What We're Looking For Pt.3

By: Jordan Fennell - Fiction Editor
February 26, 2014

           It's been a bit more than week since my last post -- nearly two; things get hectic around here sometimes. But let's begin this short final installment where we left off. After reading the previous entries in the series, a lot of you may be asking:

So, What?

           As far as content goes, we are open to; most anything. But make sure its worth writing. The late Peter Christopher, author of the collection "Campfires of the Dead," challenged his students to, "Say something only you can say about living and dying." Basically, look back at your work and ask yourself, "So, what?" Does it matter to you? It had better, because if it doesn't, it won't matter to us. We are not interested in technical "exercises." 

            Do we ask too much? Maybe. But that's what we want.

Southern Stories

            Since this journal is called Clapboard House, and all of its editors are from the South, some may think we cater to fiction of a Southern nature. We don't.

            While we enjoy well-written stories about characters from America's southern regions, stories of this nature don't sway us toward publication. If anything, we are harder on these stories because they are among the hardest to do well. We have read many that simply rehash already exhausted material or fail to avoid clichés.

            If your dialogue contains "Southern" speech (whatever you think that is) or "Southern" culture (whatever you think that is), it had better be good. Nothing is more unpleasant than seeing people from the South made into caricatures who speak in barely decipherable dialects, holding mint-juleps, dipping snuff,  riding mules to NASCAR races. On the flip side, it's not a good idea to send us an inferior version of something Faulkner or Flannery O' Connor have already done. Writers like Cormac McCarthy, Ron Rash, Barry Hannah, Harry Crews, and William Gay have consistently written about the South in an honest, engaging manner. They do not shy away from the inherent contradictions of these regions, nor do they preach, and this is the kind of thing we like to see.

            To make a musical analogy: if you send us a story set in the South or dealing with Southern characters, make sure it is of the Carter Family or Townes Van Zandt variety, not the Lynyrd Skynyrd or Luke Bryan variety. (For those readers unfamiliar with these references, make it artful and real.)

Themes, Philosophy, Psychology

            We enjoy finding themes in our submissions, but we believe theme should arise from the story, not the other way around. The story is what we're after: complex characters in some kind of conflict, who deal with that conflict in interesting ways.

             If we see that your characters are nothing more than thinly veiled philosophical or psychological theories reacting against one another, the story takes a back-seat to the theme, and we wonder why you didn't just write a paper on Jean-Paul Sartre or Carl Jung. It seems, in our experience, that some writers wish to use fiction to flaunt their knowledge of such matters. While philosophy, psychology, theology, and other disciplines ending in -ology are interesting to us, we don't think it's smart to inject these things too heavily into fiction. Fiction, of course, deals with these things, but these "themes" should go hand-in-hand with the story.

            Again, we like to see theme arise organically from narrative. We don't like to read pieces in which these matters are crammed into characters who aren't fit for them and made to do things they wouldn't do so that the writer can look educated. We know you're smart, and we're glad writers want their work to have meaning. But this is fiction. Give us fiction. 

So Where's the "Art," You Pretentious Maniac?

            Although we enjoy seeing complex characters dealing with some kind of conflict, rendered through vivid, clear, and interesting language, unencumbered by a preoccupation with theme, we want even more from our contributors. Doing all of the above usually lands a work in the "good" range, and we strongly consider it for publication. The submissions that we call "great" go even further. What designates these stories as "great" in our estimation is highly subjective, but anyone who has read a truly great short story has likely felt it.

            Notice that I wrote "felt." Much of what goes into writing deals with the intellect. But the best of the best seems to be written for the body. It affects the reader, and leaves him or her in a state of awe. John Gardner once wrote that fiction should "strike us, in the end,  not simply as a thing done but as a shining performance." In my experience, the moment after finishing a particularly well "performed" short story should be similar to that brief moment of silence at the end of a symphony, when the last notes ring and fade and no one in the audience or on the stage moves or speaks. That moment is what we look for at Clapboard House. We rarely see it in our submissions or in the work of  some "big name" writers, but it's a joy to experience. Submissions possessing this quality are usually accepted quickly, or are included in the list of stories we are definitely planning to publish. How does one achieve this? I know it when I feel it, but I don't know how to do it. I wish I had a fool proof way of doing it.

