Times are tougher than ever for would-be literati. Fledgling writers now customarily submit to a tedious networking ritual known as “getting workshopped,” which involves like-minded peers gathering in small, supportive discussion groups—often moderated, much like AA meetings, by one who’s already Made It—and clawing one another’s lovingly mimeographed oeuvres to shreds. (Can you imagine Ernest Hemingway getting workshopped?)
Then there’s that teensy hurdle of actually getting published. Periodically, some high-minded house will conduct a sweep of the fancier M.F.A. programs and come up with an anthology like Scribner’s annual Best of the Fiction Workshops, guest-edited by one who’s Made It Even Bigger (this year, it was The Stone Diaries’ Carol Shields). Finding fresh young voices outside of such strictures requires creativity, and creativity—large unpolished heaps of it—is exactly what’s on display in both Personals: Dreams and Nightmares From the Lives of 20 Young Writers (Mariner, $13), a collection of short memoirs/essays edited by Thomas Beller, and Virgin Fiction (Rob Weisbach, $14), the results of the first annual short-story contest cosponsored by the online magazine Salon. Both are published in paperback (thus suited to twentysomething pockets), both are committed to brevity and bravery (thus suited to twentysomething attention spans), and both are a little wet around the ears.
That Beller’s collection is the more sophisticated should surprise no one, Beller having made something of a name for himself in Manhattan’s maddeningly concentric literary circles even before coming out with his own winsome, lyrical short-story collection, Seduction Theory, three years ago (he’s awarded a cameo in Jay McInerney’s upcoming novel). Leery of the term generation — which, he ruefully comments in the introduction, has become “the semantic property of Pepsi”—Beller bastes his authors together at the themes. There are nomads and rebels: Heather Chase explains how moving constantly as a child led her to mistrust travel (“Motion Sickness”); Daniel Pinchbeck (who coedits the literary magazine Open City with Beller) rationalizes kissing a Wesleyan “education” goodbye in “Dropping Out.” There are earnest, amusingly botched career experiments (Carrie Luft joins a theater group, Robert Bingham a political campaign; Barton Biggs starts a newspaper in Cambodia; Beller sells bagels). There is ambivalence aplenty: about pregnancies, relationships, and commitment; about transcending race and class. Jennifer Farber describes “Window-Shopping for a Life” in The New York Times’ wedding pages. Mike Newirth’s “Not Coming From Hunger,” about his experiences bartending in Chicago, was so good, it had me hastily thumbing to the credits page to find out where the hell this guy did come from (answer: not a writing workshop).
Worrisomely, however, Personals’ most consistent motif may be the unreliability of its narrators. “Don’t believe everything I say,” warns Rachel Wetzsteon (“The Black Cape and the Crying Baby”). “By the time I was sixteen, I could not tell the simplest story without bending the truth, amplifying for effect, inserting and amending details,” admits Scott Heim in “3 CC CP”—well, now, this is a problem, since a serial killer and his very real victims form the turbid center of his piece. “[D]espite my best efforts, this memoir, like all memoirs, is chockful of lies. It’s better this way, take my word for it,” assures Brady “Confessions of a Liar” Udall. But is it?
Honest nonfiction has been under siege of late, which may be why Udall’s disclaimer seems woefully inadequate. Confessional fiction, on the other hand, appears to be thriving. There’s less sex in Personals than you might expect—indeed, it opens with an account of being a 25-year-old virgin—and more in the cheekily titled Virgin Fiction than you ever wanted to know about. More than half of Virgin‘s 20 winning entries have NC-17-rated scenes. Not to be prudish or anything, but don’t these people (all under age 35) have anything else on their minds? And who’s judging this thing, anyway? No editors are credited, but whoever it was shouldn’t have let cheap gimmicks slip by, like the pretentious all lowercase Tony Carbone uses in “The End of the Beltline” (which also has a fantasy sequence using three supermodels) or the quiz format borrowed by Myla Goldberg for “Comprehension Test.”
Still, quite a few of these formal experiments succeed. Ed Park thought up a brilliant comic device for the short short “A Note to My Translator” (“Who is Solomon Eveready? What is he doing in my book?” asks his indignant protagonist), and Courtney Saunders spins a compelling, ragged web of brotherly bitterness in “Wes Looks Like Paul Newman and I Don’t.” And if these short stories are on the whole a bit rawer than those of Beller’s silky young raconteurs—well, you can think of it as a kind of Young Writers Unplugged. Speaking of which, next month’s youth-oriented anthology, The KGB Bar Reader, takes its selections directly from a reading series at a downtown Big Apple booze hall.
Now, that’s something Hemingway might’ve been into.
Virgin Fiction: B-