect; we also need to be caring for our souls through art that challenges us and shows us beauty.