Where We Live Now: What We See Too Much Of (And Not Enough) at West Branch
I’ve always loved when (other) editors post lists of the topics they’ve seen far too much of, or (more rarely) not enough of. It’s a guilty pleasure, if for no other reason than that I immediately embark upon a delightful thought experiment trying to stitch together as many proscripted elements as I can into a single story or poem of my own. But it’s also a more serious reflection of one aspect of what we do as editors, what we have access to: an evolving, scintillating core sample of immersive culture. To work in an editorial queue is to see what’s out there … and to think about what’s not.
Tropes and topics come in waves. Some of these waves are predictable: the flood of 9/11-related pieces at mid-decade, and more recently stories and essays (rarely poems) in the voices or from the perspectives of American soldiers in the Middle East. Some of them were by veterans, some not; some were good, most not (as is true for any sample from the submission queue, however defined). Interestingly, in the past six months we’ve seen a marked drop-off in the number of Iraq-or-Afghanistan stories and essays in our queue. I’m not sure what to make of this, or whether I should try.
Other topics and tropes are harder to pin down—indeed, they both intrigue and surprise. A few years ago there was a discernible run of stories and poems about … moths. Large moths, small moths, talking moths, metaphorical moths. They fluttered into our lives—more precisely, into our queue—and then back out again, leaving neither explanation nor trace. More recently that odd smell on the air was the tang of taxidermy. I have no idea why taxidermy, and why now: but we were, in the immediate editorial moment, unable to resist (and will be sharing a story by Benjamin Parzybok and a poem by Charlie Clark in our next print issue).
So, what are we seeing right now?
- Catholic school. Yes, I know, the nuns. But we’re currently inundated with poems, stories, and essays invoking children or adolescents in Roman Catholic institutions of secondary education. This has always been a discernible thread in our queue, but why so many, and why now?
- related: Christian (sometimes Catholic, sometimes not) summer camp. For the past six months I’ve read at least 3-4 submissions per month with this setting. Somehow I missed out on this, growing up in the rural South….
- stories, poems, and essays in which a young narrator is taken hunting for the first time and experiences a Life Lesson, more or less traumatic. As someone who was taken hunting for the first time as a child and did experience something traumatic, I’m sympathetic, but the fact of the carnage, the mere fact of the blood is not enough on its own terms. What’s really at stake here?
- drownings. The river is flowing, the pool glistens with its hypnotizing solar sparkle, even the bathtub beckons. It’s a metaphor, except when it’s not, except when it is again. (We published a fine short story not too long ago by Linda Woolford that turned precisely on this shifting quality of the trope.)
- branding. And I mean product branding, not cattle-branding (we would be very interested in more cattle-branding work!) SHOW DON’T TELL is the watchword, and we are ever-thirsty where detail is concerned … but when the detail sounds like it was lifted from a marketing report, I admit I’m less interested. It’s entirely possible this is a matter of taste, but our job at West Branch isn’t to reinforce American consumer capitalism, per se. Invoking a brand name is not “description,” as we view it.
- we still get too many straight memoirs on topics of first love, lost love, and the death of a parent. As I’ve said elsewhere, experiencing these things does not make you a poet, or a writer, not necessarily. It makes you human. For better or for worse. As a writer, your job is to infuse, or convoke, or impute that something more, that grain of particular, indelible resonance.
- and it remains really, really hard to save a story that opens with the protagonist waking up in the morning. Post-Kafka, that’s a sucker’s bet. Sorry.
In general we see very little CNF, and most of what we do see doesn’t transcend the predictable lineaments of twenty-frist-century North American middle-class existence. There is inner transcendence, and there is outer transcendence; there is, as one of my CNF colleagues likes to remind us, “a whole wild world out there, that is not you, that is not necessarily about you.” It would appear the “creative nonfiction revolution” of a decade ago—however defined—was less an event than I’d hoped. That said, I am a creature of hope. Take a look at Helen Degen Cohen’s essay “The Sin of Choreography” in our new issue if you want an example of what I’m longing for.
Things we aren’t seeing enough these days (a more or less random list):
- stories, poems, or essays about anteaters.
- stories, poems, or essays about summer camps run by other religious traditions. At which anteaters may or may not be present.
- creative nonfiction in which the writer explores a larger world than the self, or uses the self as a tool for exploring that larger world. Which includes, among other things, anteaters. And technetium. And Cornwall.
- stories in which the narrator is not an obvious version of the author, or at least obviously reflective of the author’s age, gender, cultural background, etc.
- reflections on the incomparable abstract beauty of the Periodic Table of the Elements.
- stories in which the ghost is not really a ghost, but a ghost.
- reflections on travel, or even the mere possibility of travel, to the former Portuguese-controlled enclaves of Daman and Diu, in India; to the Isles of Scilly; to Ely, Nevada; or to Memel, which is now Klaipeda.
- stories, poems, or essays set entirely in hospital gift shops.
- zombie deer.
Our tastes are eclectic—like Diaghilev, we are always “waiting to be astonished.” Please. We’re begging.