Empty Rhetoric: Innovative Fiction and the American Literary Magazine

Context N°14

by Daniel Green

At a time when fewer popular outlets of even modestly large circulation are available to writers of serious fiction than perhaps at any time in American literary history, and when the critical consideration of such fiction is confined almost entirely to the labored formulas reiterated in the journals of academic criticism, it is not an exaggeration to say that the “little magazine” plays a decisive role both in determining what deserves to be published and in validating what for that very reason ought to be appropriately esteemed in contemporary fiction—arguably more decisive than even in the reputed golden age of the little magazine in the first half of the twentieth century. Not only has current fiction ceased to be an ongoing concern to commercial magazine editors (aside from the prominent few, such as the New Yorker, and such quasi-commercial quarterlies as, say, McSweeney’s), as well as professional literary critics, but the great proliferation of little magazines, extending now to electronic publications posted on the World Wide Web, has de facto made them collectively the only sources of what could yet plausibly be called a literary culture.

Serious literary fiction does, of course, continue to be published by commercial book publishers—doubtless in fewer numbers than would be otherwise warranted by the available supply of gifted writers—but in most cases even those publishing houses interested in promoting literary writers are latecomers to the process of establishing a writer’s presence on the literary scene. Most typically, aspiring writers begin by producing short fiction and, with rare exceptions, by attempting to place their work in one of the myriad literary magazines that ostensibly exist at least in part precisely to provide initial publication for such writers. Thus, while the editors of these magazines may not exactly define their mission as including being the arbiters of what can be considered “literature” under present circumstances, nevertheless to an extent that perhaps would-be writers themselves don’t entirely comprehend, editors of what under a different dispensation might simply be thought of as obscure if earnest (and, unhappily, little-read) journals do wield a gatekeeping power conferred on them largely by the absence of any other authority concerned enough to exercise it.

This power has further been assumed, through the parallel influence of university creative-writing programs, in which most (not all) current little magazines are housed and supported. One could say that the domination by the literary magazine over present literary standards and practices itself arises from the domination of Creative Writing over the education—by now expressly the “training” in the most narrowly vocational sense of the term—of poets and fiction writers. Certainly there are both long-standing and nonacademic publications that seek to bring into print the best writing, as their editors are able to judge it, and that do not put any special premium on contributors’ connections to celebrated writing programs, but it would be disingenuous at the least to bother denying that most literary magazines find both their authors and their audience from the ranks of those students, graduates, and faculty associated with academic creative writing. It is only marginally inaccurate to describe the majority of them as existing primarily to validate these programs, as in a sense engaged in a kind of mutual self-aggrandizement.

To be sure, everyone interested in the survival of serious literary writing ought to be grateful that any periodicals devoted to its publication continue to appear, regardless of whatever questions one might have about the ulterior purposes they may also be serving. Yet it would be surprising if, given the insular atmosphere in which these periodicals subsist, a conformity to currently accepted methods and a tendency to reinforce literary and academic conventional wisdom did not ultimately prevail. That these were characteristics of the little magazine in the last decades of the twentieth century is therefore not a particularly startling proposition, although undoubtedly those producing them and those benefiting from their editorial practices would not readily concede it be correct.

Indeed, an examination of a publication like the Directory of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) reveals that in stating “editorial focus” many of the listed journals, aside from soliciting the “highest quality,” “finest,” “strongest” work from both “emerging” and established writers, also frequently employ words like “fresh,” “experimental,” “innovative,” and “original” to describe the kind of fiction most highly desired by the editors at hand. These are, of course, entirely appropriate terms to use in identifying those characteristics of a literary work that manifests artistic accomplishment, but “experimental” and “innovative” in particular retain the connotations they acquired in being associated with the iconoclastic, formally challenging fiction of the 1960s and 1970s now generically, if imprecisely, referred to as “postmodern.” Ranging from the metafictions of John Barth and Robert Coover to the text-twisting, form-splintering novels of Gilbert Sorrentino and Walter Abish, this fiction, for a time at least, vigorously contested the authority of the conventional well-made story, putting into question the continued relevance of plot or character or received notions of “fine writing.” Since the fiction actually published in the current literary reviews and quarterlies included in the Directory of Literary Magazines, the International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses (Pushcart), or Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest) are overwhelmingly conventional, realistic, and stylistically uniform, why the effort in these self-descriptions to preempt at this late date the vocabulary of experiment and novelty?

