Interviews | September 01, 1984
Interviewer: Let’s begin with this: What distinguishes The Atlantic Monthly from other mass market general interest magazines? And then, what distinguishes the fiction in AM from that in other commercial magazines publishing fiction?
Curtis: That’s an interesting question and of course an Atlanticeditor isn’t the best person to answer it.
Interviewer: Not true. What I’m after more than anything is that insight from behind the door.
Curtis: Well, the problem is that we know our own magazine a lot better than we know other magazines. But insofar as we have a view, I would say that we think of ourselves as being a magazine that provides information, as distinct from opinion. We tend to pull back on opinion and try to edit it out pretty ruthlessly and concentrate instead on presenting a great deal of information. We are willing to risk boring or even intimidating our readers with material that we think is rewarding and informative and useful and unlike most other general interest magazines, we are prepared to devote fourteen pages to say, how to make a Steinway piano.
A good example of what I’m talking about is a chapter of a book by Otto Friedrich who works for Time magazine. Otto Friedrich was writing a book about historical calamities, about moments of time over the years when the world seemed badly off, the calamity so extreme that one wondered whether humanity would survive it. The chapter he sent us had to do with Auschwitz. It was 100 pages long and it described the experience of Auschwitz from the point of view of the Nazi commander there. I began to read it with some apprehension because I didn’t think we wanted to go back in history for something as familiar as the awfulness of the concentration camps. But I found myself utterly absorbed and I read it all the way through. I was tempted to return it but I sent it on to another editor saying I can’t imagine we’re going to be able to use this; it’s too long, it’s too familiar, it’s old hat stuff, but I read it through with absolute absorption and I want someone else to see it. So she read it and had almost the same experience. I sent it to Bill Whitworth and said to him, Two of us have read this, each of us thinks it’s not the kind of thing we ever do but we read it and couldn’t put it down, so maybe you ought to see it. He called me a week later and said, I agree absolutely with all of your reservations and apprehensions about this Friedrich piece but I also couldn’t put it down. It seems to me that if the three of us jaded magazine editors all find in this piece of writing qualities that we can’t resist, we really don’t have any choice but to print it. And so we printed it. All of it. One hundred manuscript pages.
Interviewer: That’s two-thirds of your magazine, isn’t it?
Curtis: I think it came finally to somewhere between twenty-five and thirty Atlantic pages. It was a big chunk of our editorial text in that issue. To the extent that our readers comment, almost all of them admired it. That seemed to vindicate a spontaneous judgment on our part about what we were willing to put in front of our readers.
Roughly the same thing happened with that piece about the piano. What I commissioned was a piece the author thought might run between ten and fifteen thousand words; it came in at about fifty thousand words. I read it and thought, My God! It was 167 pages long in manuscript. We agonized over it for several weeks and finally decided to cut it down as much as we could, and then print it. What we were saying in part was that it was very solid, good writing, good information, a useable subject. If we could figure out a way to cut it down to a manageable size, it was worth doing. And so we did it. We printed about fifteen thousand words. We got only one letter saying, “What on earth are you doing printing fifteen thousand words on making of a piano?” We were, as I said earlier today, printing a lot of pieces by academic specialists on very narrowly defined, somewhat rarefied subjects.
Interviewer: Such as the Grammar Wars.
Curtis: Well, such as grammar, and research on agricultural economics, or other strange subjects. Not strange so much as unexpected. We counted on our readers to be willing to read three or four or five thousand words on an unexpected subject, simply because they want to be better informed about it.
Interviewer: How does that make you different from, say, The New Yorker, which also runs with some frequency abnormally long pieces on unexpected subjects, such as Alvarez’s tract on hold ’em poker, and even occasionally the novellas of writers who are not particularly well known or accessible?
Curtis: In The New Yorker you’ll find one very long piece but you’ll also find shorter pieces. I’m trying to think of a way of distinguishing us. This is not a very satisfactory point, but The New Yorker does tend to publish more pieces than we do with a personality angle. I don’t know that it’s a weakness on their part—it may be a strength—but we haven’t done very many pieces about individuals, using individuals as a peg. I think we’re probably printing more shorter, tighter pieces of specialized information than The New Yorker does, but once again I don’t know that it—well, it simply is different. Maybe our pieces are more business-like, perhaps even more dutiful, than theirs are.
