| Excerpt From the
the soliciting, judging, and printing of a volume of short stories
may not be a blindingly original idea, it is, I think, a perennially
good idea. A little over a year ago, when I began expressing in
various venues around the state my interest in this kind of project
and my willingness to choose and introduce a volume of new short
fiction, I was very pleased that Joe Taylor of the Livingston Press
took me up on it. Livingston Press is a particularly appropriate
house for this kind of project, for they are the people who most
recently produced Belles’ Letters: Contemporary Fiction by Alabama
Women, edited by Joe Taylor and Tina N. Jones, in 1999. This was a
collection of twenty-seven pieces of fiction, by veterans and
newcomers, all women.
Prior to this, in 1995,
Livingston had published, under the editorship of the late James E.
Colquitt, with an introduction by Norman McMillan, the volume
Alabama Bound: Contemporary Stories of a State. Here were
twenty-eight pieces of fiction, all previously published, all
written in the mid- to late-twentieth century. Jim Colquitt used a
very generous definition of “Alabama writer” in his selections, and
so we find Tobias Wolff, Barry Hannah, and Lex Williford, all of
whom have real, but tenuous, Alabama credentials. A similar
generosity of definition has been followed in this volume, Climbing
Mt. Cheaha, as well.
In 1996 Allen Wier
edited Walking on Water and Other Stories, published by the
University of Alabama Press, but inclusion in this volume had a
specific criterion. These stories, twenty-four in all, had been
written by graduates of the wonderfully successful University of
Alabama Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Program. This is a natural
idea and should be done again, in just the same way, and I think
there should also be a companion volume in poetry, of which there
has also been a prodigious amount and of high quality.
Although few may
remember it, and few purchased it at the time, there was a precedent
for these books: a volume of stories, Alabama Prize Stories 1970,
edited by the late O. B. Emerson of the University of Alabama
English Department. In the foreword to the 1970 volume, the
publishers, Strode of Huntsville, tell the reader that there were
two hundred entries, previously published and unpublished, and that
there were three judges, the fiction writers Elise Sanguinetti and
Thomas C. Turner, and professor Oxford Stroud. Twenty-nine stories
were chosen. The publishers also declared that “we plan more such
contests and published anthologies in the future.” For a variety of
reasons, sadly, there were no more. Alabama Prize Stories 1970
Comparing the contents
of Alabama Bound and Alabama Prize Stories, it is striking to see
only H. E. Francis in both volumes. None of the other twenty-eight
from Prize Stories is in Alabama Bound and, of the women authors,
only Carolynne Scott appears in both Prize Stories and Belles’
Letters. Tastes change. Tastes of editors change. New talent appears
and some writers quit writing for one reason or another. The prize
winners of 1970 are missing in 1995 and 1999.
In any discussion of
Alabama fiction, however, the standard reference will be Philip D.
Beidler’s two-volume collection The Art of Fiction in the Heart of
Dixie (1986) and Many Voices, Many Rooms (1998). Published by the
University of Alabama Press, these books are composed of both
stories and excerpts from novels with chronological periods
introduced by reliable, informative essays which briefly set up the
writers of that period and introduce each piece. Of the authors in
Prize Stories and Alabama Bound, only William Cobb appears in
Beidler’s The Art of Fiction. No authors from Belles’ Letters appear
in The Art of Fiction. Only Eugene Walter and Mary Ward Brown appear
both in Alabama Bound and Many Voices, Many Rooms, and there are no
authors from Belles’ Letters in Many Voices, Many Rooms.
Why bother with the
above? Well, because it is a path I found myself going down, and I’m
glad I did. Short fiction in Alabama is a fluid, even mercurial
genre. The path is littered with names and stories now not known or
widely read: that is the bad news. The good news is there are always
new writers and a volume to receive them. This remains true in
Climbing Mt. Cheaha.
