It’s hard to compete with Flannery O’Connor. Even if it is just a letter to a librarian, bitching about critics and lamenting the brain-dead old ladies that populate her town, as up-and-coming writers go, “O’Connor” is never a name you want to follow in a journal.
But for all the offerings of the latest Meridian, O’Connor’s letter, found in a section of the UVA literary journal called “Lost Classic,” sets standards of wit and intimacy with the reader that, unfortunately, many of the modern-day offerings fail to live up to in a large way. Critics of MFA programs like to point out that the piles of paper graduate writing students pump out are, if technically proficient, lacking in certain qualities of discovery and a more visceral communion with the reader. To say this a different way, a lot of writers can carry a well-observed detail for three pages without telling a goddamn story.
What most of the short stories in the latest issue of Meridian lack in character or exploration of emotion, they make up for in atmosphere and voice. This, however, is not an even trade. Daniel Hoyt’s short story “Big Springs” is not quite flash fiction—it runs three-and-a-half pages—but not long enough to build any tension to play with. Like most of the fiction here, it is so aware of itself as a story that it puts the reader at such a great distance that it is hard to connect with not only the characters and the first-person narrator, but the voice and tone of the story.
“We didn’t so much make love as jerry-rig it,” says the narrator. “Staple it together. Spit on it and add friction.” This rhetorical jump doesn’t obscure the writer and inform the character; it does the opposite.
Tyler Stoddard Smith has the bad luck of having an epistolary short story appear in the same issue as the O’Connor letter. “War is a Dish Best Served Haute” is a series of letters between the head chefs of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Hitler as World War II rages on. It’s the type of story that starts with a wonderful idea but goes absolutely nowhere, relying on the juxtaposition of haute cuisine talk and total war for heavily manufactured absurdity that grows old fast. The two chefs, separate characters the writer would have us believe, sound an awful lot alike in their letters.
But Maryse Meijer’s story “Home” hums along with little commentary by the author, and this straight-ahead style puts the two main characters, a young woman and an older man in a confusing and semi-threatening new relationship, starkly in front of the reader. The pull of the story, and there is plenty, comes not from overt writerly devices but from the tension that Meijer is able to create with pinpoint description, the right word and the right moment and, most importantly, knowledge of and sympathy for both characters.
In an issue so prose-heavy, it’s easy to overlook the poetry, so I’ll do just that. But Jenny Gillespie’s poem “Driving Back with No Map” bears mentioning. She wrings enormous amounts of energy and tension from short lines and breaks at both natural and surprising grammatical places. The best poems here are the quietest, like Jolee G. Passerini’s “After Eleven Years.”
Like most journals, there are one or two pieces that make picking up Meridian worth the effort. Meijer’s story is one. David McGlynn’s meditation on competitive swimming is another. The rest leaves one to wonder what the editors value in writing—the Kabuki-like plume of writers writing to write, or writers grabbing the reader by the collar with something to say.