Dispatches | February 15, 2007

The other morning the first news story I heard on the radio was the report of a murder in a very small neighboring town.  The town where our family lives is small, but the town in which the murder took place is even smaller, a beautiful, waning river town where almost everyone is some kind of cousin to everyone else (in fact, my husband has several cousins there).  It was a clear tragedy, a young woman’s mother shot by an ex-boyfriend when the mother refused to let him see her daughter. The mother was only thirty-seven.  The young man, if I heard right, was twenty-one.

Our own little town has been the site of numerous tragedies in the nine years I’ve lived there:  a schoolgirl abducted and murdered on her way home from school; her mother murdered as well; a sickly newborn infant hidden in a closet and discovered by its older sister.  Children dead.  Adult suicides. Fathers imprisoned, and families splintered. Last spring I attended, with my daughter, the visitation and funeral of a teenaged classmate who had been one of her first boyfriends in grade school.  His death was a pure tragedy that I still think about often.  My daughter keeps his picture on the bulletin board in her room.

It struck me that we very seldom publish (or even read among our multitudinous submissions) what one would call tragedy.  Many pieces straddle the fence.  In our spring issue, still under construction, we have several excellent selections that address the subjects of loss, disappointment, missed opportunities and the deaths of relationships.  There’s one story — a very memorable one — that comes close to tragic, taking a turn in that direction at the end; still, it is not the relentless unraveling of how the unimaginable happened that would meet Aristotle’s call for an “imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude . . .”

I mentioned this to Richard, who in a recent blog asked for more upbeat essays (I agree that it would be nice to see some of those, too).  There’s plenty of sad or bad stuff happening in the stories we read for TMR, I remarked to him, but most of it is offstage, presented as backstory.  He wondered if perhaps tragedy as a literary genre isn’t too plot-driven to be considered “contemporary,” noting that the modern short story tends to be more character driven.  Dedra wondered if enough people have direct experience with tragedy to want to write about.  I wonder myself it isn’t just so difficult to write a successful tragedy that most writers shy away from it.

When I consider the stories I’ve edited over many years for TMR, only two come to mind that were unadulterated tragedies (both were prizewinners).  There are possibly more, but not a lot more.  And the material is surely there to be written about.  No thinking person can read the news and not start to grapple in their imagination with the causes and ramifications of the tragic stories reported every day.  A lot has to happen (and happen without a misstep) for the initial grappling to turn into a masterful tragic story, “in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament . . . in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions.  . . .” When it does all fall into place like that, though, it takes your breath away.  It’s almost as if the writer has gotten the evil seed of the devastation under his or her thumb and somehow managed to incubate something approaching redemption.