C. Michael Curtis has been editing fiction for The Atlantic since the sixties, publishing writers like Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, and Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few. We spoke with him about the experience of publishing authors early in their careers as well as the value of short fiction in a publication that also publishes, news, culture, and politics. The Atlantic stands among a select few as a publication that readers and writers value for its quality and tenure — a real literary heavy-hitter. An enormous thanks to Mr. Curtis for discussing what The Atlantic looks for in fiction submissions, its attitude toward the slush pile, and advice for new writers.
You’ve been editing fiction for The Atlantic since 1963 and have been Fiction Editor for the magazine since 1982. What stories and authors stand out most to you after five decades?
This is one of those “which-of-your-children-do-you-love-most?” questions. They all stand out, though for different reasons. We’re naturally pleased when we find and publish a writer with little or no track record, then watch as that writer becomes a substantial critical and often economic success.
The “beginning” writers I remember most are the ones who have become hugely successful, virtual household names: Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, and Louise Erdrich are among the most notable, but others whose first major publication was in The Atlantic include Ann Beattie, Bobby Ann Mason, Ethan Canin, James Alan McPherson, Tobias Wolff, John Sayles, and many others.
What was it like watching writers who were relatively unknown at the time become celebrated authors?
As above, we take great pleasure in the successes of Oates, Carver, and Erdrich, but we know that other editors have spotted their talents and rewarded them accordingly.
We also know, sometimes with discomfort, how difficult the struggle was. Erdrich, for example, began submitting her stories while still a Dartmouth undergraduate, and was still in her late 20’s before a story clicked with Atlantic editors. Carver was turned away for years, perhaps because otherwise shrewd editors failed to grasp that Carver’s blue collar lingo and settings masked a heartfelt understanding of working class anomie, that Carver’s troubled middle American was struggling with classic challenges of parenthood, class dignity, alcoholism, and spiritual numbness. Oates, whose earliest stories I read while assisting at Epoch, was both young and prolific while a writing student at Syracuse. She wrote then as “J. C. Oates,” and wrote stories fueled by drinking, violence, domestic wandering, and broken-down Chevrolets. I pictured “J. C Oates” as a scruffy garage mechanic with a sour view of humanity, someone I wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. But whose writing, relentless as it was, had to be admired.
After I joined The Atlantic staff, taking leave from my graduate studies in Government, I soon encountered a submission from Joyce Carol Oates (mystery solved), which was way too long for Atlantic purposes and, we thought, oddly titled. After cutting and editing, and with a new title, the story appeared in The Atlantic and was subsequently chosen for inclusion in the next year’s O. Henry Collection, and identified as the “best story of the year.”
The Atlantic allows for unsolicited submissions. Do you still read stories from the slush? Can you comment on how many stories you publish from the slush pile in a year?
The Atlantic does continue to read every story submitted for consideration, though some require more careful attention than others. Stories in the latter category are dogged by bad spelling, bad grammar, bad language, and uncertain outcomes. We have always made room for stories by beginners or little-published writers, for a time publishing as many as a dozen or so each year. In those days, however, The Atlantic published several stories in each issue. In the 80’s the number dropped to one story per issue, and in recent years we have found room for fiction only periodically. Even so, The Atlantic’s appetite for work from the unannounced, remains firm.
What do you look for in a story? The quality of fiction in The Atlantic is always high, but with so little space available, how does one decide which stories to publish?
What do we look for in a story? Distinctiveness in the use of language, in both exposition and dialogue; plot mechanics that move the story along (less about “how things are,” more about “how things change”); control of language formalities (spelling, grammar, aptness, persuasiveness, sentence structure, etc.); and imagination. As for deciding which story to publish, of the selection available in our inventory, we take into account length, imminent publication (in a book) and fitness, given the other ingredients that make up an issue. In recent years we’ve kept our inventory small, not wishing to buy stories for which we never seem to have room. That has meant, in recent years, some taking and editing stories we then felt obliged to turn loose, wishing to give writers other opportunities.
The Atlantic used to publish a story in each issue, and then shifted to annual Fiction Issues, which most recently published in 2011. Does the amount of space you’re given as an editor change how you screen and select stories? Also, when is the next Fiction Issue?
Whether our Fiction Issue reemerges is uncertain, and will be a topic of interest for The Atlantic’s next Editor-in-Chief. And yes, the less space available for fiction, the more selective must be those who choose fiction for the magazine.
How do you balance coverage? Tim Gautreaux, for example, was published in late 2015 and also has work in the 2006 Fiction Issue, and a story from 1997. He’s an incredible writer, and you’ve published other talented writers on more than one occasion. How do you decide to feature an author who you’ve already published as opposed to creating space for a newer voice?
For many years The Atlantic consciously made room for stories by unpublished writers, and called them “Atlantic Firsts.” (In one 1948 issue The Atlantic published two “Atlantic Firsts” by young writers recently returned from tours with the U.S. Army. Their names were James Jones and Joseph Heller.) More recently, as the magazine has published fewer stories, beginners work has also appeared less often. The approximate ratio, however, has endured.
You started as an editor for Epoch. What other literary magazines do you read and admire?
Time is the enemy, but I read when I can, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, The Southern Review, AGNI, and EPOCH. No doubt many others are well worth my while.
The Atlantic publishes fiction alongside politics, news, and culture. There are so few publications that do so these days. What does that say about the value of short fiction in your mind? For The Atlantic and others?
The value of short fiction lies, perhaps, in its capacity to ignite uncertainty and mindfulness into our lives, as well as remind us of the perceptiveness and artfulness of the storytellers among us. No magazine that I know of has made money publishing fiction, and where you find fiction in magazines you are seeing the work of editors who believe in its value as a complement to news from the marketplace and the battlefield, as a component of life informed and graced by aesthetic concerns.
How does the fiction in The Atlantic differ from the stories that appear in magazines like The New Yorker or Harpers? Or is there a clear distinction?
Stories in the magazines you mention differ, both thematically and stylistically, from issue to issue, but The New Yorker, a weekly, makes room for more than 50 stories per year, while Harpers’ and The Atlantic struggle to publish a handful in the same period. Still, I see no clear distinction, only differences, from time to time, in how individual editors respond to a particular work.
What advice can you give new writers? Either regarding missteps you commonly see in stories, or simply in terms of staying motivated in such a competitive market.
Advice to new writers: avoid obvious spelling and grammar mistakes; check previous issues to discern desired length and apparent tolerance for rough language; see to it that, in your story, something happens; check the magazine for emphasis on realism, or a tolerance for other worlds; send manuscripts that are readable (double-spaced, paragraphed, one side of page only); attach SASE if you want manuscript returned or a reply; do not send rejection letters from other magazines.
And lastly, what is the best part of your job? Which part of the process—from acquisition to publication—is your favorite?
The best part of my job is turning over all those rocks and finding a silver dollar now and then.
Interviewed by Kim Winternheimer