In terms of fiction, I think it may be easier to point to a quality that we care more about than The New Yorker does, and that is what I call a sense of story. A recognizable narrative involving reasonably well-developed characters and some kind of pivotal action that produces a change in the life of the character. I think The New Yorker is much more willing than we are to publish what I would call a sketch, or a portrait, or simply a reflective memoir. Of course, they also publish a lot more than we do. They’ll publish a hundred of these pieces in a year, and they can afford to publish stories that are off the beaten path. We do only about eighteen or twenty stories a year, as matters stand. And, we really do like a well-organized, focused, organic narrative. And we will rarely want to publish what we acknowledge is a very fine or elegant piece of writing just because it’s nicely written. We don’t do that because we think there’s something bad about elegant writing. It’s just that with only one or two stories in an issue, we’d like to have them be the kind of stories we like and admire most. In that sense I think our stories are less easily categorized than the fiction that appears in, for example, the women’s magazines, or even the men’s magazines, where certain confining qualities need to be present for reasons that are built into the way those magazines identify a readership.
Interviewer: How have you identified your audience, not just in the general context, but also for the fiction as an entity itself, and doesn’t such a definition also carry with it certain “confining qualities?”
Curtis: Well, I can tell you only some things. We use the same sources that other magazines do to identify demographically who’s reading the magazine and what they’re like. And what we know about our reader is that he or she is, by comparison with other general magazines including The New Yorker, Scientific American, Smithsonian, Time, Life, New Republic, Harpers, Esquire, Playboy—in comparison with those magazines our reader is at the very top—one, two or three—in average education, and average degree of political participation, as measured by standing for local office, or working to elect any political officer, their willingness to write letters to the editors about political subjects and so forth.
Our readers tend to be homeowners, they tend to travel a lot to Europe, they tend to have a fair amount of discretionary spending. They buy hi-fi equipment, for example. They own 1-1/2 cars. They send their children to college. The average income for AM is now up into the high thirties, or the low forties. The age range is, um, its highest density is between twenty-one and thirty-eight which is pretty good. The high thirties is the single highest concentration.
It’s a pretty good readership for advertising purposes, and it seems to be reasonably cosmopolitan. It’s about half divided between the men and women, with a slight edge to women. And it seems to be a readership with fairly sophisticated tastes in both poetry and fiction. And therefore a willingness to engage our rather catholic tastes. And it’s a readership that seems willing to put up with our odd gambles on long, dense manuscripts. I don’t think it’s characteristically either democratic or liberal or republican. Nor is it characteristically liberal or conservative. I think it’s pretty middle of the road. But I don’t know how much we know about that.
Interviewer: You don’t compose the magazine with your audience fully in mind?
Curtis: No. We really don’t. As I said yesterday, we don’t have to. We aren’t susceptible to shifting tastes on the part of a large readership. What that means is that our gamble is that we can find close to a half million people willing to buy into the judgment and taste of the editors. And we really do say, Here is what interests us, and this is worth reading. We’ll put together a package each month of writing that we think is interesting and lively and worth taking seriously. And count on our readership to trust our judgment and be satisfied that at least some part of the package is worth their while.
Interviewer: It’s an interesting concept to me because it’s contrary to one of the basic tenets of writing and publishing, and that’s Know your audience. Know whom you’re producing the piece or the package for.
Curtis: I would adjust that very slightly and say to writers thinking about The Atlantic that they should know who they’re writing for in the sense of the editors. Because obviously they need to read the magazine and know what it publishes, but the conclusions they should draw from that are not that they’re writing for a certain kind of audience so much as that they’re writing for a certain kind of editor and a certain kind of editorial judgment. It may mean the same thing, finally.
But the point is an interesting one. I know that in my—this is off the point—but in my writing classes I have a lot of students who worry a great deal about how they should shape their fiction to meet the requirements of the magazine market. I tell them that I don’t think they should even think about it, that I would really much prefer them to write the stories they want to write and to write the best way they can and to use as their criteria something that reflects a sense of the art—the seriousness, the enterprise—in the belief that if what they do really has artistic legitimacy, they will find a market for it, and that they can make a great mistake if they decide to write a Cosmopolitanstory or a Playboy story or something that is too obviously a formula conception.
