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Harvard Review 39

Finding Jim Kelly

Here is a true story about one of our contributors. Some years ago a piece of writing arrived in the mail from someone named Jim Kelly. It was titled “Night School Confidential” and it told the story of a group of unlikely characters enrolled in a night school writing class. It was a curious piece, touching, a little bit raw, and quite unlike most of the things that cross my desk. I liked it, but at first I wasn’t completely persuaded. So I put it in the pile to the left of my computer where I keep things about which I haven’t quite made up my mind.

And there it lay. For months, and then for years.

Then last summer, in anticipation of a big trip I was taking, I decided to clear my desk. This meant, among other things, addressing the pile of undecideds. Near the bottom of the stack I rediscovered “Night School Confidential.” One look and the whole complex of sensations it had originally inspired returned as clear and vivid as if I had read it the previous day. I didn’t remember the details so much as the sensation: the air of anxiety and boredom and claustrophobia and the narrator’s compassion for people who didn’t have much going for them but who still had stories that needed to be told. In short, I remembered the feeling, and that, in my experience, is the single best reason to publish a piece.

Not every collaboration with a writer is an unmitigated pleasure, but this one has been. Because it’s been such an unusual process, what with my finding and losing and finding the piece to begin with and then the peculiarities of Jim’s own story, we thought we’d invite him to make a guest appearance on the Harvard Review Blog.

So, next up: Jim Kelly.

Harvard Review 39

The Problem with Categories

We decided to try something different in the table of contents of the most recent print issue of Harvard Review. As I explained in the HR39 editorial, there is something fundamentally unsatisfactory about dividing work up into Essays, Stories, and Poetry. Everyone has always known this, of course — some essays are like stories, some stories are like poems — but attempts to find new terms or carve out intermediary genres seem doomed to perpetual failure.

In the current issue I suggested we try out a new category which I called “Stories from Life.” My goal was to recognize a kind of writing that seemed to lie somewhere between Essay and Story. It was meant as an experiment and, like most experiments, it met with mixed success.

Part of the problem was the pieces I picked. Two of the stories, Brian Doyle’s “The Boyfriends Bus” and Jim Kelly’s “Night School Confidential,” seemed to me to have something in common, mostly in the manner of their telling — a directness and honesty that made them feel autobiographical, even if they weren’t.

I should add that both these authors, when asked, described their pieces as works of fiction, and I was certainly never trying to suggest that they weren’t made up. What I was trying to get at was the voice, the way it convincingly mimicked firsthand experience. In this, they resembled much of the nonfiction we publish, which is also highly personal, often autobiographical, but also strongly narrative (and, undoubtedly, in places made up), and which often feels to me like “stories from life.”

And this is where I made my mistake. I think my new category might have been more persuasive if I had included an essay or two — maybe Jessica Johnson’s “The Education of the Peppered Moth,” for example. Instead, I included Ellen Wilbur’s “Depression,” a story that, on second thought, didn’t really fit the bill.

Ellen was mystified. “Dear Christina,” she wrote,”the new issue of the magazine arrived today and while I’m pleased to be included in it I have to tell you I was stunned to have my vignette appear under a category not called fiction.” Ellen goes on to argue that “the whole excitement of writing is imagining people and situations [the writer has] never consciously experienced.” Which is undoubtedly true.

But then I never really imagined that Brian Doyle had gone on a bus trip with his wife’s old boyfriends or that Jim Kelly had been given a stuffed squirrel by one of his night school students — it was the feeling of authenticity the authors had achieved that mattered and that I was trying to signal by grouping them in this way.

I always find it upsetting when my writers are upset and I suppose this is what comes of experimenting in public. So, to Ellen (the full text of whose letter can be found here), please accept my apologies for miscategorizing your story. It was certainly meant as an honor and not as a slight.

And, to the rest of you out there: if you have any good ideas for new genre categories we’d love to hear about them. Because if our experience at Harvard Review is anything to go by, the number of difficult-to-pin-down pieces is only increasing and I don’t think we’re going to be done with this subject anytime soon.

