Friday, May 9, 2008

The VQR, and the Short Story Today

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?

45 comments:

john said...

I wonder if you find this lack of character development more in stories that purport to inform about a culture that is, for lack of a more nuanced way of saying it, fashionable, or at least more of a focus in the current collective American imagination (if there is such a thing). I found myself wondering why I should care about, for instance, Jhumpa Lahiri's narrator in "Year's End," which made _The NYer_ winter fiction issue. To my mind, the narrator and his story were standing in for something--call it old v. new world, call it generational differences, call it a (or *the*) crisis of the educated Indian upper-middle class.

It's kind of the same with sitcoms: just as viewers never tire of deferred romantic relationships, many contemporary readers do not tire of the tension between old and new, the fissures between generations, the journey--both physical and psychological--between stagnation and opportunity. These are the master narratives of many ethnic studies literature courses.

But too, I sometimes wonder if underdeveloped characters in what are ostensibly contexts of the "other" give readers an easy out: readers can more easily identify with characters that verge toward being ciphers, even if these characters are in an environment that is foreign. Though it might sound cheeky and condescending to say so, such readers want to see themselves while simultaneously feeling self-righteously worldly.

About ten years ago I was working toward an advanced degree in literature with an emphasis in Asian American and Asian British fiction. When I would teach the stuff, undergrads either a) wanted to see "universal" themes (i.e., themselves) in the writing or b) wanted to superimpose general racialized thematics over the stories (i.e., take some nugget about the nationality/culture/ethnicity/race away from the work). Most often, both.

If institutions are teaching people to read this way, where is room for in-depth character development?

rmellis said...

Yes, but the two American stories that I didn't really talk about were similar; in their case extreme implausible events (not plot, exactly) took the place of character development. That's another type of story one sees a lot these days: the wacky.

rmellis said...

More later, John --

jrlennon said...

I think John has a point--group identity politics is and was a powerful force over the past twenty years, and the literature of the twentieth century was by and large about personal identity. Fiction is getting to be more about group identity.

In theory, that's fine with me. But I think the best fiction of this type sets off the needs of individual identity against the needs of the group. In a way, that is THE subject of literature. Too much contemporary fiction leaves out the first part, though. It's not a sea change so much as the method du jour of being mediocre. And I think some editors don't notice the difference.

I do think some readers like to see themslves in fiction--the problems of the self painted in broad strokes. This is an immature way to read, in my view, but I think I'm in the minority there.

jrlennon said...

One more note: I think Junot Diaz's latest book is a perfect realization of what group/individual identity stories can be. It pushes every button, yet never panders.

noplatform said...

I think this critique of these stories is extremely insightful. Given our particular historical moment (post 9/11, the war in Iraq, almost 8 years of Bush) people feel a pressing need to take on "big issues," to engage with the injustices we see every day here and abroad--on television, film, newpapers, the internet, etc. Genoways, in his apology for the nasty VQR readers' comments blog entry, says as much:

"Too much of what we see these days strikes us as merely competent—well-crafted but passionless in its execution or, just as often, passionate only about the minor travails of the world of its author. No editor nor writer feels more strongly about the possibility of finding the universal in the small, but we also ravenously crave great writing that takes on big issues. Gutsy, fearless, hard-nosed writing. Writing that matters. Its absence makes us ill-tempered; it makes us question our enterprise. We work hard and want to see evidence of equal effort from writers."

I think people have come to see concerns about character and psychology, especially in the context of middle class American life, but also in general, as minor concerns, concerns that are less worthy of attention in this current moment than "big issues." My theory is that valuing cultural context over character has something to do with middle class guilt and the hierarchy of suffering. Genoways's comments imply that, given how hard the folks at VQR work to put out all these topical issues of the magazine, writers ought to take up more serious subjects than the suffering in middle class American life.

I don't know, maybe he's right. Maybe it's just embarrassing to write about love and work and loss in a milieu of privilege when so many people are suffering elsewhere. Clearly fiction writers can't afford to ignore the harrowing world we live in. But when an entire crucial facet of fiction--its ability to probe an individual's inner life--is sacrificed in the service of topicality, the art suffers.

