f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 1 Stone, 2 Literary Birds: An Essay on Short Fiction by Andre Dubus

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

1 Stone, 2 Literary Birds: An Essay on Short Fiction by Andre Dubus

A search of faith in fiction reveals that I have mentioned Andre Dubus in six entries so far. Honestly, that’s criminally low. I think I’m overcompensating for my great appreciation for the man by consciously not mentioning him. So he may come up a lot more here in upcoming weeks.

Today, I was intending to write about my favorite essay of Dubus’ called “On Charon’s Wharf.” This is a piece of non-fiction that I think should be, and I mean this in the least heretical way, added to the canon of the New Testament. It’s a wonderful call to living in the moment and treasuring life but it’s one of those things (like bubbles or jokes) that may lose itself through dissection. So instead I urge you to pick up Broken Vessels by Dubus (Half.com has used copies for under $4.00 before shipping.) and read it.

In the meanwhile, we’ll talk a little about “Marketing.”

Staying on the sacrilegious side for moment—you know how in Christian books, someone opens the Bible and finds a passage that perfectly addresses the issue they’re dealing with at that moment? And you know how in real life, if you open the Bible randomly, you’ll probably get something about breasts from Song of Solomon or a list of naughty kings from, well, Kings? Well, I opened Broken Vessels today and found an essay that absolutely plays into what we’re all about here at faith in fiction. What this means, I'm not sure. But it was fortuitous at least.

“Marketing,” which first appeared in Boston Magazine in 1978, is Dubus’ story of his dream deferred in his quest to have his short stories published as a collection. And how men and women high-up in publishing houses all said the same thing: “We love your stuff. People don’t read short stories.”

Sound familiar? This is us, ladies and gentlemen. Like Dubus at the time, we are currently in an era of Christian publishing that is in flux. We say were are changing, but that change is glacial. We say we want progress, but then we write back to you and say, “Sorry, we like it, but our readers won’t.”

Dubus’ answer is to drink and listen to Kris Kristofferson. While I can’t advocate either of those solutions, I will point out some other take home lessons from the essay.

First, Dubus feels despair. At one point, he shelves his stories, finally resigned to never seeing them published. As he writes:

“I put the stories in a drawer, told myself they were published in quarterlies anyway, and it was time to be satisfied with that; told myself there was nothing cowardly about leaving this game I could never win; I was luck to have a life as a teacher and a writer whose stories appeared in quarterlies; it was a life with dignity and I was foolish to need a book on my shelf as testament to it; and many writers would trade circumstances with me in a moment. I still believe all that, but it was a belief I could not life with, for my dream was stronger than my conviction, my hope stronger than my belief, and eight months later I took those stories out of the drawer.”
A few months later, Dubus’ collection finds the right publisher (David Godine, who also published Broken Vessels.) and his dream has been fulfilled.

Dubus (and his publisher) made little money on these stories. But they were part of the slow change in American publishing that began in the 1980s and continues today. Dubus was one of the trailblazers that made it possible for short story collections to be published by the brightest and best writers. Your stories today may follow such a path some day as well.

Two caveats about this all, however.

First, Dubus was an immensely talented writer. Uniformly, his work was praised—it was the form of the work that was the problem. We’re not quite at that stage yet. We need to better our writing before we can get too self-righteous about it being turned down.

Second, Dubus never blamed the publishers for their response. Why is that important? Well, if you must know, it’s because I’m the “publisher” here. Here read this:

“For six weeks one summer [an editor] held my stories, and I felt they were in caring hands. We wrote letters which became as long and passionate as love letters: about Chekhov and writing and the short story as a form which publishers had to neglect, which she would probably have to neglect too, for she worked at a house that had to make money. No one can blame a publisher for that. So that woman and I had none of the solace that comes when you can rage at someone, can blame them. Like doomed adulterous loves, we could only share our passion and futility and the wish that our lives had not come to this impasse. And we share our hope.
So skipping all the slightly odd “adultery” references, I just want to say that I’m this editor! I share your hope. I want, as much as you, for our market to change. And yet…I’m going to bring many of you the same bad news this editor brought, Andre. It pains her. I will pain me. But little by little, things will change. We will find books that fit our vision for expansion. You will hopefully find publishers will to take chances. And things will change.