Interviewer: Do you think that’s because such an approach reduces the activity of writing to a science, a scientific approach which is erroneous, which dismisses the fact that writing is an art?
Curtis: Well, it’s certainly true that we get a lot of manuscripts from people who plainly don’t know what The AM is composed of, who don’t understand what Atlantic writing is, and either vastly oversimplify or. . .we get a type of article that seeks out a whole bunch of authorities and quotes them on some subject. It’s a very conventional way to write a certain kind of newspaper story. And it’s all wrong for The Atlantic. We want authority on the part of the writer. We don’t want simply a piece of editorial writing, and we don’t want the piece to depend enormously on the point of view of the writer. We want a piece that conveys in some way that the writer understands his material and has something to say about it, we turn away a lot of pieces I know would work very well in newspapers, and in certain kinds of magazines. But not ours.
Interviewer: Let’s return to fiction. This perhaps seems like too apparent a question, but maybe something will come of it. Why publish fiction at all in a magazine such as The Atlantic—forgetting, for the moment, about historical reasons, about traditions?
Interviewer: Why is there still room made for fiction today in general interest magazines?
Curtis: The kind of reader we imagine reading The Atlantic is the kind of person who reads novels, who cares about literature, who has some trained experience with literature, and who sees literary enterprise as part of the culture, and the culture as part of the human experience of our time. These are people who read novels and short stories and read the Sunday Times Book Review section and the New York Review of Books, and who want short fiction, and who want to feel that they are in touch with current fiction, want to be introduced to new writers of unusual skill, who feel that literature is part of their intellectual experience. I think they would feel deprived if they didn’t have one or two magazines they could read fairly regularly in which they could count on finding satisfying literary enterprise.
Interviewer: Do you get any mail in response to your fiction? Are your readers passing the stories by in favor of the non-fiction?
Curtis: We get very few letters about our fiction. A few letters object to obscene language. Some say that a given story is the most wonderful piece of writing this person has ever read, and another asks why on earth we would print such meretricious trash—obscene know-nothingism. We tend to disregard those letters on the whole, because over time we don’t think they reflect the serious response of the rest of our readers. It’s hard to know precisely how our readers do respond to fiction, but a lot of Atlantic stories wind up in collections, and a lot of the people who write Atlantic stories go on to further successes either in our magazine or others or in novels. We’re really very pleased with the number of writers who’ve become very respectable and very successful whose first stories were in The Atlantic. People like Philip Roth and James Jones.
Interviewer: Roth’s first story was in The Atlantic, not a literary magazine? He was an Atlantic First?
Curtis: I think he published a story in Epoch, possibly before the story The Atlantic. I haven’t really traced this back. But a few writers like those and like—let me think of more contemporary people: Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, all began to publish all but simultaneously in several magazines after years and years of submissions and rejections or appearing in quarterlies. Oates is an interesting person for me in this regard because before I came to The Atlantic I was one of the editors of Epoch magazine for four years. And while I was at Epoch—I was a graduate student at Cornell—I read many, many Oates’ stories. She kept churning them out.
Curtis: She was a graduate student at Syracuse. We began to wonder who J. C. Oates was. We kept getting these violent, bloody, sexy stories about men on motorcycles, women being raped in garages and all kinds of stuff. We knew, we decided, that she was a really talented writer, but until we finally published one of her stories in Epoch, that she was developing, coming along. We had just published Oates’ story in Epoch before I came to The Atlantic where I found in the slush pile a story by J. C. Oates which I liked a lot. I urged the editor, who was then Edward Weeks, to publish it. He agreed, provided we could persuade Oates to cut it by about a third. I called to ask if she would, and she said she was much too close to her work but would I try.
And so I did. And while I was working on it and cutting it, I asked her if we could retitle it. She used in her story a quote from Shakespeare, the phrase “in the region of ice.” She said she liked it. The story was about a teacher of English in a Catholic college in the midwest who finds that one of her students is probably crazy but has in any case taken a great interest in her. She begins to worry about this student and tries to locate him only to discover that he’s committed suicide. We were putting this story in type when we saw a story in The Timesabout an event in a Jewish synagogue in Detroit where a deranged young man came into a service and shot and killed a rabbi, a very popular rabbi, and was dragged off to jail. Oates called and said that the character in her story was modeled after that young man, that she had been his teacher at Wayne State, and that she was concerned by how prophetic her story had been. She had been projecting, based on what she knew of this guy, but didn’t realize he would go haywire in the murderous way he did. She had had him killing himself, not somebody else. And she wondered if we should withdraw the story. We thought about it awhile and advised that she shouldn’t, that very few people would ever think to make a connection. The story was chosen by the O’Henry Awards as the best short story published in America that year. That was quite an experience.
