Nobody Wins

PULITZER prizes are better known for honoring American journalism than fiction. Their heft in literary circles is far outweighed by the Nobel prize or MacArthur Fellowship. Yet the Pulitzer remains one of the few literary honours that can substantially increase an author’s sales in America. The Pulitzer prize for fiction last year boosted sales of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by an order of magnitude. Publishers had been keen on a similar revenue injection this year, in light of disappointing sales and a looming (and costly) anti-trust decision on digital rights.

RIDGEWOOD ECSTATIC

A brown flicker by the lights. A nest gnawed through worn acoustic paneling. One, then two birds alight on twin fluorescent bars suspended far above Food Dimensions’ supermarket floor. Below, swaying, pitching, rolling and yawing, tile gullies gone grey-yellow from grubby footfalls and spills, extend, extend!; between cliff walls of chipped enamel bulge edible geometries of blue, yellow, faun and beige.

The birds curl thread claws over the edge, dip, fall, plunge and propel themselves upward, two dark darts swoop among the cans, seize soft grubs of masticated grain, grip and tug pieces from under suffocating see-through skin; and leave behind feathers and traces of beak.

An underworld undergirds this marketplace, or rather, under grids it, radiating aisles outward. From sufficient altitude, from an avian perspective, one would hardly see much difference. A triangle bisected and striated by lines of black asphalt instead of a brittle white metal that is something close but far cheaper than steel. And closer still the asphalt flows and gleams at intervals with pressed steel shells, egg shells, cradling combusting liquids in a cast-iron crucible. To the automobile and its driver – when in the condition of being a driver – the city is rendered as necropolis, a tomb world of clipped decisions, direction, distances and long-dead Dutchmen who have moldered past the point of matter, and all that remains are names. Onderdonk.

And it goes on and on in this vein…

Tiered Rejection Responses

I often see discussion about whether or not there really are tiered rejections at literary magazines. There are! Since I received a rejection letter this morning, I thought I’d share what I know as an editor. For ours, we use a simple content management system that allows us to collect and respond to submissions. It’s called Submissions Manager. I do not know how easy it is to customize the replies, but in our case we have four levels of rejection. Agni and One-Story also seem to use Submissions Manager (looks like One Story’s webmaster actually developed the software.). If a literary magazine’s submission page is plain with a small login in the top lefthand corner, and a registration page in the center; you are interfacing with (a/the/Mr./Ms?) Submissions Manager.

After I download and read a story and decide what I think about it, I have to switch the story’s status. I have four choices if I want to reject it, otherwise I can ‘accept’ or ‘withdraw’ it. (I don’t know what the accept button does!)

A standard rejection looks like this (ours is worded slightly differently):

Dear James McGirk:

Thank you for sending “The Godling of Greater Kailash.” Your work received careful consideration here.

We’ve decided this manuscript isn’t right for us, but we wish you luck placing it elsewhere.

Kind regards,

The Editors

That was from AGNI. I use this letter for almost all the submissions I read. Doesn’t mean anything really, just that I can’t use the story. Could mean it’s terrible — although most stories I get aren’t, and seem like they’ve been workshopped. Usually just means that the text didn’t grab me. More taste anything else. But if there is some horrid flaw, i.e. if the story is missing an arc, or it’s written in a different language I will send a standard rejection. But it really is almost always taste. (Or the aforementioned missing arc – and this can be emotional, or language based– the text just has to do something to me.)

The next stage is a second tier ‘nice’ rejection. I send more second-tier rejections than I should, the big difference being that we encourage these people to submit again (we are enormously backed up, so wanting to see anything more should be taken as a compliment). If I send one of these it means I enjoyed what I read. The story might not be perfect, but something about it was exciting. Here’s an example one from One-Story I received this morning (or at least I think it’s a 2nd tier rejection — these damn things stir up such conflicting emotions):

Dear James McGirk:

Thank you for sending us “The Godling of Greater Kailash”. We really enjoyed this piece, but we didn’t feel it was right for One Story.

We hope that you will continue to send us your work.

Sincerely,

The Editors of One Story

Now, I have neither sent out nor received a “very nice” third-tier rejection. These really are the same as the second-tier rejections, only more encouraging still… I don’t really know why I would send one of these instead of a “personal” 4th level or encouraging 2nd. Here is ours:

Thank you for sending us your work.

