Posts from July 2009

July 22nd, 2009

In the Penny Press! The 2009 Atlantic Fiction Issue!

The annual Atlantic Fiction Issue is here, and the bullshit starts before you even turn to Page 1.

Right there on the cover of this special issue dedicated, according to the opening statement by the Editors, to the contention that “imaginative literature matters,” there’s a drawing of man standing by a fireside reading his Kindle. His bookshelves are empty, and strewn about the floor are tattered books, albums, toys – and actually in the fire? Books! The message artist Istvan Banyai might have intended? That the love of literature – and the absorption in it – goes on, despite changes in the ‘delivery device’ (this on the day that Barnes & Noble rolled out its e-reading feature). The message any actual reader is going to receive? That books are garbage, impediments on the Path to Cool. A bald, epicene guy who can toss Gogol onto the floor the minute he gets a new toy will be deleting Gogol before sunrise. But the whole image looks cool, so who cares, right?

Presumably The Atlantic would care, since a) they’ve been publishing great fiction for a century and a half, and b) they re-affirm their commitment to doing just that, in the aforementioned Editors’ Note. Except that Editors’ Note suffers from the same disease infecting both retail bookstores and the publishing world as a whole: business-speak bullshit. In the past, it was possible for normal people to ignore the pathological, wall-to-wall lying and assholery of business-speak bullshit, because it was confined to the business world. If you didn’t occupy a cubicle at Lomax, Wellman & Turner, you never came in contact with ‘effort’ as a verb or the title “Chief Wisdom Officer” said in earnest.

But since the business world has taken over both retail bookstores (where nowadays a long-time employee wanting to go into the stockroom on his day off, perhaps to deliver documents to a friend, or collect some, can be smilingly barred by a manager and told “it’s a loss prevention issue” – where the exact same manager would find it utterly unthinkable to say “I’m afraid you’ll steal something”)(and this state of affairs has grown so entrenched, so accepted, that the long-time employee is expected to react differently than if he’d heard the latter, even though the latter is exactly what the manager was actually saying) and publishing, business-speak bullshit has crept into virtually every nook and cranny of public intellectualism’s world. Including The Atlantic and its reprehensible Editors’ Note, where we’re told:

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 …

As with all business-speak bullshit, this passage requires actual translation into English. And the translation here is so depressing it’s almost more merciful not to do it.

First, there’s the bullshit red herring of that invocation of “challenging economic environment for print publications.” If you browse the magazine section of your local Barnes & Noble, you’ll find full-color glossy magazines devoted to hand-stamping, crappy old boats, plastic superhero modeling kits, the TV show “Smallville,” and parakeets – among many other topics that could only be called “of limited general interest.” All these magazines come out every month despite the current challenging economic environment, and many of them put out special issues. They’re able to do this because they shill really well for advertising, which brings us to the second part of that business-speak bullshit Editors’ Note, the part about the spiritual marriage with Luminato. Luminato cares nothing whatsoever about books or literature, much less the current state of the American short story – and The Atlantic knows that. What both these champions of imaginative literature care about is money. What The Atlantic said was, “we hate publishing fiction – we removed it from our monthly issues, back when we had monthly issues, but our crap-ass readers still want to see it, so we have to produce this annual issue … but we’d really rather not waste money on it.” And what Luminato said was, “We don’t care about your fiction either, but we’ll underwrite your issue if you fill it with Canadian tourism ads.”

And voila! For its 2009 Fiction Issue, The Atlantic welcomes you to Montreal! Bienvenue!

But as irritating as all that is, it’s not the most irritating part of this Editors’ Note. No, that’s reserved for the paragraphs devoted to C. Michael Curtis, the magazine’s long-time story editor, who estimates the magazine considered some 5,000 stories for publication in this special issue – and who quite predictably bloviates on what he looks for in such stories:

I looked for stories with narrative ambition, complex characters, and imaginative use of language, the familiar staples of good storytelling. I prefer, on the whole, stories that present readers with situations requiring resolution, inviting moral choices, 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.

In just a moment, we’ll see whether or not Curtis found what he was looking for in the seven stories he chose, but first we should hear his answer when asked about the state of short fiction today:

Measured by the number and quality of stories we consider for publication each year, it’s as strong as ever. 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.

Again with the business-speak bullshit, only this time it’s truly appalling: the guy who chooses the short stories that go into The Atlantic Fiction Issue is openly admitting that he (as a reader and presumably as a critic) doesn’t have any idea what the hell constitutes even basic competence in the form anymore. Great. That should make for a grand issue.

But before Curtis even gets to apply his sketchy knowledge of what constitutes good short fiction, we get three essays – three occasional pieces taking up space that could otherwise have gone to three other short stories from those 5000 candidates. This would be well-nigh intolerable even if the essays were good, but they’re not. They’re gawd-awful.

And one of them isn’t even an essay – it’s a collection of mini-responses to a question The Atlantic (and Luminato, don’t forget) sent around to various authors, a question about whether or not in this day and age “a national literature” is still a concept with any validity. First up is Margaret Atwood (a Canadian, surprise surprise), who finishes up her wandering, idiotic response with a little dollop of sophistry:

“Do you identify as a woman, or as a writer?” I’ve been asked. “A North American? A Torontonian? An environmentalist? A poet, or a novelist?” As if we were so divisible.

“All, all,” I say. And so much more besides.

Joseph O’Neill, author of the hideously overpraised novel Netherland, opts for bald-faced lying:

Writers, in order to produce something truly worthwhile, must be ruled only by their deepest impulses, which can come from anywhere and lead in a million valuable directions.

And while we’re re-calibrating from an author telling us his deepest impulses prompted him to write a cricket/9-11 novel, Monica Ali adds insult to injury by praising not only Netherland but Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge, which a considerably higher authority on fiction than she is roundly dinged to the rubbish heap. The quartet closes with comments by Anne Michaels, and by the time you’re realizing she’s Canadian, you’re realizing what I realized at about this point: The Atlantic has sold its artistic integrity. To Canada, of all goddam places.

