Tag Archives: literature

good work tho

19 Oct

The first thing you will notice, when holding this rejection letter in your hands, is the quality of paper it’s printed on–good, heavy white bond paper, the kind you use for a resume.

And then, the vivid crimson color of the iconic Esquire logo, soaked into the paper like blood.

Then the blue ink, straight from an editor’s pen, which reads:

good work tho not right for us. good luck placing it.

Re: Revolver

“Revolver” is the name of the story I submitted.

“Though” has been unnecessarily truncated.

Words that should be capitalized, have not been capitalized.

I remember distinctly the day I received this. It was raining, and I was walking to the liquor store to get my breakfast, and there was a letter in the mail from Esquire. The envelope contained weight–a good sign. I stuffed the envelope with its potentially life-altering contents in my jacket pocket and kept it there as I browsed the aisles for the finest vodka not bottled in plastic. Then I returned home with my purchase and ripped open the letter.

Ordinarily I would be thrilled to receive a personalized response (from an editor at Esquire, no less!) with a generous note of encouragement: good work. But on this occasion, all I felt was dread and despair. Because at the end of the day, I did not make the sale. I was 28 years old, probably an alcoholic, I was losing my girlfriend, losing my hair, losing my life, and what I really needed right now was a sale. I had been writing and submitting stories for ten years, and it seemed to me that I should be farther along than this. That I should be giving interviews to bloggers; doing local readings; making a name for myself. And it struck me how silly the whole enterprise was, this whole insufferable pageantry of honors and awards and obscure accolades and publication credits and Twitter followers and Google hits. I was too old to want these things and too old not to have them. I felt, in the end, like the worst kind of fuck-up–one who did not even have the courage, the drive, the integrity to establish himself as a world-class fuck-up.

“Revolver” was eventually published by Suspense Magazine.

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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.