Also, I think there's this idea floating around, left over from certain kinds of French literary theory, that the individual as a coherent whole is a naive social construct. And so writers who tackle characters as discrete individuals, with discrete personalities, who can be captured by means of narrative, are seen as retrograde. It's easier as a writer, and more fashionable, to deal with the social situation, rather than an individual's personality.

jrlennon said...

noplatform, that is all really good, and I'm in agreement with pretty much all of it. I do think that Genoways is fundamentally wrong in saying that "Gutsy, fearless, hard-nosed writing. Writing that matters" equates with writing about "big issues."

Humanity is not facing "big issues" at the moment that it hasn't had to face before, and I think it's naive to think that our era is special, or the problems of our country at this moment are special. The big problems of the world are personal problems writ large. "Issue" fiction is dated the second it's printed, because nobody will give a crap about it in fifty years.

We don't read The Iliad, or Shakespeare's history plays, because we care deeply about the "issues" of the Trojan War and the lineage of English kings. Those "issues" are the dramatic backdrops for psychologically acute writing--the plays in question are about memorable personalities at war with one another.

And I say this as a writer who is presently wrapping up a novel that Is about prison torture in Iraq. it's not that big issues shouldn't make their way into contemporary fiction--indeed, it's inevitable that they will. But if somebody can't pick up my book in a century and see some universal human struggle in its pages, rather than merely the atrocity of the moment (which will have been entirely forgotten in a century, supplanted with new, yet very similar, horrors), then there's no point in my writing it.

"Valuing cultural context over character has something to do with middle class guilt and the hierarchy of suffering." I do think you've hit it on the head there. I think this may be the #1 problem facing literary publishing right now.

Writer Reading said...

I think this was a very insightful, balanced and fair analysis by an apparently highly intelligent individual with complex, insightful thoughts and a unique, compelling voice. To slog through stories that lack this factor of individuality no matter how geographically remote, no matter how exotic the food, the spices, the smells, the architecture, no matter how sonorous the landscape, the foreign expressions, no matter how quirky the local customs, boils down to reading mere travelogues. I think these first appeared in the New Yorker as "classy" pieces that wealthy readers were supposed to relate to as fellow world travelers. This "literature" has now devolved into mere multi-cultural curios. And you're right, this has generalized back to stories of our culture, whether about the inaccessibly wealthy, some Mormons in the past, or some Star-Trek crew socializing with aliens in the future. It reminds me of the phrase used in Alcoholics Anonymous "people places and things." Alcoholics in denial never look within themselves for answers, insight or responsibility. Everything is determined and blamed upon the external, on people, places and things. Bush is a born-again Christian recovering alcoholic, but some would call him a dry alcoholic as he still fits this profile of blaming everyone but himself, with zero insight at all, like there is no one even standing there inside his suit. The way you describe these stories, Rhian, they also fit this profile, the Bush-era profile. All the multi-cultural traveloguing in the world is not going to change that essential stance and perception regarding the responsibility and insight of the individual. I have to say that the best novels today still have full individuals at their centers. I don't think you could get away with publishing an empty-suit travelogue as a novel. But a short story...why not? You could definitely get away with it and look very esoteric, cool and cutting edge in the process. Not to mention make great conversation at cocktails parties with all your anecdotes about the quaintest places to eat in Myanmar before the cyclone.

Tully said...

Six stories are representative of "the short story today." There is insanely more variety in short fiction today than there was twenty years ago, and to judge that state of short stories based on what makes it into the popular magazines with glossy pages -- considering how much things have turned toward the Internet and small presses -- is a remarkably simplistic and reductive generalization. I've been a fan of this blog, but as a writer (and as a reader who actually SEEKS OUT fresh and interesting fiction) I find this kind of blanket statement to be ignorant and offensive.

Tully said...

Oops. There should be a "not" in that first sentence. As in: "Six stories are not representative..."

rmellis said...

Dude, obviously I think they are representative of a *thing* that is happening -- not of all stories. Though many.

Elsewhere on this blog you will read me get giddy on much contemporary fiction.

WR -- thank you, will respond later -- must not read blog at work...

Puc said...

