Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In the Penny Press! The Atlantic Fiction Issue 2010!

The Atlantic Fiction Supplement is here again, and the trouble once again starts right away. It doesn’t seem like I’ve had a full year to recover from the numerous outrages of the previous Fiction Supplement, but then again, I was hoping this new one wouldn’t have any outrages.

Instead, it’s chock-full of them, starting with the cover by Marcos Chin, an image of two readers: she’s got an electronic reader! He’s got an old-fashioned book! He’s got a little dog! She’s got a big dog! They’re both so absorbed they don’t realize they’re about to turn a corner and run into each other! I’m sure Chin’s underlying idea (beyond simply riffing on the motif of the covers of the last twenty New Yorker Fiction Issues) is that the delivery device of reading, be it paper or electronic, is largely irrelevant: either way, you still get absorbed, and either way, you still leave yourself open to serendipity. But the message any dedicated reader can take from the cover is very different: that reading is only a prelude, that it’s all about display, that it can’t ever be a goal in itself.

That would fit with this issue, in which there’s far more display than substance. It’s difficult to know how much of this is due to the Atlantic’s ongoing unholy alliance with the Canadian arts festival Illuminato, although surely some of it is; even the colorful full-page insert ads for the festival littered throughout this issue don’t really take pains to hide the fact that books and literature aren’t anywhere near the point of their hoopla (as far as I can tell, John Malkovich is). And the one little sop to reading and literature that’s included in those ads only increases frustration levels.

The offending item is an ad for a seminar on “Fiction in the Age of E-Books,” in which, we’re told, “four eminent writers join the deputy editor of The Atlantic to examine the most revolutionary development affecting literature today: the advent of the e-book. What does this mean for the future of literature? Is this the death knell of print or the start of something new and possibly better?”

Leaving aside the fact that the last question is misleading (it could easily be both at the same time), the fact is, if e-readers do turn out to be bad for literature, they’ll have had lots of help from The Atlantic. In the publisher’s note that starts off this issue, Jay Lauf informs us:
… and this year we have launched a direct-to-Kindle fiction series with, offering two new stories from both celebrated authors and emerging talents to Kindle users each month.

And non-Kindle users, you automatically ask? Well, they don’t get to see those two stories a month; they’re more effectively barred than was any hopeful peasant from a 12th century monastery library. So much for the dawn of something new and possibly better.

[caption id="attachment_989" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="atlantic photo emilio guerra"][/caption]

Still, for the purposes of simple concentration, all this could be overlooked if the issue’s actual contents were worth the year-long wait. If you’ll recall, there were gems amidst the garbage last time around, especially “The Laugh” by Tea Obreht. It’s annoying but still possible to simply skip the exclusionary promises and the innumerable Canadian tourism ads if you’re drawn on by the promise of some really good short fiction.

Alas, that’s a mostly empty promise. There are seven short stories in this issue – a mere pittance compared to the amount that The Atlantic could be publishing and, I presume, once again a tiny fraction of the submissions they got for this issue, but still a hefty amount for most people to read in an afternoon. They could satisfy, if they were uniformly as good as a year-long wait would imply. But instead, they’re mostly place-holding exercises or turgid first drafts, so your year-long wait is rewarded by an afternoon of irritated sighs and angry page-flipping. Maybe it’ll all be easier on an e-reader.

The process can be speeded up by immediately discarding the deadweight. Since I actually read every one of these things from start to finish, I can help with that. For instance, there’s “The Silence,” an obligatory contribution by T.C. Boyle about a man and his insufferable wife at a vow-of-silence retreat in the desert. The thing is told in bobtailed little chunks, and in the first one of these, the man sees a dragonfly and longs to talk about it – a dragonfly, a creature of ponds and swamps, right there in the heart of the desert! And his wife shortly encounters a giant tarantula – right there on her bed! Boyle’s actual point of all this seems to be, “hey, what would happen if people took a vow of silence but then all this STUFF happened that they really, really wanted to talk about?” Yeesh. And this guy’s the headliner.

So you can entirely skip that one, and you can do likewise with “Bone Hinge” by Katie Williams – that’s what I was tempted to do, the instant I learned it was about two young women who are physically joined at the hip. And not at all alike, personality-wise. And who were born during a thunderstorm. This is called lazy writing, and it can be – it must be – ignored without compunction by busy people who don’t have enough time for all the reading they want to do.

[caption id="attachment_990" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="mutual self-deception by jonathan bartlett"][/caption]

The other five stories have slightly more merit, although there are no knockout pieces like “The Laugh” (Obreht’s book is projected to appear in 2011). Ryan Mecklenburg’s “Hopefulness” is a fairly good portrait of a man driven (by his insufferable wife) to confront the emasculation of suburbia; “The Landscape of Pleasure” by Amanda Briggs, about a man’s daughter having a quick, meaningless fling with one of his friends (the man’s insufferable wife has a breakdown when she finds out), is a fairly skillfully atmospheric piece marred by a cheap, chintzy final line; and Stuart Nadler’s “Visiting,” about a man taking his estranged son to meet the grandfather he didn’t know he had (the man lied to his son, and to his incredibly insufferable wife), has some genuine intelligence behind it but eventually degenerates into a story about how amazingly cool and adult it is to smoke. Which kind of chilled my approval, as you might expect.

