Sunday, June 11, 2017

Let's play "Would I have pubished this story?" (WIHPTS)

It was unfair, of course. Was it monstrous? A mistake had been made, but the numbers all but guaranteed mistakes. The sheer numbers. Every system had its failings. -Chris Drangle, "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County"

I've been reading the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart anthologies pretty faithfully for the last four years, figuring that's a pretty compact and efficient way to keep up with what's good--or at least critically well reviewed--in American fiction. When I read these stories, I often like to play a game with myself. It goes like this: If this story had come into the literary journal where I am a fiction editor, and I knew nothing about the author or had anything to mark this story off as special, would I have voted for it to be published?

Here, I offer to the public the latest round of this game I've just played, which was with Chris Drangle's "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County." This is an appropriate story to show how the game works, I think, partly because of that epigraph above. The story is about how an injured veteran's wounded dog, who is also a war veteran, is accidentally put down by a clinic, and what happens when the veteran comes to pick up the dog he thinks is still alive. It could also be a metaphor for the editing process at any literary journal: we have so many stories to go through, it's inevitable we're going to make mistakes and "put down" the wrong ones sometimes.

Quick Answer. Would I have voted "up" for this story?

Yes. It's a compelling story with a clear conflict, and the central conflict is introduced within the first page. We have two characters drawn with enough detail that we, the readers, are troubled to see them as they unintentionally come into conflict with one another.

There is a caveat to my yes, however. Our journal has a 5,000 word limit, and this story goes well over it. It's always strange to me that so many journals have 5,000 or 3,000 word limits, and that it seems easier to get a story published if you can get your word count down, but for the anthologies, it seems most of the stories are longer. I think there's still a feeling that a really short story isn't serious, somehow, even though all writers trying to break into publishing are pushed to write shorter pieces. 

What might have made me vote no?

1. A confusing passage early on.  There are two female characters, Portia and Naomi, who both work at the animal shelter where the dog is accidentally put down. Naomi is the one who fucked up. Early on, when we're still learning how to differentiate the two, we see Naomi leave a room and check a few things to see if it was her fault. We then get Portia again. Here's the passage:

     Back in the staff room, Portia was biting her nails and Dennis was stirring the instant tea.
     "How did it happen? "Dennis said.
     "I don't know."
     "This is so fucked up," Portia said.
     "Shut up," she said. "No, sorry. Let's just think."

I was confused about who "she" was in that last line. We've had Portia's name twice since we last heard from Naomi, so I'd think it was her. But it can't be Portia, because then it wouldn't have been a new indentation and a new line. Eventually, I got that it was Naomi, still in the scene, talking. But getting confused early on in a story, even for a second, sometimes puts an editor off for good.

2. Screwing up a detail about military life. There is a section that gives the back story for Fisher Bray, the wounded veteran, about how he ended up in the Army, how he met the dog, and how get and the dog were injured. I think Drangle did enough homework to get through that section without messing it up. But before that, Fisher explains that he was in the "First Battalion, 25th Infantry." If you know anything about the Army's makeup (or just look here), you know that "25th Infantry" is a division. Below a division are several brigades, each of which has several battalions. So there are many "First Battalions" in the 25th Division. Fisher Bray wouldn't say "First Battalion, 25th Infantry," in other words, unless I'm missing something.

I wouldn't have disqualified the story for this, even though I've kvetched before about people screwing up this kind of thing. It would just have given me a slight, instinctive nudge toward a no vote, and I'd have added a note for the writer to edit it. (Drangle might also have been wrong about Fisher shaving at 4:40 AM in basic training; when I was in boot camp, hygiene came at night. But that was the Marines, not the Army, and it was a long time ago, so I might be wrong. It wouldn't be a meaningful mistake, anyway.)

3. Would Fisher have really liked Megadeth? Infantry guys are know to like their hard-core rock, but this seems like something a Gen-Xer would have liked, not a kid who was 19 around 2007 or so. Again, not a big thing.

4. My often-felt uncertainty about an inconsistent narrative distance from the character. Just for review, third-person limited, which is the most ubiquitous point-of-view choice in literature today, means we, the readers, can only see the story through the five senses and the thoughts of one character. This story has different POV focus characters in different sections, which is fine. That doesn't violate point-of-view. That's just rotating third-person limited. Lots of people do it. No problem.

There is also an aspect of distance to point-of-view, however. That is, how far the voice of the narration varies from that of the point-of-view character. For example, it's very rare that a third-person narrative would have a character speak in dialect during dialogue and also have the main narration keep this dialect. The main narration has a distinct voice from the point-of-view character.