Your analysis speaks to VQR’s editorial voice. I have on my desk four issues, Fall 2006 thru Summer 2007, the result of a one year, individual subscription I purchased. Fall 2006 is informed by the Gunter Grass SS revelation, and includes Chabon’s excerpt “from a novel in which Israel does not exist,” with stories set in US cities, one about contemporary students – in contrast to how Grass spent part of his youth; Winter 2007, Africa, with fiction stories set in the Peruvian jungle and Hungary, and an essay by Walter Mosley; Spring 2007, US Mexico border, including a story by Nadine Gordimer – that apparently has New Yorker and Playboy parts; Summer 2007, Iraq, a story from Llosa. So a voice emerges; you see what they’re about. The Fall 2006 issue indicates approx. 5,000 copies each issue for preceding 12 months, approx. 2,000 fewer than the number of unsolicited fiction stories alone they receive annually. 3,909 Fall 2006 copies went to paid subscribers, but there’s no indication how many went to institutions vs. individuals like myself. If most of those copies went to institutions (college libraries), then the ratio of true individual copies to unsolicited stories is even greater. I subscribed to VQR for a number of reasons, but most importantly because it provides a credible, reliable, and thoughtful alternative to daily media coverage of the events and issues described above. I got something from my reading of each issue. The fiction stories are suitable, representative of the academic journal, a mix of professional writers and academics who write, and there seems to be diverse international representation. That is what I expected; I’m not saying that’s good or bad, just that I wasn’t surprised. My main concern thru this whole brouhaha was with the 7,000 ongoing rejections – which came to my attention due to Waldo’s original joking post; but I’ll explain that concern this way: there’s a movie, Hearts of the West, that illustrates (Jeff Bridges, 1975). Bridges plays a rural farm boy who wants to be a western writer, so he enrolls in a correspondence school. Not content just to receive their correspondence, he decides to go visit the school, where he finds, of course, two swindlers operating nothing more than a one room correspondence scam. He chases them all the way to Hollywood trying to get his money back. VQR is not such a correspondence school; there are other publications out there that are – that either charge reading fees for profit from the same gullible 7,000 (while publishing others), or that exist simply because it’s cheap to do so and function therefore primarily as vanity mags. So I advocate for increased awareness of this problem. I don’t know what the solution is, but I think there are too many people writing and not enough people reading – as evidenced by the number of rejections. I think TG provided some good advice: pick a few publications you truly admire, respect, enjoy – whatever (and it does not matter why – it could be EQMM, if that’s what you want), and read every word, and advocate for reading first, and writing second, and support the publication you aspire to appear in, even if you know you never will. I’m amazed at the number of WbW’s over at LROD that have expressed frustration with the New Yorker for long response times; Dana Goodyear has made it plain – the New Yorker finds you; you don’t find the New Yorker. The New Yorker shouldn’t be getting any unsolicited manuscripts – nor, and this was always my point, should VQR, because, with possible rarest of exceptions, they don’t use them. Finally, recently, if you’ve read this far you might enjoy this, I attempted via email to volunteer at a local lit. mag. They had solicited volunteers on their web site. And guess what? I got rejected! I couldn’t even volunteer at one, something about, “we’re analyzing our needs for interns at the moment.”

jrlennon said...

Yeah, come on, Tully, all we ever freaking do here is talk about all the new fiction we like. We're not talking about WRITERS, we're talking about PUBLISHERS. We're trying to describe and analyze a trend in the more commercial end of literary publishing, and we never said we were doing anything different.

jrlennon said...

Geez, puc, having your physical self rejected? Just when you think they've run out of insults.

Though, I consider the problem you present--that there are too many writers and not enough readers--to be kind of a false problem. It's true that writing is a fad right now, and lots of people without much skill are blanketing the world with manuscripts. But their desire to write is legitimate, and they are probably getting something out of it, and that's not a bad thing.

If a magazine publisher doesn't want to hear from these people, they have that option. They can do as the New Yorker does. And if they choose to accept unsolicited manuscripts, then they shouldn't complain about it.

