Auf wiedersehen, good night. In what’s been something of a whirlwind semester for me personally, the Shenandoah office has offered a brief respite from the maelstrom of extracurriculars, coursework that fulfills the English department’s torturous early British lit requirement (if there is such a thing as an afterlife, I’m going to find Samuel Richardson and sucker him a good thwack over the nose), weekend social events, and a hundred and two other obligations that come along with being a junior at Washington and Lee. For two or three hours a week, I read fiction for no other reason than to gauge its ability to provoke visceral, vicarious sensation. I’m not meant to analyze every word or close read every syllable (although there’s certainly an element of academic evaluation involved in reading short story submissions), but decide merely whether or not I think a story is good. In the process, I think I’ve learned more about what constitutes good writing than I have perhaps in any traditional English class.
Reading Shenandoah submissions has been hugely instructive for me, especially as a creative writing minor. I’ve never before had the opportunity to rip a story apart at its seams, to see where the weave of a plot doesn’t quite overlap the way it ought to or where the stitching goes a little crooked. In a run of the mill 300-level English course, students are presented with exemplary pieces of fiction that have already survived decades, if not centuries, of literary criticism. Most of the stories we read are immaculately polished—there are no holes in the plot, pieces of dialogue that feel forced, no rushed endings or inconsistent details of setting. We see all of that in Shenandoah submissions. It’s those little differences that separate great from good, good from not quite good enough. And there are a lot of “not quite good enough”s that come through our office. I’ve read so many stories this term that have had a sparkle of something special—if only the author would have pushed his characters a little harder or developed his writing a little further, those pieces could have been brilliant. And I’d like to think we publish only the brilliant ones, the ones that provoke the animal reaction, that make us sit back and think, “Wow.” Or better yet, “I wish I could write like that.”