Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Does a lack of publications hurt your chances of getting a story accepted? The take of one literary journal reader

If you're out there slinging stories and you're new to the game, a reasonable doubt in your mind might be whether literary journals will even give you the time of day. Even though every great writer was once published by somebody for the first time, you've got to imagine that it's easier to get in if you've got a resume, right?

Madison Square Garden and Jimmy's Comedy and Ribs

There are thousands of English language literary journals you might consider submitting your work to. Some are the literary equivalent of a local bar for a comedian. They're just a place to get an audience, try out some stuff, and see if you're any good. That doesn't mean the people who perform there are terrible; some are actually very talented and headed somewhere. The manager isn't going to let just anyone into his joint (unless it's open mike night, in which case everyone probably sucks). You've got to at least get past some kind of elementary gatekeeper. Having done that, you then have a chance to hone your skills as a comedian and work your way up to bigger and better venues.

Some literary journals are like Jimmy's Comedy and Ribs: they're a little easier to get into. Some are like Madison Square Garden: it doesn't matter how funny you are, nobody is going to book you there until you've laid down a track record. The New Yorker is sort of like Madison Square Garden. They will warn you before you submit that it's no place for beginners. (SIDEBAR: Will Mackin's "Kattekoppen" was published in The New Yorker in 2013, then included in that year's Best American Short Stories anthology. It was his first published story. It was a great story, but I'm still wondering how he even got the folks at the magazine to read it. Maybe his was a case of some kind of writing program getting him an in? If so, then there's your reason to drop big coin on a writing program.)

I work for a place that's more like Jimmy's Comedy and Ribs. That doesn't mean I look down on it. I'm proud of the journal and the work we publish. I only mean that if you have never been published, you have a prayer of being published with us. It's still not easy. Jimmy's not going to let some dope on stage on his busiest night of the week. We're not going to embarrass ourselves by putting crap out. But we're a good place to try.

Most of the people we publish have published somewhere else first. There are easier places to break in than us. (Maybe we're more like the Comedy Shack in downtown Arbutus than Jimmy's Ribs. Even though no real celebrities perform there, it's a step up from Jimmy's. You could start with us, but most people need to work elsewhere to get better first.)

The truth about big resumes at small journals

We, the readers who go through the slush piles, get writer biographical statements with the stories, and we can choose to either read them or ignore them before we read the story itself. I usually glance at the bio, because if it's written in a dopey way, it can help me get a head start on rejecting a story. That is to say, a biography can probably hurt you more than it helps you. I prefer folks who keep theirs simple. "Jake Weber is a translator living in Maryland. He has been published in Penthouse Letters, Swank, and is featured in your mom's diary."

But even a terrible bio doesn't really sway me much one way or the other. I've forgotten it, for the most, part two sentences into the story. Its influence is probably pretty small. The most influential factor in a bio for me, actually, might be whether the person is local. We're named for the city we are produced in, so it makes sense to publish people from the area. However, quality still matters, which means we branch out to get the best. We publish people from all over, including other countries. 

Anyhow, about those flashy resumes. I've read stories from writers who've been published in impressive journals: Glimmertrain, Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, etc. Many have had novels that sold reasonably well. One writer the other day had been interviewed for one of her books by Terri Gross.

But you know what I've noticed about those people? They're not giving us their best work. I've heard that sometimes big-time comedians will play some small local joint just to try out a new bit, see what kind of reaction new material might get. That way, if it sucks, they don't blow it in front of a huge crowd. I feel like those writers are treating us that way. It's sort of disrespectful. They're giving us some garbage they tried out and didn't really know what to do with, so they figure they'll throw it to us with their resumes and maybe we'll take it.

Well, we don't. It's not just me with a chip on my shoulder toward people who've had more success than me, either. None of the readers go for that.

So here's what I'm getting at. Your list of publications probably doesn't matter one-tenth as much as the story your write until you get to a very advanced level of the game. Having no publications is a very small hindrance to you if you turn in something compelling. It might even be a lure: Hey! We found this guy! I'm not saying it hurts to have publications. It might get a reader to stick with you through a shaky beginning, because he trusts that somebody with your bona fides is going somewhere with it.

But of the many, many reasons to feel doubt, your lack of publications when you go to turn in a story shouldn't be among them.  

1 comment:

  1. Random folks do not just fall into a major publication. There is usually some in, some connection. Consider the case of Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is no comment on the merits of his work, but simply to point out that doors do not just magically open, particularly the very closed world that his top level publishing.

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