Something We Want to Read

At the tail end of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways’s infamous (at least in some circles) Mother Jones essay about literary magazines, “The Death of Fiction,” Genoways pleads for contemporary short story writers to:

Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.

Such commentary about contemporary fiction may seem a bit harsh. But literary magazine readers—just like art gallery attendees and theater audiences—understand to at least some extent what Genoways is talking about. What they understand is that not all artistic production is good, and what’s more, maybe not even the majority of it is.

This is of course not isolated to the literary arts, and neither is it a new state of affairs. As long as humans have been making stuff there has been crap, mediocrity, goodness, and—few and far between—greatness. Painting, home construction, television, cooking, you name it. And who knows: maybe this is more true for short stories and literary magazines. I really couldn’t say.

Anyhow, all that isn’t news.

What might be news is that the new issue of American Short Fiction is stunningly good. Stunningly. (I don’t at the moment know how to say that without sounding like a cheerleader, so there it is.) To be clear: I don’t mean “stunningly good” in the literary way. Not in the “You should read The Cantos” way. I mean it more the other way. More the “You should read those Stieg Larsson books” way. The “Hot Tub Time Machine was hilarious” way. The page-turning, where-did-the-time-go, I-am-going-to-read-this-aloud-to-strangers-on-the-subway way. But in the literary way, too. (I like The Cantos.)

I mean to say the stories in the latest ASF issue are exciting. I read them aloud on the subway. I finished the issue in an evening in bed. The stories are exciting in the way both Raymond Carver and True Blood are. They are stories of “acrobats, cowboys, and a brick-carrying babysitters,” of cab drivers, giraffes, and Catholic school girls. They are stories written by this talented bunch: Laura van den Berg, Jeff Parker, Jamey Hecht, Susan Steinberg, Matt Bell, Mike Young, and Marie-Helene Bertino. They are stories that make you forget you are reading and remind you of why you like to listen. Van den Berg’s story “Acrobats” reminded me of all the best things about her own stories in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, of the magic and mystery of them. It begins:

The day my husband left me, I followed a trio of acrobats around the city of Paris.

Reading Young’s story “Snow You Know and Snow You Don’t” was like being introduced to a young, mellowed out Thom Jones (author of some of the most talkative stories out there). It concludes elliptically:

When the world is the world and the us isn’t. Bluebirds and volcanoes. Circlesaws and pomegranates. Snow fell on the TAXI light, onto Private’s white ski cap, into Dan Mac’s mustache. Honeycombs of ice and millions more around. Listen. You will always want what you can’t feel. Snow is full of little things that fall, and I swear sometimes they all know each other.

All to say, the issue of ASF should be an answer to any problems readers might have with contemporary short stories and the magazines dedicated to publishing them.

Note: For more ASF right now, listen to Bertino read from and explain her story “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph” from the above issue on ASF’s first podcast episode. You can also read Ethan Rutherford’s claustrophobic ASF story “The Peripatetic Coffin,” which was featured in Best American Short Stories 2009. It begins:

The sound of iron walls adjusting to the underwater pressure around you was like the sound of improbability announcing itself: a broad, deep, awake-you-from-your-stupor kind of salvo. The first time we heard it, we thought we were dead; the second time we heard it, we realized we were. The third time wiped clean away any concern we had regarding our well-being and we whooped like madmen in our sealed iron tub, hands at the crank, hunched at our stations like crippled industrial workers. Frank yelled like a siren without taking a breath. Abel hooted like a screech owl. The walls pinged and groaned, but held their seams. We screamed for more.