Dispatches | August 13, 2010

Earlier this summer I did some guest editing for a literary journal that, like The Missouri Review, receives many, many high-quality submissions from all over the world. The process involved reading some three-hundred fiction submissions. It isn’t often that I read so many manuscripts in a compressed period of time, so I tried to pay attention to any recurring themes, motifs, styles, etc. across all the stories. I’m happy to report, if these 300 stories are any indication, that the state of the American short story as of the summer of 2010 is downright eclectic. Thank goodness.

That said, two minor trends did crop up which I found interesting.

Trend #1: Lots of stories begin with the color green.

Seriously. And I’m not only talking about leaves and grass and stuff. If a story begins with a description of a sofa in the first paragraph, you can bet the sofa will be green. If a woman is wearing a dress, it will be green. A car? Green. A man’s sweater? You guessed it.

What accounts for this? Beats me. (And might it only be a coincidence? My particular sample of stories? Not being good at statistics, I suppose that’s possible—though 300 stories seems to me like a pretty large sample.) If I were to hypothesize, I’d say that this “greening” of the short story has to do with a writer wanting to choose a visual detail, but not wanting to choose one with built-in meaning, especially one with a gender association. A man’s pink sweater implies too much. So might a red necktie. Hence green, the vibrant-yet-neutral hue.

Though now that I think about it, green does suggest inexperience. But an inexperienced wall? An inexperienced sofa?

Trend #2: The world of short fiction is populated with shoe salesmen. Seven or eight out of 300 stories might not seem like a lot, but I ask you this: when was the last time you even saw a shoe salesman? I don’t mean the kid who takes your credit card at the counter, but rather the guy who measures your foot with one of those metal contraptions, runs into the stockroom for a pair in your size, slides your foot into them, laces them up, checks to see if there’s enough room in the toe…I think it’s been about 25 years since I was in a shoe store like that.

Oh, and the related observation is that none of these stories hinged on the protagonist being a shoe salesman. The selling of shoes rarely seemed to matter in terms of character or plot or theme. The protagonist could just as easily have flipped burgers or sold garden supplies for a living.

So why all these shoe salesmen? Maybe the writers, thinking into their own pasts, decided that a shoe salesman represents a sort of prototypical job that is neither white collar nor blue collar and, like the color green, doesn’t unduly telegraph how we should feel.

Still, I was surprised that so many writers came up with the same job, which makes me think that the next story I write will steer clear of shoe salesmen and greenery.

Until the second paragraph, anyway.

Your thoughts?

Michael Kardos is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time, forthcoming in February 2011 from Press 53. While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, he served as Contest Editor for The Missouri Review. He currently co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His website is michaelkardos.com.