I should like here to offer an answer to this question, although I acknowledge that it is being initially asked at a very high level of generalization and that no one simple explanation will ultimately do justice to the multiple, albeit related, factors that have converged to influence the attitudes and assumptions I am attempting both to describe and to dispute. I do believe that a truly dispassionate sampling of current little magazines would disclose a scene in which very little truly daring innovation, in neither form nor subject nor style, seems to be encouraged, a scene that is predictably varied where the skill with which the familiar strategies of realistic fiction are adapted is concerned but that is mostly simply predictable, given the apparent agreement that such strategies ought indeed to be used. However, some illustration that my representation of the situation has at least some degree of accuracy is certainly called for, so before going further with a broader analysis of the forces that have contributed to the creation of the present scene, I will try to provide such evidence as can be taken through a brief survey of the kind of selections of contemporary fiction being made available in the pages of a few notable American little magazines.

I will not claim these journals are typical in any more rigorous sense than that, in my own reasonably well-informed estimation, they occupy a position of some standing in our current literary culture, judged by such things as circulation, name recognition, in some cases longevity, and a general impression that the writers they publish thereby achieve a prominence not otherwise accorded by journals less well-known or less frequently cited as “quality” publications. That there are other journals, perhaps more receptive to unconventional work, is no doubt true enough, but again my own engaged scrutiny of the range of currently active little magazines (engaged as writer, as critic, and simply as an interested reader) has convinced me that such venues are decidedly few and distressingly far between—their editorial and aesthetic preferences often merely idiosyncratic rather than focused attempts to sustain a compelling literary alternative to the neoconventional approach. Moreover, the mere existence of this or that publication resolutely upholding an avant-garde sensibility—some readers may think of a journal such as Conjunctions or, at least until its more recent transformation into a theme-driven, “internationally flavored” journal, Grand Street—does not in itself counteract the much more widely shared tendency to accept established practices in the main currents of literary opinion.

Few people would likely question the prestige to be gained from publication in such literary magazines as Gettysburg Review, Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Michigan Quarterly Review. If nothing else, one can point to an objective record of achievement, used freely by all of these journals to reinforce the degree of distinction they are capable of bestowing. For example:

Work published in Ploughshares has been selected regularly for inclusion in Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize anthologies. In fact the magazine has the honor of having the most stories selected from a single issue (three) to be included in Best American Short Stories. (Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, 2002)

Each of the others also advertise their association with such awards, and although prizewinning fiction certainly doesn’t always prove to be worthy of the ultimate prize in the long-term judgments of literary history, such a designation is surely a reliable enough index to the reigning assumptions about what is required of the “best” that contemporary fiction can be expected to supply. Likewise, those journals able to boast most regularly of their own prizewinners can with some confidence claim to represent the prevailing aesthetic in the editorial consideration of current fiction.

An examination of recent issues of each of these little magazines does reveal a remarkably consistent emphasis on stories that work through character and setting, if not always plot, to illuminate “real life” in a way that isn’t always necessarily reducible to traditional narrative realism but that unmistakably shares with it the ultimate aesthetic purpose to reproduce and thus to clarify the experiences of life as it is lived. It is possible to appreciate the fact that fiction does indeed provide clarification of human experience—where else to find one’s materials than from life?—and also questions whether it is sufficient in being true to the discordant realities of experience to simply subject them to the requirements of exposition, of dialogue and description, all of those discursive moves that reassure us we are reading fiction in its accepted form, and whether the successful reduction of these realties to recognizable generic conventions warrants in itself regarding the results as perforce a literary achievement.

Many of the pieces appearing in Gettysburg Review and Michigan Quarterly Review, clearly the most conservative of these four journals, are explicitly realistic fictions of a patently conventional and traditional kind, influenced perhaps by the narrative depreciations of minimalism, but otherwise deviating little from the protocols of realism as those have been observed since the mid-nineteenth century. At best, it is as if the formal challenges and innovations of postmodern fiction—and perhaps stretching back even to the earlier challenges of modernism—never happened, or that once such disruptive antics had been indulged they could be safely disregarded by the postmodernists’ more sober and responsible successors. At worst, such an apparent refusal to countenance the possibility that serious fiction might advance beyond repetition of the already achieved betrays a remarkably dim aesthetic vision, its creations inevitably reinforcing a formulaic, middlebrow conception of literature.