I'm a little more concerned with the problem Rhian is trying to identify in her post--the creeping "utility" of commercially published fiction--its evident shift from artistic aims to social and cultural ones. Personally, I think that a short story is nothing without artistic ambition. It stops being meaningful outside the time and place it's created in. This is why I think of the New Yorker as a largely nonfictional organ these days, and perhaps why I'm finding it harder to publish my own stuff.

john said...

rmellis, weren't these six stories all in VQR? If yes, your point isn't so much about these stories representing the contemporary short story. Rather, you're questioning whether or not they offer up the diversity--in all senses of that word--that the editor claims for them. (Tully, this is what I took from the original post.)

Another point (just thinking about the NYer's choices, present and past): though Cheever has become the poster child for suburban malaise, especially of the East Coast variety, I believe that his characters are well-developed *and* shed light on a largely hermetic group and the larger world, too. He wasn't taking on xenophobia or explicit racism or whatever other larger issue, but his short stories seem to expand beyond the class that he writes about. I feel that way when I read Katherine Mansfield, too (for instance, "The Garden Party"). And Hisaye Yamamoto talks about Japanese Americans, but her characters shed light on the larger group, not just a set of issues that people have become familiar with in college courses.

noplatform said...

jrlennon: I agree with the statement that "big issues" are not unique to our era. Every historical moment contains its versions of suffering and injustice. Maybe it's a matter of scale. The world now has more people, bigger weapons, a global economy, and mass media that reaches more people than ever. Images of suffering are more present to us, via the media, than ever before. We are bombarded with images and stories about human cruelty and despair on a daily, often hourly, basis. Perhaps this accounts for what I think of as the "cringe factor" for writers and editors alike. Genoways and his journal are reporting on injustices all over the globe; therefore, they cringe when they receive all these stories about, as he puts it, "the minor travails" of the writers and their lives.

On the one hand, I sympathize. You don't want an entire generation of writers ignoring pressing current events. On the other hand, I think its necessary to speak up, even now, for the "minor travails" of human experience as the subject of literature. A novel like WAR AND PEACE, while set in a period of war and incredibly engaged with issues about war, gives an awe-inspiring array of characters, the nuances of their inner lives, their contradictory thoughts and actions, the texture of their loves, griefs, patriotism, hatreds, you name it. It's not just a novel about some people interacting with each other in Napoleonic-era Russia.

jrlennon said...

noplatform--yes!, that's what I was trying to say, bring the sociopolitical to bear UPON the character. A lot of the greatest fiction does this. And yeah, john, I would agree that Cheever is indeed an example of this kind of work.

Puc said...

"I'm a little more concerned with the problem Rhian is trying to identify in her post--the creeping "utility" of commercially published fiction--its evident shift from artistic aims to social and cultural ones."

jrlennon... thanks for reading to the end of my post (i.e. thanks for the first non-rejection I've had in awhile). But this idea you've put into the sentence I copied above, this did give me something more to think about. Yet, I'm thinking of Joyce's Dubliners, of Orwell's essays, even of Cheever - are not many of their works characterized, if not driven by, social and cultural concerns, but manage to maintain artistic integrity at the same time? ... Also, I would never discourage someone from writing, as is hopefully obvious from a previous comment on your site; on the contrary, the more writers, the better. But, is there not a difference between writing and publishing? Between wanting to write, and wanting to be a "writer"? You don't have to comment back on that, but I'm thinking of Bob Dylan's line: "and I'll know my song well before I start singing." Or, as Beckett said, "to be an artist is to fail as no other dare fail." Is that why we write?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

Terry Finley

http://theterryfinleysite.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

"Though, I consider the problem you present--that there are too many writers and not enough readers--to be kind of a false problem."

JRL, this is off-topic but I definitely believe there are too many writers in the world and not enough readers. Like you said, if anyone gets personal satisfaction from any writing he attempts, then great. My problem lies more so with people who "seriously" undertake writing and barely read. I'm a fairly young writer, 26, in grad school. I'm also part of a post-grad group of writers. Even among all those groups of people who want to become writers, very few read more than a book or two a year. I'm sorry but this seems to be such a ridiculous trend that I don't find nearly as prevalent in most other arts. In regards to music and art, my musician friends and visual arts friends, who far outweigh my lit friends, always attend shows, are up to date on their contemporaries, etc. Only in writing do people tend to solely focus on "making it" and ignore the community at large; the history that came before; the work of their contemporaries. What's that that Flannery O'Connor said about grad schools not discouraging enough writers (I'm butchering it, I know)? I read a theory that everyone thinks they can write because they do it so much on a day to day level, writing notes, that they believe they can write short stories, novels, much more easily than say, paint a picture or write a song. Bottomline, people don't read enough. If someone is out to be a writer and doesn't read, then who does he think will read his work? Seventy-five percent of people say that at some point in their lives they seriously attempted to write poetry. Do you think any major percentage of those people read poetry? Looking to get published and writing for oneself is great but damn people, read.

