How We Choose Stories and Other Mythical Beasts, Part 2

In my last post, I talked about where TNQ stories come from and described the procedure we follow in reviewing fiction submissions. Today I want to say something about our editorial criteria. That’s the “mythical beast” of my title because, though we often note in full confidence of being understood that such and such doesn’t feel like a TNQ story, we don’t have any criteria that speak to the inverse, what a TNQ story is. I spoke to this dilemma in an article I co-authored (with then fiction editors Peter Hinchcliffe and Mary Merikle) some years back in Canadian Notes _ Queries (Number 52, 1997). Charged with saying something about our editorial stance I wrote: “We occasionally get queries about what The New Quarterly is looking for in the way of a story. Do we prefer a stark minimalism or a kind of postmodern playfulness or an old-fashioned psychological  complexity? Are there themes we favour or others we rule out? Have we pet genres? Restrictions on length? Standards of style or propriety? We are always perplexed by such questions and want to respond, somewhat peevishly, ‘If we knew what we are looking for, we’d write it ourselves!’ As it is, we only hope we have the capacity to recognize something good when it happens our way.”

For a long time, we had qualms about this want of editorial criteria. Shouldn’t we stand for something, have a recognizable personality or voice? We brooded over [founding editor Harold Horwood's] proscription [in the editorial that launched the magazine] of the Oberon Press story. What exactly did he mean? What were we to avoid? The well-made story with a closing epiphany? Many of the stories we are drawn to, though they take different narrative routes, seem still to travel towards some sort of revelation or reversal. Even those stories which, in contemporary parlance “resist closure” or, to borrow a more compelling phrase from Carol Shields, “soar off into mystery and disruptiveness,” seem to carry some freight of meaning—if only that truth is relative, insight fleeting.

We were reassured somewhat when we came across this anecdote in the first of The New Yorker’s now semi-annual celebrations of fiction. In a piece called “Storyville,” long-time fiction editor Roger Angell tells how a visiting reporter once asked, “What are you people looking for in the fiction line? What are your standards?” He stalled for time before responding, “I don’t know what they are… We’ve never decided. We want something good—you know, something we like.” He goes on to explain that while The New Yorker works from an opinion sheet (as does The New Quarterly) on which two or three editors “weigh in helpfully or warily or stubbornly,” the “what we like” is as varied not only as the editors but as the stories themselves. He resorts finally to a catalogue of his favorite stories, emphasizing their disparate tone, style, and subject matter.

At The New Quarterly we do put a high value on writing that is “fresh,” writing that (in Peter’s words) “feels necessary”—we read many well-crafted stories, stories we are not sorry to have read, but that are so like other stories we have read, and even enjoyed, that we don’t feel the need to pass them along to our readers. Angell also admires writing that is fresh: “Reading short-fiction manuscripts can be wearisome from day to day and week to week. Every human situation, every sort of meeting or conversation, is something you have read before or know by heart. But then there comes a story—maybe only a couple of paragraphs in that story—and you are knocked over. Your morning has been changed; you are changed.” But he cautions that freshness isn’t all: “The new is alluring but not always what matters most. What is more pleasing to a long-term editor or a loyal subscriber than to watch a master of fiction—a Prospero or a Jefferson of the form—as he walks his thematic acres and then, once again, falls to work.” [On reading this, I thought immediately of John Updike, a Prospero if ever there was one.] A writer whose every story departs from the rest may only be a clever mimic with no voice—and no pressing concerns—of his own. One wants surprise, in a story or a magazine, but also a recognizable voice.