But in Ploughshares and Paris Review this sort of blatant adherence to a renewed version of the realistic short story is less common. While the majority of the fiction appearing in these two journals does faithfully observe the tacit agreement among current editors, authors, and the readers they apparently want to attract that works of fiction exist primarily to reflect the realities of modern life in a recognizable way (although a superficial diversity of experience across lines of gender, class, ethnicity, and national origin is allowed, even encouraged), the means by which this goal is accomplished are somewhat more varied and consciously disruptive of ordinary storytelling conventions. It is here, to describe this sort of facile manipulation of the outward features of the well-made story, that the language of “experiment” and “innovation” is employed in current editorial discourse. Add to this the excerpted work of a few certifiable “edgy” writers such as Richard Powers and William Vollmann (but also established realists such as Ann Beattie and Joyce Carol Oates) and literary magazines such as these are able both to proclaim their interest in “the finest in new literature” and to define the “finest” according to the orthodox standards both Paris Review and Ploughshares have helped considerably to promulgate and continue to help maintain.

The Paris Review has long been associated with a sophisticated, “cosmopolitan” approach to “new literature,” but if the recent issues are at all representative, today’s tonier literary neighborhood is perhaps more shabby-genteel: built according to older principles of value, it now seems somewhat dilapidated but nevertheless seeks to keep up appearances. Along with the work of a few name authors (putting up the best face possible), it presents its readers with relatively familiar subjects and themes gussied up a bit through modest refurbishments of structure, through equally moderate flourishes of fancy and fantasia, and through the verbal appropriation of what could loosely be called multimedia forms. Above all, the experimentation in these stories is eminently safe, the departures from narrative norms readily enough assimilated to those norms once such purely tactical maneuvering—e.g., the personification of human gender relations in the activity of insects given voice as characters—is allowed for. Far from challenging the reader to an awareness of the yet-unexplored possibilities of language and of the mutable nature of literary form and thus to play an active part in the creation of the literary experience itself, such fiction reassures its reader that the usual responses will do and reinforces the underlying assumption that this kind of reassurance is more or less essential to a “good read.”

Much the same is true of the fiction appearing in Ploughshares. Muted distortions of everyday reality only to further illuminate that reality, tastefully restrained displays of self-conscious narration that only focus more attention on the events narrated, in general a tangible if unobtrusive effort to avoid the most conventional kind of realistic storytelling without going too far in the direction of the postmodern—these are the characteristics most palpable to me in reading two recent issues of this journal. In some ways, the similarity in selection between the two issues (and as well with the selections in Paris Review) is even more telling, since Ploughshares has a well-known policy of rotating “guest editors” from issue to issue. That an impression of such editorial continuity would emerge from one’s reading of these separate issues seems, to me at least, more than happenstance; it suggests a shared sensibility among those setting the agenda in the community of literary publications, an agenda especially evident in Paris Review and Ploughshares and one that both of these prominent little magazines are particularly able to promote.

What about those little magazines known to seek out and promote intentionally difficult, innovative fiction? A few relatively high-profile journals are indeed widely recognized as responsive to unconventional work, among them Fence and 3rd Bed, both of which I have included in this survey in order to mark out the distance, as it were, between the representatives of mainstream publications and those that deliberately set themselves against the pull of the mainstream. Although they are perhaps not as openly associated with the avant-garde in its present variation, Agni and Chicago Review also show a willingness to feature experimental fiction—and not just the sort of counterfeit experiments to be found in the journals already discussed. Agni 57 (the first to be produced by new editor Sven Birkerts), for example, includes selections by David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, and Paul West, none of them exactly traditionalists, although one might suppose that their work was chosen in some part because it comes attached to names already of some prominence in contemporary fiction. (This propensity to print the work of established writers is also, in my view, true of Conjunctions.) Indeed, one might further suppose that unusual or eccentric writing can readily enough come to seem less remote from the mainstream when its author has achieved relative notoriety for it.

