Tag Archives: books

There Is No Graceful Way

19 Oct

Harper’s might be the first magazine I ever considered sending work to. I remember picking up an issue of Harper’s when I was fifteen or sixteen, thumbing through the first thirty pages or so, orienting myself with its format, with quirky, recurring features like Readings, Annotations, Findings, and of course the Harper’s Index. The magazine was funnier*, faster-paced, than I’d expected; it had a satiric edge to it that was lacking in more brittle fare like The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly.

Harper’s has an interesting editorial format. The first third of each issue is filled with quick, comical items (such as the one linked in the comments below); with curious tidbits and factoids and pop-culture ephemera inserted in the margins. The middle third is reserved for hard-hitting journalism, for Pulitzer-worthy investigations of voter fraud and climate-change-denialism; for intricate dissections of international scandals. The final third is where you will find short stories, film reviews, fine art, poetry. Harper’s starts funny, gets serious, and ends by moving you. It is truly a Great American Periodical.

I remember wondering, as a teenage boy who thought he might like to write screenplays for a living, where all these stories came from, how they ended up in the magazine. I flipped to a part of the magazine that no one reads and is perhaps not meant to be read, a dense area of fine print and names that meant nothing to me, and found this life-changing passage:

Harper’s Magazine will neither consider nor return unsolicited nonfiction manuscripts that have not been preceded by a written query. Harper’s will consider unsolicited fiction. Unsolicited poetry will not be considered or returned … Submissions to the Readings section are welcome and encouraged, though volume precludes individual acknowledgement.

(emphasis mine)

How amazing that I could–that anyone could–simply stuff a story into an envelope and send it to New York City, and a serious person–maybe not an editor, but a person like an editor–would give it a glance. Thank God I was not a poet, a memoirist, a journalist, a political cartoonist–for then I would truly be fucked, and my work would be neither considered nor returned. But I could write fiction, and Harper’s would consider it–blind, unsolicited–and for the first time in my life I was aware of the idea, and lured by the possibility, of writing fiction professionally.

(It was not lost on me then, nor is it now, that the mailing address of Harper’s is 666 Broadway.)

Examining this rejection letter, we see that the word “writer” in the salutation has not been capitalized. An editorial oversight, probably, but also emblematic of the culture of journalism, in which the writer is often an anonymous, diminutive figure, held forever in the shadow of the almighty Subject. The letter comes, ostensibly, from the desk of a mysterious “Editorial Assistant,” and has not been signed.