I'm sure most if not all people perusing this blog are heavy readers but I'm sure the numbers of writers to serious readers is staggeringly lopsided.

Mr. Saflo said...

^ What he said.

jrlennon said...

Absolutely, I don't disagree with you guys about the glut of writers who aren't serious readers. It's just...whatddya gonna do about it? Nothing, you know? I call it a false problem because it isn't one with a solution. It's something we can complain about, but not really something we can change, except by being different from the thing that bothers us.

I think this blog is an attempt, in some ways, to move the culture of writing toward reading more seriously and critically. My favorite class to teach at school is called Reading For Writers, and I like to think that's what we're doing here.

Writer Reading said...

Actually, one can get so sick of reading about the politics of publishing on blogs like the recent flurry everywhere about VQR that hiding the laptop in a locker at the train station and reading a stack of novels uninterrupted in a hovel seems intensely appealing. If one sticks only to litblogs, one gets the impression that writing is no longer about the pleasure of writing but about the strategy games of publishing. I, for one, am quitting the game, not that anyone will care, with an overpopulated selection of writers good and bad clamoring to get published.

rmellis said...

There is really too much here to respond to... such good insights. I think it's true that some editors feel that fiction about character necessarily means it must be about privileged people navel-gazing, but of course it doesn't. The very best writing is often about the individual consciousness AND the big issues. Too many examples to mention. (What's the cliche: the personal is political; the political is personal. War is wrong because of what it does to this particular consciousness, etc.)

I have to say it bores me to DEATH that violent, masculine, "hard-hitting" fiction is considered the only serious fiction by so many editors.

WR: my attitude about publishing is that it's the one thing about my writing I can't control, so it needs to take a back seat to everything else. It's so easy to get sucked into the dramas, though...

rmellis said...

Incidentally, I see what Tully means: in the final paragraph I leapt from talking about the six stories to ALL stories -- I treated them as representative because they do represent a trend I've noticed, but I didn't really explain that well.

Writer Reading said...

rmellis: I'm glad you wrote that about violent, hard-hitting fiction being associated with a certain kind of machismo. I myself have long suspected what the emphasis on "big" issues was actually, subconsciously referring to. OK, now I'm really done with this subject.

Anonymous said...

"I have to say it bores me to DEATH that violent, masculine, "hard-hitting" fiction is considered the only serious fiction by so many editors."

Maybe I'm biased because I write and thoroughly enjoy reading masculine, "hard-hitting" fiction but I don't find that that sort of fiction is being as readily published nowadays. I think people still have some lingering feelings because the 80s and 90s were characterized by such types: Wolff, Carver and Richard Ford obviously, and later Thom Jones and a slew of IWW writers, but I feel like journals that publish stories and the prize-winning collections (BASS, O. Henry, Pushcart) don't seem to be monopolized by violent, masculine fiction.

If we're talking strictly stories, I feel like there are only a handful of writers who regularly publish and could be characterized as masculine writers: Charles D'Ambrosio, Benjamin Percy, Jim Harrison, I'm drawing a blank, but you get my point.

In terms of novelists, sure, Cormac, Richard Ford still, Denis Johnson, etc. but those guys have been writing for decades and I think the statement was in regards to editors of contemporary lit mags.

I mis-typed earlier, the stories are still being published but not moreso than stories about relationships, magical realist stories, global issue stories, etc.

Also, lastly, I think, and this connects back to Rhiann's earlier pronouncement about the VQR stories, class issues have taken a backseat in contemporary stories to larger, global issues.

I don't doubt there are a million young writers who are writing violent, masculine stories in workshops around the country but I don't feel like the lit mags that I pick up and subscribe to (which are a lot, by the way) don't favor those types of stories over any others.

