Not So Novel?

Cooling down after a run this weekend, I stopped by a local cafe to pick up coffee and the New York Times. On Sundays I often turn first to the crossword puzzle, to delay the inevitable slew of international and financial crises. Yes this week, rounding the corner, even the magazine pointed to crisis for me as a reader, writer, and editor. Garth Risk Hallberg’s riff “Why Write Novels at All?” asked me to consider questions I wasn’t prepared to answer, and definitely not sweaty, pre-caffeine, at 8 AM. At first, the question seemed silly–as a writer I write because I must. Because I believe in the power of words to help us understand and make sense of an inexplicable and yet beautiful world, because it is rent with pain that needs voicing and from which we can learn. I write because it is something I can offer–a mainstay, and a crafted one, amidst chaos.

Hallberg writes that, according to many contemporary novelists, the main purpose of fiction is to make us feel less alone. The article goes on to question the ways in which a novel can do so, namely David Foster Wallace’s take that “if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own” and Jonathan Franzen’s reasoning that “simply to be recognized…simply not to be misunderstood: these revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.” To me, however, both of these seem unsatisfying and to a certain extent, egotistical takes on the value of novel reading and writing. A blog or Facebook page is also a place to broadcast one’s emotions, and, conceivably, receive some sort of community or comfort, in the same virtual way that writing and reading can. This is predicated, of course, on the assumption that people care and want to hear about one’s life, which I’m not sure everyone does. Hallberg directs us to the distinction–a key one–between writing to feel less alone and writing because one wants a reader to feel less alone. And yet I wonder the impulse behind many modern novels.

If the purpose of the art is, according to Hallberg’s sources, “to delight and instruct.” And I think the best novels (or poems, or short stories) do. But if our purpose is to feel less alone, to write out of our solitary condition, delight and instruction for others may not be inevitable. In writing to feel less alone or to imagine the pain of others we may write ourselves into a whole new type of loneliness, a loneliness born of inattention to the power literature has to “both frame the question and affect the answer,” and to do so beyond the scope of our own concerns.

This is not to say that many novels do not or cannot delight us as entertainment, or instruct us as to the pain or joy of another. But is it enough to make a novel worthy of reading or writing, enough to make a novel a good piece of art? Or one that lasts? I don’t know that I can answer that question. Maybe it is not the nature of fiction to have the Great American Novel, or classics in the way that we used to. Maybe this means that books become classic to individuals, when characters and language sticks with us even when they are not widely read and lauded and in mass circulation. Personally, I don’t think I’m wiling to concede that easily. I think it is a worthy endeavor to try, with each piece to delight and/or instruct someone else, whoever that may be. Some of that pleasure and learning will inevitably find me as I’m writing. Or picking up the next great novel.

“Why Write Novels at All?” New York Times Magazine, 50-51. Sunday January 15 2012.

Paying it Forward


Image: OPL Teen Space

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how lucky I’ve been to have had some really incredible teachers, over the years. Their encouragement and enthusiasm and knowledge and example was invaluable to me as a young writer, and has continued to be invaluable. More and more, I realize that, while I may never be able to repay them for all the time and attention and faith they’ve given me, I can do my best to pay it forward.

For the past five summers, I’ve had the privilege of teaching at a workshop for high schoolers, and the students I’ve met there are intelligent, enthusiastic, eager to learn, and excited to be part of a writing community.

Do you know any young people who love to write? Below are some great opportunities to let them know about!

  • The Academy of American Poets website has some great resources for teens.
  • There are several really fantastic writing programs for teens, such as the Reynolds Young Writers Workshop at Denison University, and the Young Writers Workshop at Kenyon college.
  • New Pages’ Young Authors Guide has a comprehensive list of literary magazines that have contests and submission opportunities for children, teens, and young adults.
  • The Scholastic Arts Awards has several great opportunities for young artists to submit creative work.
  • Remember the beloved children’s poet/illustrator Shel Silverstein? Last year, Every Thing On It, a collection of previously unpublished poems and illustrations, was published posthumously by Silverstein’s family. This article has the scoop, as well as a touching audio recording of kids reading the poems in the collection.

Happy reading, writing, teaching, and learning!

2011 Fiction Prize Winner & Runners-Up


Announcing our winner of the 2011 Fiction Prize


Elise Winn

Davis, California

& Runners-Up:

“Eight, Nineteen, Twenty-Seven”

Natasha Sunderland

“Last Night with Cicely”

Kyle Winkler

Congratulations to our contest winner, Elise Winn, our runners-up, Natasha Sunderland and Kyle Winkler, and all our fantastic finalists. We’d also like to extend a huge thank you to our final judge, Kevin Brockmeier, and all of our contest entrants, for making our 2011 fiction contest a success!

On Rejection

Nobody likes to be rejected. Not by a friend, not by a job, and certainly not by a literary journal. The good writing gods know I’ve received my fair share of rejections to stories I wrote and loved and believed in. But as the fiction editor here, it’s also my responsibility to dole out rejections–a lot of them. It gives some credence to that old saying, ‘you get what you give.’

So what goes into deciding what stories to reject, and how to reject them? Here at IR, we get about a hundred fiction submissions a week. At our fiction meetings every two weeks, we discuss an average of eight stories. But in our upcoming issue, there is about one story for each month’s worth of submissions. That means that for each story published in Indiana Review about four hundred were declined.

“The road is long; the struggle must go on.”

Sadly, many of these rejections are sent to really fabulous writers. Many a story we don’t take is truly compelling. But maybe it’s about a subject we’re not familiar with, and we’re just not the right editors to judge it. Or maybe our reading committee gets to talking about it, and for whatever reason–an inconclusive ending, a passive protagonist, the members of the group–we all decide that it just doesn’t seem quite right for publication. I’d like to say the selection of work for our journal was an airtight scientific process that allowed all the best cream to rise to the top, but the truth is it’s messy, inconsistent and difficult. Howard Junker at ZYZZYVA pretty much summed it up in this 2007 rejection letter, where he wrote, “I must return almost everything–99%–of what’s sent to me, including a lot that interests me and even some pieces I admire. …I make mistakes; my taste is erratic, my judgement flawed.”

I know from experience how harrowing the process of allowing your story to be read by a stranger’s critical eyes can be. I’d love to be able to write an encouraging, thoughtful note to every fiction writer who’s brave enough to send us his or her work–and I do try to include a personal note whenever possible. Whatever I say, though, it’s up to the writer to decide to persevere in the long, brave, solitary battle that is the practice of writing, and to take each rejection as a “momentary setback.” As Howard Junker writer, “The road is long; the struggle must go on.”