Alice Sebold writes an insufferably self-absorbed piece about how she’s come to value those little gold stickers on book covers denoting the winning of some kind of literary prize. She starts off disdaining literary prizes (as an exercise in self-praise that’s meant at once to seem like self-mockery and also to be obvious as self-praise, her opening anecdote could scarcely be improved upon), then gets picked to judge one and has a change of heart. It’s sickening, but it’s not the most sickening of the three essays.

That distinction goes to the talented novelist Tim O’Brien, who, when sought out to write a piece about writing, opts to tell a story about how his sons Timmy and Tad have lately taken to wearing tails everywhere – I’m not kidding: this guy, this talented writer, actually builds a whole essay on the homynimity of ‘tail’ and ‘tale.’ Because in his aw-shucks, unassuming way, those kids’ tails not only get him thinking about tales, they get him talking about them to his boys, in invented kids-speak as bad as anything since Louisa May Alcott, if not Euripides:

“Pretending can be a good thing,” I told the boys at bedtime, “but sometimes it can get you in trouble. It can be dangerous.”

Tad had already drifted off, but Timmy looked up at me with suspicion. “Is this one of your silly stories?”

“Not silly at all,” I said, and then I launched into a hastily-improvised tale about a little boy who couldn’t stop pretending – always talking to a make-believe dog, eating make-believe pancakes. After a while, I said, the little boy couldn’t separate what was real from what wasn’t. it landed him in all kinds of trouble.

“But I thought make-believe was supposed to be fun,” Timmy said.

“Yes, of course it is,” I told him, and then a crucial question occurred to me. “Do you know what pretending is?”

Again, the levels on which this piece of tripe is self-serving, the depth of its buried, shifty egotism, is simply staggering. “Silly stories!” the anecdote is meant to elicit, in shocked cries from cozy rooms of adoring graduate students. “Oh, if only those kids knew the Sage sitting there by their bedside, offering to tell them a story! Would they have called Homer silly? Defoe? Carver? Oh, how I wish the Sage would tuck me in! Then as soon as he left the room, I could take out my Blackberry and scribble notes!”

Considering the fact that these makeweight essays shouldn’t be here at all in an issue that had 5000 people clamoring for a spot, you’d hope you could turn to the actual fiction in the Fiction Issue for relief. Shall we?

Take for instance the story “Least Resistance” by Wayne Harrison. It’s about young car mechanic Justin, who worships legendary engine man and jump starter, Nick Campbell, learns his craft from him, and sleeps with his wife when Nick’s away. Or the – whatever it is – by Paul Theroux, called “Voices of Love” and consisting, as far as I can tell, of transcriptions of interviews Theroux did with various people about various love affairs they’ve had. Each of the fourteen segments is simply five or six paragraphs of utterly unadorned first person narration (the piece is not a short story in any definition of the term, and “experimentalism” by damned). Here’s Curtis’ imaginative use of language:

Years ago, I was a waiter in Provincetown. My life changed when I met Ken and we moved to the far north of Vermont. People in the village accepted us as a gay couple. Twenty happy years passed. Ken died suddenly of heart failure. I spent two years being lonely. Then I decided to go back to Provincetown, just to see.

Real edge-of-your-seat stuff! “The butch gays had muscles. The lesbians looked pretty to me. I was happy, but those years in Vermont had made me an unsocial type. I am shy in large groups. And I don’t drink alcohol.” Quick! Give me more of this!

(In ten out of the fourteen segments, somebody sleeps with somebody else’s spouse)

From Rick Bass I, at least, expect more – but I don’t get it, at least not in this issue. His short story, “Fish Story,” is about a boy who’s given by his father the melancholy task of keeping a hose running on the enormous catfish that’s just been caught, to keep it alive until the dinner festival can be assembled at which it’ll be killed and eaten. As the boy keeps sluicing the fish, his thoughts start to wander:

Do you ever think that those days were different- that we had more time for such thoughts, that time had not yet been corrupted? I am speaking less of childhood than of the general nature of the world we are living in. If you are the age I am now – mid-50s – then maybe you know what I mean.

And if you’re not – or even if you are but have no idea what the Hell point Bass is trying to make about the world we are living in, well, the hell with you. You’ll take your unabashed authorial interruption in obedient silence, as generations of grad students have done before you.

In “PS” Jill McCorkle turns in the worst of the issue’s short stories, a tale told as a letter a disgruntled woman writes to her marriage counselor, whose name is Dr. Love – which causes McCorkle to have her character indulge in a gruesomely pro forma meditation on the coincidence that somebody in marriage counseling would have the name Dr. Love (it’s not quite as bad as ‘tail/tale,’ but it’s close). The woman confessed to Dr. Love that she once “fucked the plumber” – then reveals that her confession was fake, and that she felt insulted that he believed it. “I may be a lot of things but cliche is not one of them.” You can draw your own conclusions about that.

“Furlough” is Alexi Zentner (a Canadian)’s story about high school teacher Henry, who sleeps with his wife’s sister while she (the wife, not the sister) is deployed in Iraq. The story’s actually fairly competently told – Zentner most certainly has some talent, especially for the way people actually talk to each other (not a hint of “but I thought make-believe was s’posed to be fun” to be found). But his story is about marital infidelity.

More than two thirds of the fucking stories in this fucking issue are about marital infidelity.

5000 potential picks, an editor looking for, what was it, narrative ambition, and somebody fucks with somebody’s wife/husband in virtually every story. A bored, texting teenager, putting in one hour as this disgrace’s ombudsman, would have spotted this and, like whatever, corrected it. But The Atlantic, formerly The Atlantic Monthly, formerly the most prestigious literary arts magazine in American history, either doesn’t catch it or wants us to believe this represents the very best stuff in that 5000-deep pile?

There are two short stories in this Fiction Issue that are actually good, actually worth your time. One if by Kent Nelson (no sniggering from you comic book fans about how he was fated to be one of the two) called “Alba” about Ultimo Vargas, a hard-working and virtuous immigrant from Mexico who perseveres through industry and hope, always with the goal of making something of himself. Nelson’s descriptions are often memorable, and although his straightforward narrative is as far away from a ‘stylistic breakthrough’ as you could get, the story is still involving, and its ending will make you smile a little.

