It’s that time again: The Atlantic’s annual Fiction Issue has reached newsstands, serving as both a reminder that the magazine doesn’t publish a new short story in every issue like they used to but also as, presumably, a barometer of their findings in the field. Or maybe that second assumption isn’t right: since the magazine doesn’t publish fiction anymore, maybe every one of the stories in this issue was produced by special request. It doesn’t seem likely to me – some of these authors aren’t exactly marquee names – but in any case, a group of editors had to sit in council and decide to present these nine stories to their readers, and that betokens judgement.
Such judgement is largely borne out by the issue, I must say. In any special presntation like this, there’ll usually be a flat background-hum of stories that are only so-so. That shouldn’t be true – especially when it’s The Atlantic and especially when it’s only once a year, there ought to be no so-so stories in this batch at all. But when we consider the rather dismal state of workshop-generated commercial fiction these days (too vast a company to list in detail, but a glance at corporate ‘We Recommend’ lists of any large retail bookseller ought to give you a good idea of the gloppy, lachrymose muck that currently dominates the market), I suppose we should be lucky the entire fiction issue isn’t background-hum.
Instead, there are distinct high notes. True, we have Stuart Dybek doing his immigrant shtick and, as always, trusting it to carry far more weight than its tricky knees will support. And true, we have somebody named Lysley Tenorio doing pretty much the same thing (although she displays a good deal more sensitivity to written English than Dybek), with pretty much the same results. But the issue starts off with something much worthier: a story called “The Last Copy” by Ariel Dorfman, about a man who’s finally published his novel – using a vanity press – and then belatedly realizes that a copy might eventually reach the virtuous young nun with whom he had a torrid one-night-stand years ago. He used that one-night-stand as the barely-disguised basis of Chapter 2 of his book, and the thought that she might read it and lose her good opinion of him (he feels hers might be the last good opinion of him anywhere in the world) prompts him to a frenzied quest to reclaim every last one of the 1,000 copies he had printed. That’s a nifty little idea for a story, and Dorfman’s tossed-off side-characters along the way (the feckless self-publisher, the pompous Grand Old Book Critic) are priceless – and the ending is almost pure schmaltz, which I actually like in a short story (and have been known to use myself, on the infrequent occasions when I write in that format). It was a wise editorial decision to start this issue off with “The Last Copy” – it makes a very good first impression (as does Tomer Hanuka’s winsome cover, a quick, slightly disturbing little tribute to the consoling power of reading).
In any issue like this, you’re going to expect to find a couple of Big Names slumming for a quick pay-check, and this particular issue is guilty: both Wendell Berry and Jerome Charyn show up for the occasion. Charyn’s effort in last year’s issue was stronger than his diffuse and blunted offering this year, “Little Sister,” which never quite delivers on the punch of its premise. But Berry’s simple, stripped-clean story “Sold” is remarkably evocative, an old woman remembering the years of her life and marriage, gradually ushering the reader into a mindframe of pure acceptance that feels so natural only because the author has whittled the sentiments to make it so (that, plus Mother Nature – I suppose it’s just faintly possible that Berry himself is no longer the black-haired rock-ribbed young hick I so vividly recall). “Sold” is the very opposite of slumming: it’s an exactingly personal little revelation.
Two of the other stories are very good, though not quite as good (and barred from it, I’m guessing, not by a stronger strain of autobiography than Berry uses but by less confident control of it): Sarah Turcotte’s “Scars” relates the decision of a woman who’s had breast cancer surgery to cover her scars with elaborate tattoos, and Turcotte does a good job eliciting the faintly sordid sensuality that always exists between tattoo artist and customer; and Elizabeth McKenzie’s “Someone I’d Like You to Meet” shares a quick vignette (deftly quick – McKenzie has a fantastic ear for the pacing of a story) about a young woman bringing her intended home to meet her milksop father and her complex, almost unbelievably prickly mother – a hackneyed enough premise entirely saved by the strength of McKenzie’s convictions – and her ear for dialogue:
Thus her mother spoke. “I just want you to know that in general, when a man wants to make a good impression on a woman’s family, he bends over backward to do it. He thinks ahead. He leaves nothing to chance. He looks around the bathroom, he cleans up the hairs he left in the sink, and, most of all, he makes sure he doesn’t leave his towel wadded up on the floor for his future mother-in-law to find.”
