". . . whence a whole world emerges."—Cavafy
A friend of mine finds out from her agent (her editor never calls) that her book, her fourth, has been dropped from her publisher's catalogue. The work is too difficult. A writer I know is told, "How about putting in some dogs? People love it when you write about dogs." An editor I admire, at a magazine I have long admired, says, "We're just not doing emotionally complex work."
All I wanted to do in this issue was to find room for difficult work, for emotionally complex work, for work that didn't have dogs where they didn't belong and for work that loved the word, as well as the story, and believed in telling a story that mattered, in a way that stayed with me, stayed with you, and didn't shy from imagination or get coy about facts.
. . . but life
without the Letter is in the worst of taste,
and, always, though truth and love
can never really differ, when they seem to,
the subaltern should be truth.
In the best stories, the market, the advertisers, the focus group, Disney, Viacom, and Time Warner do not play a part. I think what we have in this issue is some of the best of their various, variegated kinds—truth, love (even if of the grimmest, most damaging sort), language, and story wrestle for their sense of self and then pull together, like bits of mud and fish, pulling themselves up and out, onto land, and into human story form.
And that is the great gift of literary magazines. They are the building blocks, the country stone walls—meandering, uneven, of enormous beauty and value, if the values are right—of the literary world. These magazines are the place writers come to first. You read something in the little bookstore, someone has a copy in the common room, someone's older brother had a poem published, your teacher had had a short story there a few years ago, and still manages to mention it in every fifth conversation. You screw your courage to the sticking point, and send something out. If you are one kind of a writer, you send it out and try to think of other things. For months. If you are another kind, you send it out to four magazines at a time, confident (if confident is the right word) that three magazines will not all say yes, and if they do, you'll choose. It is wonderful to imagine that you might have to choose. Three, or six months later, or however long, which is always shamefully, sadistically too long, you get a rejection note. If you are lucky, and the world is turning properly, there is a handwritten note at the bottom, inviting you to send more, to try again. People have been known to persist for another five years, just on those letters, and a literary magazine that can't be bothered to encourage pretty good writers to become better should find another way of doing business. Agents read these magazines to see who is new, good, fresh, and unsigned. Writers read to see what their friends and students are up to and to see how the river is flowing these days.
And readers read to be captured, to enter Gardner's dream, the perfect joining of the reader's need and the writer's. All of these are real stories, not sketches, not anecdotes, not a sudden splicing of language. They have heft (even the funny pieces have the necessary muscle and mass to plant something that matters in the heart of the cleverness and not let clever run away with the show); they have lyricism grounded in story and life, so that it is not mere, and even annoying, filigree; they have things observed and people understood in language that opens out, past information, into another, less conscious light.
These are the kinds of stories I like.