Interviewer: I suppose that some things, including writing and stories, are so heavily fated that they will survive no matter what. They are unstoppable. I’m not just speaking about this one incident, but the whole aura of the writing of some individuals. Well, I’m sounding mystical now. Tell me a little bit about how you came toThe Atlantic. You’re the only fiction editor I know for any mass market magazine who also has a great impact on the non-fiction in the magazine. Every other magazine has a fiction department, and most of them have a person functioning as fiction editor, period. Are your responsibilities on the magazine something you carved out for yourself? (And why doesn’t The Atlantic feel the need to have an autonomous fiction department?) And one more thing, how did you get hired?
Curtis: Yes. I had been out of school for a couple of years. I worked as a newspaper reporter and then had come back to Cornell where I had been, as an undergraduate, the editor of the yearbook and an editor of the humor magazine, the literary magazine, and the student newspaper. So I had some background—
Interviewer: As an overachiever?
Curtis: As a student editor I was invited—given some money by an association there—to create and edit a student magazine, which was to publish poetry, fiction and essays. And artwork. An all-purpose student literary publication. Uh, while I was in graduate school I began to write poetry and won an Academy of American Poets prize in poetry. As a student of government, it was sort of amusing. And I sold three poems to The Atlantic. And, on the strength of that, came to work at The Atlantic one summer halfway through my graduate school time, as a manuscript reader.
Interviewer: For? Just fiction alone, or for everything?
Curtis: For fiction, chiefly fiction. This based on my having been editor of Epoch, having been editor of the student magazine, and on the evidence that I could write in a number of modes. I had published fiction in the student magazine at Cornell, as well as poetry, and had done a lot of other freelance writing, nonfiction
Anyway, I came and worked for a couple of weeks one summer as a reader of manuscripts. And while I was at Cornell, I sent on to the magazine several poems and essays by people there at Cornell. Two of the poems were published in The Atlantic. So I had something of a record as a discoverer of publishable work. I wanted to finish graduate school and get my Ph.D., and at that point I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a magazine editor or a newspaper reporter or a writer of fiction or work for the CIA. I just didn’t know. Two years later, when I was finishing my graduate work, in fact studying for my comprehensives, a job opened up at The Atlantic and the editor called me from Boston and asked if I were interested.
Interviewer: This was Mr. Weeks, a man with a reputation for culling talent out of schools?
Curtis: This was Mr. Weeks, and the offer came at just the right time. I had been in grad school for four years and my wife was about to have a baby and I’d been in Ithaca for twelve years and it was time to leave. So I said yes, took a leave of absence from grad school, and came to The Atlantic. In those days The Atlantic had no masthead and we really didn’t have titles in any formal way, I came as an assistant to the editor.
I was there for five weeks before I ever saw Mr. Weeks. In fact, I feared he might not even know I was there. All I was doing was reading unsoliciteds. I knew that I was going to have to push my way into something else with the help of an older editor with whom I was very friendly. I began to look at agented work and to write to writers and suggest ideas to the editor.
Where fiction is concerned, however, I’m not in any official way the fiction editor of The Atlantic. Indeed, The Atlantic doesn’t have a fiction editor. I am simply a senior editor with a portfolio that includes material in the social sciences, sports, but also fiction, simply because I brought so many writers into the magazine and worked with them and sought them out and corresponded with them and read their work.
Interviewer: Who do you share authority with in that regard? Is there a democratic format in choosing the fiction? Does everybody have a vote?
Curtis: Everybody has a vote but the only vote that counts is Whitworth’s vote. More often than not we’re in agreement about things we like and don’t like.
Interviewer: How long has Mr. Whitworth been there? And by the way, both of you grew up in the Midwest, didn’t you?
Curtis: He’s been with the magazine three years now, and yes, we’re both from Arkansas.