And the other good story – a really good story, by a wide margin the best thing in this, the 2009 Fiction Issue of The Atlantic, is “The Laugh” by Tea Obreht. If that name seems familiar to some of you, it’s because when the New Yorker put out a Fiction Issue a few months ago, a short story by this same Tea Obreht was by a wide margin the best thing in that issue too. For those of you who may be wondering, I have no personal connection with Obreht at all – she’s not related to me, she’s never been a student of mine, and we’ve never had marital infidelity together (two out of three of those things just happen to be true about another writer in this Atlantic issue, but that’s a story for another time) – no, the only connection we share is the only one that should matter in this topic: she write stories, and I read them.

She writes really, really good stories. Her New Yorker piece, “The Tiger’s Wife,” was superb, and her current Atlantic piece, “The Laugh,” is equally superb and in some ways similar (she has a flair for writing about humans and wild animals interacting). The proprietor of an African safari business has recently lost his wife in a horrific incident that’s gradually, masterfully revealed in the course of the story (the story itself is put together with the precision of a Swiss watch – this must have baffled Curtis and his hazy-wazy standards of what constitutes competence), and the loss has partially unhinged him. Witness to that unhinging is the proprietor’s best friend, who briefly almost pursued an affair with the woman on the day of her death. In what a cynical soul could see as deeper gesture, the wife rejects that plot, as it were, although the grieving husband has his suspicions – which are conveyed to the reader with subtle, intelligent implication, rather than overt declarations. Lurking in the back of the story, its inhuman Greek chorus, is a group of hyena, with their aggressive Pleistocene faces and their weird ways and most of all their laugh:

What he noticed most was not the eyes or the hunch-backed lope, not even the smell: it was the sound they made, that whining yelp, like a child’s voice rising. It was the laugh that made his stomach turn, and they laughed all the time, every night they were there, as if they knew their laugh made him wonder, made him want to come outside to them in the dark, or, otherwise, put a gun in his mouth. Whenever he heard it he remembered those stories Roland had told him about ancient travelers huddling in their camps while the wailing night rose around them, until they folded to the sound and drifted from the fire, one by one, into the rage of the stilling gaze.

There’s a lot going on in a paragraph like that, and all if it would be impressive in a writer three times Obreht’s age (she’s very young, but at least not Canadian). “The Laugh” and “The Tiger’s Wife” make me immoderately eager to read her short story collection when it’s finally published. Although after that point, I shudder to think what everybody’s annual Fiction Issues will do for quality work.

But then, The Atlantic could have published a 2009 Fiction Issue that was full of work as good as this. For starters, this issue could have had ten short stories instead of seven, but the problem goes a lot deeper than that. Business-speak bullshit aside (“every effort was made to” etc), it’s impossible not to damn The Atlantic out of hand for the fact that the first issue in which they publish not one, not two, but three pieces by Canadians is also the first issue where they’re receiving a truckload of advertising money from the Canadian Arts Council. This immediately and incontrovertibly brands every Atlantic editor a whore, and it makes trusting them in matters of literary judgement absolutely impossible. You can’t be believed when you talk about choosing seven stories out of 5000 on the basis of literary merit if you’re seen in broad daylight fulfilling a goddam quota.

All of this is deplorable, and we can only hope this is as low as it goes. If The Atlantic had the courage of its former convictions, if it still cared about carrying such an august name in American letters, it would use this wretched showing of an issue as a kind of AA wake-up call, take a fearless moral inventory of the many and grievous ways it’s failed the art of writing in the last five years, and immediately proceed to make amends. Here’s a starting list:

1. Abolish the Fiction Issue and resume publishing one short story in every monthly issue. Have faith that your readers won’t bolt at the sight of such a thing as a short story in amongst their other subject matter. That way, twelve people out of 5000 get a shot at publication, instead of seven.

2. If you’re going to have a Fiction Issue, close it to non-American writers, no matter how famous they are. Despite the ‘cosmopolitan nature of today’s’ blah blah blah, remember your roots and do right by them once a year.

3. If you’re going to have a Fiction Issue, don’t make it a ‘newsstand only’ oddity like this one (a decision made out of fear that if regular subscribers got such a thing in the mail, they’d once again bolt to cancel their subscriptions) – include it in people’s subscriptions, on the assumption that your readers care as much as you do about “imaginative literature.”

4. Don’t blame the marketplace! Periodicals a hell of a lot more expensive than The Atlantic manage to survive in this current economic climate, and at least some of them do it by producing content readers want to pay for. Finding that material is relatively easy, provided you don’t abandon all standards and call such abandonment cool and modern. So:

5. Pick better stuff. Forget you ever said any of that nonsense about today’s short stories being so all over the map in experimentation that who can tell anymore what’s good and what’s bad. I can tell. Most of my colleagues at Open Letters can tell. It’s not that hard to tell: a good short story will tell the story of something actually happening, and the story will have a beginning, middle, and end (though they needn’t be presented to the reader in that order), and in the course of the story, something, no matter how small or fugitive or temporary, will be resolved. In other words, Raymond Carver never wrote a good short story in his life, and Eudora Welty never wrote a bad one.

Get that bored, texting teenager to help, if that’s what it takes. He’s got, like, nothing better to do.

July 16th, 2008

Fiction in the Atlantic! 2008!

In a famous recent editorial decision, the venerable Atlantic magazine stopped publishing a new short story every month. At the time, the usual blather was floated as justification, but even so, it was impossible not to read in the decision some kind of comment on the state of the American short story – either the supply of its validity or the reach of its commerce. Fans of the short story form had to look elsewhere; the Atlantic, in so many ways the founding home of the American short story, was no longer in the game.

But not quite. In a sop to the howls of outrage those fans did not, in fact, raise, the Atlantic sets aside one annual issue and therein presents a nosegay of short stories, a special ‘Fiction Issue’ that is likewise a bulls-eye for unavoidable inference: that this handful of stories aren’t just the last few samples to come over the transom, that they are, at least in some way, the best of the best. If there was an implication that the state of story submissions at the magazine was too pitiful to warrant monthly publication, the same implication must regard the ‘Fiction Issue’ stories as the cream of the crop.