I hope this made sense, it's very disjointed, but it's early.

noplatform said...

So I took the plunge and read the stories themselves, after reading and thinking about rmellis's intelligent post about them. (Okay, I admit, I couldn't finish "The Last Dead," but I made a good faith effort). Having read them, I still agree with rmellis's assessment. Most of them really do provide a more journalistic (rather than literary) look at a culture at the expense of much character development. And rmellis is right to point out that the quality of the prose, while serviceable, is not particularly inspiring or inventive.

I came away from reading these stories wondering how they represented examples of what Genoways is looking for, ie. "writing that matters," writing that deals with the "big issues" rather than the "minor travails." I thought the stories all dealt with minor travails (a woman pleasing her husband, a guy wanting his girlfriend back, a guy hanging out with his crazy friend, a lonely guy wanting companionship, etc) in what you might call "big issue" settings; in other words, foreign countries, wartime, or the future.

I think the problem is one of relevance. How can American middle class writers and publishers feel relevant in an era of so much visible suffering? Genoways and VQR provide one possible answer: write and publish "big issue" fiction. But is this the best answer to address the problem of relevance? After all, the kind of journalistic reporting happening in many of those stories is already done quite well by non-fiction. Non-fiction can do the job better, in some ways, because it purports to give us real people in real places, suffering real injustices.

What, then, is the job fiction can do better than non-fiction? Well, one thing fiction can do very powerfully is give readers a portrait of the human inner life, the individual in all its contradictory complexity. Gutsy fiction writing takes us to the dark places in the human psyche that are painful to encounter. But those encounters, with people who don't actually exist, can change us when we read them. If the language used by a writer, and the characters and human situations created by the writer, are compelling enough, we can be moved and transformed by the act of reading, regardless of where the action takes place. I found much to admire in these stories, but I was not moved by them.

Writer Reading said...

I know my comments are invisible but I have to make one more. Unlike Rhian who referred to masculine as violent, I was referring to masculine as the obsession with "big." The idea that if there is a broad foreign panoramic setting, the characters can be stick figures because it's automatically "big." A very superficial notion of big. So an intense domestic drama in a small house in Kansas is Small. But the same drama in a small tent in Afghanistan is automatically so big that the people can be superficial. That's my understanding of Rhian's initial observation of the stories as well as noplatform's. And this big/small distinction is not new. It is as old as the history of art. And as superficial. And as stupid.

rmellis said...

anon -- It might well be true that not much "hard-hitting" fiction is published in lit mags; I was responding to the VQR comment and the idea that masculinish fiction is taken more seriously -- with prizes and just plain respect -- than more, say, domestic fiction that might be as intelligent and well-written. That's probably a whole other blog post I don't want to write, though -- too much sweeping generalization.

noplatform -- that was the one I couldn't finish either. I guess everyone reads for different reasons-- I know I read non-fiction to learn most things, but I read fiction to find out what it's like in other people's minds.

jrlennon said...

Your comments are invisible? We are reading them all!

rmellis said...

I don't find your comments invisible, WR. And I agree with you -- violence is only one way of being Big; I mentioned it because one of the American stories had a lot of exploding and destruction in it and it linked that story with the others. The stories seemed less interesting to me because the characters were dealing with outside forces (their culture, murder, bombs) rather than forces inside and between them -- the very thing that must have made Genoways like them in the in first place. Big. Yes.

Owen King said...

Hey there - First time, long time! I know I'm a little late to this discussion, but I wanted to chime in on "The Thirteenth Egg." I edited it before VQR, so you'll forgive me if I feel like I have a little stake.

With regards to what JRL wrote about bringing the "sociopolitical to bear upon the character," I'm not sure how much better a piece of fiction could do. The main character of the story, Everett, has witnessed a series of horrific events during his WWII service, culminating in an out-of-control nuclear test that vaporizes most of his friends. How this effects Everett - with depression, rage, and terrible confusion, i.e. post-traumatic stress syndrome - should be as relevant tomorrow as it is today. In other words, it's a story that takes a fantastical approach to explore what war does to soldiers.