Interviewer: Four years ago, was the fiction in The Atlantic that much different from what it has been recently in terms of the overall sensibilities, style and esthetics?
Curtis: I don’t think my tastes have changed, but the editor that preceded Whitworth had ideas of his own. I don’t mean to suggest that he and I had a radically different kind of relationship because in fact we didn’t. We were very often in agreement about fiction and I think that he tended to trust my judgment. He also liked the work of a few writers whom I admired a lot less than he did. But of course the same is true of Whitworth. Generally speaking, however, we were looking for the same kind of stories then that we’re looking for now. If there is any significant difference it’s not so much in the kind of judgment we bring to choosing fiction, but in the fact that we’re able to pay more for it, and are, more often than we were then, a first market for a lot of fiction.
Interviewer: Because you can pay more?
Curtis: Yes, because we pay a great deal more than we did then.
Interviewer: What do you pay now?
Curtis: We pay $2000 for a first short story by most writers. In the case of writers with very big reputations, we might pay a little more, and writers who have sold us more than one story get a little bit more every other story or so. By up I mean up to $2500 or $3000. So most stories we’re paying $2000 to $2500 for, the exception being the odd circumstance, a John Updike or a Bernard Malamud or something about which we have a special feeling.
Interviewer: Is that schedule based on the writer himself, or is it based on a competitive atmosphere between other magazines for that writer? Do you ever buy writers away from other publications?
Curtis: Bill’s assumption is that these writers can usually sell their work to other markets that would pay more than The Atlantic. One way we have of inducing them to come to us is to pay them a little more than we would normally pay for fiction. I think it’s a way of saying to those writers that we take them very seriously and want very much to welcome them into the magazine.
Interviewer: So you actively seek new writers?
Interviewer: Not only through The Atlantic First competition, but through literary magazines? Do you read the quarterlies yourself?
Curtis: From time to time, but not as often as I’d like to. It’s really a matter of time. I should say, by the way, that The Atlantic First competition is gone. It no longer exists. We decided a few weeks ago that we would no longer designate any short story as an AtlanticFirst and that we would henceforth simply decide what stories we wanted to publish and then publish them.
Interviewer: What’s the reasoning behind that? Most magazines do announce in some manner when they are publishing a writer for the first time.
Curtis: I think the reasoning is that, by pointing out that a writer is being published for the first time, you manage to imply, even if very slightly or subtly, that the work is therefore in some way less satisfying or ambitious or noteworthy than it would be if the writer had been around for a long time. And that these stories should be read with a certain tolerance in mind. I think that Bill Whitworth feels some writers might feel gently patronized in this way, that we should be more straightforward, and either decide we like the story or don’t.
Interviewer: Sometimes it seems to me that The AM has something very specific in mind with its fiction. Perhaps this is just serendipitous or coincidental, but sometimes stories seem chosen because they reflect trends in contemporary American culture that the editors seem overly interested in, or fascinated by. For example, just in the past three months, two of the stories printed had women in them who wore the pants in the household, and their role was to throw out unwanted visitors. Three couples out of four were divorced couples. There’s also a sort of Bobbie Ann Mason regionalism in which the stories focus on rather lower class people, blue-collar folks living in trailers, leading somewhat desperate, or at least bland, claustrophobic lives. I’m wondering, is AM concerned with reflecting these trends or sidebars in contemporary American culture through its fiction? Do you have favorite cultural or sociological milieus that you prefer seeing portrayed?
Curtis: I think the simple answer is no. I don’t think we want to use fiction as an instrumentality of any kind. The larger truth almost certainly is that a lot of writers are responding precisely to those threads of meaning in our culture and in our time, and incorporate them into their fiction. I can’t recall any discussion in the twenty years I’ve been reading fiction at The Atlantic, any discussion about having a need to find a certain kind of story or even to say about a certain kind of story that it is especially attractive to us because it plugs into this contemporary concern. In fact, it’s more likely that the opposite happens—that is, that we say, Oh dear God, another story about Vietnam, or another story about civil rights, or another story about Grenada, or something. In fact, we tend to be a little gun shy when it comes to familiar themes, and to stories that seem to work too obviously out of the contemporary fads. Now, I don’t—. To come back to your example, I’d like to know more about the stories, because I don’t connect immediately in my mind those examples with stories that I’ve worked with. I don’t think the emergence of an assertive woman in domestic relationships is exactly a fad. It probably is an event that is symptomatic to our cultural development at the moment, and it certainly is manifest in many ways. It’s not surprising that it would show up in fiction. On the whole, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. But I don’t think we ever respond to a story admiringly because it’s got a tough woman in it. Just because I’m curious, what stories are you thinking about?
