We begin this Editors’ Note by marking with deep sadness the death of Frank Conroy. Twenty-five years ago, we first encountered his memoir Stop-time in a tattered Viking/Compass paperback edition laid out for sale with some other books on a blanket on the sidewalk at 103rd and Broadway in Manhattan.
The seller was a boy of about twelve, and who knows if he or some older relative had read the book—the other titles on his blanket were commercial, genre, and textbooks of no literary interest—yet, looking back on how the cover painting of Frank, done by John Rich in Paris in 1953, irresistibly summoned the reader with its hip intelligence and sensitivity, it seems as if the youthful bookseller was a medium for the young Conroy portrayed in the book and for the chance purchase, a little bit of fate in the way that one book, one story, leads to another.
We can almost literally recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when we read Stop-time, hating to put it down even for a moment, yet wanting it to last forever, and feeling by the affirmation of connection it makes between the soul of its author and that of its reader the inspiration of hope and gratitude, the awe and humility one feels before great art.
A few years later, at Esquire, we published Frank’s short story “Gossip,” which would be included in his collection Midair and chosen by Raymond Carver for the 1986 edition of Best American Short Stories. Here at Narrative we recall with special gratitude the gift of two days for an interview with one of our editors at his home in Iowa City.
Frank was already suffering with the disease that would take his life a little over a year later, and while he spoke of his illness, he did not let it get in the way of hours of conversation, a lively dinner, and some jazz on the baby grand. He taught a generation of writing students at Iowa, and his interview, in which he discusses the challenges and mystery of writing, along with some very clear pointers on craft, indicates the generosity that is part of his legacy. The interview is permanently available in our Archive. In a future issue, we will reprint “Gossip” in our series of Classic stories.
Frank’s successor as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Lan Samantha Chang, recently noted in the New York Times that America is “currently in sore need of fiction.” Referring to her own background as a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she made the case for fiction this way: “Our country is hung up on what’s quantifiable, on spreadsheets and cost-benefit analysis, the things I learned at the Kennedy School. Even the most honest economist says there are things that can’t be explained by numbers.”
The numbers for literary fiction are troubling. The Atlantic Monthly recently announced that it will stop featuring fiction regularly. The new editor in chief of the Paris Review has spoken of his intention to focus on journalism. In the past fifteen years, The New Yorker has reduced by half the pieces of fiction it publishes each year. Esquire has gradually surrendered its literary heritage in favor of commercialism; and though Harper’s remains steadfastly literary, it publishes only ten short stories in an average year.
Not surprisingly, the decline of editorial interest in literary publishing in periodicals corresponds to a decreasing readership. In its 2004 report on literacy rates in the United States, “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” the National Endowment for the Arts noted a 10 percent decline in literary reading among American adults, representing 20 million lost readers. The rate of decline nearly tripled in the last decade and is increasing most in the youngest age group, adults aged eighteen to twenty-four, a demographic that came of age during the online revolution. These readers sent their first emails in grade school, and close to 70 percent of them are online almost every day. They are steadily moving away from print periodicals and books toward digital media. Conventional publishers are searching for effective responses to recoup lost readers and profits but have yet to succeed.
Though the New York Times is read online daily by 1.5 million readers—an audience that exceeds the number who read the daily hard copy—the Times Corporation has yet to figure out how to create a profitable revenue stream for online content. Other publishers face similar problems, and literary values are suffering because they are perceived as more expendable than voguish, commercial ones.
In the two interviews featured in this issue of Narrative, independent book publishers Jack Shoemaker and Shannon Ravenel detail the increasing odds against a literary title finding its readership in today’s marketplace. Some observers have argued that the quality of literary work in America has waned over the last decades. It is undeniable that the foundations of publishing, reviewing, and bookselling that support literary artists have changed dramatically, and at a price to literary readers and writers alike. Narrative chooses to see these statistics as proof that we are exactly where we should be, maintaining a tradition of literary readership in the ether of information, search engines, chat rooms, and instant messages that clutter the strands of the World Wide Web.