And so we come to the
present volume. Taylor issued a call for submissions for these
stories in the Alabama Writers’ Forum publication First Draft, in
the magazine Poets and Writers, on the internet—the internet notice
was apparently picked up by some give-away newspapers, because
several submitters from North Alabama mentioned it—and extensively
by word of mouth. When the submission period was over, I was sent a
box with 150 stories in it. Finally, I chose twenty-six, which you
now hold in your hand. The process of choosing was much, much more
difficult that I had, in my worst nightmare, imagined. Of the 150
stories about a dozen appeared to me, at once, as first rate, no
doubt about it. They went into the “yes” pile. Unfortunately for me,
only about a dozen went at once into the “reject” pile, the “no”
Let me digress for a moment about that reject pile. In the late
1960s when the poet John Ciardi was poetry editor of The Saturday
Review of Literature, and received hundreds of poetry submissions
per week, Ciardi infuriated many of the magazine’s readers with a
column in which he stated that sometimes he could and did reject a
poem after reading only the first two or three lines. Letters to the
editor howled. How could he? How dare he! Outrageous! Then, a couple
of weeks later, Ciardi’s column was composed of a large selection of
the first two or three lines of poems he had recently received and
rejected. They were horrible, hysterical, achingly awful.
I was advised by
several friends to follow Ciardi’s advice and read only until
something in a story struck me as bad, and then stop reading. I did
not. I assure all the unsuccessful submitters to this volume that I
read every word of every story. I promise. This may smack of
compulsive and even, in a sense, masochistic, behavior, but I swear
it is true. In all I spent over one hundred hours reading the box of
150 stories I was sent. Most I read more than once. Why?
Because about one
hundred of the stories were too good to reject quickly but not
wonderful enough to swoon over quickly. Of these, I finally chose
about a dozen; readers are free to guess which dozen. I’ll never
tell. This group of one hundred stories suggests that something good
is happening in Alabama short fiction, or at least I guess it is
good. Writing programs, workshops, seminars, conferences—somebody is
teaching writers how to make an acceptable, not perfect and maybe
not inspired, but not stupid short story.Trained teachers of fiction
writers have taught their students to manage point of view, include
a few details of setting, sometimes generate a little dialogue, all
of which make for a competent piece of short fiction. Teachers are
unable to give their students that elusive “voice,” however, or of
course to give them what readers crave to see: spark, genius, the
exceptional talent—call it what you will.
So what was in the box?
First, there were many more stories by women than by men, perhaps
twice as many. (In the final selection, as it turns out, seventeen
are by men and nine by women, but that’s just how it worked out.)
Many of the stories submitted were by women who have written what
seem to be autobiographical laments about the unreliable,
unfaithful, feckless, drunken, worthless men who used to be their
boyfriends or husbands. The Lifetime Channel could go for years on
what was in that box.
You will not be
surprised to learn that most of the lawyers in Alabama, as with the
rest of the nation, think that they are also fiction writers, and
several actually are. Mike Stewart and Frank Turner Hollon, for
example, are attorneys in Alabama who write wonderful fiction.
Richard North Patterson is doing nearly as well at it as John
Grisham or Scott Turow. This should come as no surprise, really.
Attorneys went to college for seven years; they are smart, educated
people. And, in their line of business, they run into a great many
colorful, odd characters and unusual situations. Add to that the
structure of the actual trial, which gives a nearly perfect dramatic
situation in which there is a life-and-death conflict which ends in
climax, resolution, and denouement, and you have the best possible
recipe. There is only one lawyer story chosen for this volume, but
there could have been several others, nearly as good.
Another kind of story
in the box was something I want to call “the barely disguised
incident from one’s life.” It may be that the recent rage for memoir
has gotten a lot of people thinking and writing about their
childhoods and younger lives, and special moments get written up.
Usually, however, and sadly, incidents, however important to the
person who lived them, are not short stories. As Gertrude Stein said
to the young Ernest: “Hemingway, remarks are not literature.” These
pieces tend to be anecdotes, actual events, rather than imagined or
crafted works of literary art. I think I can tell. They don’t work.
They are the stories one tells after work at the bar at five
o’clock—Wow, let me tell you what happened last weekend—or, in a
quiet conversation with a significant other, one recalls a trauma
from childhood. Even Look Homeward, Angel was more imagined than
these stories appear to be.
