The common themes we see
It's been interesting seeing submissions come into a small publication such as ours, and to make us think about our own writing, why we publish, and what we're trying to say. Writers, like all artists, need to have enough ego to believe they have ideas to offer, and that they have enough skill to do so artistically, creatively, and uniquely.
But I've been increasingly surprised over the last few years as, in a time when our culture seems to be struggling over basic ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, past and future - the elements I believe are at the source of good writing - so few writers we see choose to take those on.
That's not the case at what we might consider the pinnacle of the field. Monday's Pulitzer Prize in Fiction went to a work (Richard Powers' Overstory) that has been frequently described as "environmental." The finalists for the award included Tommy Orange's There There, which centers on Native Americans living in urban America, and Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers, which traces the legacy of the 1980s AIDS crisis. Incredible writers, taking on tricky, important issues, and using their fiction to explore nuance in a way journalism and nonfiction typically cannot.
In the submissions we receive at Mount Hope, and at other magazines where people I know edit and publish work, we still often see the same patterns. Coming-of-age stories seem to dominate, in which a much-older authorial voice explores something that happened in their youth ("The summer I was thirteen..."). Then there are the so-called "MFA stories," written by and about graduate students and recent grad students, often sending up the institution of grad school, frequently set in bars, and usually cynical. And add to those the stories that seem heavy in profanity and sexual moments, and you've got what makes up much of the modern-day submissions pile.
There's nothing wrong with writing any of those stories, but each writer then competes with all the other writers telling what amounts to much the same tale. Coming of age almost always ends in a more mature and less-idealistic protagonist; MFA stories too often end with the writer/protagonist at the end of the story beginning to type out the story we're now finishing reading. And if it's told well enough, that's fine.
But themes become frequency, and frequency becomes cliche. If you're a writer who's trying to tell a story that isn't often being told, about something that really does matter, you've gone a long way toward a successful outcome, I think.