This issue’s table of contents is about as stark an affair as the Atlantic has ever sported: no letters, no editorials, no book reviews, no feature articles – no nonfiction at all except for one pompous and self-serving little piece by novelist Anne Patchett (at the climax of which she says her most prized possession is a signed collection of Eudora Welty stories then relates how at one of her own book signings, she imparted words of wisdom to a little girl who’d waited for her signature; “I know better than anyone I am no Eudora Welty,” she faux-humbly asserts, which tells us one thing only: she thinks she’s better than Eudora Welty). Instead, there are eight short stories and nine poems. The poems were so uniformly wretched even I wasn’t tempted to like any of them.

That leaves the stories. We’ll take them in order of appearance, and we’ll see what we can learn about the state of the art today, at least according to the Atlantic.

The first is “Nine” by Aryn Kyle. It’s the story of little Tess (who’s about to turn nine), her father, her absent mother, her father’s tobacco-addict ballet dancer girlfriend, and the unending stream of lies Tess tells for no discernible reason to every single person in her life. Tess’s father is concerned about the lies she tells:

“Some things are real and some things aren’t,” he says. “Part of getting older is learning to understand the difference. OK?” Tess’s head feels heavy on top of her neck. Her brain is smooth and shiny like plastic. Her blood is ketchup. She could hold her own hand against a hot stove and not feel a thing. “OK,” she says.

From which we’re supposed to glean that Tess is unhappy. The reader is given no hint as to who thinks Tess’ blood is ketchup – it sounds like something a kid might think, but, in a sloppy manner that’s typical of the story as a whole, we’re left to assume on our own. The bulk of the prose is likewise lazy. Take a for instance chosen at random:

When Miss Morris calls from school to say that Tess has said her father is dying of lung cancer, he laughs. He assures Miss Morris that he isn’t even a smoker (well, hardly), that he is as right as rain.

Unbelievably, those italics aren’t mine: the author herself has called attention to her use of a cliche, and that smarmy-cutesy “well, hardly” doesn’t help matters. The climax of the story revolves around a little incident so trite and predictable the reader will at first suspect a practical joke has been played by the author, but no: that’s all there is. Tess and her father start the story unhappy and uncommunicative, and they end it that way, and there’s no indication whatsoever that Tess’ ninth year will be any different from any other. Nothing changes in the story – except that the story itself went from ‘unpublished’ to ‘published in the Atlantic‘s annual fiction issue.’

Kyle’s biographical blurb says she’s currently working on her first collection of short stories, in which “Nine” will no doubt appear. My friend John Cotter is currently shopping around his first short story collection, from which a story as flat and unyielding as “Nine” would have been culled before it was shown to even one potential publisher. The injustices of the print world can sometimes be quite bitter on the tongue.

Next is “Stand By Me,” by Wendell Berry who, I’m assuming, is on hand to do the ‘old publishing figure we couldn’t refuse’ duties usually reserved for John Updike (who, amazingly, is not represented in this issue). His piece isn’t a short story in any functional sense of the term – I think 145 paragraphs go by before there’s any dialog exchanged – instead, it’s a fragmentary story-premise dashed off and sent to the magazine under the serene assumption that there are no circumstances under which it would be examined, much less rejected.

The story premise involves a bunch of simple country folk and the various roles grief and loss and loneliness play in their lives, but throughout the prose is muddied with repetitions and needless circumlocutions, until even the most avid Berry fan must be able to sense the master twiddling his thumbs, just doodling until the next real piece of prose comes to mind. Even the best bit manages to sound like an unsuccessful first draft for Our Town:

What gets you is the knowledge, that sometimes can fall on you in a clap, that the dead are gone absolutely from this world. As has been said around here over and over again, you are not going to see them here anymore, ever. Whatever was done or said before is done or said for good. Any questions you think you ought to’ve asked while you had a chance are never going to be answered. The dead know, and you don’t.

After Berry comes “Patient, Female” by Julie Schumacher, who, we’re told, directs the creative writing program at the University of Minnesota (as has been noted by various pundits, creative writing programs have sprouted like toadstools throughout the land). In the story, the female narrator spends her days working as a so-called “professional patient,” giving doctors-in-training some hands-on experience in clinics (one of those picaresque “jobs” that are so odd they carry their own trenchant metaphors around with them like Marley’s chains; creative writing types love those kinds of jobs because real life is, you know, so boring), and she spends her nights arguing with her ailing father, who, like Tess, lies a lot for no discernible reason.

The narrator is selfish without being interesting, bitter without being virtuous, and thus repellent without being in any way redeeming to read about. The hermeneutics of this piece mark it a mile off as being ‘workshop fiction,’ which, for the uninitiated, means it was never meant to make sense or engage the reader; no, it’s meant for rarer atmospheres than those available to the Petey Punch-Clocks and Judy Lunch-Pails who might encounter this issue at the newsstand and actually try to read it. As in “Tess,” nothing happens in “Patient, Female,” nothing changes, and nobody learns anything. In case you didn’t get enough of all three of those things in the other parts of your life.

Fortunately, our losing streak ends next, with a fast-paced, sweet, and moving short story by Carter Simms Benton called “The Second Coming of Gray Badger.” This story concerns two young brothers who’re racing a stolen horse in a string of fifth-rate matches in an attempt to raise enough prize money to bail their father out of jail. Walter is the thinker behind the scheme, and bantam-weight Oscar is the rider of the horse, and in no time they fall in with Edith the waitress, who’s a good deal smarter than either of them and no fool about what they’re doing. Her presence throws their plans a-kilter, of course, but it’s Benton’s spare, lovely prose that’s the point:

“You talk to Dad again?” he [Oscar] asked. “He’s happy,” I said. “He’s real proud of you. Said it’s too bad you’re a thief, though. You could have done something good.” I lied about calling the jail. I had decided not to call Dad until we’d settled on what to do. My head was telling me some things, like what handcuffs felt like, and I felt mean about it. “Oh, I’m a thief and you’re a horse trainer,” Oscar wiped his lips and looked up at me. “He didn’t say that.” “We’re all thieves,” I said and looked at Edith. “You too.” “Maybe if I got some money I would be.” She answered sharply. “You-all are a couple of daddy’s boys, anyway. Thieves don’t call their daddy every day.” “Took you about two days to start whining.” Oscar had his shoulder square to Edith on his stool. “Let’s play some pool so Miss Dodge City can have some fun.” Edith smiled and got up. We followed her to a table in the middle of the bar. She racked the table for Nine-Ball, pushing hair behind her ears. At that point, I was sure she knew everything.

