Fiction Matters

Among the many remarkable facts about The Atlantic’s 152-year history of publishing fiction, here is one of the least noted but most notable: for the last third of that time, one man has been primarily responsible for stewarding the magazine’s literary tradition. Since joining The Atlantic as an editor in the early 1960s, C. Michael Curtis has been more heavily involved than anyone in sifting through the (by conservative estimation) half a million stories submitted to us during that time to select the tiny percentage that we publish. The stories he has chosen have won hundreds of awards and been widely anthologized, and the authors he has discovered constitute a veritable Who’s Who in American Fiction of the past half century. To cite just a single early example: in 1965, reading through the formidable pile of unsolicited stories sent to The Atlantic, Curtis came across one by a young woman who had recently graduated from Syracuse University. The story, “In the Region of Ice,” went on to win an O. Henry Prize, and the author went on to become America’s most prolific literary writer of the 20th century. The Atlantic has since published eight more of Joyce Carol Oates’s stories.

This year, the magazine considered some 5,000 stories for publication. “I looked for stories with narrative ambition, complex characters, and imaginative use of language, the familiar staples of good storytelling,” Curtis says. “I prefer, on the whole, stories that present readers with situations requiring resolution, inviting moral choice, finding ambiguity in life experiences we are tempted to simplify. I resist looking for ‘an Atlantic story,’ fearing formulas that might turn us away from eye-opening experimentation or stylistic breakthroughs.” The stories collected in the 2009 Fiction issue, Curtis says, “explore classic themes embedded in unexpected or topical contexts. They involve characters who must choose between integrity of the heart and integrity of conscience. The stakes for the protagonist in each story are substantial, and the most honorable outcomes aren’t always the most welcome.”

What does Curtis think about the state of fiction today? “Measured by the number and quality of stories we consider for publication each year, it’s as strong as ever,” he says. “If measured by consistency of technique or narrative intention, the ‘state of fiction’ is very much in flux. No single view of the short-story form has won a critical consensus. Exceptionalism rules the day, and a writer of short stories can do pretty much what he or she pleases without fear of critical repudiation. And while this is good news for experimentalists, it leaves critics and readers with only the vaguest standard for ‘excellence’ or even competence.”

That The Atlantic has continued to publish a special fiction issue each year despite a challenging economic environment for print publications reflects not only our belief that a large audience remains hungry for short stories but also our conviction that imaginative literature matters. And the issue you are holding in your hands, or are reading on your computer monitor, is an early fruit of our new partnership with an organization that shares our convictions. Luminato, the Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity, has for the past three years presented an annual celebration on the streets and stages of Toronto that brings together artists and audiences from all over the world, showcasing theater, dance, music, film, visual arts, and literature. In establishing this partnership, The Atlantic and Luminato are staking out a joint commitment to promoting and investing in the literary arts, reaching beyond the pages of the magazine to the festival itself, where The Atlantic will be working with Luminato’s curators to design literary programming that entertains, enlightens, and provokes. In this inaugural year of the partnership, the Luminato festival includes an Atlantic panel discussion on the subject “Why Fiction Matters,” featuring Michael Curtis and some of the contributors to this issue. For 2010, we have even larger ambitions: essays and panels on the fate of fiction in the age of the Kindle.

Atlantic fiction in the 1970s was far more adventurous than it had been in the 1950s and ’60s,” Curtis says. “And while the stories we publish in the 2000s hold to many of the traditional values we seek in fiction, each new historical watershed brings with it new or updated settings.” We look forward to bringing you the best of whatever the 2010s may hold.