Street Shadows by Jerald Walker

Best American: postcript

I thought all the decision-making was finished, but today I learned from the inimitable Bob Atwan, longtime series editor of Best American Essays, that not one but two of the essays from HR 39 — “Grieving” by Meenakshi Gigi Durham (writing under her maiden name of Meenakshi G. Venugopal) and “Unprepared” by Jerald Walker — have been selected for Best American Essays 2011 by Edwidge Danticat. Walker, as some of you may know, recently won the 2011 PEN New England/L. L. Winship Award in nonfiction for his book Street Shadows.

At least one other essay from the year — “All the Words I Knew” by Elisa Gonzalez, which appeared in HR 38 — made it into the “Notable” category. I mention this because Gonzalez was still an undergraduate when she wrote the essay and because it is her first published work. For Gigi, who is a professor, this was also a first of sorts — not a first publication, naturally, but in her own words “my first real published essay.” Congratulations to them all!

First Time Publications

In our continuing series entitled “From the Archives,” we look at the work of two young fiction writers both of whom were published for the first time in Harvard Review. While this is unusual it is certainly not unheard of, and we are always ecstatic when it occurs. We think it’s our job to discover new writers and there is something particularly exciting about publishing a writer, young or old, who has never had anything in print before.

Charles Yu’s first published story, “Problems for Self-Study” (HR 23), leapt out at us not just because of its eccentric presentation (which might as easily have worked against it), but because it miraculously managed to pack a complex and moving human drama into the rigid confines of a formal outline. A clever and quirky illustration of the principle of expressive form, the story examines the limitations of a schematic worldview in the face of such messy human emotions as love. Yu, who practices law in California, has gone on to publish both a novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Pantheon, 2010), and a short story collection, Third Class Superhero (Mariner, 2006).

Jason Lewis’s story, “Rodolfo and Nélida” (HR 33), was another, quite different kind of pleasure. Pulled from the slush pile by a reader, it impressed us all with its vitality and freshness. A rough, lively, unexpected tale about drug runners and romance, it was all the more refreshing to us in New England because of its southwestern setting. In 2007 the author’s biographical note read: “Jason Lewis is a twenty-four-year-old college drop-out with a novel in progress. He was born in Texas, raised in Minnesota, and currently makes his home in New Mexico. This is his first publication.” Whether he went on to finish either the novel or the degree we unfortunately don’t know, but we think he made a promising beginning.

Problems for Self-Study
Rodolfo and Nélida

Nobody Ever Gets Lost by Jess Row

It’s that time again…

It’s always an interesting time of year for us, as we wait to find out which, if any, of our authors have made it into the major anthologies. Harvard Review has been fortunate this past decade, contributing work to one or more of the big three (Best American Short Stories, Best American Poetry, and Best American Essays) nine years out of ten.

So, we were thrilled to learn that a story from HR38 by JessRow has been picked by Geraldine Brooks for Best American Short Stories. The story, titled “The Call of Blood,” is featured in Row’s new collection, Nobody Ever Gets Lost.

Row is now two for two at Harvard Review. The last time we published his work, a story called “Heaven Lake” in HR 22, it too was picked for Best American Short Stories, guest edited that year by Walter Mosley. In recognition of this stellar collaboration, Harvard Review will host a reading by Row later this spring, so stay tuned for more information.

Essays on History

I have now edited Harvard Review for ten years and it occurs to me that my own memory of the journal constitutes a particular sort of archive. Not alphabetical, not always perfectly searchable, not even necessarily complete, but unique in that every entry is cross-referenced in some idiosyncratic way. I know, as perhaps no one else in the world knows, that there are clusters among the hundreds of stories and essays that we have published over these years. Some have to do with subject matter: we have, for example, a number of stories about old ladies, also several excellent pieces told from a child's point of view. Sometimes the organizing principle is formal: there are pieces that do not resemble each other in the least but are linked in my mind because they are similarly experimental.

From the Archives is a new feature of HROnline showcasing prose selections from the past ten years. Our inaugural selections are a pair of essays on historical subjects by two writers united in my mind by their fine ear, their dry wit, and the deftness with which they move from image to idea. We hope you enjoy Barbara Sjoholm’s “Lapponia” from HR 29 and Kathryn Rhett’s “Our So-Called Illustrious Past” from HR 30.

Our So-Called Illustrious Past