Recently I got a rejection note for a short story I submitted to a literary journal some months ago. The note came with a comment from the editors that, although they liked “much of the writing and most of the story,” the story didn’t seem to “go anywhere” and therefore was not “compelling.”
A rejection is always hard to take; however, for the editors to take the trouble to comment is unusual – and welcome. It made me think about my approach to the short story, and whether I want my stories to ‘go’ anywhere. I came to the conclusion that my stories don’t go anywhere in particular. That isn’t, and never has been, my intention in writing fiction.
What is my intention? I know I want the reader to experience that wonderful, willing suspension of disbelief so aptly described by Samuel Coleridge. I want the reader to find the story so compelling that he or she will accept whatever character or premise I’m exploring.
For the most part, that’s what I’m doing: exploring character and/or exploring a premise. How do we respond to the mystery of sexual attraction, to love? How do we deal with crisis? How do we experience, and then emerge from, the great events and disturbances of life: family issues, love and betrayal, growing up, growing old, giving birth to and raising children, wishing for and achieving/not achieving whatever it is we want, settling down or not settling. As Alice Munro puts is so well, in the title of one of her short story collections, it’s about Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage – to which I would add Work: the rewards and frustrations thereof.
In Jane Austen’s Emma, one of the characters writes a riddle on the subject of courtship. It goes like this:
My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!
But, ah! united, what reverse we have!
Man’s boasted power and freedom, all are flown;
Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave,
And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.
Pretty flowery and, in the context of the story, meant to be, but we’re all looking for love, acceptance, admiration, and we’re all condemned to achieve it only in part, or not at all. That’s the ‘reverse’ we’re stuck with. That’s what I’m writing about.
What is it like to be a flawed human being born in the United States of America in the twentieth century, and living on into the millennium? I don’t think about this much, or perhaps I think about it so much I don’t realize I’m thinking about it, but it is the substance of my fiction. All fiction, I believe, pre- and post-millennium, addresses some version of this question, according to the geography and chronology of the story.
The kind of fiction that I admire, and attempt to write, doesn’t necessarily ‘go’ anywhere. What makes it compelling is the will of the writer striking a chord of recognition in the mind of the reader.
Fiction is about what it feels like to be alive.