I’ve got great respect for TMR: along with New Letters, it was the first journal I ever subscribed to—and I still maintain that subscription. Their stories consistently have some of the most elegant and compelling first sentences around. One story from their fall issue, Susan Ford’s “Of Questionable Provenance,” caused me to totally rethink my ongoing approach to realism, which I’ll probably blog about next week.
Somers mentioned a few things that mirror the impressions I posted the other day, namely that quirky or absurd stories often lack emotional impact. She also upholds that characters which readers find familiar are more likely to engage reader sympathies:
“Readers respond to characters based on their own individual experience, so this is partly a matter of familiarity and opinions.”
[Which, I guess, is another way of saying: “Readers are not apt to emotionally identify with deformed characters.”]
I’m particularly curious about something else that Somers mentions:
“Finally, several pieces [we rejected] were imitating current or recent trends or writers: one in collective voice, one with footnotes that made up quite a bit of the story.”
I’m an editor at two magazines (Keyhole and FutureCycle Flash), so I read a fair amount o’ slush. TMR is older and more esteemed, so it probably draws submissions from a larger and perhaps entirely different body of writers, but those trends have yet to bubble down to us.
Occasionally I see stories which employ techniques that Somers mentioned (I also just read Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, which is built around the collective “we” voice), but those stories aren’t coming to us in disproportionate numbers indicative of a larger “trend.”
In that blog piece, Somers stated that she doesn’t usually see a submission until after it’s been vetted by two or more of her readers. I wonder how this skews the selection of stories she sees. Could it be possible that her junior readers pass up to her a disproportionate amount of footnoted “we” stories?
Either way, her comments about “recent trends” make me curious about how these trends start. Marketplace success of similar material certainly plays a role—people see that boy wizard books are popular, so they rush off to pen Harry Potter knock-offs.
I’d like to think that trends in literary fiction owe something to the collective zeitgeist—that since we’re experiencing the same historical moment and rely on the same cultural makers, similarities in how we approach our material are inevitable. Jargon-laded Business-speak was especially popular for many years. Was that a trend? And has that trend crested?
The “we” voice (which actually seems especially poignant for this particular besieged moment that we now find ourselves in) dates back at least to Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 drama. More recently, it was employed with awesome aplomb in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. Eugenides’ novel is 18 years old. Can that be what sparked this resurgence? Or is there some newer model?
Moody, in a wonderful old Powell’s interview, talked about how much of his work from that era owed its existence to playing around with the typographical and formatting features in early versions of Word.
Responding to a question about the strange formatting and construction of “Wilkie Fahnstock, The Boxed Set," a story from his 2001 Demonology collection, Moody says,
“What happened was that after I wrote The Ice Storm I had a period where I was blocked for a little bit, before I wrote Purple America. I'd just gotten Microsoft Word, which enabled some strange new capabilities, for example italicizing, that I had not had before.
“In The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, there's an annotated bibliography story called "Primary Sources" - that was the same thing. I figured out how to annotate, which I'd never been able to do before. This was before [David Foster Wallace’s] Infinite Jest, let us say in passing. I also figured out how to do this two-column thing, and I got really interested in What could you do with two columns?”
Returning to the question of trends, I can't extrapolate particular trends from the slush I read. If I did, I’d probably react violently against all stories exhibiting hallmarks of that trend. Reading slush can be tedious. My deepest wish is to be blindsided by something utterly fresh and powerful—which precludes it from being “like” anything else. I imagine other slush readers feel the same; we don’t want to read story after story after blessèd story, all of them self-consciously tarted up in the same trendy technique du jour.
So how can trends exist if the moment we become cognizant of them, we stand on guard against them?