The New Quarterly’s quest for the new, a quest that could lead us to new writers, new narrative structures, or new fictional territory—to themes, settings, or constellations of characters previously unexplored—is wonderfully, if coincidentally, described by Terry Griggs in her story “Man with the Axe.” Its opening paragraph moves from the intriguing first line, “One spring Hooligan came home with a wooden leg in his mouth,” to the following take on the protagonist, Erie, an aspiring writer:

“Erie had been listening all that week to thaw, a trickle of melt tickling her inner ear, the sound of water dripping off the eaves drip into that handful of bare stones by the corner of the barn, drop off the branches of the forsythia out front. Like tears, she thought, cold tears. Then reconsidered, what with the lake opening up and boats arriving from the mainland with news and visitors. Tears of joy, or relief. No, that wasn’t right either, and she did like to get things right, finding the exact place that words met events. She had literary ambitions, though not openly nurtured. The evidence was buried in her bureau drawer, well hidden below several layers of underwear. The everyday woolies on top, summer cottons below, next a thin layer of silk as surprising to the delving hand as a cold current snaking through water.”

The delicious surprise of Griggs’s own silken prose animates this passage, but it is not only fresh, it is exactly right. She has found “the exact place that words [meet] events,” and she has set out in the language itself many of the thematic preoccupations of the story—islands, water, the erotic, the uses of imagination, and things that are immersed, hidden, or lost.

New forms do, sometimes, require new strategies for reading, and we’ve often had to school ourselves to recognize fortunate, though novel, conjunctions of theme and form. What is this? How does it work? are questions that need to be answered before the more elemental one—Do we like it?—can even be asked.

Here’s another take on that elusive beast, what makes good writing, this from John Metcalf: “Good writing has a tension in it. To read it is rather like putting your hand on a rope or cable which is stretched taut; the cable is alive under your hand. Slack writing feels slack. When I use the word ‘tension,’ I don’t necessarily mean writing which is flashy, vibrating, giving off sparks; the writing could equally well be calm and majestically slow-moving. It isn’t possible to lay down rules for the creation of tension nor is it possible to describe it. The best I can offer is that I can feel it when I put my hand on the prose.”

Peter, whose highest compliment was “This story has verve,” shared John’s predilection: “I like stories that are energetic, perhaps because I’m not.” I myself like a story that I sense will repay a second reading. I read a story many times over the course of selection and production, and I want it to return something to me on every reading, to perform anew. That’s why I have little truck with a story that relies for its effect on a surprise ending, a sudden twist or reversal, a punch line. Read it once and you’re done. For me, a story doesn’t have to have a lot of plot if the language compels. Rosalynn (our managing editor, who sometimes reads with the fiction editors) says, “It’s not enough to like a story. You have to love it.”

So we don’t have a vision of what Canadian writing ought to be, but we do have  a host of biases as idiosyncratic as our editors themselves. We are receptive to work that stretches the bounds of realism, but wary of literary experiment that is self-indulgent (more fun to have written than it is to read), lacking in feeling or psychological acuity, dull. I have always found that a photograph of the most spectacular scenery will pale on me in time if there is no one I know in the foreground. Similarly, I have difficulty sustaining interest in a story if the characters don’t compel. I have a weakness for coming-of-age stories, and for stories that appeal to my political conscience. Mary was fond of black humour and anything to do with baseball; Peter was drawn to stories set in the small west-coast towns of his childhood. Amy King (currently reading post-script stories) has a taste for the gothic. In this compressed medium, we all tend to prefer, over plot-driven stories, ones that end in metaphor and suggestion, that withhold rather than insist or resolve. But even there, exceptions leap to mind: delightful shaggy-dog stories where the plot and its elaborate intersections are all.

We are, then, what the anthologist Clifton Fadiman once claimed to be, “that most despised of literary animals,” the eclectic. He explains (and justifies) his sorry state in much the way I have viewed ours: “I am so disunified, such a miserable polymorph of a man, that my nature responds to other natures that are wildly disparate. I suppose the humanists of a decade ago would say that I have no standards. Moralists of any decade would say that I have no convictions. Logicians will point out that my taste is contradictory. And my colleagues will simply say that I could have made better choices, which is quite possible. … I plead guilty to the charge of being able to enjoy more than one kind of writing, which is far from equivalent to enjoying all kinds. … My personality, like those of most people I meet, is full of slits; and the variations in temper and mood [of the writing which appeals to me] correspond, I dimly feel, to those lines of cleavage.”

