The usual caveat: this isn't exactly "criticism," although my views on the story sort of come out while answering the question of whether I think I'd have recommended this story for publication as a reader at a literary magazine. The bigger point, though, is to look at the reasons, logical and illogical, why one editor might accept or reject a story, and to use that to help writers out there understand why their own stories might get rejected.
How would I have voted?
Yet again, I'm fairly certain I'd have voted no. And yet again, I think I'd have probably been wrong.
Why would I have voted no?
There might have been a bit of an irrational reason to reject the story for me: the other day, Anis Shivani, something of a literary man crush for me, commented on my humble little blog. (Or it was at least someone convincingly playing the part of Shivani.) Soon after, I got his first book of fiction, "Anatolia and Other Stories." One of the stories in there is about a man at a writer's workshop retreat, who rather drolly notes that all of the women in his workshop seemed to be writing about anorexia. Which kind of made me subconsciously roll my eyes in sympathy with that main character when I got to "Midterm," about the struggles of a college freshman girl with anorexia named Chandra. I may have taken the proximity of Shivani's story as a clue I should reject the one by Johnson.
Even before I read that story by Shivani, stories about anorexia would have been a tough sell for me. They're kind of--and this is really not to dump on people who have it--played out and after-school-specially to me. My blogging buddy Karen Carlson said the voice of the lost-in-the-sauce female protagonist was "off-putting," even while it was the right voice for the story. Even Johnson herself seems well aware of how many readers might take such a character, and tries to let the reader know she has guessed the reaction by having Chandra's professor beg her not to write "another paper about anorexia" for class.
Johnson actually correctly guessed my thoughts twice in the story. The other time was when Eli, the boy who takes interest in Chandra, starts talking about his philosophy of how we all need to just be present and live our lives. It's the way only a self-important college student tool would talk, which is why Johnson has Eli say, after one monologue, "I sound like an asshole?" Well, now that you mention it, yeah...
Johnson understands that her story is a tough sell for the reader, but she's determined to make us care about Chandra anyway. Just because Chandra's troubles are kind of cliche, first-world troubles doesn't make them less troublesome for her. In fact, that's what makes it so pernicious: she looks very much like she's on her way to becoming a statistic, another girl who washed out of college in the first year. And she's such a cliche, the people in her life seem unable to summon the energy to help her adequately.
Johnson manages to make the reader care about Chandra, in spite of all the obstacles, which is quite an accomplishment. But I kind of think I'd never have gotten far enough as an editor to find out that she'd done it. I don't want to put hypothetical votes into the mouths of other editors I work with, but there are a couple of women at the journal whom I've seen on more than one occasion reject a story with the note "a little too 'YA' for my taste." If either one of them had said that about this story, I'd have probably agreed without thinking too much about it.
It's really remarkable this story managed to get past the inevitable knee-jerk reactions against it. I have to give the Colorado Review props for having accepted it in the first place. It shows a lot of willingness on the part of their editorial staff to hear a writer out. I'm not sure I'd have done as well.