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Out of the Forest of Noise – On Publishing the Literary Short Story

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So you’d like to try getting your short story published. Take heart: you can do it. And, if your work is worthy- a question only you can answer- it merits the effort. Like a boat, send it out where it belongs, over the great wide sea. Let it find readers, whoever they may be, on whatever strange shores. Some of your readers may not be born yet. It helps to keep that in mind.

Beginning writers often imagine publishing their short story to be a glamorous event, Hemingwayesque in a wear-your-sunglasses-and-knock-back-the-grappa-as-agents-ring-your-phone-off kind of way. But for most writers it’s an experience on par with, say, folding laundry. Unless you make one of the slicks- The New Yorker, Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s- most likely your payment will be two copies of the magazine. These will arrive in your mailbox in a plain brown envelope. Some editors jot a thankyou note, but most don’t bother. Chances are, your friends and family will not have heard of the magazine. Even the best literary journals often manage only a modest circulation- 500 to 5,000- and may not be available for sale except in a very few widely scattered off-beat independents. In short, if you want money, you’d do better to flip burgers, and if you want attention, go fight bulls. Knock back that grappa, heck, wear a spangled pink tutu and splash in the Dupont Circle fountain during lunch hour. Scream obscenities in Swahili. Whatever.

So why try? Because when your story is published it is no longer one copy printed out from your printer, but 1,000 or more. Perhaps one is lying on someone’s coffee table in Peterborough, New Hampshire, or on a poet’s broad oak desk overlooking the beach at La Jolla, California. Maybe one sits on the shelves at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, or on a side table in the lobby at Yaddo. Perhaps a dentist will read your story, or a retired school teacher from Winnetka. Perhaps one day, a hundred years from now, a bizarrely tattooed highschool student will find it on a shelf in the basement of the Reno, Nevada public library, and she will sit down Indian-style on the cold linoleum floor and read it, her eyes wide with wonder. Your story, once published, lives its own life, sinking some deep, strange roots. Potentially forever.

And of course it is validating

(i. e., gives one’s ego the warm & fuzzies) to have your work published. It also helps to mention it in your cover letters when you try to get other work published, or apply for grants and fellowships, or to attract the attention of an agent, and so on. Indeed, publishing one’s stories in literary journals is (with a very few notable exceptions) y a prerequisite to securing a publisher for a collection.

If you can keep your focus on the story, however, and what the story merits- rather than the warm & fuzzies for your ego- the process will be easier. Expect your ego to take some punches.

First, Rejections

It may appear that we live in a nation of “Leno”watchers, throngs of Gladiator”-goers, Stallone fans, Brad Pitt groupies and the like. From a breezy foray through the local mall’s bookstore, one might guess that America reads nothing but brand-name bodice-rippers, shiny red foil paperbacks with nuclear warheads on their covers, or those teensy gifty “books” with angels and cats on them displayed at the cash register alongside the chotchkes and chocolates.

Mais non! Secretly, millions of Americans are scribbling, and bravely (if often furtively) thousands and thousands are sending their work to literary magazines. Yes, thousands and thousands (and say that again, out loud, à la Carl Sagan). The Paris Review receives over 10,000 submissions a year. My own Tameme, a bilingual literary magazine with a mere two issues out, has received over 200 submissions. Most litmags publish only 2-3% of the manuscripts they receive. As for the “slicks”- GQ, Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The New Yorker-getting published in one of these, even for the most outstanding and recognized writers, even National Book Award winners, is like winning the lottery.

In short, you’ve got some competition. So when you receive the unsigned xeroxed form rejection note that says “Sorry” it could mean your story sucks and you should do yourself a favor and burn it, but it could mean that it’s a fine story and they simply didn’t have room for it. Or they already had a story about a dying alcoholic gradmother, the heartbreak of losing the family dairy farm, or for that matter, a flying monkey in a business suit. (You’d be amazed.) Equally, it could mean it’s one of the best short stories ever written- better than Chekov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” better than Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” better than A. Manette Ansay’s “Read This and Tell Me What It Says”- and the editor, or more likely some flunkey/ wannabe / slush pile- squeegee, is an aethetically blind/ dispeptic / Philistine / pinhead. Who was probably hung over. Or jealous. Who knows? The point is, the little unsigned xeroxed rejection note means nothing except that this particular magazine’s editor at this particular time has chosen not to publish this particular story.

Sometimes editors write personal notes explaining why they didn’t take your story. Indeed, anything handwritten and/ or signed by an editor can mean that a distinguished literary personage has taken an interest in your work, and you should, gratefully, with a zing in your heart and Jell-O in your knees, interpret this as both validation and an invitation to send more. It can also mean that an inexperienced graduate student/ assistant/ whomever as yet unacquainted with the toughening rigors of plowing down towering slush piles felt guilty saying no and was merely attempting in a flakey and time-consuming way to be nice.

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