The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

C. Michael Curtis, Atlantic fiction editor who sought fresh voices, dies at 88

Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Beattie and Louise Erdrich were among the writers he first published

Portrait of C. Michael Curtis in 2007 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Michael Curtis and his wife Betsy, not pictured, shared the John C. Cobb Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Wofford College from 2006 until 2015. (Rachel LaCour Niesen/Wofford College)

C. Michael Curtis, who as fiction editor for the Atlantic mined 12,000 short-story submissions a year in search of undiscovered voices, turning up Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Beattie and Louise Erdrich among countless other writers who went on to literary prominence, died Jan. 11 at a hospice facility in Spartanburg, S.C. He was 88.

His wife, author Elizabeth Cox, confirmed his death and said he had kidney failure, pneumonia and respiratory syncytial virus, among other ailments.

During a 57-year career at the Atlantic, Mr. Curtis was renowned by colleagues and the literary world writ large for spotting and nurturing talent, often corresponding with writers he turned down multiple times before finally saying yes — a narrative arc of rejection to acceptance sometimes spanning two decades.

“We’d rather invest the effort, even at the risk of wasting time with bad work, to find the improbable, utterly unexpected story by a writer we’ve never heard of,” Mr. Curtis said in a 2005 interview published in an all-fiction issue of the Atlantic.

Among the hundreds of submissions Mr. Curtis received every week, he found Oates, Beattie and Erdrich and many more writers who went on to long careers: Bobbie Ann Mason, Ethan Canin, James Alan McPherson, Michael Cunningham, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff.

Mr. Curtis was partial to work submitted directly from writers, not agents or publishers. “We prefer unagented work,” he said at a 2016 writers conference in North Carolina, according to the Salisbury Post. “We like to feel we discovered somebody.”

In 2005, Mr. Curtis discovered Lauren Groff, saying yes to her story “L. DeBard and Aliette.”

“I was in my first semester in graduate school,” she recalled in the Atlantic in 2020. “… In the years since I’d graduated from college, I’d been a bartender and administrative assistant and had worked my brain and fingers raw, trying and mostly failing to write well on my own.”

Groff’s story was selected for the annual “Best American Short Stories” anthology. Her career took off.

“My agent contacted me after he read it and we fell into our long and affectionate relationship; not long afterward, he sold my first novel,” she said. “My entire life as a writer unfolded from that moment of acceptance from C. Michael Curtis and the Atlantic, and the sheer luck of that snip in time feels holy to me.”

Mr. Curtis prized one quality among all others in writing: action.

“I want something to happen,” he recalled in the 2005 interview. “I prefer a story that concerns itself with events and their consequences in the lives of principal characters. I’m not partial to what you might call a sketch or a glimpse. I also read every story looking for distinctive dialogue, strong mechanics and skillful use of figurative language — things that create a sense of artfulness rather than just a plodding working-through of plot.”

Though the New Yorker, the Atlantic’s chief competitor in fiction, published many of the same writers — Beattie’s work emerged there around the same time in the early 1970s — Mr. Curtis thought the Atlantic’s short stories were more focused on “a sense of story,” he told the Missouri Review in 1984.

“I think the New Yorker is much more willing than we are to publish what I would call a sketch, or a portrait, or simply a reflective memoir,” he continued. “… We really do like a well-organized, focused, organic narrative. And we will rarely want to publish what we acknowledge is a very fine or elegant piece of writing just because it’s nicely written.”

Christopher Michael Curtis was born in New York on May 7, 1934. His father was Ely Kahn, a prominent Manhattan architect, and his mother, Dorothy Curtis, was an assistant with whom he was having an affair, Mr. Curtis’s wife said. He was 4 when his mother sent him to foster homes and boarding schools while she attended medical school, and he would return home to New York during the summers.

He went to high school in Magnolia, Ark. After graduating, he worked as a fry cook at a local restaurant. He had no plans to attend college.

“But I read an article in Reader’s Digest about the Cornell School of Hotel Management, where you didn’t have to take regular courses,” he told the Boston Globe. “I actually went up to Ithaca to see if I could talk my way into the school. A dean there suggested I take some high school courses at Ithaca High, which I did, and the hotel school eventually admitted me.”

One night during his sophomore year, he attended a party and spotted a collection of Franz Kafka’s short stories on a bookshelf.

“I opened one, and I began to read it and was so taken with it, I sat down on the floor with my back to the wall while the party sort of swirled around me and kept on reading,” Mr. Curtis recalled to the Hartford Courant. He changed his major to English, began working for campus literary publications and briefly became roommates with Thomas Pynchon, the reclusive author of “The Crying of Lot 49” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

After graduating in 1956, Mr. Curtis worked as a reporter at the Ithaca Journal and Newsweek but decided to pursue a doctorate in political science at Cornell while writing poetry in his spare time. In 1961, Peter Davison, the Atlantic’s poetry editor, visited campus for a reading. Mr. Curtis gave him some poems to read. Davison offered him a summer job that turned into a permanent position in 1963. The doctorate was never completed.

Mr. Curtis’s connection to the magazine began winding down in 2005 when the magazine ceased regular publication of fiction, opting to publish special fiction issues instead. A year later, when the magazine moved from Boston to Washington, Mr. Curtis and his wife relocated to South Carolina, where they taught at Wofford College.

A previous marriage, to Jean Getchell, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 29 years; two children from his first marriage, Hilary Curtis Osmer of Ayer, Mass., and Hans Curtis of Acton, Mass.; two stepchildren, Elizabeth Morrow of Windsor, Colo., and Michael Cox of Denver; two brothers; and five grandchildren. A son from his first marriage, Christopher Curtis, died in 2013.

Mr. Curtis, who also wrote short stories of his own, fully retired from the Atlantic in 2020. After his death, the magazine published a remembrance of him, including reflections by several of his writers.

“He was such an astute reader, and, in his interactions with writers, a listener,” Beattie said. “Watchful. Helpful and kind. He just assumed that reading and writing were important, essential pursuits, and that it was his role to encourage things along, spreading the good word. In many senses, he was a true believer.”