But how far this distance between narrator's voice and character's voice should be is not something discussed much. I don't feel it's something most editors read into too closely. But it does bother me sometimes when a nameless, invisible narrator gives us descriptions the main character himself/herself couldn't have come up with. That's part of the light criticism I made years ago of the story "Long Tom Lookout" by Nicole Cullen Sometimes, the narrator's voice is actually the thoughts of a character. Sometimes, it's a voice that is saying things I don't think the main character would think. If this distance from the main character is too great within the same passage, I find it a little jarring. Here's an example from "A Local's Guide":

     After lunch she stepped out for a short walk. It was seven thousand degrees outside. The cotton field behind the shelter was halfway into flowering, the dark bolls splitting around the cloudy blooms. In a month the strip picker would start lumbering down the rows, huge tires and green chassis and bright yellow teeth in front, thoughtless and methodical.

The "it's 7000 degrees out here" thought is Naomi's. The poetic rhapsodizing about the strip picker and the bolls and the thought that the strip picker rolls on impersonally like so many forces in life--that's all Drangle.

I don't think there's any "rule" against this kind of mixing in writing how-to thought. It's certainly done all the time. I do it. But it's kind of a cheat for a third-person limited narrative. The idea of the third-person narrative is that the writer is going to give you a catharsis through the life rules and philosophy of the character, not the author. But authors sneak their own thoughts into third-person limited stories all the time, and sometimes they do it though a bit of supernatural intervention into the universes they've created.

None of these quibbles would have kept me from voting for it, I think. It's an excellent story, with a sharp conflict and plot that suggest strong themes. But one never knows. If I'd been in a bad enough mood that day, maybe I'd have looked at how long it was and thrown it out as soon as I got confused for a minute on page two.


  1. Hi Jake - I love this idea of "WIHPTS" - it's a nice angle, and I'm thinking it'd be very helpful to new-ish writers or those struggling to get published. It's the sort of thing Zoetrope was so helpful with, years ago.

    I also love the detailed analysis of narrative voice; it's one of those things I'm very interested in, but I have little formal training at the level you're reaching, so it's hard for me to discuss. I've always thought of narrative distance as an adjustable-focus lens: the story can open with a very general narration, then zoom in on the details of a character's thoughts at the appropriate moment - or vice versa. In fact, there's an XLI story I just read the other day ("Things I know to be True") that does exactly that. I'm going to re-read it in light of your comments.

    If I were to write a story involving the military, I'd want you as my editor.

    Which raises another issue: editors vs story selection. It's my impression that the more "respected" (whatever that means) the litmag, the more actual story editing (as opposed to line editing) goes on. Is this accurate? In my extremely limited experience at the lower reaches of the literary food chain, I've only run into one editor who had significant edits to one of my stories; a couple other places made a comment or two but on the order of line edits. In one case, they pretty much forced me to agree to a capitalization I didn't really want, but I couldn't articulate my objection so I let it ride, figuring if I couldn't give a reason, and they could, they had the stronger case. But then there's Gordon Lish making a guy named Raymond Carver into... Raymond Carver.

    I'm looking forward to more of these WIHPTSs!

  2. My only experience with getting published is also from the more accessible, less formidable journals. My fourth story will be coming out next month, and it was the first one that had a fair amount of editing go into it. Main thing was the title. But I didn't end up having to take every edit the editor suggested. I said I didn't know how to do one of them, because it would have involved me really re-imagining the story, and the editor was fine with that.

    You're probably right about distance being the word used for the "camera" in fiction. I don't know what other term to use to describe the difference between narrative voice and character voice, and how different they can be while still not breaking the spell of the story.

  3. Jake, I admire your knowledge and critical writing, but geez you engage in literary taxidermy here, the very thing that makes academia so moribund and dead when it comes to literature. Surely the writing process is something organic, something much closer to Homer's muse, or the Arab's sense of possession during the jahiliya period (majnun = taken by the jinn), not a matter of an erector set where one cuts here and trims there to get that story into the taxonomically proper literary box. Stick a pin in a butterfly: it might be pretty to the scientist, but it's dead to everyone.

  4. "We murder to dissect" was Wordsworth's way of putting that thought. I certainly am not a fan of "workshopping" stories, and I like a story that feels a little raw. That doesn't mean we shouldn't study the guts of how fiction works. Certainly, not understanding the logic of how a third-person limited works can hurt you as a writer, because one false move can be the difference between a rejection and an acceptance when there are hundreds of stories of similar worth. And this issue of the relationship between the voice of the narrator and that of the main character is really something I don't think fiction theory has really paid enough attention to.