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The Atlantic: Fiction 2011
July 26, 2011 7:54 AM   Subscribe

The Atlantic has posted its Fiction 2011 issue online.

Essays

Brett Anthony Johnston - Don't Write What You Know. Why fiction’s narrative and emotional integrity will always transcend the literal truth.

John Barth - Do I Repeat Myself? The problem of the "already said".

Stories

Ariel Dorfman - The Last Copy. As soon as his book was published, Antonio realized that the pure vision of him that only she harbored would be shattered— and that he would do anything to keep her from reading it.

Wendell Berry - Sold. “I knew that all the things we’d gathered there so many years would be scattered and gone. All that had held it together would come apart and be gone as if it never was.”

Stuart Dybek - Vigil. The old Bohemian hadn’t come to disturb the family on Holy Night, only to deliver an enormous, misshapen gift.

Austin Bunn - How to Win an Unwinnable War. His parents were separating, but all Sam could think about was preparing for nuclear holocaust.

Jerome Charyn - Little Sister. Marla had felt she’d never really had a sister, that she’d been visited by some strange goblin or ghost. But then she went into Daddy’s bank vault after he died.
posted by WalterMitty (36 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for posting this. I haven't read the fiction yet, but the essays are interesting. I'm not sure how I feel about Johnston's thesis as a whole, but I'm pretty in love with this line:

Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.
posted by 256 at 8:03 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, it seems uncharacteristically sloppy of The Atlantic to get Bret Anthony Johnston's name wrong in the TOC (and strangely to then get it right in the byline).
posted by 256 at 8:10 AM on July 26, 2011


Thanks for posting this.

I'd forgotten I'd meant to end my subscription.
posted by notyou at 8:17 AM on July 26, 2011


Hello, Instapaper.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:28 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Remember when The Atlantic used to publish fiction in every issue? I miss those days.
posted by mattbucher at 8:30 AM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


I’ve long believed that what has kept writers, again myself included, from fully transcending their personal experiences on the page was fear of incompetence: I can’t write a plot that involves a kidnapping because I’ve never been kidnapped, etc. But what if it’s the opposite? What if the reason we find it so difficult to cleave our fiction from our experience, the reason we’re so loath to engage our imaginations and let the story rise above the ground floor of truth, isn’t that we’re afraid we’ll do the job poorly, but that we’re afraid we’ll do it too well? If we succeed, if the characters are fully imagined, if they are so beautifully real that they quicken and rise off the page, then maybe our own experiences will feel smaller, our actions less consequential

Johnston's thesis is sort of all over the damn place. He makes a lot of good points, and for a substantial part of the work his point seems to be that we're writing fiction, not autobiography, so we should stop trying not to literally transcribe entire events and stories. Use life as a starting point, not a destination.

But his conclusion, is kind of baffling. To me the problem with writing about things that you don't know, is the risk of missing details. I don't actually know how to fly a Harrier Jet, so setting the entire scene in a cockpit would either require exhausting research, or some serious fabrication. The devil is in the details.

If his point is: "You don't need to kill somebody to imagine what it feels like to do it," then that's fine, but that logic doesn't extend infinity in all directions.

It feels most like his title was picked for shock value and to be obstinate, but that his actual thesis meanders around the point, and goes back and forth a lot more.

Anyway that's one piece down. Christ, I'm not going to get any work done today.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:31 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Has anybody else out there stopped reading short fiction? I did read fiction quite a bit in the 90s (I have a Creative Writing degree), but stopped about 10 years ago. I stopped being able to suspend my disbelief, and moved on to non-fiction.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:36 AM on July 26, 2011


I had Austin Bunn as a professor for most of my writing classes. His fiction is pretty good, but his plays are great.
posted by mean cheez at 8:39 AM on July 26, 2011


I used to be a gigantic Barth fan but he has pretty much written the same thing over and over for the last 30 years (including this).
posted by dfan at 8:42 AM on July 26, 2011


Has anybody else out there stopped reading short fiction?

Nope. Wendell Berry is great.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:49 AM on July 26, 2011


I used to be a gigantic Barth fan but he has pretty much written the same thing over and over for the last 30 years (including this).

Isn't that the joke? (It was only ~600 words.)
posted by mrgrimm at 8:49 AM on July 26, 2011


Johnston: "...writing what you know is knotted up with intention, and intention in fiction is always related to control, to rigidity, and more often than not, a little solipsism. The writer seems to have chosen an event because it illustrates a point or mounts an argument. When a fiction writer has a message to deliver, a residue of smugness is often in the prose, a distressing sense of the story’s being rushed, of the author’s going through the motions, hurrying the characters toward whatever wisdom awaits on the last page. As a reader, I feel pandered to and closed out. Maybe even a little bullied. My involvement in the story, like the characters’, becomes utterly passive. We are there to follow orders, to admire and applaud the author’s supposed insight."

