Monday, July 17, 2017

No for three in a row: WIHPTS, "Midterm" by Leslie Johnson

For this round of Would I Have Published this Story (WIHPTS), I make my second foray in recent memory into the seedy underbelly of the teenage, American, female psyche. A few months ago, it was for 13 Reasons Why, but today it's for the next story in this year's Pushcart Anthology, "Midterm" by Leslie Johnson.

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. 


  1. I love that you think the guy was an asshole. I thought I was being overly harsh, but I guess he really was a jerk. But that leaf line would've worked on me.

  2. If the story had been suggesting that Eli had some wisdom we as readers could look to an an antidote to Chandra's illness, I'd have hated the story. But I think it's pretty clear, especially once we get to the point that we realize Eli hasn't been to class in seven weeks and is about to get kicked out of school, that Eli's a mess himself.

    To me, the best part about this story is that at the end, Chandra doesn't turn to Eli, but to her cell phone that she daringly set aside for the day. Eli may have been a dumb asshole, but living without the cell phone was actually good for Chandra. A lot of her neurosis seems to come from being watched. She doesn't like others to see her in the shower. Her mother insists on monitoring her grades. We might look at our phones, but they also, in a sense, look back at us. All that connectivity to social media, all that looking at how the Joneses are doing and comparing ourselves to that happy family seemingly always on vacation--it's not good for us. The ending works for me because it's not just sympathy for Chandra; it's sympathy for her whole generation of technology addicts who are just lost.

    1. I agree completely about the ending being better than if Eli was this magical person who was able to heal her - that's the afterschool special (and then when he drops out of school and leaves her alone, it's ok because through him she's found the resources to make other relationships... the script of pretty much every afterschool special ever. And a lie that's almost as bad as "she'll eventually realize she loves you if you just keep trying long enough" aka Stalker Training 101).

      I had a very different take on the "being watched" thing. I'm pretty sure it colored my entire reading, because it's borne out of personal experience.
      There's something called "social anxiety disorder" which is a fear of scrutiny - being watched, being judged, by strangers, acquaintances, friends, family, anyone outside of a limited safe zone. When she described her reluctance to go to class, for no good reason, I could understand that - I frequently had trouble going to class, or to work, or to choir practice or anywhere. I still do, though it's eased up with time (measured in decades, not years). It makes no sense; she explains very well the teacher is nice, won't dump on her. There's no reason for the anxiety, but it's there, always. I'd thought it was part of her anorexia - some people thinking she's fat, others discovering she's too thin - but maybe there's some social anxiety in there as well.
      As for how technology fits in, it allows connection that is otherwise difficult. I have a terrible time with face-to-face conversation; when I speak, I'm inarticulate, nearly incoherent, and I sound anxious, I rush or I take a long time to find words, I get stuck in the middle of sentences. All of that disappears online. So when people tell me I'm substituting online relationships for "real" ones, well, I no longer try to respond, but it isn't a substitution, it's an addition. I was like this before the internet. I know more people now, not fewer.
      While this may or may not apply to Chandra, I've never felt "watched" by technology; I have my webcam taped over, but just about everyone does now (I'm probably less paranoid about technology than most people, in fact). Technology is almost an accessibility aid, like a hearing aid or science fiction's universal translator; it almost makes me seem normal, at least initially.
      In any case, Chandra isn't really communicating with anyone on her phone; I have no idea what she's doing on it, but it seems more like an input-only device for her - or even a prop. To make her seem normal.

    2. You're probably right that her phone doesn't represent an extension of her fear of being watched/social anxiety disorder. It is the thing she desperately clings to at the end. That actually makes sense if it's, as you describe, the means by which she might actually connect to the world. Even if she's not using it for that, it does represent some chance of connection for her. And dummy Eli tells her to toss it.

      I'm sure one could do all kinds of Freudian/sexual readings of Eli telling her to stick it in a hole, also. But I don't usually find those kinds of readings to be all that interesting.