Searching for Greatness in the Fiction Slush Pile

Michael Noltemeyer is a first-year MFA student in fiction at the University of New Mexico as well as Fiction Intern for Blue Mesa Review.

Another year is nearly over, and with December almost upon us, we begin making plans anew to gather in observance of that most cherished of holiday traditions: the release of next year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.

Wait—what? Baseball? I know that’s probably not what you were expecting to find on the blog of your favorite literary journal, but bear with me for a minute.

You know what’s truly remarkable about the Baseball Hall of Fame? No one—and I mean no one—has ever been elected unanimously. Not Ted Williams, not Mickey Mantle, not Joe DiMaggio… not even Babe Ruth, for crying out loud. Think about that for a second. Babe Ruth, almost universally acknowledged as the greatest baseball player who ever lived, was not universally thought worthy of the Hall of Fame. He was included on “only” 95% of the ballots cast. That means that fully five percent of the voters did not vote for the greatest baseball player who ever lived.

And yet, I’ve never heard anyone argue that there shouldn’t be a Hall of Fame. Everyone thinks greatness should be recognized. It’s just that everyone has their own ideas about what greatness looks like.

Literature is much the same way. There’s no balloting process for induction into the vaunted literary canon, but if there were, then the elections would be just as controversial. I say John Steinbeck is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. You say that Steinbeck is preachy, pompous, and peculiarly obsessed with place. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The day after Steinbeck’s death in 1968, the New York Times wrote that it was “as if half his literary inheritance came from the best of Mark Twain—and the other half from the worst of Cotton Mather.”

So what does all that mean? It means that there is no universal blueprint for greatness. You can’t list the rules for writing a great story any more than you can define in precise terms what it means to be a Hall-worthy baseball player. Greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Just because the evaluation process is highly subjective, however, doesn’t mean that it can’t ultimately arrive at fair appraisals. After all, Babe Ruth did get 95% of the vote—that’s 95% more than I’ll ever get—and he got it for a reason. Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize was no mere fluke. And the stories that we publish at Blue Mesa Review were not chosen at random out of a hat in the staff room. In all three cases, voters with strong knowledge of the subject and a deep investment in the integrity of the process discussed the candidates until a reasonable consensus emerged.

I could offer here a few warmed-over platitudes about what general features are most likely to garner such a consensus from the BMR editorial board, but the truth is that there is no literary equivalent of baseball’s 3,000 hit club to guarantee publication. We don’t have a checklist. We probably wouldn’t even be able to reach a consensus about the features most likely to elicit consensus—at least not in anything other than the broadest possible terms, and that information wouldn’t be of use to anyone. The devil is in the details. Instead, I’m going to use this space to discuss what we liked about the three fiction submissions we chose to publish in our upcoming issue (coming out next week!), which we hope will give you some sense of the method behind our very specific brand of madness.

Dialogue is always tricky to write, but Nick Ripatrazone’s “Advent” offers a great example of how powerful it can be when done well. Much of the story comes in the form of a dialogue between two elderly widows who seem to be talking at rather than to each other. All too often, dialogue is asked to do the heavy lifting in a story, establishing background information and setting up major plot points in rushed and unnatural ways. In contrast, Ripatrazone’s sharply drawn exchanges manage to effortlessly impart a sense of each character’s values and motivations while still retaining a natural feel. One of our editors commented, “The reactions of the characters to one another felt unexpected but also very true.” That’s a tough balance to strike. This story’s success in doing so is what left us excited to bring it to your attention.

Whereas “Advent” has a bit of a dark undercurrent, Danny Lorberbaum’s “Very Invisible People” is flat-out dark. So dark, in fact, that some of us worried whether it would alienate our potential audience before they could really get into it. Just as Ripatrazone struck a neat balance in his dialogue, though, so too did Lorberbaum in his storyline: “Very Invisible People” does an excellent job of manufacturing tension and discomfort in the reader without being exploitative. You’re supposed to be uncomfortable when you read it. That’s the point. And yet, Lorberbaum never crosses the line into outright voyeurism. He writes delicately and nonjudgmentally, creating a story that is, as one of our editors put it, “very economical in its tone, image, and character.” We were impressed by the story’s ambition and its careful execution of that narrative vision, and we hope you will be, too.

The third story we accepted is perhaps the most difficult to describe: Susann Cokal’s “Their Foreign Body” is, quite simply, a story that breaks all of the rules. In that, it is perhaps the perfect exemplar of why we can’t give you a list of rules to follow if you want us to publish your story. Cokal, for example, employs more point-of-view shifts than any writing workshop would likely ever endorse in so short a piece—and yet, somehow, it works for her. It helps the reader to gain a real sense of the community she is describing. The interrelationships of the members of that community are, in our opinion, this story’s strength. The characters are so charmingly and precisely rendered that no one becomes a “type,” and their interactions with each other are both riveting and revealing. In the end, Cokal’s defiance of convention exposes deeper truths about her characters and her story; that meta-level awareness indicates her mastery of craft even through her considered rejection of it.

As you can see, each of the stories we chose for this issue brings something very different to the table. We liked them for very different reasons, often in spite of the reasons we would normally like a story. They are each great in their own specific ways. They also make it nearly impossible for us to posit general rules about what we’re looking for beyond the obvious: write the best story you can. Figure out what greatness means to you, and then make it happen. You’ll never win everyone over—but then again, neither did Babe Ruth.

No one may ever be able to define greatness, but that’s okay. With apologies to Potter Stewart, we just hope to know it when we see it.