Fence as well offers the work of already well-established writers (Steve Almond and Aimee Bender), but both it and 3rd Bed convey the impression that their editors and contributors are more committed to a vision of alternative, unconventional fiction (and poetry) than in showcasing “the finest” writing—i.e., as many established authors as can be gathered together—that assumed standards deem worthy. To this extent, it should be said that these journals, and a few others like them, do implicitly recognize the critical orthodoxy that informs editorial decisions in the more illustrious little magazines and do attempt to give some substance to the empty rhetoric of “experiment” employed by many of those publications. (Those who seek out experimental fiction in the pages of available little magazines, will, I am sure, have their own lists of publications that provide exceptions to the general rule I am positing in this essay.) I do not mean to imply that no current literary magazines are hospitable to truly innovative writing, but, as I have tried to point out, it is the case that so many of them claim to value the original and the innovative. The notion that the originality of literature, especially at a time when narrative has in effect been appropriated by the more popular visual media, must be found in the continually refreshed resources of style, of verbally rendered form, and specifically through fiction’s inherently more ample range in choice and treatment of subject is ultimately lost, its credibility cheapened. Further, this state of affairs potentially forces both editors and writers wishing to challenge embedded assumptions to do so by foregrounding these assumptions all the more starkly, if only to subvert them with yet greater impudence.

Something like this sort of reflex action is evidenced in both Fence and 3rd Bed. The dominant strategy employed in the stories collected in these two journals could best be described as a kind of deadpan absurdism or surrealism—in 3rd Bed, the connection to the surrealists is made directly through, for example, the reprinting of a poem by Aragon/Breton/Soupault. It is as if in the face of the resurgence of realism during the 1980s and 1990s, the most tempting response for anyone seeking to contest its hegemony is simply to straightforwardly deny its relevance in the spirit of Breton, et al., to resort to the available example of absurdism, although in this updated manifestation it does seem, perhaps inevitably, somewhat familiar, its effects at times rather unsubtle. Still, such journals keep alive the possibility that the future of American fiction will include a counterpractice continuing to resist the settling of the art of fiction into complacent convention—which may be necessary simply to insure that serious fiction has a future at all—and many of the published pieces in both journals are worth reading as seriously intended efforts in their own right as well as for the light they shed on the present understanding of what makes for an effective alternative to our own increasingly complacent preconceptions.

One would be rewarded for reading the fiction included in Agni as well, if only to sample new work by the likes of Wallace and Moody, but unfortunately the stories featured in Chicago Review are relatively unmemorable, most of them brief and characterized by a surprisingly tepid lyricism (a judgment reached after reviewing two successive issues). Again, these four journals certainly do not cover the waterfront of the innovative or unconventional or offbeat fiction being published in American literary magazines; still, at best the publication of the kind of venturesome, aesthetically provocative writing that twenty years ago seemed to point the way forward for American fiction has become sporadic and scattered, the expropriation of the vocabulary if not the substance of literary experiment widespread enough to warrant describing the place of authentically unconventional fiction in the publishing world of the little magazine as altogether marginal.

How, then, did this happen? Granted that the innovative and the avant-garde have never exactly flourished in American literary culture, the accomplishments of modern/postmodern writing in twentieth-century literature have been so undeniably profound that it is perplexing to find such a preponderance of current fiction so mired in regressive realism, as well as so much acquiescence on the part of literary magazines in this obvious retrenchment. A partial explanation, of course, would be that precisely because of the accomplishments of modern and postmodern experimental literature, the rhetoric of originality and innovation continues to be attractive, perceived as valuable in promotional terms, despite the fact that ruling aesthetic standards actually reject the original and inventive, sanctioning instead the agreeable and familiar. While I believe that this sleight-of-hand does take place and does help to account for the situation as I have described it, left still unanswered is the ultimate question of why such a bland and retrogressive aesthetic standard has come to dominate the literary marketplace so thoroughly. In addition to the leveling effect previously mentioned, a number of other possibilities suggest themselves.

Changing fashions: Unfortunately, the literary world is no less immune to trends and fashions than any other sphere of American life, especially in the mass-mediated environment that has only increased its coverage over the past quarter century. If postmodern experimentation was at one time the literary movement to watch, eventually a new model of post-postmodern neo-traditionalism would necessarily appear to take its place. Moreover, the influence of academic “periodization,” one stretch of writing and writers united through externally imposed categories following upon another, only further encourages a predilection to think of literature as something that appears in waves, the latest earnestly involved in correcting the obvious flaws and excesses of the last.