It's true that Everett is transformed by something outside of himself (the war, and especially, the bomb), but the central conflict is an inner one, isn't it? Because of what he's seen, Everett has become a kind of bomb himself, hot and unstable, and the narrative is primarily concerned with his efforts to understand why he feels the way he feels.

max said...

Are you the same Owen King that got an MFA from Columbia (where Scott Snyder, who wrote "The 13th Egg," got his)?
Not that it matters. Just wondering.
Good post, Rhian, good discussion.

rmellis said...

OK: (great initials, btw) I see what you're saying. But you have to admit: Everett is kind of an Everyman character, a placeholder for "guy traumatized by atom bomb." He could be anyone; he doesn't have much particular about him. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean the story fits my thesis, that Genoways picked stories in which character development was secondary to other things.

rmellis said...

I doubt anyone noticed, but if so, I edited my above comment because I went on to nit-pick the story a little. I don't want to be one those people sitting on the sidelines, punching holes in the work of writers who have the nuts to actually put their stuff out there, unlike some of us (koff koff).

It's a tricky line to walk, to be honest.

puc said...

So I read “The 13th Egg.” It’s a 50’s TV sitcom, or something from The Twilight Zone series. I thought of Ray Bradbury. It’s a comic book idea story, the origins of a new superhero... I wondered if kids would use the F word like that, in 1946 – soldiers at war, sure, but to their small town girlfriends back home? But there were too few clues to any local idiom, just the F word every now and then, so I thought its use gratuitous. I also looked for accuracy, wondering why he called it a Johnny Mercer song, when Mercer wrote only the lyrics, but I decided this was unfair of me (yet, what’s the Mercer song in the story for? Is it a pun on light, “Travelin’ Light,” for our hero? But’s that’s not the meaning of light in the song). I noticed some consistency, which might be described as sentimental: "mouf" for example, from the sailor whose face is heated off; and, "assignment...had come down the pipe" the military gives orders, not assignments, and do things “come down the pipe”? Again, they do on TV – it’s a form of shorthand. Is supe a word? I don’t think so; the OED would use "soup" for souping up a car, his meaning here, not “supe.” "Yolks on you" is forced, but suits the 50's sitcom or Twilight Zone emulation we've got going here. "Sheriff Gilgoff." What kind of name is Gilgoff? It brings too much attention to itself coming so late in the story. "Fingers like tiny microphones" isn’t bad. The pilot falling from a clear sky and landing on the deck hits with the intended surprise. The iceberg motif works. The clubfoot (one word, I think, not two, but OED shows it with a hyphen) is an easy explanation that TV would use, and allows for the ending to take shape, which is how TV stories are constructed. Is it a war story? Is it even a story about how WWII affected soldiers, their girls and families and friends? No. Is it history? No. But you can’t criticize a story for being something it’s not intended to be. It’s a “Jody was home when you left” story: boy goes off to war, comes home to find his girl’s dating another boy, the boys fight – our hero wins in a nuclear fantasy ending. Is this a “good” story? Well, it’s not Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home.” It’s not Bob Dylan’s “John Brown,” (which should get a listen if you want to know what can happen to a soldier’s face). It’s not Adam Haslett, not Breece D’JPancake. No, this is not a very hard-boiled story (sorry for the pun). But it’s not supposed to be. It’s 1950’s TV. But even on those terms, it’s only moderately successful, because it lacks unity of purpose. It’s certainly not literary, not in the way any of Joyce’s “Dubliners” are. “Scraps of molten steel spun across the ground, turning the sand to black glass.” Not a bad sentence; a great sentence in a comic book. The S’s do their job. But you need more than a little alliteration for the whole to achieve what we might, reluctantly in this environment, call art. But I don’t think “art” is this writer’s intention. I think he’s having fun. In the end I guess I’m surprised that VQR prints this story when we’re spending close to $400 million a day in Iraq. Seems irreverent. Which may be part of the problem. I don’t know if the writer was ever a soldier, but I doubt it. I think this writer is having fun. The story is probably informed more by the writer’s interests than by his experience, like someone talking about their hobbies. I do not think war is his interest here (if it is, and we compare to something like “Letters from Iwo Jima,” we’ve got a problem). I think his interest here is sci-fi. But more power to him. I would like to see his short story book, to see, if placed in the context of other stories similarly built, there emerges a sharing of his interests in a way that builds a world. At close to 10K words, he had the chance here to build a world, and he may have, but in the end, it’s a shorthand world. I think of Joyce’s Farrington in “Counterparts,” or Little Chandler in his “A Little Cloud.” Or Stephen Crane’s “The Monster.” If “The 13th Egg” is evidence, I no longer think the argument is about the slush pile, but I don’t know what it is about. (also commented at LORD).