IT BURNS! THE TRUTH! IT BURNSSSSS!!!
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 8:53 AM on July 26, 2011


The idea of a writer “wanting” to do something in a story unhinges me. At best, such desire smacks of nostalgia and, at worst, it betrays agenda. I feel pity for the characters, a real sense of futility. I’m reminded of Ron Carlson’s hilarious story, “What We Wanted to Do,” in which a group of villagers intends to spill a cauldron of boiling oil on the Visigoths storming their gates. The oil, however, never reaches its boiling point, so when the villagers commence their dousing, the liquid is lukewarm and the Visigoths aren’t so much scalded as they are terribly pissed off. The result is their most vicious attack. The lesson is a good one for fiction writers: stories fueled by intentions never reach their boiling point.
I am frowning very, very deeply at this.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:55 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


The idea of a writer “wanting” to do something in a story unhinges me. At best, such desire smacks of nostalgia and, at worst, it betrays agenda.

Or interest in exploring an idea, setting or character, God forbid.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:21 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


PhoBWanKenobi:
The idea of a writer “wanting” to do something in a story unhinges me. At best, such desire smacks of nostalgia and, at worst, it betrays agenda. I feel pity for the characters, a real sense of futility. I’m reminded of Ron Carlson’s hilarious story, “What We Wanted to Do,” in which a group of villagers intends to spill a cauldron of boiling oil on the Visigoths storming their gates. The oil, however, never reaches its boiling point, so when the villagers commence their dousing, the liquid is lukewarm and the Visigoths aren’t so much scalded as they are terribly pissed off. The result is their most vicious attack. The lesson is a good one for fiction writers: stories fueled by intentions never reach their boiling point.

I am frowning very, very deeply at this.
It's true, but poorly stated. A story is fueled and made powerful by the actions in describes, not intentions... or rather, not just intentions. A story fueled by intentions, as he means it, would generally be criticized as being a "bathtub" story. What generally grips a reader are the actions. An action requires intent, of course, so a story fueled by actions can and should still examine intents, but the intents are only interesting because they did result in action.
posted by gilrain at 9:23 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


(And I don't mean "action" like crash, bang; I mean "action" like something concrete that resulted from an intention.)
posted by gilrain at 9:25 AM on July 26, 2011


I don't think it's true at all. He's conflating intention, which is a very broad thing encompassing any sort of story or character planning, with forcing your story. And they're intrinsically different. It's stupid to dismiss a student who says, "I was trying to do this," because, God forbid, they try to do something. The appropriate answer is, instead, to figure out how they can execute their intention in keeping with the story and characters. The best writers fool you into thinking they had no plan at all--their stories balance the organic aspects of writing (the way characters and plot end up through the process of writing them) with an author's intentions, and let you think they're one and the same.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:27 AM on July 26, 2011


I totally misunderstood his point. He's talking about the writer having an intent for his story. I thought he was talking about stories in which there are only intentions. I completely agree that it's rubbish, then. If writers disallowed themselves intentions when writing a story, no stories would get written. And he's being disingenuous if he claims he has no intent when writing his.
posted by gilrain at 9:30 AM on July 26, 2011


He's probably trying to rail against didactic writing, but he's throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (Protip: don't use cliches... oops.)
posted by gilrain at 9:31 AM on July 26, 2011


I, too wish the Atlantic would go back to having a story in every issue.

Also, I would think that with the rise of Instapaper, and e-reader apps, all sort so Mags would, and SHOULD, go back to putting stuff up, the whole crew of top mags should do it...

Hire some more damn fiction editors, etc...
posted by Skygazer at 9:32 AM on July 26, 2011


I stopped being able to suspend my disbelief, and moved on to non-fiction.

Sucks to be you.
posted by xmutex at 9:32 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not to sound jaded, but loud, contentious statements sell.
Opinion essays are pretty close to fiction, and there's really no metric to measure them against.

Funny that his loud opinion about authorial voice and enforced direction in stories is exactly what's so annoying about his essay.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:35 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]




I stopped being able to suspend my disbelief, and moved on to non-fiction.

I do both. Non-fiction can be mentally exhausting.
I know a few people that have sworn they never bother with fiction, and it's always seemed sad and silly. We all need mental downtime, and I can't imagine a better way to do it.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:36 AM on July 26, 2011


The title is “Don’t Write What You Know”, but the argument seems to be “Write What You Know, But, You Know, Change Things”, which is what most fiction is, isn't it?

Statements like this:

Was Nabokov, in light of his “fancy prose style,” a murderer?

Nabokov is probably chuckling in his grave, remembering Pnin and the Harlequins.
posted by stance at 9:54 AM on July 26, 2011


I stopped being able to suspend my disbelief, and moved on to non-fiction.

