Okay, this topic evolves out of the comments attached to the “What I think” post below. Court and Gary and others are frustrated with the current literary scene, finding it difficult to get a toehold in terms of publication. The idea here is to try to establish a forum for NC readers and lurkers and the editors we have in the community. Vivian Dorsel is the publisher of upstreet. Robin Oliveira is the fiction editor (hopefully she can join in). I edited fiction at The Iowa Review during my stint at the Writers’ Workshop. I edited Best Canadian Stories for over a decade. I’ve judged innumerable contests. We can start here.
This is me talking from my experience as an editor, not as a writer or a teacher. Years ago, when I was at The Iowa Review, I easily received 50-70 stories a week, from writers like Joyce Carol Oates down to complete neophytes. The magazine then published four times a year, with 4-6 slots for short stories, at most 24 stories could find a place in a year (so, yes, obviously LENGTH makes a difference, a fact of life and economics). I suspect the odds are a lot worse now with the proliferation of writing programs. Typical for editors at this level, I was not paid well (the English Department gave me a research assistantship) and it was a part-time job. Most literary magazine editors and readers make nothing. With those kinds of odds you can afford to have a hair trigger rejection finger. You read so many awful or mediocre manuscripts (let’s be honest here) that it gets easy to say no to perhaps 80% of those 50 or more stories a week. Most of those stories you don’t even read past the second page. A cliché, a lame sentence, or a grammatical error automatically knocks them out. (Also sending clips and a c.v. along with that 3-page cover letter guarantees rejection—sure signs of an amateur.) It’s a simple as that. Ask yourselves a) How perfect is my first page? b) Is there enough panache and intelligence evidenced in my first two pages to make me stand out from the herd? After the first 80% of the stories (or essays or poems—it’s the same) get turned down, the work begins. The next 19% are the stories you come to loathe because they are often earnest and competent and second-rate to the core. These stories have plots that start up pretty decently and characters that move through their paces the way they should and they express the regular story-like emotions. But they are ordinary. They have no panache, no real surprises, no blazing excitement. Often you have to read right to the end of these stories because, you know, you’re rooting for the author, hoping against hope that he or she will pull off the terrific ending or suddenly bring a character to life. Sad truth is they never do. And the other sad truth is that there will be enough stories with panache, surprise, intelligence, and delightful linguistic turns, etc. that you can safely reject this 19% as well. The final, final sad truth is that even with that 1% of stories left to read, you know you’ll have a hard time filling the magazine slots with stories you really think are first class, superlative, all the way through—they are so rare.
There really is a perspective trick here. From the writer’s point of view, here is a story he has rewritten 20 times over three months, polished and perfected, and he looks out at the current scene and sees all the schlock that gets published here and there, and he thinks, My God, I am going to save the publishing world with this story! Editors are going to greet me as the saviour! And then that envelope or digital submission shows up at the editor’s desk along with 200 other equally earnest and brilliant (from their author’s perspective) submissions (and there will be MORE tomorrow!). Think of it. Two hundred Messiahs a day! But from the editor’s point of view it’s a triage situation, wave after wave of awful to pretty good stories, all looking about the same after a few months on the job, most of them DOA.
This shouldn’t discourage anyone, except those who want an excuse. I don’t think it’s ever been different. To stand out for an editor you have to be very, very good. And not just very good in spots—all the way through the text. That’s the key. Competent and nice aren’t enough. Tryers go to the end of the line. Stories need to ring with truth, linguistic pizzazz, mystery, life, passion and excitement from the first word. This isn’t to say that there aren’t bad editors, sycophants, people led by fads, provincials, people driven only by marketing models and bottom lines. And lots of schlock gets published—although that’s mainly because certain kinds of schlock actually sell well to an undereducated market that likes schlock (yes, honestly). And, yes, editors often lean toward established names, partly because those established names have figured out how to separate themselves from the herd (not just because names sell). And some magazines and editors have preferences in terms of style (e.g. avant garde or conventional realism)—we all have different tastes. But most editors are trying to fill their magazines with good exciting writing. It’s not a conspiracy.
But it is awfully hard to get published, to get started, and even to keep getting published over a lifetime. The art is difficult and long to learn, and the competition is brutal. And there certainly have been cases when editors have missed a work of genius (scary thought). And, yes, if your work is eccentric, or out of the mainstream in some way, editors will have an even harder time deciding if you are really good or not. And there certainly are cultural troughs and bents that militate against certain kinds of art (classicism yields to decadence and vice versa over time). All this comes and goes, lean times and fat (pretty lean right now). The main thing is to learn to write well and drive yourself with a realistic sense of how good your work has to be to attract an editor’s attention. The rest is in the hands of the gods.