Tuesday, July 21, 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 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.


Jeffrey.Eaton said...

Whoa, I read these 3,800+ words of pure steam-out-of-the-ears ranting too early in the morning. Hilarious as it was, now I feel a little like this guy.

Anonymous said...

Your description of the self-serving essays in the beginning of the issue reminded me a lot of those in the most recent Georgia Review. Seems like the same sort of didacticism disguised as introspection regarding in one case "the environment" and fiction in the other. It makes me want to say "Please tell me something that I didn't already know you were going to tell me!"

Anna Freeman said...

I know! I read all the pretentious bullshit in the editors note and thought great! I'm in for some really good literature! and then I sit down to read it and it is all stupid adultery melodrama. all of it! If the editor is married, I hope his wife leaves him. ;)

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Luminato cares nothing whatsoever about books or literature, much less the current state of the American short story, which a considerably higher authority on fiction than she is roundly dinged to the rubbish heap.

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