I’m beginning a new volunteer position as a reader of short story submissions to the prestigious literary journal Ploughshares. Every serious writer would love to be published in Ploughshares. For the record, I have not been published there, but I did land a story once in the equally respected Storyquarterly.
To become a submissions screener, I had to pitch my experience as a writer, my views on American literature, and what constitutes the best writing. I’m reproducing here the long letter I wrote to Ploughshares, in case anyone is wondering what makes that part of me tick.
I’ve read my first few assigned submissions to Ploughshares from writers, and I experienced some pain as I had to pass on them, knowing too well that feeling of rejection. I’m hoping to discover a gem very soon that I can pass on to the senior editors.
The New England Review, TriQuarterly, The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, StoryQuarterly. I devoured these and other literary journals (Ploughshares too) when I started as a fiction writer thirty years ago. I was all about the short story. No other writing mattered to me because no other writing connected me to my own desires and fears. I must have read Lorrie Moore’s mournful yet sassy “What Is Seized” a dozen times. My mother had died too. I pushed the Tobias Wolff story, “Hunters in the Snow,” on anyone who could read. This is what irony means, I would tell them. I studied Raymond Carver, searching for the key that would unlock the magic of his simple, poignant prose.
With my own portfolio of short stories, I earned my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Buffalo under the poet Irving Feldman and the experimental novelist Raymond Federman, whose Smiles on Washington Square annihilated my assumptions about love stories and stretched what I believed were the boundaries of fiction. Did this actually happen, could it have happened, or wait, maybe what happened or not isn’t the point. You’re allowed to write this way?
I got my first taste of being a teacher at the University of Buffalo—graduate assistant, Writing 101. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing (students, please accept my apologies). With effort, my teaching and writing skills improved. In other writing classes, at other colleges, I’ve tried to take some of the mystery out of the process for my students. There is no riddle to hard work, to iterating, to researching, to beginning with a mess and slowly, deliberately—through the act of writing and revision—instilling intent and order.
I read incessantly and I wrote and revised and submitted my own attempts. I compiled rejections. All those tales you hear about so-and-so writer receiving an ungodly number of rejections before finally, finally . . . that was me, multiplied. StoryQuarterly published one of my stories (“The Painter’s Son’), as did a number of smaller journals. I began writing novels, but stayed at first in the short lane. Maybe it was a friend recommending Toni Morrison’s brief masterpieces—The Bluest Eye and Sula—that got me started. The Catcher in the Rye stands the test of time for me.
I obsessed over Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel, A Pale View of the Hills, while writing a first-person POV novel of my own. How to capture that unreliable, nuanced, narrative voice? The one that says without saying. I’ve read all of Ishiguro’s work. Someone handed me Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. I worshiped its use of language. I learned: plot and character propel story, but the writing voice is the differentiator in fiction. It’s the voice, I kept telling myself. The voice.
I read and wrote, read and wrote, finally landing a two-book deal with Random House. Can I raise a glass to the tireless devotion of my literary agent? Stash was published and then Clean Break. Another manuscript is currently making the rounds. Keep writing, keep reading. My mantra, my life.
What were the most influential books? Ask me when I’m twenty and ask me when I’m forty and again when I’m sixty. The answer expands, contracts, and morphs. A couple of years ago I compiled a list of the “Twenty-Five Most Important Books in My Life.” It was an engaging, thoughtful, almost impossible task, as I traced back through time to what mattered when. I began rereading from my backlist. A book that saved me back then (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) might have a more nostalgic feel today.
I defined three criteria for my most important books: (1) It was so profound and meaningful to me that I’ve read it multiple times. (2) It significantly influenced my own development as a writer. (3) The experience of reading the book is inexorably linked to and illuminates a moment or period of time in my life.
Margaret Atwood’s short story collection, Wilderness Tips, made the list. Her novel, Cat’s Eye, almost did. John Williams’ Stoner should have made the list for its deceptively devastating narrative, but I read that novel after I had created my list. American Pastoral is my favorite Philip Roth novel because I can’t get enough of the father/daughter relationship and that disappearing narrator. Marguerite Duras’ Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night belonged due to its exquisite handling of betrayal and its psychological echoes. Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad made the list for their inventiveness of structure and unrelenting focus on character revelation.
Since my list-making exercise there have been The Overstory and The Glass Hotel and The Vanishing Half and Interior Chinatown . . . dozens of others that remind me that my list is folly. All of these books reinforce what I love about fiction—the incredible range of voices, the inventive structures, the realization of characters and milieus I could never otherwise experience. And dare I say: reminders of how fiction can help me live a deeper and more meaningful life.
Then along came American Dirt (Jeanine Cummins). I received an ARC from the publisher just as the authenticity controversy about the book was heating up. Did Cummins have the right to tell this story? I followed the critics and read their recommended alternative titles said to be more authentic, the most memorable to me being The Book of Unknown Americans, by Christina Henriquez, which felt like a treasure discovered.
What bothers me about books like American Dirt is not that its author lacks authenticity, it’s that she couldn’t pull it off. The novel wasn’t compelling: a standard American-centric thriller about a Mexican woman trying to make her way to the U.S., written by a white woman, seemingly for white readers who won’t feel bad after reading it.
I love reading new books from diverse and underrepresented voices. They introduce me to characters, settings, and conflicts I have little access to, yet they deliver on the same universal themes. Publishers are rightfully committed to this path, despite American Dirt missteps.
I’m also in favor of authors having the right to write any book they want. I want that right for myself. Writers who work outside their autofiction zone are forced to imagine and invent authenticity, create voice, sculpt credibility. This is what the best fiction can do: have us embracing and believing what is not true, yet feels true. Apply this statement to the real world and it’s terrifying. Apply it to the art of fiction, and it is everything: make the reader believe.
Writers: Display your range of talent. Take risks. I’d like to read Roxane Gay writing from the POV of the privileged, middle-aged white guy. Show me who you think I am. Don’t appropriate me—enlighten me, give me something new.
I have a great fear of committing authenticity mistakes in my own writing. One reviewer of Stash mentioned a slight racial undertone about one of the characters. I immediately panicked. Please no, I can’t be that writer. How could I be so unaware? Ten years later it’s still in the forefront of my consciousness when writing. My solution: write better, and increase the diversity of my early readers.
The obsession with an author’s identity and accusations of cultural appropriation can be undermining to writers and harmful to literature itself. A question I can’t answer: How can we honor identity and authenticity, and elevate underrepresented voices, without sacrificing art and imagination? Would blind submission policies help, or compound the problem?
I’m for anything that leads to better and more fiction, the type of literary fiction that Ploughshares publishes, the kind of fiction that has influenced me throughout my career.