Sunday, June 25, 2017

WIHPTS? "After Reading Peter Bichsel" by Lydia Davis

It's time for another round of Would I Have Published This Story (WIHPTS), in which I attempt to demonstrate the arbitrariness of short fiction publishing by taking stories that have earned critical praise and trying to guess if I'd have voted for them to be published in the small literary journal I work for if I'd have seen them come in without anything to flag them as special.

The first two times I did this, I was pretty confident I'd have voted to publish the acclaimed stories, which kind of undercut my theory of arbitrariness. Let's see what happens this time, with "After Reading Peter Bichsel," originally published in The Paris Review and later re-printed in the 2017 Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Here is my caveat about what this game means and doesn't mean:

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, 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?

No! I'd have rejected it, probably with extreme prejudice, after reading perhaps two or three pages. And I'm relatively confident other editors would have agreed, and our journal would have rejected it with a non-personalized note. There is one other editor in particular I'm thinking of who would have called this story "thinly fictionalized memoir."


This is an achingly slow and subtle story, something the narrator (author?) offers a bit of apologia for early on. She recounts being given a book of stories by Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. She wants to read the book to improve her German while she is traveling throughout Germany and Switzerland. The narrator remarks on these stories that:

He (Bichsel) will also sometimes begin a story, or remark in the middle of a story, "There are stories that are hardly worth telling," or "There is almost nothing to say about X," and then sometimes follow that with a "but": "But I have wanted to tell this story for a long time now," or "But it has to be told, because it was the first story in my life, the first one that I remember." He then goes on to tell a lovely, quiet, modest story, a story that glows with human kindness, or love, or some combination of compassion, understanding, and honesty. (Or am I, these days, finding this quality so marked in his stories because I am seeking it?)

The narrator says, before launching into the main narrative, that this characteristic applies to her own story: "I wanted to say...that there was not much to tell...there was a scene, one that involved a peculiar character, and later a coincidence." Not very promising to be warned early on that there isn't really much of interest in the story.

Why would I have voted no on it?

1. I already alluded to the main reason: it feels like memoir. It sounds like a travel anecdote, barely fictionalized. I'd have wondered if the writer meant to send this to  the creative non-fiction category.

2. It's adjective heavy: In the first page after the main narrative launches, we get: "small, undistinguished, reliable, attractive, crowded, noisy, buxom, energetic, peaceful, small (again), large, placid, agreeable, vague, comfortable, companionable." I don't have quite the revulsion to adjectives that some writers/editors do. Sometimes, I'd rather have one succinct adjective rather than a long rendering of why the author applied that adjective. That is to say, sometimes, it's okay to tell, rather than show. But so much of this right at the outset of the story, after first being waylaid by a lengthy framing of the story, would have made me feel the story had something of an amateurish feel.

3. Putting in the bit about reading some Swiss writer--in the original German--felt to me like a humble brag on the part of the writer. Actually, if this had been presented as creative non-fiction, I'd have accepted this much more readily. But labelled as fiction, this felt like there was too narrow a distance here between the narrator and the author, and the author was trying to show off that she spoke a foreign language and that she read someone in that language. Given that I've pushed through my share of novels in foreign languages more difficult than German (my own humble brag), I wasn't that impressed.

Of course, we might have been totally wrong to overlook this story

The point I want to make through this WIHPTS series isn't that some stories get praise without deserving it. It's more than your story or mine that has been overlooked might not have deserved to be overlooked. With this story, I'd have applied some pseudo algorithms I've developed over time to help cut down on my work load and get through the slush pile more quickly. One is that if I don't want to keep reading after a page or two, neither will a magazine reader.

But reading this story not as a slush pile candidate but as an already validated and lauded story, I can see something of why people see value in it. The point of WIHPTS isn't criticism, so I'm not going to go into it deeply here, but there is definitely something interesting in the reaction of the narrator at a few points in the story. She hesitates to give a woman a pen, although she has a spare. She wants to ask something about the woman when she sees her again later, but she is overwhelmed by the logistics of getting through it in German. She reads to improve her German, but doesn't actually speak to anyone, which, of course, is also a way to learn German. At the end she sees a man on a train who is an avid reader like herself, and when the train moves, he braces himself against its movement. Is that what reading is to some people? Just a way to prevent being moved, being changed?

When I made myself read the story, I actually somewhat liked the non-hurried pace of it. So many literary magazine stories are frenetic, because we writers are told how critical it is to keep the story moving. This has a feel to it like a story from a century ago, when writers were still self-assured of their own raison d'etre they weren't always in a rush, didn't always have to have explosions.

So this story might very well deserve its place in an anthology of the year's best, although I'd still have rejected it from our small literary magazine in ten minutes or less. I'm pretty sure an unknown author would have had a very hard time publishing this story.


  1. Blog war coming. Stay tuned... ;)

    1. Seems to bring in the ratings for the YouTubers. I can insult you more in the comments to your blog if you want. :)

    2. Um, no thanks. I had something far more sedate in mind. I just wasn't made for the Internet Age ;)