The Wonder of It

By Lauren Gullion, Associate Editor

I recently sat down with fiction writer, Colorado State University creative writing professor, and Warren Wilson MFA faculty member Steven Schwartz to discuss his new role as fiction editor here at Colorado Review. The conversation—meant to be about Steven—quickly evolved into an enthralling contemplation on fiction writing as a whole. Such an evolution of conversation perhaps says just as much about Steven—as a person, writer, and editor—as it does about Colorado Review’s evolving fiction pages.

I opened the conversation asking Steven how it was he first got involved with literary magazines. Here, I was expecting him to tell me about discovering literary journals in college or even graduate school. But no; Steven starting reading literary journals—quality literary journals like the Paris Review, Partisan Review, and New American Review—when he was just fifteen or sixteen years old.

STEVEN: I was fascinated by the liveliness of the writing in these journals. It was like a secret pleasure that didn’t go well with what you’re supposed to be doing as a teenage boy—being a jock and all that. Literature was this very private world for me, and literary journals were the door to that secret world.

He did get around to that graduate school experience with literary journals; he helped start one—the Sonora Review, back in 1980. It’s safe to say Steven has rarely not been involved with literary journals, as he’s been an advisory board member here at Colorado Review for years, recommending authors and judges as well as co-sponsoring—along with his wife, Emily Hammond—the Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction. It’s worth noting that Steven mentions these contributions as others might mention drinking coffee; it’s what he loves, so it’s what he does.

STEVEN: Literary fiction has to fight harder than ever to get published by the big publishers, but in literary magazines you don’t have that commercial exigency for the work to prove its worth; journals are still open to stories not being a product. You have the luxury to judge solely on the merit of the narratives.

ME: That brings us to the question you know I have to ask: What do you think makes a “good” story?

STEVEN: There’s something that happens when a story keeps reverberating out in circles. It resonates beyond its immediate span of perusal. You think about it the next day when you wake up. You tell your spouse or partner or friends about it. As a writer, you want to re-create the same effects in your own projects. It has a staying power, perhaps because the story evokes archetypal issues that make it operate on emotional, psychological, and aesthetic levels all together, and sometimes historic and mythic ones too. All this without the subtext screaming, I’m important, read me!

ME: (Typing feverishly, trying to get this all down.)

STEVEN: You read it and think the writer can’t not tell this story. You know it’s a beautiful and often audacious mixture of imagination, insight, and feeling that’s woven together and when you find that—you as a reader—it doesn’t matter how experienced you are or jaded by too much media consumption, you’re refreshed by it and defer to the wonder of it. The fact that a writer can even approach that standard—perfection will always be elusive—is enough to say, “I love this and I want to print this.” It’s that expression of the unsaid or unvoiced.

ME: But somehow familiar.

STEVEN: Exactly right. Somehow recognized—a rarefied sensibility that insists on being sounded in that intimate gap between writer and reader.

ME: So what are your thoughts about contemporary fiction today, as a whole?

STEVEN: It’s very different from when I started; now there’s a real diversity of voices and content in fiction—there are people from all sorts of backgrounds writing it. Today, it’s hard to categorize someone as a realist or experimental writer; people are experimenting and open to all sorts of things now. There’s no dominant rubric or methodology. Editors have their biases but, for most editors I know, it doesn’t matter—it’s just, does it work? Is it organic and fresh in some way?

We’re not so much in camps anymore as maybe we once were—postmodern in the 70s, people for or against realism or minimalism. A lot of these membranes have become permeable—boundaries have been broken down. It’s hard to keep the various creatures in their pens now, so to speak. And I think writers enjoy that—having something fantastic happen in an otherwise realist story. I just don’t see people having to declare their allegiance anymore. And despite what naysayers decry as the workshop story, I in fact see a pluralism in the working.

ME: How do you foresee your newly appointed role as fiction editor affecting Colorado Review?

STEVEN: Well, you hope the magazine evolves in an expansive way, that you bring a kind of viewpoint that ultimately impresses upon readers the complexity and value of fiction—how important it is to tell stories and how many ways there are to tell them. It’s anything but a dead medium. Even with everything that’s happening around us—with such frantic demands fragmenting our attention—people still want the depth that fiction offers, that kind of vividness. People need stories in their lives—they’re never going to tire of them.

There’s a tenderness of understanding that’s lost in the world when everything is so fast, and there’s a way fiction restores us at once to both a greater vivacity and a softer place in our lives. It doesn’t mean the stories aren’t tough or sometimes violent or tragic—and it has nothing to do with sentimentality. It’s this: You feel and simply know at a deeper level after you read.

I left Steven’s office feeling more inspired than I have been in quite some time. I found myself refreshed, willing and eager to dive back into that deeper feeling—in my own fiction as well as in the fiction of others. Something tells me this same brand of expansiveness is going to bring much to the fiction pages of Colorado Review.