Dispatches | April 19, 2007

. . . of events that stun the nation and news stories that preoccupy the American press, we receive submissions — essays, usually, but also fiction and sometimes even poetry — that comment on the crises in question.  In the course of twenty-one years here, I’ve seen it again and again:  the Oklahoma City bombing, Desert Storm, Columbine, the spread of AIDS, Iraq.  Manuscripts about Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 showed up in our mailbox in unprecedented numbers, and AIDS ran a close third, if one were to count.

Every time I open an envelope to find another of these topical submissions, I’m reminded that even in this semi-sheltered world of literary magazine publishing, we are closely bound to the World Out There.  Our writers are intelligent, insightful people with much to say about what they see happening around them.

The shootings of April 16 make this even more apparent: yes, we’re all, every American, fascinated by the nightmarish details and the inconceivable number of the dead.  But for those of us who make our livings teaching and publishing writing, this particular horror hits closer to home.  Cho Seung-Hui was an English major, a creative writer.  Yesterday I read online the two plays attributed to him by Ian MacFarlane.  While they were not as grisly or shocking as I had expected based on the news reports, they were ugly and disturbing, and any experienced teacher who received such work from a student would have to do something about it — which Cho’s teachers did.  Over the past few days I’ve talked with colleagues and friends who are college teachers; we’ve discussed the students we’ve had who have frightened us, the assignments submitted to us that were on the edge. Teaching and writing are safe and gentle professions, entered into by people whose primary goal is to learn and to impart knowledge to others.  Yet everyone I’ve talked with has at some point been afraid that they could be in danger from someone they taught.

But this blog is actually about why we so seldom publish those submissions we receive in the wake of a crisis, and why, when we receive submissions about the April 16 shootings, they are unlikely (not impossible) candidates for publication.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot. There are many reasons why a piece of writing doesn’t succeed, but here are a few specific reasons why the “in the wake of” essay/story so often falls short:

•1)      The print journalist “scoops” the literary writer. It’s debatable whether there’s a saturation point for how much writing will be read about a particular topic, but one thing is certain: there’s only so much that’s useful or interesting to be said about it, at least on the surface level. And most of that is said by the press in the period when a story is breaking.  The journalist’s job is to get more, and more interesting, information out faster.  Literary writing takes more time.  So does the less efficient dissemination of such writing by nonprofit magazines with tiny staffs and limited budgets.  By the time the essayist cogitates on it and it gets to our mailbox, it’s old news.  And (see #3) it’s also, paradoxically, too fresh (read, probably too purely topical) to be any good.

•2)      Most writers can’t realize their ambitions because they are writing out of something like reflex, and according to a mistaken assumption that they understand more than they do about a headline event.  Even the most perceptive among us are misled by the media, which intentionally creates a sense of intimacy about headline stories, in part by providing a variety of angles that will hook the broadest audience possible.  I’m not saying that’s bad.  It’s a fact.  We’re lured by the intensive coverage into becoming voyeurs.  I confess, I have been a voyeur of this heartbreaking story and many, many, many others.  You have, too.  Don’t tell me you’re immune (and if you are, you’re not human).  But the sad thing about voyeurism is that it doesn’t generate understanding or true knowledge.  Many of the submissions we receive about headline stories are well enough made and written, but thin on comprehension of the real, true event.  The writers are earnest, but they mistake their media-taught familiarity with the visible surface for a deeper understanding of what lies beyond it.

•3)      There’s a point at which events, whether personal or public, enter what one might call “the writer’s domain.”  That point doesn’t come instantly. Wordsworth said something like this when he spoke of “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and it’s a commonplace that to write about an experience that’s too fresh can be disastrous because you lack the perspective/wisdom/whatever-you-want-to-call-it that sheds the necessary illumination on that experience.  But when it comes to the public story, the headliner, there’s more to it.  The hubbub has to die down first.  We have to forget what the media told us.  Historic tragedies can’t exactly become archetypes in the Jungian sense, but when they are stored in public memory for a while, they become more useful to the writer as fresh contexts that have lost most of the superficial silly-string originally clinging to them.  This makes sense when one thinks about the great works of literature that address events in history.  Typically they are written well after the fact, and they’re not in any way concerned with reporting or making sense.  Often they manage to transcend even the far-reaching consequences of the largest events: wars, plagues and other tragedies that cause death on mass scales.

There’s no conclusive ending to this blog. We’ll hope for healing and recovery in Blacksburg to come sooner than later.  We’ll hope for submissions about current events to come later than sooner.