Workshop Fiction Wars 2: n+1 and the doomed short story
I have to say that I mentally wrote off n+1 when I read this article on dating. It could not have soured me more to the magazine; I don't know who these people were who were going out on $100 dinner dates, making $40 an hour copy editing, or having sex with 10 people in a "busy but not extravagant Spring Break," but it certainly wasn't me. Frankly, the article bespoke of a kind of over-the-top, trustafarian life-style, and I couldn't (and still can't) tell if it was intended to be ironic. At any rate, the article (and thereby the magazine) certainly wasn't aimed at me, and I wanted no truck with it.
Then comes this article on the state of literature and the short story by Elif Batuman.
Today’s short stories all seem to bear an invisible check mark, the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory.
Well, yes, exactly. And then the author proceeds to dissect the very publication that I have been wracking my head trying to dissect in an essay that may now never see the light of day: The Best American Short Stories.
In the name of science, I recently read from cover to cover the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005. Many of these stories seemed to have been pared down to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns. An indiscriminate premium has been placed on the particular, the tactile, the “crisp,” and the “tart”—as if literary worth should be calibrated by resemblance to an apple (or, in the lingo of hyper-specificity, a McIntosh). Writers appear to be trying to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The result is celebrated as “lean,” “tight,” “well-honed” prose.
Batuman makes a compelling case for the American short story being a dead form, and then moves on to diagnose American novels ("American novelists are ashamed to find their own lives interesting").
This analysis raises some serious questions, not the least of which is why n+1 is publishing short stories and then turning around saying the American short story is dead? It is hardly lost on this reader that the article alludes to the irrelevance of literary magazines while itself being a literary magazine. But then, N+1 is a magazine that prides itself on talking about "The Intellectual Situation," which very expression strikes me as more than a little elitist and exclusive. Which reminds me again of the "Dating" article; n+1 perpetually presents itself in a manner that reads as entitled and snobbish. All of this points to the real problem with n+1: they have mistaken the effete snobbery of upper middle class privilege for the refined taste of intellectualism—the word for this is 'pseudo-intellectualism.' I mean, Issue 3 has sections titled with Greek and Latin: "Eros," "Thanatos," "Apologia Pro Vita Sua". Further, n+1 is a snob that vamps as an iconoclast, taking on targets like the Reading Crisis, The New Republic, Michael Chabon, and Dave Eggers, and it is in the aforementioned Eggers article that n+1 coined it's new favorite phrase—the "regressive avant garde". What is the regressive avant garde? Apparently it's both an appeal to childhood ("Eggersards [their term, our emphasis] returned to the claims of childhood. Transcendence would not figure in their thought. Intellect did not interest them, but kids did. Childhood is still their leitmotif.") and a return to experimental techniques of the past ("In typography and tone the Eggersards adopted old innovations, consciously obsolete maneuvers from earlier moments of creative ferment."). In other words the problem with Eggers is that he is backwards and unintellectual, exactly the kind of insult that the pretentious kid in high school would lob at the popular kid. (Which is in sharp contrast to the criticism I would aim at Eggers, which is that he's a puffed-up hack.)
In light of this, the new article on the short story and the novel comes into sharp focus: this is a magazine that criticises short stories for beginning with proper names, ("Nowhere is the Best American barrage of names so relentless as in the first sentences, which are specific to the point of arbitrariness") and then publishes stories that begin "During his first few weeks in the city Harold Fetch was generally turned around", "The ghost showed up the very first night. Levin had gotten a good deal on the house because of her, so he wasn’t surprised", and "“It is death for souls to become wet.” That’s Harry, skunk drunk, pontificating. It’s the middle of the century and we’re down on State Street, Dee, Anna, Harry, Empty and me. Xenophanes. Casino, for short". Because the snob is nothing if not blind to the ways in which he is looking down his nose at himself.
Which is all to say that I don't think things are quite so dire as this article would lead one to believe, and that his criticisms of American short fiction veer from the deadly accurate (that workshop fiction is over-produced and over represented) to the hypercritical (that proper names are emblematic of the problems with Workshop Fiction). The problem with workshop fiction isn't proper names. The problem is something completely missed by this article. It's that Workshop Fiction is goddamn boring.