Living in samsara where conventional reality obscures the ultimate truth that all phenomena lack independent existence and are thus essentially emptiness itself...what's the dif?

also, wouldn't it be suspend my belief?
posted by ecourbanist at 9:55 AM on July 26, 2011


I know a few people that have sworn they never bother with fiction

I was that guy. But in the last few months, I've devoured six books of The Sword of Truth, re-read Catch-22, and just finished all currently available five books of A Song of Ice and Fire. I can only speak for myself, but I ENJOYED MYSELF TREMENDOUSLY.
posted by WalterMitty at 9:58 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


fiction became easier for me when i started taking Risperdal heh heh
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:05 AM on July 26, 2011


I love a good space romp (currently Iain M. Banks Culture novels) as well as fiction in general (stylists like Nabokov in particular); the whole notion of being unable to "appreciate the downtime" or "suspend disbelief" smacks of taking oneself too seriously, or just being stressed. That said, I'm not, and will never be, privy to the inner workings and wonts of other people.

Fiction to me is the literary equivalent of playing around, but with words. Pure idleness, and that detached sense of being entertained but still participating that TV only approaches in rare cases. Being taken out of the "action" at times to appreciate the prose is just part and parcel. The games, or rather plots and literary qualities that are the most well conceived will last longer than the ephemeral trends of the day, for whatever reason.
posted by flippant at 10:59 AM on July 26, 2011


I read the Charyn story. I didn't get it. I'm actually kind of surprised it got published. Has anyone read anything else by him?
posted by OmieWise at 12:49 PM on July 26, 2011


We all need mental downtime, and I can't imagine a better way to do it.

You think of fiction as "mental downtime"? Huh. Hrm. Uh. I must disagree. Pulp fiction, perhaps. ...

The title is “Don’t Write What You Know”, but the argument seems to be “Write What You Know, But, You Know, Change Things”, which is what most fiction is, isn't it?

Yeah, I didn't really like the essay, but I think his point is well taken: apply what "you know" to an unique, unknown situation or scenario. That's what most popular fiction does. Over and over.

Fiction to me is the literary equivalent of playing around, but with words.

I don't know who you people are anymore.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:15 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read the Charyn story. I didn't get it. I'm actually kind of surprised it got published.

I've never read Charyn before, but he seems to be quite celebrated. It wasn't my usual cup of tea, but I liked the story "OK."

I'm damn sure going to read Sizzling Chops and Dazzling Spins now that I know about it. :D

Care to explain what you didn't "get"? I'm guessing it's this part:

"It was Marla’s fault. Never mind a phantom wolf dog. Marla had sucked up all the air around her. Daddy wasn’t protecting Marla from Irene. He was preserving Little Sister from Marla’s rapaciousness, hiding Sister in their Bronx retreat."

The story is about a family that exiled a problematic child to an institution and never discussed her again with her sister (the main character), while the father continued to visit the institutionalized child often and regularly during his life, and the main character only learned about his sister after she is middle aged and her father is dead.

I dunno. As I said, I liked it "OK."
posted by mrgrimm at 3:08 PM on July 26, 2011



The story is about a family that exiled a problematic child to an institution and never discussed her again with her sister (the main character), while the father continued to visit the institutionalized child often and regularly during his life, and the main character only learned about his sister after she is middle aged and her father is dead.

I dunno. As I said, I liked it "OK."


The confusion is probably when you try to read more into it. And it just begs to be read into, it's full of mythical, folklorish allusions, all kinds of hidden meanings... but they're really not clear, and what they mean is going to have to be up to readers I'd think.

I wasn't hugely impressed myself, just not my style. But I can see the appeal, maybe.
posted by Stagger Lee at 3:18 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


And it just begs to be read into, it's full of mythical, folklorish allusions, all kinds of hidden meanings... but they're really not clear, and what they mean is going to have to be up to readers I'd think.

Well said. That's probably why I liked it more than a standard story about the same subject. The whole Roger Blunt thing was odd too. I generally like stories where "what they mean is going to have to be up to readers."
posted by mrgrimm at 3:27 PM on July 26, 2011


Well, I just wasn't particularly impressed by the language or the plot. Both seemed stilted to me. I read plenty of strange stuff, so I wasn't turned off by it or anything, I just thought it was kind of flat.
posted by OmieWise at 6:24 PM on July 26, 2011


I stopped being able to suspend my disbelief, and moved on to non-fiction.

Being 100% completely serious, do you know what happened? How do I avoid this? Without my imagination, I'd be a Bukowski sandwich of misery. Your situation sounds like a punishment and makes me sad.
posted by Chipmazing at 7:44 PM on July 26, 2011


I stopped being able to suspend my disbelief

Do you wake up mid-dream and think, "oh no, that's just too unrealistic." ;)

I'm guessing "stopped being able to suspend my disbelief" is more accurately, "got fed up with bullshit narratives." I admit that I, too, can be pushed too far. I adore Matt Ruff, but c'mon, that novel was a Matrix inside a Matrix inside a Matrix.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:23 AM on July 27, 2011


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