Benton won the Atlantic’s Student Fiction contest a while back, and his biographical note says he’s working on a novel, and those are two hopeful notes for the future of fiction, in my opinion.

The next story is “Carmen Elcira: A (Love) Story” by Cristina Henriquez, and if you think that parenthetical (love) is just about as annoying an orthographical trick as our author (who’s been published extensively and is working on her first novel) can devise, hoo-boy, have you got another think coming! The plot is the love life of the title character, from her fiery first love Diego (you can tell the author likes the two of them together because she has them meet cute and supplies them with snappy patter) to sad-sack Joseph, with whom she settles for the spending of her life, with occasional regrets:

For the rest of her life, Carmen Elcira lived with Joseph in the house where she had grown up and where she would grow old. Every so often, because there are tender spots in every human heart that never disappear, no matter if the tenderness is caused by bruising or by love or if, as is often the case, the two are indistinguishable, she would wonder about Diego.

That bit about the bruises of the heart is pretty good and augurs good things for Henriquez’ upcoming debut novel, but all its worth is subsumed by the freakish, MOLTENLY annoying fact that our author has chosen to refer to Carmen, whose name is Carmen Elcira Salazar, as “Carmen Elcira” every single time she’s mentioned. No matter that the name “Carmen” is, thanks to Bizet, known to all; no matter that even other characters in the story point out how damn odd it is – doesn’t matter! Carmen Elcira goes to market; Carmen Elcira falls in and out of love; Carmen Elcira thinks to herself, “Carmen Elcira, if you do this, you’ll never be able to look at Carmen Elcira in the mirror again.” It sinks the story and leaves not a bubble on the surface to mark its passing. By the time the tale is done, the poor reader has that name indelibly tattoo’d on his brain and can’t wait to flee to the next story.

Luckily, that next story, “We are all Businessmen” by Mark Fabiano, is one of the strongest in the issue. Fabiano has had his fiction published in Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Long Story, and something called German Village After Dark (proof positive that Fabiano himself wrote his author-bio, and that he’s possessed of a puckish sense of humor), and more to the point, he’s spent time in Sri Lanka, which he captures beautifully in this tale of a good-natured hard-working Sri Lankan man Ranil who is working hard as the guide and entertainer for a crass, boorish visiting American named “Mr. Richard” whose firm, Ranil hopes, will provide a scholarship for his son Arjuna. Fabiano makes sure the reader knows that for all Ranil’s hopes for his son, they both come from a place the story’s harried Western readers will think sounds a lot like paradise:

But I don’t like to live in towns. They are impure. The people are sad. Out here the sun ripens our crops, and welcomes the spirits of our ancestors. The shade of our trees comforts us, and it is known that the water from our well is cool and clear.

When Ranil and the boorish Mr. Richard arrived at a closed bank, “Mr. Richard swears. He says some bad things about the bank and my country: “Damned Lankans. Only good for fucking coconuts and bananas.”

But what about our tea? I think. Our beaches? Our mountains? The gems? But I know it is in anger. He is from Christian and doesn’t know about the Buddha and how to calm himself. When my boy has gone and become a rich engineer, and then sends for his parents, I will say, “What was listening to a few bad words then, for my son is now an important man?”

As all but small children will by now have guessed, things do not go well for Ranil’s hopes. But such is Fabiano’s understated skill that the reader will be kept tense and delighted right to the end, as predictable as that end is. And really, all colonial fiction is intensely predictable, which is hardly Fabiano’s fault. He’s a very, very talented young writer; the 21st century’s A Passage to India may very well come from his pen.

The next story in this Fiction Issue is the most perplexing. It’s called “Obituary,” and it’s by Jessica Murphy Moo (who has the greatest writer-name in the long history of all literature, so on that basis alone she deserves to enjoy a long career, at least until Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen hits her stride!) who, we’re told, is the communications editor for the Seattle Opera, a post one would think would leave little spare time for pecking away at short stories, but then, some young people manage their time better than others.

The story is perplexing for a number of reasons. The main character, Gus, lives on his boat in a tony marina with his diabetic dog. He’s a seedy old fellow (that’s perplexing thing #1: Murphy Moo writes him perfectly, even though she herself is not, in fact, a seedy old fellow)(presumably) whose departure would please the marina association. The head of the association, an officious older woman Gus refers to as the Commodore, makes it plain to him:

“I have a proposition for you, and if you’ll listen for a second, it might be of some interest. We know you have a lifetime deed, but as you well know, we’d like you to leave, and the board has decided that we’re willing to pay you to do it.” “You had a board meeting today? Already?” She raises an eyebrow above the frame of her sunglasses, as if daring him to question him further, and she continues. “You can tell us where you’d like to go. Any marina on the eastern seaboard, and we’ll find a way to get you there. If you don’t remember how to drive your boat, we can arrange for a refresher, maybe even a crew, if it comes to that.”

This is perplexing thing #2: although copious allusions are made, we never really get the details of why the marina folk hate Gus so much (nor why the Commodore herself seems to have a softer streak toward him, something Gus himself comments on), nor why (#3) his straightlaced son Bradley (and his wife) hate him so much. Murphy Moo is content in this story merely to hint that Gus has been in his life what one genteel soul once referred to as “a real shitbag.” Gus has lots of regrets about this general impression, but not enough of them to do anything about it, and that’s perplexing thing #4.

