I had so much fun playing my first round of "Would I Have Published This Story?" I've decided to play again. The idea is pretty simple: I take a story that has won a fair amount of praise, in this case "Things I Know to Be True," from this year's Pushcart Anthology, and I try to guess if I would have voted to publish this story if it had come at random into the literary journal where I volunteer as a reader.
This isn't really literary criticism, although I guess my opinion on the story will sort of come out in the wash as I try to guess what my own reaction might have been. The bigger point than just criticism of one story is to cast a light on how fickle publishing is. This is a story that has been deemed one of the year's best, not only by the original journal that published it (One Story), but the editors of the Pushcart Anthology. But that doesn't mean it might not have met a different fate, that there wasn't some luck involved...
Short answer: Would I have published this story?
Probably, but I wouldn't have liked it. Sometimes, I vote for a story because I can see it was written well enough that it deserves to be published, even though I don't really like the story very much.
It's the story of a Vietnam veteran, Charlie, struggling to get his shit back together after a traumatic experience...you know...back in 'Nam. He goes to the library every day and reads something, which then often triggers some reaction in him demonstrative of his anguished mental state. For example, while reading Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," he believes that the existence of words describing a man who is encased means there really is such a person. A story of a fire makes him put the book under water to put the fire out. Charlie has a sign above his bedroom door, his "things he knows to be true," and they are responsible for his inability to tell fact from fiction. His list: 1) The past and the future exist through stories, 2) Stories are made of words, 3) Words make the future and the past exists.
There's a coping mechanism in there for dealing with the ghosts from Vietnam, but Charlie hasn't learned to use it right. He's victim of a sort of magical-realism break with reality, when what he needs is to learn how to use words to his advantage. The key is that if words make reality, then Charlie can re-write the story of his life to control the past. Charlie eventually learns this ability, which is the climax of the story.
What's good and bad about it
What I don't like about it has more to do with personal taste than critical assessment. In the last decade, there have been a LOT of stories about veterans with PTSD coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them even are framed as stories written by veterans as part of their PTSD therapy. Vietnam was obviously before we had things like PTSD therapy writing sessions led by MFA candidates, but this does sort of have a Vietnam-standing-in-for-Iraq kind of feel to it. The narrative style of the mentally ill person writing the story reminded me rather too pointedly of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
I also found the theme of narrative as a means to make the world whole again a little well-worn. I tend to be a little suspicious of themes in fiction that are about fiction itself. While it's true, of course, that the stories we tell ourselves greatly affect our outlook on life, there are also some wounds that words seem a little pathetic to try to fix. I don't think Charlie would really have a philosophy about stories like the one given to him; that's the author putting a list above Charlie's door for him, not Charlie. It's just a little too precious, fiction trumpeting the real-world value of itself. It's the kind of thing that's guaranteed to titillate editors at fiction magazines, which is why it did so well.
Still, I'd have probably voted for it. The narrative is crisp, it doesn't waste words, and it has a clear theme. (I prefer a theme I'd quibble with to a story whose theme I can't begin to fathom.) And much as the story might make too much of fiction's real-world power to overcome the past, it's probably much healthier than a story where the veteran is simply overwhelmed by his demons and can't make the center hold. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has suggested that much of the understandable impulse to help veterans of the two long wars overcome PTSD has actually led to the proliferation of a victim mindset. This story at least puts a weapon in the hands of its veteran and allows him to fight back.
A personal aside: what troubled me about reading this story
I just posted about a story I thought of on a Friday and got accepted for publication by Monday. Some of the things I've just said bothered me about "Things I Know to Be True" are things I myself did in my own story. It also uses the first-person narrative with a main character who is using writing as a means to overcome a trauma.
Rather than learning to write my stories my way, I wonder if I'm just learning to write the kinds of stories that literary journals will accept. It does seem that the stories I myself think are among my best are the ones I seem unable to get published.