“He liked you a lot,” Veblen boldly conjectured.
“He did? Nobody likes me when they meet me.”
Veblen replied faithfully. “Not true.”
“He didn’t have a field day, spinning theories about me?”
“No, Mom. He could barely speak.”
“Have him take some antihistamines for the dermatitis, and some anti-inflammatories for the muscle pain.”
“And call you in the morning?,” Veblen replied.
“Honey, if this is what you want, we’re happy for you. Are you sure this is what you want?”
Veblen looked into the bedroom, where Paul was now snoring, his body plastered in a pinkish-grey liniment, and just at that moment he twitched decisively.
“What more could I want?” she said.
The best story in this issue also springs from a hackneyed plot: Austin Bunn’s “How to Win an Unwinnable War” is about young Sam, child of divorce, who compensates for the fractured nature of his home life by obsessing about the precise mechanics of nuclear war. Conservatively, in my life I’ve read 50 short stories with the exact same premise, but I don’t begrudge that – it’s a good premise, and I don’t fault writers for going straight to good premises. But I expect compensations – the lazier the premise, the more energy I expect from the execution.
Bunn doesn’t disappoint. In fact, he seems to make a dare out of not disappointing, by crowding his work with as many short story cliches as he can think of – the slutty divorced mother, the bluff, oblivious dad, the wacky professor, the caustic wheelchair-kid, etc. – and then somehow making the whole thing feel original and gripping, as poor inarticulate Sam tries desperately to get what he needs from the clueless adults all around him:
“Every Goliath has a David,” the professor said to him.
“Who’s that?” Sam asked.
“Just a kid,:” the professor said, “who changed history.” Though this was his way of making Sam feel better, stories like this one only made him sick to his stomach. He doesn’t want to change history, just outlive it.
The last story in the issue is called “The Great Zero” by Jonathon Walter, and it’s the only one in the issue about which I can tell you almost nothing – because I got no deeper into it than the first line, which goes like this: “A farmer stood in the center of a field that was really no field at all with his hands in his pockets.”
It wasn’t just that the sentence was clunky and childishly ungrammatical – it was the fact that this was the first sentence of one of only nine short stories to make it into The Atlantic‘s annual Fiction Issue. Not only did Jonathon Walter have to decide on that sentence and keep it through the course of who knows how many revisions, but his ‘first readers’ all had to see it – you literally can’t miss it – and either like it or keep their objections to themselves. And more than that, every single person involved in selecting this story for this issue – from the first readers at The Atlantic to some assistant editor to the editor in charge of the whole shebang – had to see that line and somehow, for some reason, nod approvingly instead of handing it back to the author for a quick, obvious revision. And I can guess the reason for that domino-chain of neglect: the virulent sub-genre of hick-lit (as practiced by its various high priests over the last twenty years) has led both young, reverse-pretentious writers who don’t know any better and editors who should know better to think that if a sentence (or, gawd forbid, an entire book) tries to evince a certain ungainly, folksy charm, it gets a hall-pass from grammar and syntax. I thumbed right past the rest of the story (something about the Dust Bowl? I didn’t look too closely, for fear of encountering more fields wearing pockets), but the proud survival of that line made me briefly furious with every ‘creative writing’ teacher Jonathon Walter has ever encountered in his life.
