Thursday, February 7, 2008

What's the Point?

Pardon the existential angst, here. This post on Literary Rejections on Display, among other things, has put me in a dark mood. LROD posted this 34-times-rejected story to ask if it actually deserves all those rejections, or if it is really good enough to be published. Well, heck. There are enough little rags out there so that anything -- almost anything -- can be published eventually. The LROD story isn't terrible and could get published somewhere, but after 34 no's, what is really the point? So that on the 38th try your story will be accepted by FishHead Literary Review, circulation 200? If that? I don't even know the names of 34 literary magazines. I certainly don't read that many.

Oh, wait a minute, now I remember: acceptance makes us feel good. It means we don't suck.

But if FishHead Literary Review were any good at all, wouldn't we subscribe to it?

The power of "publication" to legitimize our sense of self-worth is enormous and inflated. I'm including myself here. My first published story, printed in a magazine called Kinesis which is at least a dozen years gone now, was definitely bad. It contained a couple of charming elements, maybe, including a electrician I liked, but it was really not very interesting or complex or funny. But when I try to cheer myself up, I include that publication on my mental list of accomplishments -- near the bottom, for sure, but still: I wouldn't want it not to have happened. It's still a little bit important to me. What I don't include on that mental list is writing that I know is better but was never published. Such is the power of someone else's approval.

At core I'm an idealist (I think) and I firmly say to myself, and to anyone: One reader is worth it. One reader is all you need, really. So maybe in that sense the $1.50 postage plus envelope times 34 and all the waiting and the rejection heartache really are totally worth it to reach those FishHead Review subscribers.

Here's what screws up the calculus: the Internet. Didn't appearing on Literary Rejections on Display just reach more readers than any small lit rag would? I don't know her (his?) stats, but I'd guess they're pretty solid. What does that mean, to get all one's readers in that context? I can't even guess. Such strange times we're in, vis-a-vis the written word.


Mr. Saflo said...

Well, you can tell people you were published in the FishHead Literary Review, and even though only five people read it cover-to-cover and it only exists for new writers to submit to, your pronouncement will still have some wait. We aren't at the point (will we ever be?) where being published on a blog is seen as anything worth noting. Slap me if I'm stating the obvious.

Anonymous said...

This is a very provocative topic. After 30+ rejections, do you give up, or keep submitting?

If the answer is give up, what you are essentially saying is that there are fewer than 40 magazines worth publishing in. Do you think that's true? Because you first submit to the top 30 or 35, right? And you only send to FishHead after you were rejected by the New Yorker and the Atlantic and Paris Review and Zoetrope and 30 other of the best mags, correct?

What about new magazines that have been started in the last year or two? Should we ever submit to them? After all, they must be open to publishing stories that aren't quite good enough for the brand names.

I'm not sure I know when to give up. I agree that publishing a story that is only read by five people seems more like ego gratification than anything else, but I'd like to hear others thoughts on this subject.

Pete said...

One of my earliest stories, "Mahalia", has now been rejected 30+ times (including the now-infamous 2007 Willesden Herald contest). But my wife says it's still my best story, which means much more to me than the blessing of the editor of some literary rag that nobody reads anyway.

A. Peterson said...

I'm going to assume the author is young or new to writing. As such, there are plenty of good reasons to publish in smaller journals, and at least personally I learned a lot from getting piles of rejections. Eventually he or she will learn to target submissions to journals that historically publish "philosophical allegories" and the odds will get a little better. Even if it doesn't get taken, the author will (hopefully) get a bit more detached to the story and be able to give it another honest edit or put it aside to try again with something else.

That last bit is the most important, in my opinion. Gaining some perspective on your own work is probably the best reason to keep throwing stories out there when a writer is beginning. Soon the writer won't get frustrated when The New Yorker again opts for T.C. Boyle over his or her work and will start to find other venues. The writer will read more journals with more diverse stuff and be all the better for it.

And if a FishHead Literary Review takes the story, great. In the long run, it's probably less meaningful than figuring out how to submit, but it certainly makes for more tangible encouragement.

Mr. Saflo said...

When I said "wait" I really meant "weight," but you guys knew that, right? Right?

gnomeloaf said...

The analogy I like to keep in my head when I'm submitting stuff is that it's like being a door-to-door furniture salesman. I go from house to house and see if anyone thinks my chair will look good in their living room. Aesthetics are less psychologically taxing to think about than merit or prestige, and just about as objective.

That said, if I had 34 doors slammed in my face, I'd probably start thinking: Which is more important to me, the chair or the neighborhood? Honestly, with different chairs there would be different answers to that question.

Also, someone needs to start the FishHead Literary Review yesterday.

TIV: the individual voice said...

True, true, true and true. I've given up sending stuff out ever since I hit the jackpot and got one great story published in a great journal. Even then, I felt it wasn't worth it anymore, all the envelope stuffing, postage, wondering if I should enter exorbitant contests, which I decided are NOT worth it. For now, I'm just writing. Maybe I'll send all the stuff out right before I die. I'm just trying to enjoy the process all by myself, make myself laugh out loud. That's my pathetic goal these days. And I think ALL the journals are too boring to read, so what does that say?

Samuel Edmonson said...

Rhian, I'm glad you posted this -- I've been thinking about that post, too.

I mean, listen to tiv right above me: having a story published in a great journal, but still not sending anything out because "what's the point"?

I dunno, I just feel like having a story accepted by most of these journals just isn't saying much. It's an accomplishment, to be sure, but it's not like you'll be paid all that well and it's not like your great-aunt and best friend and all your co-workers will read it. It just isn't mainstream.

So why are we trying for it?

Samuel Edmonson said...

And BTW, the other thing that got me about that post was this:

Some people didn't like that story, true, but it seems like there were enough people who thought that story was publishable. However, nobody could recommend a venue for the author to send it to!