We publish Narrative with the explicit intent to continue providing a home for excellent literary work and to build and maintain a literary readership. With this issue, we are introducing a new feature, First & Second Looks, in which we will give brief excerpts of notable books—both books about to be released and ones already in print. The titles recommended in this issue are from Algonquin Press and Shoemaker & Hoard, the houses whose editors are interviewed in the issue. In future issues, we’ll present books from publishers large and small, and we’ll preface each excerpt with a headnote describing the book and the qualities that led us to include it.
In any era, there are few short story writers who have created masterpieces and advanced the art form. In this issue, we’re delighted to have a new Ann Beattie story, “Just Going Out.” The piece combines an immediacy of events—two children raised by a gentle uncle whose troubling young neighbor wants to make a documentary film of them—and an elliptical first-person narration that gradually brings forward the secrets in personal histories. Along the way, readers will delight in the dexterity and fineness of touch, the elegance of intellect and observation, the passion and sophistication of a narration that pursues the nature of knowing and of art.
Here we’re also presenting the conclusion of our serialization of Rick Bass’s new novel The Diezmo. Imprisoned in Mexico, our marauding band of Texans are chained and put to work quarrying stones and laying them into artful patterns to build a road. They hope that their labor might buy their release, though they know that ahead of them lies a fabled prison and that their fate rests in the hands of nations vying over the annexation of Texas. The story may well be read as a cautionary tale of manifest destiny for our time.
Tom Grimes’s story “Superbad, 1979” involves two young men—one white, one black—linked in a friendship of gifts and potential turned to trouble. We find them in Harlem, where thwarted desire turns to brutality, and we wait to see if providence will stoop to save them. Grimes, who studied with Frank Conroy at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, directs the Texas State University MFA writing program, which he has established as one of the country’s strongest programs. He has also been instrumental in the preservation of the Katherine Anne Porter house in Kyle, Texas, now the home of a nonprofit organization that brings MFA students together with high school writers to develop literacy and literary interest in the community.
Min Jin Lee, the winner of the 2004 Narrative Prize (for her short story “Axis of Happiness”) is currently completing a novel, Free Food for Millionaires, the opening of which is excerpted here. Set in Queens and Manhattan, the story explores what happens when a young woman’s dissatisfaction with her parents’ demands erupts into a violent confrontation with her father, who casts her out. She’s bitterly glad to go but quickly discovers that the alternative she imagined for herself has vanished, leaving her with resources of anger, pride, and intelligence poised between ruthlessness and grace.
Rounding out our fiction offering is V. S. Pritchett’s classic short story “Blind Love.” When a blind lawyer, whose wife has spurned him and whose previous assistants have taken advantage of him, hires a new assistant, he doesn’t know that she’s only too glad not to be seen. A lividly disfiguring birthmark across her chest has repeatedly shamed her with men, but what she imagines as a retreat from those trials, the lawyer senses as her need, while vainly denying much of his own. With touches of satire and characteristic wit about the deceptions that desire creates, Pritchett finds faith at the root of love.
Bill Barich, who recently completed a wonderful book on a year in the steeplechase horse-racing circuit in the United Kingdom and Ireland, takes us back to his literary beginnings in San Francisco with his essay “A Real Writer.” In the late 1960s Barich and an enterprising roommate ran an offbeat literary agency selling New York publishers titles about hippie fads such as practical witchcraft and tantric yoga. The agency rode the wave to its logical conclusion, and Barich emerged with lessons and stories to tell.
Some of you may have noticed that in the sometimes zany, free-for-all world of the Internet, the Million Writers Awards recently named Narrative the best new online magazine and a story we published, “Toggling the Switch” by Alicia Gifford, the best short story published online in 2004. We congratulate the author and offer our thanks for a great ride on her coattails. Additionally, you may have noted that four other stories published in Narrative were cited among the Notable Stories of 2004 as chosen by the Million Writers judges.
Our next issue will appear in September. Many thanks for joining us here.
—Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks