I was very pleased and grateful that Waldo Jaquith and Ted Genoways showed up here to respond to our complaints about their snarky, slush-pile-mocking blog post. I was only somewhat familiar with the Virginia Quarterly Review itself, but had a favorable opinion of it -- a nice-looking mag with many good writers in it. So I wasn't really on board with some of the other complaining going on in the comments at LROD, that, as one commenter said, the stories they publish represent "one type of sensibility."
But editor Genoways took umbrage at this statement and provided links to six stories, saying that if anyone wants to criticize what the journal publishes, they should actually read the stories and be specific. Fair enough. I figured that since I had given them such a rough time of it about the blog post, I should read the stories, too.
So for the last couple days I've neglected my vegetable garden and instead immersed myself in the VQR. To my surprise, I found the stories to be very similar in some important ways, though on the surface they couldn't be more different: four of them are written by international writers and take place in four wildly different countries, and one American story takes place in the future and the other in the past.
Now, before I go on, I should say that I think it's perfectly fine for a magazine to only publish stories with a "particular sensibility." After all, a magazine is a product of its editors' tastes, and if that sensibility appeals to its readers, then the editors are doing their job. So none of what I'm going to say is a criticism of the VQR or a call for them to change what they publish. It's just that I think I've noticed something that applies to these stories, and also to lots of other fiction published these days, and which accounts for this reader's frequent lack of enthusiasm for fiction found in so many lit mags.
This is what it is: a lack of attention to character and a focus instead on culture and outside events. In every one of the VQR stories, though some moreso than others, the main character is a cipher. In "Hotel Malogo," by Helon Habila (perhaps my favorite of all the stories, incidentally) the narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy applying for newspaper or editing jobs in the capital city. Which is very cool and interesting, but that's all we know about him. There is nothing about his past, his psychology, or his desires. The point of the story lies in how he reacts to some violent events that happen in the latter half, but since we have no idea what kind of person the character is, it's hard to know how to interpret what he does. The very ending of this story is excellent, though; the only time when reading these six that I felt moved or surprised or literarily impressed. (I should say five and a half; one story I couldn't finish.)
The other stories, though very different in subject and setting, had a similar tendency to reveal as little character as events would allow, though in one or two of the stories ("Internal Affairs" and possibly "The Thirteenth Egg,") secondary characters are somewhat more filled out. In “Zanzibar” by Beena Kamlani, the lack of development and detail about the protagonist was particularly frustrating. She is a wife of a middle class engineer in India (maybe middle class; it's hard to tell and class in India is so baroque) whose life is improved by an almost magical cook who later leaves, causing the family to fall socially and flee the country. But the wife herself is a big nothing. All we know about her is that she likes to eat. It's frustrating because I know this character has lots of complex and interesting thoughts and feelings about every other character in the story, but the author would rather talk about all the wonderful food.
I don't think every story must be about psychology, or that a story that that skimps on character is necessarily bad. “Hotel Malogo” is quite a good story and most of the others aren't bad. But when character becomes an unimportant part of a story, so do all the things that go along with it: powerful human interactions, voice, humor, and metaphor, or at least the kind of metaphor that develops out of a character's world view. None of these stories had much of a sense of humor or a distinctive way with language.
Mostly what I wonder is: Why? What happened? There's definitely been a change of mood and taste. These stories read like fables or reportage compared to the stories of the 80's and 90's, which were much more voicey, funny, and idiosyncratic. Someone must like the change, but what caused it?