Unfortunately this particular manuscript was not the right fit for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, but we were very impressed by your writing. We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.

We look forward to reading more.

Sincerely,

The Editors of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art

I guess if we actually did want to see more, I could send one of these. But I would still rather send a fourth-tier rejection. These are just plain empty fields. I have used this feature to personally respond while rejecting a story. I basically said the story in question was great but it was too long, and I would love to see a shorter story. I published the second story he sent me.

Dear XXX

XXXXXX

Sincerely,

XXXXXX

And so there you have it… the four tiers of rejection….

Communities and Contempt

Parasitic Computing


A compelling takeaway I didn’t include in my post about Richard Nash‘s speech was his emphasis on how writers crave community. This was his lead into a demand-based publishing model, and had a queasy resonance for me. I applied to graduate school for this reason — I wanted to find other writers and gather a group of people together whom I could snipe and gossip about writing with. But this was an error. I don’t think it’s what I nor anyone else needs as an “artist.”

Community is a distraction, one concealing the hierarchies of a dying industry and glomming up the cozy entry-level inefficiencies that once made it possible to make a living as a freelance writer or hack journalist. Community is comfortable, but ultimately inimical to individual achievement. In the nebulous non-being between becoming amateur and professional one is encouraged to wallow in the same ideas as one’s peers, and a close-knit community becomes a self-reinforcing echo chamber of status, etc. The only people accelerated and empowered by such an environment are sociopaths — at least at the level I’m at.

The game changes once you’ve built something worth protecting, which is why [visual] artist colonies (grouped studios, shared leases etc.) and arguably the upper-tiers of the art school swindle function so well — they generate income and reduce inefficiencies — but there is no artistic benefit. And, until every individual component of an artistic community is capable of producing income, community is just another parasite drooping off the withering flanks of postpostindustrial cultural production.

Robert Coover

A History of the Future of Narrative: Robert Coover from Scott Rettberg on Vimeo.

Robert Coover came to speak with us last week. He’s a writer’s writer for sure, someone who burrows deep into text and wiggles around with it. He lectured on electronic writing, an obscure discipline he’s become an unlikely patron saint of. Unlikely in that he’s fairly old (he hit his stride in the 1960s) and that he’s a writer rather than a computer programmer or other operator. [Print is now a subset of digital literature, says Coover, since all but the print itself is produced digitally.] Coover thinks multimedia and hypertext have yet to mature as media, and made an analogy to American literature. Right now we are in the equivalent of the pre-Revolutionary America, adrift in a new medium, and just like Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine we are all amateurs cranking out our little pamphlets. It took a hundred and fifty years of American publishing to create Moby Dick, and since no one in our program had grown up completely saturated in digital media, we were doomed to flounder in the new medium.

We also got to look at Coover’s CAVE writing work — this is an immersive three-dimensional writing program that lets you have complete control over every aspect of the experience. CAVE writing is really just [x,y,z] coordinates tagged with XML, but it’s a powerful ensemble effect; albeit one beyond the limits of a single human being to create a work (such as novel or symphony) bigger than themselves.

CAN YOU REALLY RANK WRITING PROGRAMMES?

From The Economist


Right now, in faculty rooms across the country, admissions officials are trying to winnow out the next batch of Masters of Fine Arts diploma candidates, America’s presumptive writing elite….

WHITNEY BIENNIAL: THE LIST

The Whitney Biennial is something of a coming-out party for mostly young and mostly unknown contemporary artists working in America. To announce the much-anticipated list of artists selected for this year’s show, which opens in New York on February 25th, the two curators, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari, have supplemented the traditional press release with a short, weird film. Art wags are now scratching their heads, wondering what this could possibly mean….

Takeaways from Slushpile Sifting

  • Alzheimer’s and parents’ deaths lose their force as plot devices/ emotion tweakers after the 100th read or so;
  • Plagiarizing premises’ from famous short stories dilutes their power;
  • Using graduate school as a setting or graduate students as characters seems lazy and boring;
  • Plot remains paramount – well-written plotless stories dominate slushpiles;
  • The ability to convey emotion through words is rare;
  • You get one premise free, the others you have to earn;
  • After completing a draft, figure out what the story is (the story making machinery) and then write it again;
  • Having a PhD in English/CompLit etc. doesn’t mean you can write things people want to read;