            It isn't a simple moment of epiphany, or an emotional reaction to some sentiment in the work. It's a combination of the sustained experience of masterful technique, engaging characters, and everything else that goes into fine writing. But there's a missing element. John Gardner (again) talks about great fiction exhibiting an element of "strangeness," which Douglas Glover (again) attributes to the "artistry" of art -- that is, the artistic choices and structure working against verisimilitude to shake up our idea of the world of the story or novel as "real." But this still doesn't account for what we're talking about.

            Harold Bloom, writing about the books he considers the greatest, talks about certain books being "sublime." Douglas Glover, in his book "Attack of the Copula Spiders" and in his essay "Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought," hints at Lacanian philosophy as a possible explanation. The nearest I can get to an explanation is this: if you aren't a religious person, this moment is achieved (as far as I can tell) by reaching, through the fetters language, to somehow touch the "Real" -- the reality that lies beyond the reality we are able to experience. If you are a religious person, I would say this moment in literature is a product of attempting to, in some small, impossible way, touch God. Either way, a writer can't succeed at this. But the attempt of trying to rise beyond the text to occupy a space beyond language (and, therefore, reality) makes the reader stand back and gawk, as if huddled in a cave watching the first person make fire with kindling and sticks.

            So, the best of the best stories from our contributors try to brush against or glimpse the unknown through making black marks on white paper (or black marks on a white screen). That is what we call "great" literature, and that is what we like to publish most of all. 

Particular techniques/structure worth noting:

            I can't speak for my fellow editors, but I especially enjoy seeing evidence of what Gordon Lish calls "consecution," which results (ideally) in a linguistic matrix that undergirds a work of fiction and adds resonance by allowing everything (or most everything) to connect. These stories function as self-referential, closed systems (another Lishism), not reaching outside of themselves to other texts for support.

            Don't misunderstand. I enjoy good fiction wherever I can find it, but when I see that someone has put in the time and effort required to create a short story such as this, I admire and appreciate that work. So, even though you may arrive at your standard by different means, and even though we may publish your work, I tend to give "extra points," as it were, to fiction that bears these traits.    

Writing We Like

            The following is a list of authors that get us going. I've included short stories and novels that exemplify the kind of writing we value and to further give you an idea of what we're looking for: 

Raymond Carver:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (story)

Cathedral (story)

Breece D'J Pancake:

Trilobites

In the Dry

Amy Hempel:

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried

Tumble Home

Ron Rash:

The Ascent

Flannery O' Connor:

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Denis Johnson:

Dundun

Michael Knight:

Gerald's Monkey

Junot Diaz:

How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie

Sherman Alexie:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven (collection)

Cormac McCarthy:

Child of God

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West

Peter Christopher:

Campfires of the Dead (collection)

Ernest Hemingway:

Hills Like White Elephants

Harry Crews:

A Feast of Snakes (novel)

Christine Schutt:

Nightwork (collection)

Theory We Like

            The following is a list of books on writing to help you get an idea of the theories/philosophies of writing we espouse: 

John Gardner:

The Art of Fiction

On Becoming a Novelist

Douglas Glover:

Attack of the Copula Spiders

Natalie Goldberg:

Wild Mind

Writing Down the Bones

Gordon Lish

            Though Lish has never, to my knowledge, written down his teaching methods for public consumption, we respect a great deal of his ideas on fiction (as handed down or exemplified by his former students).

            Jason Lucirelli's fantastic essay "The Consecution of Gordon Lish" can be found on the website Numero Cinq, mentioned earlier.

            Tetman Callis' site contains many class notes taken directly from Lish's seminars from the early 1990s. These notes, while interesting, suffer from being taken out of context of the actual classes, and are better understood after reading some of Lish's own work, the work of his former students, and various articles and interviews.

Hopefully, this clears up exactly what we're looking for and shows you where we're coming from in all this "writing" business. If you feel that your stories are a good fit for Clapboard House, we welcome your submissions and look forward to reading your work.

Posted on February 26, 2014 .