And ‘briefly angry with creative writing teachers’ was precisely the wrong mental position to be in when I turned the page from Walter’s story and found the issue’s essay (the only one, this time – provided we pass over the one-page …. thing … that John Barth …. produced – it being fairly obviously wrong either to call the process ‘writing’ or to call the result a ‘piece’), “Don’t Write What You Know” by Bret Anthony Johnston. That this essay is a great big pile of crap isn’t totally surprising – like little remoras to basking whale sharks, Fiction Issues will invariably draw sucker-mouthed parasites in the form of bloviations about writing. But even so, I was taken aback by just how big and multi-layered a pile of crap this piece was – Johnston is now the head of the creative writing department at some obscure East Coast school, so, silly me, I briefly thought he might know what he’s talking about. And maybe in some other context he does – but in this essay, any scraps of such knowledge are choked and then buried under piles and piles of hypocrisy.
“Don’t Write What You Know,” our wacky professor instructs his students – what! Wow! DON’T write what you know, when, like, everybody they’ve ever talked to has told them they SHOULD write what they know? Radical!
Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.
Fair enough, and as someone who reads oceans of self-published, often extremely amateurish fiction, I can wholly agree with the point.
But not with the person making it, since Johnston has never, in his entire brief writing career, written a single word that wasn’t completely one-to-one autobiographical (including, of course, this essay). He says, “In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I’ve been accused of writing what I know on a good many occasions” – but it’s a laughable equivocation, or it would be if it weren’t so infuriating. Like so many freelance essayists today, Johnston has convinced himself that “In the interests of full disclosure” is some kind of magical Get Out of Jail Free card, for all the world as if a guy taking the witness stand in a murder trial would be commended for his honesty if he opened by saying, “In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you: I shot the deceased in the head repeatedly, until he was dead. Now … your questions?” All Johnston has ever done as a bill-paying adult has been to write what he knows – so his hypocrisy offends the nostrils of the Almighty.
Which would be bad enough, but then he adds prickish behavior to the stew. I knew already that creative writing teachers are inclined to be pricks (it comes from their conviction that they’ve got something better to do with their time), so I guess it was too much to hope that a smarmy hypocrite would take the high road. But even so, this was hard to take:
To be perfectly clear: I don’t tell students not to ferret through their lives for potential stories. I don’t want, say, a soldier who served in Iraq to shy away from writing war stories. Quite the opposite. I want him to freight his fiction with rich details of combat. I want the story to evoke the texture of the sand and the noise of a Baghdad bazaar, the terrible and beautiful shade of blue smoke ribboning from the barrel of his M-4. His experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it.
So let’s make sure we got the point of all that, shall we? That poor grunt from Iraq should certainly feel free to ‘freight’ his fiction with what he knows – but all you Atlantic readers out there should remember that I, Bret Anthony Johnston, can offhandedly and without really trying do a much, much better job evoking that ribboning M-4 smoke. I might never have seen any kind of combat – might even quail at the thought of yanking a nose-hair – but I wanted to make sure everybody knew who the real mensch here was. Yeesh.
And you know what? I could forgive even the prickish showboating if there were solid advice anywhere in this piece. But instead, we get this:
When a fiction writer has a message to deliver, a residue of smugness is often in the prose, a distressing sense of the story’s being rushed, of the author’s going through the motions, hurrying the characters toward whatever wisdom awaits on the last page. As a reader, I feel pandered to and closed out. Maybe even a little bullied. My involvement in the story, like the characters’, becomes utterly passive. We are there to follow orders, to admire and applaud the author’s supposed insight.
“Stories fueled by intentions,” we’re told, “never reach their boiling point.” What-all the story’s writer is supposed to do if he isn’t actually intending to tell a story couldn’t be plainer: he should be gazing at himself in the mirror. With teachers like this, with philosophies like this, suddenly the graduates of these kinds of programs become more comprehensible. Just as distressing, but more comprehensible.
Still! Only one essay in a roster of eleven slots! That’s very nearly a full dozen short stories, which would, if achieved, be the equivalent of one year’s worth of monthly fiction. This issue should be commended for that if nothing else – that, and the fact that it’s sundered its unholy alliance with fascist Canadian faux-festivals and gone back to the tried-and-true money-losing expedient of good old-fashioned publisher ads …