Interviewer: Well, in “The Piano Tuner,” the male narrator frequently refers to the wife who will soon return home and throw out of the house this workman who’s been brutalizing him, an act he himself is incapable of. In Jane Smiley’s story, also, the male character wishes that, just whimsically for a moment, he wasn’t divorced, that his wife was home because she was very good at getting rid of unwanted visitors. This occurs when the woman named Bambi comes unexpectedly and knocks at his door, inviting herself in.
Curtis: Right. It’s interesting, this connection. In the case of the Smiley story, the wife is, it’s true, a pretty tough careerist. But Bambi is not.
Interviewer: Yes, but the male character is not the least attracted to Bambi.
Curtis: Bambi is sort of the traditional—
Curtis: Fluffhead, yeah. She’s sexually available, and intellectually unprepossessing and—
Interviewer: Therefore dismissed too, because of those characteristics.
Curtis: Well perhaps. But the wife, the divorced wife, certainly isn’t.
Interviewer: And in each of the last three issues, except for the story “Solidarity,” and except for “The Piano Tuner,” all the couples were divorced couples—failed, in one sense, couples—dealing in some way with that phenomenon in their lives.
Curtis: Again, I guess I think it’s appropriate to have it be there. One of the things I liked about the Smiley story was that it was about a husband who had custody of his daughter. One of the ideas that runs through that whole story is a father who, however deranged he is, is among other things obsessed with the need to care for and be protective of his child. That certainly isn’t an overly familiar theme. It’s a theme that runs through a story we’re publishing in April about another man widowed and responsible for the care of his daughter, who is very absorbed in that daughter’s love of baseball and membership in a Brownie troop. In fact, he becomes an assistant den mother.
Interviewer: Is there a chance that an earnest reader of your magazine who is an aspiring fiction writer might say—I know this is the question again about formulaic writing, but—might say to himself or herself, Geez, if I’m ever going to break into The Atlantic I’m going to have to deal with these certain issues, and characters will have to look and behave this certain way?
Curtis: Well, there is a risk of that, but I think it would be a mistake. If any writer came to me and said, Gee, I’ve noticed the fact that these themes keep reoccurring in these stories in the last three months, what I would do is say, Well, let me direct you to the following three or four stories. As we spoke I was just thinking about the stories I have in my briefcase, and about which ones are by men. One of them is about a man who is essentially happily married, but whose father is dying of a degenerative disease, and whose mother is unable to care for him. And about a son who is struggling with, on the one hand a sense of the ludicrousness and hopelessness of his father’s condition, and at the same time his obligation as a son. This is an internalized obligation, it’s something he feels, the need to be there and a resource in the face of a kind of hopelessness. It’s quite a touching story.
The second story is by a younger man and is about men working on a farm. It’s very much a man’s story, about corruption and bravery in the face of physical violence. Something of a throwback to the kind of story about young men’s adventures. The third one is an imaginary story about the world after a nuclear bomb attack. It’s a very sardonic story called “Atomic Tourism,” about a traveller/tourist and his wife travelling through Georgia who go to see the crater of The Bomb where it dropped outside of Atlanta. It’s a whimsical piece of writing about how a tourist might talk about and experience this huge, many-miles-in-circumference dent in the ground, where years before hundreds of thousands of people died in a nuclear attack.
These just happen to be three stories by men that are on my mind right now and they don’t deal in any way with domestic dislocation. It may be no accident that two of them are by younger, single men, and the third is by a man who is essentially happily married. But my guess is that the next time we get a story by someone who’s gone through a shattering divorce we’ll have a story in which men and women are cutting each other up in one way or another, because that’s the experience that author knows and knows well and may be able to deal with in a way that’s striking and interesting.
Interviewer: There’s no impulse within the magazine to say, Oh, this is a great story about nuclear conflict but gee, we just had that Jane Smiley story not too long ago which had that same concern informing it.