There were, however, a
number of naïve, but promising, pieces by middle-aged people, I
think, who wrote of their experiences in the world of work, real
physical work in textile mills and lumber yards. These pieces were
not about the kind of work one used to see often on dust jackets:
“R. Q. Smith has been a bartender, a shrimper, a long distance
trucker, a tattoo artist, etc.” Those were probably summer jobs. I’m
talking about people who worked at jobs for decades and are now
perhaps in a writing seminar at the town public library on Saturday
mornings. These writers have authentic material to use and one day,
as their skills sharpen, their stories will be appearing in print.
As one would expect in
the contemporary South, there were lots of stories about
contemporary problems. People wrote a good deal about drugs in
various ways—production, distribution, effects of, etc.; of these, I
included stories by Mike Burrell and Janet Mauney. Looking through
the volume, I see I have chosen a half-dozen stories of a strong
sexual nature—by Brad Watson, Michael Knight, Suzanne Hudson, Bart
Barton, and Michelle Richmond, among others. Several stories take
into account varieties of sexuality: male and female homosexuality,
transvestism, and interest in transsexual operations. Modern life,
in other words.
As one might expect,
several submissions were of a violent nature. Of these, I chose
stories by Tom Franklin and Beaux Boudreaux, among others.
There has also been more interest lately in the short-short, and
that subgenre is represented here by Loretta Cobb as well as by
Watson and Franklin.
Many stories involved
religion in some way, for these are the stories of the Bible Belt.
But, surprisingly, there were very few stories of what one might
think to be the stock-in-trade of Southern literature: the subject
of race. The Erskine Caldwell or William Faulkner story of lynching,
cruelty, injustice of whites toward blacks was almost entirely
missing. There is some of this in the Beaux Boudreaux piece.
At a recent convocation
of journalists at the University of Alabama, on the occasion of the
presentation of the Clarence Cason Award for Distinguished
Nonfiction, Rick Bragg, Diane McWhorter, Roy Hoffman, and several
others were nearly unanimous in declaring that race as a contentious
social issue in Alabama is coming to a close. In the near future,
the social wars will be fought on the issues of religion and class.
Whether and where to hang the ten commandments is on the evening
news and the front page. The police dogs, water hoses, and berserk
state troopers are now items of the past, to be written about by
historians and writers of historical fiction. This idea is implicit
in Kirk Curnutt’s piece, which is in part about how the civil rights
movement itself is fading from Alabamians’ minds, especially younger
Reading these dozens of stories was of course a learning experience
for me. In much the same way as it is not actually possible to know
what you think about a book until you hear what you yourself have to
say about it, either in print or out loud, so one does not know what
one likes, really, until a situation like this arises: choosing
which stories to include and exclude. I discovered that I dislike
the stories that seem to me to be simply anecdotes, without
resonance, however well-narrated. I also seem not to like the O.
Henry ending, in which there is a grand switcheroo. Fantasy and
science fiction stories also leave me cold , but there are a few
pieces included that might be loosely considered in that genre.
Janet Nodar’s story is fantastical; Brett Cox’s story is a kind of
statement from beyond the grave, while Joe Formichella’s has a whiff
of metafiction and Patricia Mayer’s has suggestions of extra-sensory
perception.More conventional science fiction or fantasy will have to
find publication elsewhere: “What? You spoke with Farmer Jones? But
that’s impossible! He’s been dead for years. Murdered, you know.”
A large number of the
submissions were chapters from books. This was perfectly within the
guidelines, but not, I think, usually a good idea. Most chapters
from novels are just that, part of an ongoing narrative development
and do not stand alone very well. Only Roy Hoffman is
represented in this volume with an excerpt.
Put simply, I seem to
like stories that are more or less realistic and have characters who
develop at least a little or, perhaps, learn something.. The kind of
conclusions I seem to favor follow more or less naturally from what
This is all, of course,
a matter of judgment. Twenty-six people now think I have pretty fair
judgment. About 125 people think my judgment stinks. It will always
be this way, I guess, as long as there is art, and subjectivity, and
judging. I can only hope that the readers of this book have a little
fun with the pieces I have picked.
Cottondale, Alabama, July 2004