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Literary Invulnerability

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(alternate text)I constantly hear from writers frustrated with the state of contemporary literature. They point out all the garbage being published and rail against the fact that their stories get rejected. We all do that from time to time. I certainly indulge in howling at the publishing moon now and then. But I wonder if it truly is the industry’s fault or if sometimes it’s a symptom of our own mood.

For example, over the weekend, I read three short stories in a prestigious literary journal. The publication itself is well-respected and pieces from its pages consistently appear in the annual “Best Of” publications. The three writers were acclaimed authors and creative writing instructors with high-profile publications to their credit.

Yet, I could not find one single reason why any of these three stories was fit for wasting the journal’s paper. Trees died for these entirely uninspiring and unremarkable stories. Money that could have bought a Big Mac value meal was wasted on these cold and unappealing stories. On another day, I might rant at the industry, curse the editors, and growl at the money I spent on this journal. But maybe I was lacking my normal vim and vigor. Or maybe I was just being more honest with myself. Maybe, I’m the problem with these stories.

As writers, we read a great deal (or, at least we should) and most of the time, we’re not just reading for pleasure. We’re examining, deconstructing, and analyzing. We’re trying to figure out what works and what editors want. It’s not unusual for me to read three books and several magazines in one week. There are times when I become so numb to literature that I worry even Cormac McCarthy or William Faulkner would be incapable of penetrating my shell. Usually when this happens, I slow down my reading, try to change up my sources, and hope that I encounter a new, exciting work to cure the malaise.

Which brings me back to the point about writers who complain about editorial choices. It’s easy to point at Nicole Ritchie or McCauley Culkin as proof of the industry gone sour. Few literary minded folks would argue with those criticisms. But think of all the dozens of stories you read in the small literary journals that leave you cold and uninvolved. These aren’t quite so obvious targets. There usually isn’t anything specifically and noticeably wrong with these stories, they just don’t grab you. When you read something in The Toilet Paper Review and it leaves you wanting, is it because the story is poorly executed or because you’re just going through a period where you are invulnerable to the effects of literature.

If I encountered those three stories in January, is it possible I would have loved them? If I stumbled across those pages in May, is it possible they would have kept me up at night?

How do you break out of your reading numb spells?