Popular culture: The very ubiquity of “media,” besides overwhelming whatever interest in the less gaudy pleasures of literary art might be cultivated, also apparently provide an irresistible temptation to writers who might otherwise think of themselves as literary artists. The movies especially seem to exert a powerful influence; not only are most best-selling novels published in the U.S. really film scenarios fleshed out with a bit of (bad) prose, as if to ease the transition from page to screen, but even in the publishing branch supposedly devoted to serious literature, the literary magazine, the cumulative impact of popular narrative entertainment is strongly felt. If most current fiction doesn’t necessarily rely on the complications of plot quite so obsessively as most current film, nonetheless much of it conforms readily enough to the expectations created by the centrality in American culture of movies as well as television, from the focus on sympathetically eccentric characters to the orthodox dramatic treatment of scene and dialogue to the invocation of TV movie-ish sorts of issues and situations.

Social commentary: Although not all neorealist fiction descends to the level of the TV movie, the danger of doing so is all the greater when one of the guiding principles of critical discourse is, as it has become, that works of literature are or ought to be vehicles of cultural analysis, if not immediately relevant in an explicitly political sense. The broad acceptance of this principle has come to a significant extent through the corresponding rejection of New Critical formalism and has in many cases become as inflexible and doctrinaire as New Criticism purportedly had been (and arguably it did have its doctrinaire features.) Experiment with formal conventions almost necessarily fares better in a critical atmosphere in which some attention is paid to the effects of form in the first place, and all too often any but the most transparently rhetorical manipulations or modifications of form are considered to be frivolous by those sensitive to the existing critical climate.

This last point also helps to clarify one additional problem with the way in which the effective responsibility for maintaining a literary culture has devolved to the literary magazine, one that brings together the consequences both of the merger of academe and literature and of the conservative course most literary magazines have chosen to follow. Of the journals I have surveyed here, only Chicago Review includes what could confidently be called literary criticism, and its critical essays have become almost exclusively concerned with poetry (not in itself a failing, of course). Further, among all of the higher-circulation little magazines, few if any include substantive criticism, generally relying instead, when any critical discourse at all appears, on brief book reviews of the superficial praise/blame type. While one would expect little magazines to continue to feature primarily fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and would not want them to publish academic criticism or scholarship in its current antiseptic forms, editors of these magazines might be called on to feature literary criticism of general interest as a natural complement to the effort to provide an ongoing forum for the consideration of serious fiction.

At present the only real critical function exercised by American literary magazines is that undertaken by their editors in making decisions about what fiction and poetry they should publish. The inevitable result is precisely the sort of homogenization of literary practice one encounters in the little magazines now available. Without credible and sustained critical attention to the particulars, as well as the attendant implications, of the work being produced by contemporary writers, not only is the engaged scrutiny of contemporary literature left to the self-interested devices of academic criticism, but it becomes increasingly difficult to regard what gets published as more than just desultory exercises in “expression,” chosen by the powers that be for entirely arbitrary reasons. Thus for the benefit of the very work deemed worthy of publication, but more importantly for the integrity of the literary enterprise itself, present and future editors of literary magazines, especially those fortunate enough to possess a relatively sizable readership, ought to reconsider the role of criticism in furthering their mutual endeavor and print as a regular feature more substantive literary criticism than can now be found in their journals.

In this respect the example of New Criticism might even be a salutary one—not because “literary criticism” must necessarily be synonymous with formalism but because of the demonstrable success the New Critics enjoyed in bringing serious criticism to bear on then-current literary developments. It is now perhaps too easy to forget that much of the inspiration for the New Criticism came from writers and critics whose ultimate goal was to create favorable conditions for the consideration of modern poetry and fiction. In this case, at least, meaningful literary criticism and a new and innovative approach in literature worked in tandem to give motivation and energy to both.

Simply to renew the practice of literary criticism in its nonacademic form will not, of course, itself change the direction contemporary fiction and literary publishing have taken. And, unfortunately, signs that the situation is changing for the better on its own are not particularly noticeable. (Literary publications using the World Wide Web as their medium show some signs of being friendlier toward innovative fiction, but that would more properly be the subject of a separate essay.) At the moment, it would seem, the risk-averse neorealist aesthetic is firmly established in the American literary magazine, the appeals to experiment and originality notwithstanding. A further change in fashion could indeed occur—given the abiding conditions in American culture, it is perhaps inevitable—but it is not really a favor to literature to depend on the recycling machinery of trend and fashion. A transformation of the way in which the nature of literature and the role of literary innovation are understood can only come in the long run, and only if it is ultimately understood that the presence of such innovation is indispensable to, in some ways even identical with, a proper definition of “literature” at all.

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