Curtis: We recently had exactly that conversation. Bill and I. I made the case—and would make it again—that the two stories do touch, do have one thread in common, but that the approach is very different, the purpose is very different, the voice is very different, the experience encountered in the stories is very different. That the differences are more striking than the similarities, finally. And that we shouldn’t worry about overlapping themes. Moreover, at least six or seven months will separate the two.
Interviewer: Will you talk about the philosophy of editing The Atlantic. When I’ve asked other editors this question I’ve posed it this way—Is a fiction editor of value? Of course, everybody answers yes, but sometimes writers don’t feel it’s true, especially newer writers. It seems to me, writers who have any sort of journalistic training or experience believe it immediately and take it for granted and expect an editor’s hand influencing their work. Having been through several writing programs myself, it was evident to me that among aspiring writers, it is not a given that editors do in fact have value, except as instruments for accepting stories and mailing checks. They were often astonished to learn that someone among them had cooperated with an editor in making changes in a manuscript. Some thought that such cooperation was sluttish.
Curtis: Yeah. Well, I think we’re dealing with stages of development. All writers go through a series of stages. Very early on, if they’re any good, they discover they have something called talent, a gift that is hard to identify and articulate. They move from that moment of discovery into a period in which they do use that gift and discover, rather to their satisfaction, that they can put on paper pieces of writing, whole pieces of writing, that have a kind of magic to them, and majesty. For awhile at least, they are very much absorbed in the intoxication of this odd mystery of being able to sit down and write and have something come out of the typewriter that other people can read and react to and be amazed by and moved by and informed by and entertained by. They don’t understand that very well—who of us does?
But in any case, it does seem very magical and mysterious and wonderful. An awful lot of ego is built into that exercise. Most writers need—have to learn over time, how much of what that magic has produced is in fact flawed, and how it can be improved, and how useful intelligent reading can be, whether from a teacher or an editor or anybody else. In my experience that usually comes in the mid-twenties, early thirties, depending on the writer and when the writer got started, and what sort of experience that writer has. It’s very hard to edit writers who are very young. Either it’s too easy and they’re much too accepting of anything you have to say—essentially because they’re grateful for the attention and the rewards. Or they become very grudging about your doing anything because they can’t let go the mystery. They don’t understand the mystery and they don’t want anybody else to tamper with it. After awhile, when they know more about the craft of what they’re doing, they begin to see what mistakes they make and can allow criticism, editing without feeling vulnerable, without feeling they’ve been discovered somehow and that it’s all been a facade, that they really don’t have a gift after all.
Once they learn how to trust the gift, and yet be thoughtful about the mechanics of it, then they know that they make a lot of mistakes, that they need to revise, that some good readers can help them revise, and can draw attention to what’s been done well and what hasn’t been done well, and can, by reacting to their mistakes, help them to see their mistakes and even sometimes show them a way out of their mistakes. In the best relationships between writers and editors, the editor is just a teacher or a good reader. An experienced or mature writer knows the difference between a good editor and a bad editor, which is to say, between a good reader and a bad reader, and knows how to take useful advice and work with it. That writer also knows when to resist it.
Interviewer: Now, if you will, talk a bit about the philosophy of editing that Whitworth brought into the magazine.
Curtis: The philosophy is that everything that goes into the magazine should be made as clear, as direct, as focused, as coherent as possible.
Interviewer: Wouldn’t that be a natural objective for any magazine?
Curtis: Yes, it would, but the key has to do with things like grammar and punctuation, with mechanics, and it has to do with the belief that, at its best, grammar and punctuation are helpful. They make writing clearer and more accessible to readers. If you do no more with a piece of writing than apply rigorously the rules of grammar, or an understanding of grammar, you’ll do at least a couple of things. One, you’ll make the work easier to read. But two, you will unavoidably reveal its weaknesses. At its best, what using the rules of grammar does is to make more apparent than it was otherwise, ambiguities or confusion in sentences.
Interviewer: How does that transfer to editing fiction, because ambiguity is often a narrative tool, or an ironic device, in a story?
