Tuesday, February 14, 2012

AGNI Review Editor: "Convince Me That This News Is Different, That This Is the News I Need"

The blog Perpetual Folly alerted me to this interesting blog post by Sven Birkets, editor of The AGNI Review.

At first, Birkets’s piece feels like the familiar (though always interesting!) rant about reading the slush pile and knowing a story isn’t right after one sentence:

“Taking from the top of the fiction pile, for instance, I read: “John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake.” I stop and respectfully slide the pages back into their envelope. The piece will be returned to its author.

“Why? I could say a number of different things, and I will—because I voice them to myself and they seem to the point. I say (putting sentence- thoughts now to what would appear to an outside observer as a sequence of flinches, grimaces, and grumbling head-shakes), “This story is wooing me with a regular-guy protagonist. John Maloney—a name out of literary ‘Central Casting.’ The writer is making the enormous assumption that a common world exists and that he need only set John Maloney loose in it. He hits me right off with a trite exaggerated middlebrow verb in order to inject drama, but the word—‘hunched’—tells me that he has a secondhand, a ‘literary,’ idea of what a story is or might be. He is either young and inexperienced, or experienced and lazy. When a reader reads those words, she sees and feels absolutely nothing, or maybe gets a dull memory echo from the hundred thousand hunched shoulders she has met with in a lifetime’s reading. There is no attempt to welcome her to the Never Before.””

His comments about the importance of a strong beginning are certainly apt, but I was even more fascinated by where the essay went from there:

“When I sit down with a huge stack of envelopes, each one containing some hard-won, deliberated expression, I am not the tabula rasa—the fantasied clean slate—that I perhaps ought to be. No, I am a man of my time, a besieged reader, creating a specific occasion within what is, day in and day out, for me as for most everyone, a near-constant agitation of stimuli, an enfolding environment of aggressively competing signs and mean-ings. And my attitude, when I remove a clump of print-covered pages from their envelope, is not “Send me more and more new information” but “Reach me, convince me that this news is different, that this is the news I need.” It is, as you see, a kind of receptivity, but a very qualified kind.”

And finally:

“When I first run my eyes left to right down a page of prose I am looking, as reader, as editor, to see whether the writer understands that literary culture—culture in general—is no longer what it used to be, that the situation has changed completely from whatever it was even a decade ago. I check in to see whether the prose somehow records this primary recognition—if in no other way than by avoiding the myriad approaches and attitudes that no longer work.”

I guess I’m quoting so much because it seems so reductive to say this is a reminder that writers must be in the vanguard of the new world, observing and “reporting” the stories from the very front lines of where we find ourselves now, in this time and this place—a time and place that are have changed in significant and subtle ways:

“Basically—short version—a work of prose (or poetry) can no longer assume continuity, not as it could in former times. It cannot begin, or unfold, in a way that assumes a basic condition of business as usual. The world is no longer everything we thought was the case, and the writing needs to embody this—through sentence rhythm, tone, camera placement, or some other strategic move that signals that no tired assumptions remain in place. This writing must, in effect, create its own world and terms from the threshold, coming at us from a full creative effort of imagination and not by using the old world as a prop.”

I thought it was a thought-provoking piece and an interesting articulation of things I’ve sensed going on in terms of the type stories that seem to getting published today.  Do yourself a favor and read the whole essay and don’t rely on my butchering of it.  There’s even a hopeful ending!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.