But maybe all these perplexing things are just facets of the one central flaw with “Obituary”: it’s not a short story, it’s a novel. Here’s hoping Murphy Moo knows this herself, and that the first novel we’re told she’s working on will be called “Obituary” and will feature the rest of this entertaining story.

Alas, the final story in this Atlantic is anything but entertaining. It’s an intensely boring little piece called “Amritsar” by Jess Row, an otherwise accomplished young writer who’s here turned in a turgid misfire about India that couldn’t be any less involving for Western readers if it were chipped out on stone in Sanskrit. Like Henriquez’ story, it’s almost certainly here to fill out some ‘exotic’ quotient – which is odd, because the issue’s two best stories, by Benton and Fabiano, are clear examples of how to put stories in exotic locations and still make them work as entertainments.

But then, the editorial decisions that went into creating this Fiction Issue are impenetrable. There is no Editor’s Note to talk about the selections, no piece reflecting on the process of picking these stories from what must have been many hundreds of candidates. Instead, the issue and its contents are offered up as a flat enigma, without comment or secondary material of any kind. This is interpretable either as some kind of oracular opacity or as a child’s petulant bare-minimum approach to a chore he doesn’t want to perform at all, but in either case, one thing is beyond argument: short fiction deserves better from the Atlantic.

February 24th, 2008

In the Penny Press!

Surprises aplenty in this week’s Penny Press, and almost all of them the good kind!

For instance, it’s always nice when a writer you like, while writing about something else entirely, makes an aside you enthusiastically agree with; Stephen Jay Gould used to do it with comforting regularity, and in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books Edmund White does the same thing. While writing about that prize-winning 19th century Boston nelly Howard Sturgis (writing specifically about his novel Belchamber, although Sturgis’ novel Tim is a genuinely touching evocation of what it is to have a schoolboy crush), he invokes Sturgis’ expat milieu and makes a winning digression:

Through his parents little Howard met such American luminaries as Charles Francis Adams and Edward Boit (a Boston artist who’d settled in Paris and whose daughters were painted by John Singer Sargent in one of the most technically astonishing canvasses of all time).

We here at Stevereads can’t help but cheer a little cheer: Sargent’s painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, is indeed one of the greatest paintings of all time. On many occasions, we here at Stevereads have lost ourselves staring at it, plumbing the depths of its mystery and beauty, and it’s gratifying to hear somebody else so casually give it the credit it deserves.

And that’s not a patch on the carpet of wonders to be found in the latest New Yorker, starting with Adrian Tomine’s sublime cover illustration ‘Shelf Life,’ showing the pitiless life-cycle of a book, from creation to publication to purchase to discard and oblivion.

But the cover’s not the only thing, not by a longshot! Ordinarily, your average issue of the New Yorker has only one or at most two things to recommend it, but this one is full of good and interesting things, starting with Hendrik Hertzberg’s short piece beginning the issue, writing about the imbecilities of the United States’ drug policies, specifically those involving marijuana:

Nearly a hundred million of us – forty percent of the adult population, including pillars of the nation’s political, financial, academic, and media elites – have smoked (and therefore possessed) marijuana at some point, thereby committing an offense that, with a bit of bad luck, could have resulted in humiliation, the loss of benefits such as college loans and scholarships, or worse. More than forty thousand people are in jail for marijuana offenses, and some seven hundred thousand are arrested annually merely for possession.

On this Hertzberg is entirely right: though we here at Stevereads are partial to a stiff shot of whiskey (preferably before the fire at our estate at Montauk, with Leni and Blondi sitting alertly at our feet), we agree whole-heartedly with our young friend Mister Allison and many, many others that marijuana use should of course be legalized in America – the drug is far less socially destructive than alcohol (as is every other drug known to man), and although it’s equally physically destructive as its close cousin tobacco (though its most fervid adherents will strenuously deny this – well, as strenuously as they do anything, the poor things – it’s nonetheless true: you take heavy, corrosive particulate matter into your lungs, and you try your hardest to keep it there as long as possible), it doesn’t have any of that drug’s devastating effects on people nearby. Oh, it’s every bit as tenaciously addictive (another assertion that would stir its addicts, if they could be stirred) as any of the other substances, but when the sun sets on the issue, it’s a minor stimulant, like coffee – it isn’t in any way near the same weight-class as either tobacco or alcohol in terms of being a danger to the public, and yet both those substances are perfectly legal (indeed, im-perfectly so: we personally know nine individuals under the legal buying age of 21 who regularly smoke and drink – and hence, who regularly buy beer and cigarettes from vendors who are legally forbidden to sell them to minors). It should be legal – the sheer silliness of it being otherwise is, we suppose, some sort of moral issue, as sad and weird as that sort of thing always strikes us. What else could it be, so long after the ‘60s? Unless there’s some truth to the paranoid rumors that the government actually wants to hopelessly target the peddlers and users of marijuana, as a sop to the much-touted ‘war on drugs’ that its enemies say can never be won. If so, and even if no, it’s a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

But good as Hertzberg’s little squib is, it’s the least thing in the issue. Take for instance Larissa MacFarquhar’s long and very good profile/obituary of serial novelist Louis Auchincloss.

The piece is noteworthy not only because nobody’s bothered to do one in a few decades (and why would they, Auchincloss being the single most boring novelist in the history of the world?) but because MacFarquhar manages to unearth a couple of really good quotes, as when Auchincloss (with unintentional irony) ruminates about his time during the war: “I had all my life a curious sense of immunity, that nothing would happen to me. And nothing ever did.”

Or his response to Norman Mailer when Mailer said the two of them had nothing in common, a response that’s so witty and lively that it was actually made by Gore Vidal:

Nothing in common! We live in the same silly island, publish our wet dreams, and go to the same silly parties – and have for years! It would take a mother’s eye to tell the difference between us. Of course, it is true I don’t marry quite so much.

