"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.
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.
The traditional formulation—beginning, middle, and end—can hardly be said aloud to modern readers who have been trained to cherish the unresolved middle. Why worry about what is to come, after all, when we have yet to discover precisely what is?
Why tell stories in the first place? We do it, in fact, just about every day of our lives. That is, we share an observation or report a series of events, linking them as we go, and usually, if we're sufficiently aware, report the consequence of those events. Sometimes we don't know the consequence, or even why the matters reported seem so memorable. In time we may learn, or decide we know, the answer. Or we spend a lifetime trying to understand the linkage between experienced or observed (perhaps even imagined) events and the feelings or actions they have provoked. Without conscious effort we identify characters, lead them toward moments of discovery or transformation, haul in enough back story to suggest why A leads to B leads to C. And then, either directly or with what we hope will seem subtle indirection, we hint at larger meaning—moral, aesthetic, perhaps behavioral.
All this we do without thinking, and when we're satisfied that the pieces fit together, we call it a story. If our literary gifts are up to it (that is, if we're particularly good at making characters come alive, or their language seems particularly distinctive—or if our odd angle of vision seems unusually penetrating or artful) an editor may decide it's a publishable story.
Our habit, however, is to tell stories because we've uncovered, and want to share, something truthful and revealing about our or others' lives. Some writers interpret for us, and experienced readers tend to lose interest. Other writers, with a limited grasp of what is real, try to engage us with reductive fantasies, or language intended to shock us into attention. Some writers like to emphasize the everydayness of things, believing that by sheer accretion of detail they can hold us captive while we struggle to find connections and meaning.
The Atlantic likes stories in which something happens—in which, when a character brings a gun into the room, he or she means to fire it. We prefer the dynamic to the static (that is, stories with forward movement and built-in tension, rather than stories meant to contemplate character or milieu). We admire stories with moral weight, about characters deciding "how to be" in a world of complicated and potentially punishing choices.
In this first ever all-literary issue of The Atlantic the menu includes eight stories; essays by three writers of time-tested—or very recent — distinction; more poetry than the magazine has published in a single issue for many years; and snippets from earlier Atlantic essays touching on literary matters.
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