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  • ForewordWhat a Writer Does Best
  • S M

Many years ago, as a graduate student, I read all the fiction published in the Atlantic Monthly between 1885 and 1895. During that time, the American literary scene was finally catching up with the British. American writers such as William Dean Howells, Mark Twain and Henry James were producing some of their best work, and Atlantic was arguably the finest American magazine of the day. Novels were still being done in serial form then, so it was a chance to read some of the most memorable American novels in their original publication.

However, local color was very "in" in the writing of the 1880s, with regional dialects, phonetic spelling and caricatures that on occasion went overboard. Carl van Doren put it nicely when he wrote that local-color fiction at times suffered from "the contagion of triviality." But even then literary fashion could fade surprisingly quickly, as this sort of story declined from over half of Atlantic's fiction in the 1880s to a negligible percentage by the mid 1890s.

As an editor, I've witnessed the rise and sudden waning of equally enthusiastic trends in literary fiction. The minimalist story, reminiscent of such writers as Hemingway and Beckett, achieved faddist predominance in the 1980s. Punk and minimalism flourished around the same time, and there were similarities between the stripped-down, chaotic authenticity and veiled aestheticism of both the fictional and musical forms. This magazine [End Page 5] was happy to publish great stories by such writers as Ray Carver and Amy Hempel, but by 1990 we had reached the point of grumbling about the bundles of bad imitations that stuffed our mailbox. We once calculated that over 50 percent of the fiction we were receiving was minimalist inspired. Yet by the mid-'90s the vogue had died out as quickly as regionalism had a hundred years before.

It is a fact well known in all the arts that bad imitation invariably chokes out trends. It is also true that the greatest writers and artists are often out of sync with what's popular at the time, with what's selling in terms of content or style. A fact less often discussed is that even the best artists may sometimes try to follow fashion and simply be unable to do it.

William Faulkner completed his first written story when he was in his early twenties, living in New York and working in a bookstore. The story was called "Love," and this magazine was the first to publish it, in 1984. It was characteristic of Faulkner's habit of stubborn, hard work that he tried at least twice over the next twelve years to rewrite this tale, first as a movie, then again as a story. It was about a love triangle, set among upper-middle-class Long Islanders. The young author wanted to appeal to an urban popular audience, and there was no kind of storytelling more "out" in the 1920s and '30s than old-fashioned regional fiction. William Faulkner would of course eventually triumph writing about the South, a subject both unpopular and for him at times personally burdensome. When he complained in a letter written in 1932 of "whoring for short stories," he was grumbling about the taste of commercial editors, but also about the very subject that he was best at and that he on occasion, quite understandably, grew weary of. It isn't too much of a stretch to wonder if the dark, lyrical, fractured opulence of Faulkner and of other important Modernists, such as Sherwood Anderson and James Joyce, was a way of "making new" the realism and regionalism that is in all their work.

The best writers don't always stand in easy proximity either with "what's happening" or with their own natural subjects or voices. What they do best isn't necessarily either fashionable or—contrary to theories about following one's bliss—fun.

Trends, types and movements can be handy as a beginning point in describing works of art, and it isn't entirely without value to link them with periods of high influence. Regionalism and realism in fact were important in the...


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