The two comparative highlights were stories by Jerome Charyn and E. C. Osondu. – but the stress is on ‘comparative.’ Not that either of these stories is bad. Charyn’s, “Lorelei,” is about a professional gigolo/grifter who returns home after decades and meets the girl who first initiated him into the practice of serial fakery, and Osondu’s is about a pure-hearted young man who’s briefly imprisoned because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both have interesting dialogue, professionally-deployed timing, and no insufferable wives as far as the eye can see (although the poor damaged siren of the former’s title bitterly regrets missing her chance to be one). Either story would have stood out a country mile in, say, an average issue of The New Yorker. The only reason they carry the slight whiff of disappointment in this context is because I, for one, absolutely refuse to believe there weren’t far stronger candidates among the thousands of hopefuls for their spots in this annual issue.

Perhaps some of those hopefuls might have got that shot, except that once again the Atlantic editors have seen fit to put three pieces of nonfiction in their special fiction issue. Two of these are so meaningless as to be almost contemptible: there’s an interview with notable curmudgeon Paul Theroux in which he’s forcibly made to say he has no objections, no real objections, no real objections at all to electronic reading devices (if an exclusive story of his doesn’t appear on the Kindle within the year, I’m the Shah of Persia), and there’s a little excerpt from Joyce Carol Oates that’s so passive-aggressively egotistical it’s virtually incomprehensible (and the point of it anyway seems to be that it deals with the fact that Oates’ famously dead husband was the editorial force behind The Ontario Review, raising once again the specter of Canadian dictation).

[caption id="attachment_991" align="aligncenter" width="157" caption="atlantic illustration by owen freeman"][/caption]

Of more interest – and certainly of more topicality, given how many of this issue’s authors are first-timers – is Richard Bausch’s essay on the glut of ‘how to’ books about novel-writing.

Bausch is a good writer, but boy, can he be a dense one. He upbraids the young generation of would-be novelists who buy and read these how-to manuals on novel-writing, praising the pure mission of literature and urging them to praise it too:
My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most – suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another – are defeated.

All fine sentiments, but the denseness-factor crops up right away to derail the moral outrage:
This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines. Riches. Nothing to be skipped over in the name of some misguided intellectual social-climbing.

I think it was one of the Gabor sisters who once commented that the only important kind of social climbing was done from lower tax brackets to higher ones, and it would to cute that Bausch doesn’t seem to know this – if writing weren’t his career (and if he shouldn’t damn well have known it before he started writing this particular essay). Of course today’s crop of young would-be novelists are going to ignore the rich literary heritage Bausch is talking about here – and they won’t be ignoring it in a desire for ‘intellectual social climbing.’ They’ll be after good old-fashioned money. The fact that Bausch either doesn’t know who Harlan Coben is (or the five dozen similar authors whose works make up the stock-in-trade of every big English-language bookstore in the country) or thinks he doesn’t look on what he does as a job … well, it goes a long way toward explaining the rather steep difference between Coben’s bank account and Bausch’s. God bless Bausch for being a true believer, but the buyers of those how-to manuals want Coben’s bank account. They’d tell the Muses to go jump in a lake, if they knew who the Muses were.

With ‘special’ fiction issues like this one, I feel like those buyers are one step closer to their goal. I’ll have to hope that some real, bright talent shows up in next year’s issue, to demonstrate the desperate, valiant, shopworn truth of Bausch’s point.


BusyBea said...

I'm new to stevereads - enjoying unique slant/comedic style. Badly needed to keep books alive. Grateful atlantic monthly still taking on short fiction/essays - too few outlets exist. I agree its first two stories, "lorelei" and "a simple case" are great reads. But disagree on the joyce carol oates piece: I felt her pain but never her ego. Maybe it's a girl thing.

steve donoghue said...

welcome to Stevereads, BusyBea! There's a rather big backlog of entries - hope you find them all either pleasing or useful or both!

BusyBea said...

One thing I know - they'll all be "daily show" funny! Big dog, little dog - priceless!

momtrolfreak said...

Interesting the things you chose to pan and praise. "Lorelei" was drivel, IMO. "Bone HInge" was the highlight of the issue. Looking at your review, it occurs to me that you seem able to enjoy only stories in which the protagonist (or an object of desire for the protagonist) is a middle-aged male. Hmm. Also, why are all the wives insufferable? Mr. Freud, your slip is showing...

Steve Donoghue said...

Yes indeed, if there's one thing I've demonstrated in the last 1000 reviews, it's that I don't, in fact, know how to READ - I'm just a puppet of my brainless Freudian urges ... yeesh.

I assure you, if "Lorelei" were 'drivel,' I'd have spotted that fact and written about it. Ditto the story about the conjoined twins of radically different personalities who were born during a thunderstorm to the amnesiac Princess Anastasia on board the Titanic. Again, yeesh.

Burt said...

Dear Shah of Persia:

Dave said...

Thanks for sharing. I've read the issue cover to cover and was delighted to find it. I agree with your panning of T.C. but enjoyed everything else, from a "pure entertainment" point of view.

I suspect putting together an issue like this is much more work than it appears. And advertisements, anyone's, are going to be included in any magazine.

Thank God that people's opinions differ. Vanilla gets old quickly.

Neil Ellott said...

The thing that bothered me in Stuart Nadler's story is that nobody of the lead character's age would ever make the mistake of referring to a Polish Jew as "Polish". In Poland, Polish Jews were always Jews, never Poles. Nadler is too young to know that.

Glimmers of Hope (and a Chaser of Outrage) in the Penny Press! | stevereads said...

[...] 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 [...]