Curtis: The kinds of corrections we make have to do with things like tense and voice and incidental details that become confused. An author will forget a time sequence or will forget a location. Sometimes, looking closely at those details makes clear in what way the sequence of events involved has been imagined and is not tightly enough thought through or constructed. Sometimes a discussion over a simple lapse of detail can lead to a reexamination of a fundamental idea or understanding in the story. We look at every physical detail, we look at every line of dialogue to see if it sounds like the kind of thing that character would say. We try to think through the logic of every bit of motivation, every action that is said to be motivated.
Interviewer: It sounds like an inordinate amount of work. Is it all necessary?
Curtis: Well, it is a lot of work. That’s why any one editor will rarely have more than two or three or four pieces of writing to worry about in any one issue.
Interviewer: Let’s switch topics. You’ve taught at Harvard, you teach a fiction writing class in your own home. What are the values of writing programs? In your opinion, where are all these new writers going to go?
Curtis: Well. . . .
Interviewer: Are writing programs training professional writers?
Curtis: I think what writing programs are doing is providing an opportunity for a lot of people who think they want to write to find out how much they want to write and how good they are as understood by, as judged by, their peers. Writing programs at their best are holding actions, in the sense that they provide somebody young and unattached with a year or two to read and write and talk with other people who are reading and writing, and test their skills and test their understandings and come to vocational choices.
A lot of people who go through writing programs come out of them, I think, better than they went in as human beings. They may also be better writers, but perhaps most importantly, some may be exorcised of the need to be, to devote themselves compulsively to creative enterprise as writers, and thus able to go off and do other things. Others find that they’re really very talented and are able to focus their effort and write, and/or teach while they write. Some find out simply that they’re very good teachers and not such great writers. Or else that they’re happier with committing themselves to teaching, for example, than writing.
Some people do want to write and do want to teach and do want to edit and do want to play softball. But the real question is what are they willing to work at hardest and most diligently and most energetically. That usually tells you what they want to do most. I think it would be a pity if writing programs pretended that they were certification procedures that you came out at the other end as a “certified” professional writer.
But I don’t see that happening very often. In most of the writing programs where I’ve gone to visit and talk, I find a heady kind of realism for people who are willing to see it and accept it. The people who want to work hard and write, do, and those who don’t, don’t.
Interviewer: As an editor, are you familiar with something you would call a “workshop” story?
Curtis: What I would call a workshop story is a story that represents something of an exercise, that involves an appreciation of language, and a certain artfulness at creating a scene or developing a character or presenting a conflict, but which doesn’t tell a story in the fullest, largest sense. It’s the kind of writing we think of as “good” writing, but not necessarily as a story.
I read a lot of what I would call workshop stories, exercises, and I often write to the writers and tell them something of what I admire in what they’ve done, but also say, often—complain—that we don’t see much story.
Interviewer: Why do you think there’s a lack of emphasis on narrative tracks? Certainly there’s been a trend in contemporary short fiction to fragment the story, to scatter or manipulate the narrative, diffuse the linear. Is that over with, in your opinion?
Curtis: I don’t know. I know chiefly about writing classes from what I’ve observed, and obviously I haven’t observed a whole lot other than the courses I took as a student and the very few courses I’ve sat in on since then. For example, the course with Bob Day that I sat in on when I first met you at Iowa. It was striking to me that most of a two-hour discussion was devoted to strategies, to technique, and only at the end, almost as an afterthought, did Bob raise the question or invite a serious discussion of what the story was “about.” In my own work with students I turn that formula around and in fact will often refuse to talk about technique at all until we’ve gotten at the story, feel we know what the point is, what the purpose of the writing was. Then we talk about technique as a way to achieve those effects. I suspect, without being able to prove it, that one of the reasons so much writing isn’t focused and doesn’t have this sort of narrative purpose is that many of the people teaching writing aren’t very interested in it, and are frankly in interested in technique. But that’s a guess.
Interviewer: I think it’s an accurate guess, and I don’t particularly understand the emphasis myself, why technique is favored over the logistics of storytelling, discovering the structure and heart of a story.
Curtis: Maybe it’s harder to teach the story, easier to teach techniques. Because in the abstract, you see, technique is looking at someone else’s style and extracting from it certain conventions.
Interviewer: It’s easier to talk about.
Curtis: Well, perhaps. But I don’t think you can write a story unless you understand what experience you’re attempting to record or surround, unless you have in mind some change of circumstance or outlook, and can place that change within its relevant setting.
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