Jim Clark used to describe a good story as one with a “trapdoor, that once discovered, leads the reader below the surface to a big room filled with a richness of stuff.” Since taking the helm of The Greensboro Review from Jim, I have been struggling—with little success—to arrive at my own description for those deceptively simple words: “a good story.” Though I know I shouldn’t admit to this (especially in print), I’m a poet and poets tend to play loose and fast with definitions—at least when it comes to things like character, plot, and setting—so it makes me more than a little nervous not to have some sort of formalized idea (or at least a checklist) in hand for our editorial deliberations. Wouldn’t life be easier if I could say, “Well, yes, the narrator does make me laugh out loud, but where are we? There’s no setting. We don’t have the vaguest sense of place; we don’t know if we’re in an apartment or house, the country or a city.”
A checklist for “a good story” might make my editorial deliberations easier, but it wouldn’t be good for my staff or for the magazine. And I’m not so sure readers really want exact restrictions on a story, not anymore. What if a story has a memorable setting but there’s no plot, nothing happens? À la Seinfeld. Where does that leave us? There are too many intangible aspects with which to blur the lines. And yet, reading a good story for the first time, I feel, is as close as we come to magic—the discovery of Jim’s “trapdoor.”
I guess what I’m working my way around to is this: it’s not that I’m incapable of creating a checklist as that I don’t really believe, in my editorial heart of hearts, that I should. In the end, the best stories might just be the ones that do the things we think a short story writer shouldn’t attempt. But by doing them well, they win our hearts and make us shout, “This one; this is the one!” For each of these stories, at least one of us felt that way when we first read the submission—and by the time it made its way here, we all did. That’s how a good story should work. I think you’ll feel the same way.