scott snyder said...

just wanted to say thanks to all for reading the story. appreciate hearing everyone's thoughts - puc, rmellis, jr - liked your story in the same anthology, by the way. i tried to make everett a rich character, but i also wanted him to be a relatively dazed and blasted and blank guy. certainly could have been too general. a lot of the story is based on stories my g'father told me about the war in the pacific (he was a naval officer in a number of battles) and his feelings about adjusting to life after the war and such. overall, though, the story was written for an anthology in which writers try to create new superheroes. it was a different thing for me but as a tremendous comic geek, i'm thrilled to be included. certainly over the moon about the inclusion in the vqr, too. thanks again.

scott snyder said...

and huge thanks to owen for encouraging me to try the idea. grateful for everything. couldn't be happier about how it all turned out. tcb.

David Rochester said...

My observation would be that there seems to be a trend in fiction toward breadth vs. depth. That is a very simplistic statement, but I think it's also reflective of cultural/psychological change; more than we ever have before, we are looking outside ourselves for answers, for examples, for ideas, for instruction. The old stereotype of the self-reliant American (and I realize that the stories were not all American, but I am choosing to say this for the sake of my point) is antiquated.

I think that trends in art tend to reflect trends in cultural psychology. Of course there are still writers who write character-driven pieces, who write with delicacy and individual voice. But as people in general grasp more at outward threads to try to weave their own lives together, I think they become more attracted to art that reflects this process. I also think that people tend to become involved with "big issues" because they are impossible to solve, whereas one's personal issues might be resolved with sufficient painful work. People who don't want to live a life involving that work are, I think, attracted to art that reflects their own way of living, that models this form of distraction, that makes outward "bigness" important.

There's a difference, to a reader, between a story that deals with painful big issues, and one that deals with painful personal issues. It's harder to gain distance from the latter. The reader is more likely to suffer on a personal level, to be piqued or hurt or made angry or challenged. I think that people are not being taught how and why to read, and not being taught to value the pain of depth-based writing. Instead, there is a disproportionate value placed on the depersonalization and comfortable distance in much breadth-based writing. It's interesting, and it may be painful, but it's not painful in the same way.

The best literature incorporates big issues with that personal confrontation. Many fine examples have been given in the comments here, but as a recent example, I'd add Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It's interesting to note that works successfully integrating the universal and the personal are usually described in terms such as: "Set against the backdrop of the Crimean War ..." or whatever. The point is that the big event is the equivalent of the body, and the personal is the soul. Readers seem less comfortable with souls than they used to be.

rmellis said...

Thanks all the great comments, everyone, and thanks for swinging by, Scott. And thanks for being such a great sport. (My grandfather was also in the Navy in the Pacific, a radioman. He went down with his ship, the USS Hull. If your grandfather is still around, ask if he remembers Stinky Ellis.)

If you want to track down my work (1997 New Stories from the South, I'm old) and criticize it in public, I'll try to weather it with as much grace as you have.

jrlennon said...

Scott, I should add, I haven't read your story yet, but I didn't know it was commissioned for the same anthology I'm in, and neither did Rhian!

That's the trouble with talking about publishing. Everybody knows everybody. Or is about to.

scott snyder said...

no desire to thrash you, rhian. for the most part, it's inspiring just to see the discussion happening here. and for the record, jr, your story in the anthology, "the rememberer," about the girl who forgets nothing, is a terrific read (an editor sent it to me early on). happy to be in that company.

max said...

"That's the trouble with talking about publishing. Everybody knows everybody. Or is about to."
Couldn't have said it better myself, jrl.
Owen never responded to my question -- whether he got his MFA at Columbia, where Scott Snyder got his.

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