And MacFarquhar does more than find great quotes; she makes some too, in writing so good it begs to be quoted:

A novelist of manners must balance satire with nostalgia. If he is too indulgent, his story will collapse into sentiment; if too contemptuous, it dries up and becomes sociology. Auchincloss is the least gushy of writers: in his fiction he has virtually no interest in romantic love (though he is fascinated by male friendship), and of the human race as a whole he has a very low opinion. He can’t abide writers like Whitman, who slosh about and ‘yearn,’ as he puts it. He is never maudlin about the nonsense of the past … and yet The Rector of Justin is his best novel, because it is one of the few times he permits his elegaic moralism to dominate a book. He loves his mad Puritans, and believes they are no more.

That’s better critical analysis than Auchincloss deserves, since MacFarquhar is right: The Rector of Justin is his best novel – and it was written during the Crimean War. That an author who’s written so dully and indifferently for so many decades should still be alive when so many better, sharper voices are silenced is a kind of sustained mockery on the world of letters. We can take some small consolation from the fact that Gore Vidal, thought leeched of most of his talent, is still alive as well.

Comfort also comes in the middle of the Auchincloss piece, in the form of an inserted poem, a lovely thing by J. D. McClatchy called “Chinese Poem”:

Whatever change you were considering,

Do not plant another tree in the garden.

One tree means four seasons of sadness:

What is going,

What is coming,

What will not come,

What cannot go.

Here in bed, through the south window

I can see the moon watching us both,

Someone’s hand around its clump of light.

Yours? I know you are sitting out there,

Looking at silver bloom against black.

That drop from your cup in the night sky’s

Lacquer you wipe away with your sleeve

As if its pleated thickets were the wide space

Between us, though you know as well as I do

This autumn is no different from the last.

We here at Stevereads have been accused of having a tin ear when it comes to poetry, but we find that charming. We think we like this J.D. McClatchy person.

And then there’s the issue’s shocker: not only did we like the short story (this virtually never happens), but we liked it even though it was written by … Salman Rushdie. Salman Rushdie! An author for whom we’ve had so far nothing but contempt! An author who has shown hardly a spark of genuine talent in his entire career! But his latest story, “The Shelter of the World,” represents something – an elevation of tone, a maturing of humor – we’ve never seen from him before. The story revolves around the Emperor Akbar the Great in the city of Sikri, and it’s threaded throughout with this wonderful new tone:

‘Your time has come,’ the Emperor assented [to a fallen foe]. ‘So tell us truthfully before you go, what sort of paradise do you expect to discover when you have passed through the veil?’ The Rana raised his mutilated face and looked the Emperor in the eye. ‘In Paradise, the words ‘worship’ and ‘argument’ mean the same thing,’ he declared. ‘The Almighty is not a tyrant. In the house of God, all voices are free to speak as they chose, and that is the form of their devotion.’ He was an irritating, holier-than-thou type of youth, that was beyond question, but in spite of his arrogance Akbar was moved. ‘We promise you that we will build that house of adoration here on earth,’ the Emperor said. Then, with a cry – Allah Akbar, ‘God is great,’ or, just possibly, ‘Akbar is God’ – he chopped off the pompous little twerp’s cheeky, didactic, and therefore suddenly unnecessary head.

The puckish humor and light touch on display here are worlds away from the crass and idiotically self-serving stuff with which he gained his fame as a writer. We here at Stevereads can’t help but hope it lasts. We’ve always wanted to like this author; it would be nice to finally be able to.

Speaking of authors we want to like (but aren’t always able to), the latest issue of the Atlantic features a piece by Christopher Hitchens that reminds us of why we liked him in the first place. It’s a review of the New York Review of Books’ recent re-issue of Gregor von Rezzori’s novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and it’s not blowsy or arrogant or sloppy or ignorant – instead, it bristles with learning and clear prose, not to mention great insights, as when he mentions the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion:

Incidentally, it is entirely wrong to refer to this document of the Czarist secret police as a ‘forgery.’ A forgery is counterfeit of a true bill. The Protocols are a straightforward fabrication, based on medieval Christian fantasies about Judaism.

And there are trademark Hitchens flashes of humor, too, here happily presented without rant:

It was once said that Austria’s two achievements were to have persuaded the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese.

Again, here’s hoping this Christopher Hitchens sticks around – we’ve missed him.

But the issue’s main attraction is a consciously provocative article called “Marry Him” by Lori Gottlieb, which makes a heretical argument in favor of Settling, of marrying Mister (or Miss) Good Enough instead of waiting for Mister (or Miss) Right.

It’s a punchy little subject, amply served by Gottlieb’s lively prose style:

Whenever I make the case for settling, people look at me with creased brows of disapproval or frowns of disappointment, the way a child might look at an older sibling who just informed her that Jerry’s Kids aren’t going to walk, even if you send them money. It’s not only politically incorrect to get behind settling, it’s downright un-American.

Her article is forthright and funny but also serious, centering on the folly of expecting to meet a sex partner who’s also a personal equal. We here at Stevereads have done battle with this particular folly for long centuries, so we were grateful for every word of Gottlieb’s piece, whose only flaw is that it’s too much aimed at women, when we can assure you, men need the same advice in the same measure:

Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better.

To which we here at Stevereads would add a further note: Pay for sex, for Pete’s sake. Take it out of the equation of personal interaction entirely. That way, you’ll use one yardstick, one set of standards, in forming all your personal relationships. Sex will no longer be a factor, prompting you to lavish your personal time on a simpleton, or a monster – instead, since you’re satisfying your needs the old-fashioned American way, by paying, you’ll be able to shape your personal attachments with your brain and your heart, instead of your naughty bits. Just a thought.

And there you have it! An uncommonly fruitful foray into the Penny Press! Glad to have you all along for the ride, and don’t forget to tune in a little later, when Stevereads will take its second – and definitive – look at the Oscars!

March 23rd, 2007

The Penny Press! Atlantic and the TLS!

The prestigious old Atlantic Monthly (of late cravenly decamped from its home ancestral home of Boston) recently acquired our very own semi-feral super-genius Elmo as a subscriber, so their editorial board will no doubt have to look a little sharper in the months to come (we here at Stevereads are except from such precautions, since we were the ones to tempt the entirely-feral Elmo from the fens with a few sugar cubes earning his primitive gratitude ala Androcles and the Lion). The current issue is Elmo’s first, so we couldn’t help but read it with eyes ever-so-slightly vicariously refreshed.