Not only are we at The New Quarterly “miserable polymorphs,” we sometimes don’t recognize our own biases. Some years ago, I was confidently warning a group of aspiring writers against submitting to  journals that are publishing work like their own. “Editors are always after something new,” I said. “Select instead for the company you want to keep.” Oakland Ross, a writer we had recently published, immediately called me to task. He had sent his story, about journalists chasing “bang  bang”—explosive film footage—in the war zones of Central America, to The New Quarterly after reading there a number of other stories set in foreign lands. He recognized, as we hadn’t, editors who don’t think a story has to be set in Canada to qualify as Canadian.

In editorial meetings, our likes and dislikes are often complicated by other considerations: how stories work together, what themes may have been over-worked in recent issues, what writers whose potential we have recognized will be discouraged from submitting if we don’t soon accept something. Sometimes we are put off by the bullying tone of a cover letter; sometimes we horse-trade, making a concession to another editor’s favoured story in exchange for some future consideration for ourselves. Editing is necessarily a negotiation, whether between individual editors or between editor and writer. I think of building a magazine as being something like building a house: One sets out with some ideal in mind only to strike a compromise between what one wants (or thinks one wants), what one’s architect wants, what raw materials are available, and what one can afford. And of course, what one wants, in a house or a story, changes with shifting circumstances, and, yes, I’ll admit it, with the insidious winds of fashion. Any innovator worth her salt is soon imitated, and what once seemed fresh begins to seem stale. No one else can do as well those wonderful pearls-on-a-string narratives so characteristic of Diane Schoemperlen, yet there will come a time when even she will have to move on lest she seem self-parodying. Or maybe not [see our upcoming Lists Issue]. After all, writers have been coming up with fresh takes on the sonnet for centuries.

Ethical considerations do sometimes figure into our choices, though those we wrestle with often have less to do with political correctness than with aesthetic considerations. In Living By Fiction, Annie Dillard writes: “We judge a work on its integrity. Often we examine a work’s integrity (or at least I do) by asking what it makes of itself and what it borrows from the world. Sentimental art, for instance, attempts to force preexistent emotions upon us. Instead of creating characters and events which will elicit special feelings unique to the text, sentimental art merely gestures towards stock characters and events whose accompanying emotions come on tap. … An honest work generates its own power; a dishonest work tries to rob power from the cataracts of the given. That is why scenes of high drama—suicide, rape, murder, incest—or scenes of great beauty are so difficult to do well in genuine literature. We already have strong feeling about those things, and literature does not operate on borrowed feelings.” While we have frequently published stories we find disturbing, we have as often shied away from ones in which the violence, physical or emotional, seems gratuitous, or in which the reader is a hapless voyeur, her moral recoil coincidental or even antithetical to the author’s project. As a reviewer once said of the polished violence in a collection of contemporary fiction, “What does it say about you if you like these stories?”

Still, much of what we do as editors remains intuitive, a kind of cherishing, something that proceeds from the heart as much as the mind. The Terry Griggs story whose opening I gave you earlier ends like this: “… she began to write. She had no idea what at first. She let her mind drift, phrases rising in waves. Then she saw something, someone, just the tip of a bobbing head, features uncertain. Her words, she knew, would have to be quick and strong as hands to grab that lilting silken hair and lift him out.”

Substitute “… she began to edit. She had no idea what at first …” and you pretty much have it.

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1 Comment to How We Choose Stories and Other Mythical Beasts, Part 2

  1. August 13, 2009 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating series of posts, especially when one’s work is, as we speak, on its way to TNQ. But really, what could I have done with the story I sent if I had read this first? Nothing. These posts don’t deliver on the promise a writer might think they’re making; they won’t tell a writer what to do to get his or her story accepted at TNQ.

    But they do serve a different and, in the end, more valuable purpose: they tell a writer what to do to become a better writer. And in the end, it doesn’t matter whether I’m published in TNQ; I’m more interested in becoming a better writer. So… hey, we’re cool here.

    And if I do, one day, get into TNQ–well, so much the better, eh?

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