Once upon a time I wanted to be a writer of fiction. I was an aimless, shiftless jobless college graduate in love with a girl who lived far, far away. Becoming a rich and famous writer seemed to be the best solution to all those problems. So I began to write.
It’s easy for me to be flippant about it now. I have since married the girl, rented an apartment, and advanced in a career. But at the time I was deadly serious about writing. I disdained the literary workshops and traveled to Afghanistan because I believed Hemingway when he said that war was the hardest thing to write about. And I also really wrote — four or five novels, a bunch of short stories, many notebooks of quotidian observations.
A year ago, in a nostalgic funk, I reread my short stories and was surprised at how good they were. At least they were far better than I remembered them being when I abandoned them. I decided to see if I could publish them.
The first story was based on my experience interning in the newsroom of a suburban Washington newspaper. My character, a cub reporter assigned to obituaries and petty crime, is hounded by the copy editor, who insists that “every death must have a cause.” It was, my character noted, “the closest we got to theology in the newsroom.” A botched assignment to cover a murder scene near Fort Belvoir and a near car crash while rushing to get the story back to the newsroom provokes him to meditate briefly on causes of death and, implicitly, meanings of life.
The rejections fed my greedy mailbox. One of them, though, made me furious. Appended to a form rejection slip was a hand-written note from the editor saying that she really liked the story but had to reject it on the grounds that it was simply not true that newspapers required a cause of death for every obituary. Even setting aside that this directly contradicted my experience, I was bothered that her idea of fiction required fact-checking of such a picayune order. To my delight, though, a literary journal (“Sanskrit”) did accept that story and I soon sent out a second one.
The second story described a trip by two callow college friends to Atlantic City. One of them is from a rich family that has an apartment there overlooking the ocean. He wants to meet up with a group of wealthy high school friends at the casinos and maybe score with an old high school crush. The poor friend, meanwhile, just wants to hang out on the balcony, drink Margaritas, watch the ocean and philosophize. The rich friend prevails on him to go to the casinos. To avoid the embarrassment of admitting to poverty, he tells his reluctant friend to explain that he was once addicted to gambling but bet his tuition check on the blackjack table and since then swore to never go near the tables. The poor friend does this suspiciously well, and attracts by this lie the attentions of one of the rich girls. By the end of the story, while enjoying his carnal reward, he realizes he has become an inveterate liar.
The rejections came in again and, again, appended to one was a hand-written note: “Good writing but characters are sleazy, uninteresting, no real history on either one and no sense of place.” This is a rejection? I thought. Except for the “uninteresting” part I would consider it a blurb: sleazy characters slapped from nothing into consciousness, acting out their brief parts on the short-story stage. Of course there was no sense of place: most of the action takes place in a casino — the most placeless of places. The rejection was actually a perfect summation of my idea of good fiction.
And I realized that most of my short stories were full of sleazy characters — poets who fail to kill themselves, drunks who cheat on their wives, teachers who sleep with their students, men who learn how to fight because they are cowards, prodigies who are hopelessly cynical by the time they complete college. I don’t know why they are so sleazy; I invited them onto the page and that is how they presented themselves and how they kept my attention.
But if my brief foray into the literary market is any indication, the guardians of our short fiction these days want fairy tales described with clinical accuracy. A curious order for any age, let alone one which doesn’t believe in fairies. But if it’s fairy tales they want, well, once upon a time, for the love of a woman, I wanted to be a writer of fiction — or is that just another sleazy story?