The concept of The Atlantic Monthly began in April, 1857, when Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes and a few others met at the Parker House Hotel in Boston to create a “journal of literature, politics, science, and the arts.” The first issue, with James Russell Lowell as editor, came out in November, 1857.
James Lewis Pattee in his still useful 1923 history The Development of the American Short Story says, “The new magazine from the first was able to select the best that America could produce, and from the first it kept its pages free from the sentimental and the conventional. It was the type of periodical which Poe all his life had dreamed of founding and which every other American man of letters had dreamed of from the days of Bryant and Irving and Dana.” Pattee argues that Lowell, although not a fiction writer himself, “did more than any other person to raise the new short-story form to a place of dignity and to give it reality and substance.” During the three and a half years of his editorship, he accepted over eighty short stories by some fifty different writers.
He must have rolled cantankerously over in his grave when in the May 2004 issue, the current editors of The Atlantic announced, “We will no longer offer a short story in every issue of the magazine,” adding, doubtfully, “but we remain committed to the form.” That commitment was a curiously conceived “extra annual Atlantic fiction issue,” which was available on newsstands and to subscribers only online.
That’s when I sent Atlantic the following letter:
"I just wanted to express my sadness at The Atlantic’s decision to no longer publish a short story in each issue. I have been teaching and writing about short fiction for the past forty years, always recommending to my students that they subscribe to The Atlantic if they wanted to read quality short stories.
"I know there is no need to remind you that the short story is an important literary form, that The Atlantic has always had a great tradition in making stories available, that your decision is one more step in the decline of reader interest in quality fiction in America. I know that The Atlantic’s recent win of the American Society of Magazine Editors Award for fiction makes no difference to an editorial board that obviously prefers politics to literature.
"I will not be renewing my subscription. I will watch for your special issue available only on newsstands and on the Internet, but we know that lame effort will not last, and we know that eventually you will publish no more short stories. And that will be the end of one the last great sources of literature in a world already bombarded by political opinion and mere information."
And, as it turns out, that special newsstand- and online-only fiction issue was a bad idea. I could never find the damned thing at Barnes and Noble and reading it online was a pain in the arse. I ordered it once directly from Atlantic, and it took two months to get it. Definitely a bad idea. I wonder how many others suspended their subscription.
James Bennet began his Editor’s Note in the April, 2010 issue as follows: “I have some good news. Next month, The Atlantic will once again send fiction home to our subscribers, in a supplement that will accompany our May issue. On the newsstand, the supplement will be bound into the May magazine.”
Whereas the May, 2004 Editor’s note was filled with talk about the “challenge of real estate—space in the magazine—at a time when in-depth narrative reporting from around the country and the world has become more important than ever,” the April 2010 Editor’s Note assured that the short story has always been ”integral” to The Atlantic since that first 1857 issue
Claiming that no one was happy with the previous five-year compromise, Bennett further suggested, “We think—we hope!—we are seeing renewed interest in the short story.”
Well, Mr. Bennet, we think---we hope—the same. I have renewed my subscription to The Atlantic and was happy to receive the Fiction 2010 supplement tucked in with the May issue, although I did get it several weeks late. What’s up with that?
In a May 2009 Editor’s Note entitled “Fiction Matters,” The Atlantic praised the work of editor C. Michael Curtis who came to the job in the early 1960s, crediting him with the excellence of the fiction published in the journal, noting (“by conservative estimate”) that half a million stories were submitted to the magazine since that time.
The Atlantic considered some 5,000 stories for publication in 2009, (a humbling bit of data) as Curtis “looked for stories with narrative ambition, complex characters, and imaginative use of language, the familiar staples of good storytelling.” “I prefer,” Curtis is quoted as saying, on the whole, stories that present readers with situations requiring resolution, inviting moral choices, finding ambiguity in life experiences we are tempted to simplify.”
The Fiction 2010 supplement includes seven short stories, three essays, and a handful of poems, all of which I have read with interest.
The three essays are perfunctory, ordinary, and obligatory. Richard Bausch’s “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons” argues, with absolutely no demur from me, that aspiring fiction writers should spend their time reading good fiction writers rather than “How to” writing manuals. Well, sure, yes, indeed, of course, you betcha, etc. etc. Here is Bausch’s advice: “Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write.” Well, sure, yes, indeed, of course, you betcha, etc., etc.” He ends with a paraphrase of the famous William Carlos Williams line: “Literature has no practical function, but ever day people die for lack of what is found there.” Well, sure, yes indeed, of course, you betcha. [The Williams line is: "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there." From "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"]
The interview with Paul Theroux entitled “Fiction in the Age of Books” has even less substance, included mainly, it would seem, for the value of Theroux’s name. One of the probing questions put to Theroux: “Does the migration to e-readers increase access to good stories or diminish it?” His astounding reply: “Greatly increases access.”
Joyce Carol Oates’ piece, “I Am Sorry to Inform You,” probably an excerpt from her forthcoming book The Siege: A Widow’s Story, recalls her “early days of widowhood” after the death in 2008 of her husband Raymond Smith, to whom she’d been married for 48 years.
I plan to discuss the fiction in the special Atlantic supplement later this week. If you are a subscriber, you should have yours by now. If you are near a newsstand, you should find a copy with the May issue. Let me know what you think about it.