Not all that an auspicious start, all things considered. The cover article – on who stands to gain financially from global warming climate changes – was no doubt meant to be frolicsomely cynical and on that ground (and all other grounds) falls spectacularly flat. Considering the fact that a) all those land-grabbing opportunities come hand-in-hand with unsurvivable winters all across northern Europe and unsurvivable summers all across the rest of the planet, and b) our own weekend getaway at Montauk Point – not to mention the homes and workplaces of our hapless friends at Boston, Waimea, Venice, San Diego, and Big Pine Key will be uninhabitable – considering these things, one is hard-pressed to divine the laff-quotient in an article that monetarily divvies up the sea-girt, sun-baked remains of a once-gorgeous world.

The piece’s companion article on the crisis in Darfur was, unfortunately, similarly unconvincing – seeking as it did to shift the blame for that crisis off the shoulders of men and onto the vagaries of climate change. When you add to all this the fact that the title’s most reliable standby, the mighty book-critic Ben Schwartz, chose this time around to utterly waste his precious column inches writing about some idiotic fashion book, well, you don’t get a very favorable debut issue for Elmo.

Fortunately, for good or ill, Christopher Hitchens can almost always be counted on to generate interest of some kind, and this time around is no exception. This issue he reviews ‘Cultural Amnesia,’ a collection of literary essays by Clive James, and a thoroughly condescending job he does of it, too. James, an entirely better and more comprehensive literary critic than Hitchens has been in a good many years, is generously tolerated throughout the length of the review. Hitchens is very patient in pointing out all the ways James could have done a better job, and he ladles on the faint praise:

“In attempting to do this anthology justice, I am running the risk of making it sound more eclectic than it really is.”

And how about this little gem, grubbed over by Hitchens:

“But in order to appear ungrudging, he [James] is sometimes hyperbolic, and therefore unconvincing: Is it really apt to write of Camus that ‘the Gods poured success on him but it could only darken his trench coat: it never soaked him to the skin.’?”

Well, yes, actually: apt and considerably neater than any formulation Hitchens has coughed up in his last four or five dozen literary pieces.

Having Christopher Hitchens review Clive James isn’t exactly like setting a fox to guard the hen-house; it’s more like setting a fox to guard a less drunken, more talented fox. Sour grapes on Hitchens’ part are understandable, and this review is rank with the fumes.

But worse than that is Hitchens’ sniveling, hypocritical cowardice. At one point he writes:

“It is men like Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus whom he [James] envies, while of course never ceasing to wonder (as we all must) how he himself would have shaped up when the Nazis came.”

That parenthetical is SO sweet. Considering Hitchens’ stance on any number of political issues in the past six years, we here at Stevereads don’t consider the question of how he’d have reacted to the Nazis one of life’s enduring mysteries. When Hitchens, at another point in the review, makes disparaging reference to ‘high-sounding justifications for violence,’ the irony was almost too thick to read through.

Irony carries over to the TLS too, and it reaches its sharpest point in the letters page. Recently, James Fergusson wrote a piece about the second-hand book trade, and it garnered this very straightforward, very sad response:

“James Fergusson may well know a lot about the second-hand book trade of yore, but where has he been for the last decade or so? As a bookseller myself, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to write at such length on the subject over the last century and include just one cosily dismissive paragraph about the effect of the internet; in the mid-and late 1990s, you heard a lot of that sort of complacent plus ca change from booksellers, but I never thought I’d come across it again. The fact is that, in the half-decade before the millennium, modernity finally caught up with the second-hand book trade, and it took internet technology no longer than five years to liquidate the old order Fergusson lovingly describes. What has emerged is soulless but wonderfully effecient, a golden age for book buyers: instant access to virtually everything you want, a trade composed overwhelmingly of small-time amateurs who don’t really need the money, prices in free fall and fewer than half-a-dozen points of sale that really matter, all on the Net. One hopes Fergusson’s world of musty shops personal relationships, catalogues and bookfairs will manage to hang on in a few civilized outposts, but personally I wouldn’t bet on it.”

That’s from Peter Lloyd, who writes from – follow along now – Little Bushant, Glascwm, Llandrindod Wells – and if anything he understates the matter, since he confines his remarks to the world of second hand bookselling. When the grim truth of the matter is that ALL bookselling is staring at its doom, in the form of the Internet. Customers in their uncounted thousands discover every day the convenience of simply ordering the books they want online – wait three days, and there they are, boxed up on your doorstep.

There are two factors missing from this new world, Peter Lloyd or no Peter Lloyd.

The first is the odd chemistry of your odd, ungainly, soon to be extinct book clerk. The Internet has no analog to having an obviously knowledgeable clerk gently scoff at your pretentions (be honest now, all you out there: how many of you have felt this particular goad and had it STAY with you long after, maybe even had it change what you read, although of course such scoffing is entirely wrong for the book clerk to do), or the enthusiastic recommendation that cuts through the cant of a dozen bad high school teachers. Really good book clerks (a phrase that sounds strange these days in and of itself) can change the way you read, and that’s an entirely magical thing no ‘customers who bought this also bought’ can even hope to duplicate.

The second thing is serendipity. Plain old serendipity! You’re prowling the bargain-carts at the Strand or the Brattle, you’re crawling along the indoor shelves of ANY bookstore, second hand or otherwise, when you find something you had no idea even existed, something you then pull down and pour over and decide you want very much, in fact can’t live without.

Serendipity. All of us here at this website have felt it: the chance finding of one book while looking for another, the gems discovered when you had no idea you were looking for them, and all the other permutations we’re all so familiar with. Take away physical bookstores, and you take away that all-important element.

No doubt the idiosyncratic love of book-buying will survive the removal even of that element; perhaps some simula-program will come along that will digitally reproduce the alcoholic free associations of serendipity. We here at Stevereads are inclined to doubt it, but we stand, as ever, ready for posterity to prove us wrong.