March 21, 2013

A Rose By Any Other Name? Sadly, No

As a frustrated writer of short fiction, I’ve become all too familiar with the form rejection. It’s frustrating. It’s also par for the course for an (essentially) unpublished writer. Everybody has to start somewhere, right?

Still, it can be awfully compelling, when receiving the dozenth rejection of a particular story, to think that maybe something else it as work here. Surely, the problem isn’t that your writing simply isn’t good enough. It’s because you’re not a big name, right? It’s enough to almost make you want to buy into this “experiment” reported over at Slate.

Writer and editor David Cameron (not the British Prime Minister, for the record) came up with a clever ruse:
I grabbed a New Yorker story off the web (no, it wasn't by Alice Munro or William Trevor), copied it into a Word document, changed only the title, created a fictitious author identity, and submitted it to a slew of literary journals, all of whom regularly grace the TOC of Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, O’Henry, etcetera and etcetera. My cover letter simply stated that I am an unpublished writer deeply appreciative of their consideration.
The result shouldn’t be all that surprising – Cameron’s story got summarily rejected:
Dear reader, every single one of these journals rejected my poor New Yorker story with the same boilerplate ‘good luck placing your work elsewhere’ auto-text that has put the lid on my own sorry submissions. Not a single personal pleasantry. What’s more, the timeframes tracked perfectly. For example, if the Beavercreek Fucknut Bulletin (not a real journal, but representative) generally takes thirty days to relegate my stuff to the recycle bin, then our New Yorker story—which must have been thoroughly confused at this point—fared no better.
For the record, I’m giving serious consideration to starting the Beavercreek Fucknut Bulletin, or at least printing up T-shirts.

The ultimate insult, however, was that even the New Yorker itself rejected the story, without any hint that the rejection was due to the fact that the story had, in fact, already been published.

As the Slate piece mentions, Cameron’s experiment is not exactly breaking new ground:
There was the guy who sent Jane Austen novels to several U.K. publishers five years ago, as if it made sense to write 19th-century-style fiction in 2007. (Even assuming that some of the publishers did not recognize, e.g., Pride and Prejudice—which I doubt—it would still read like pastiche, and not very interesting pastiche.) There was the other guy who sent part of a lesser Jerzy Kosinski novel around [more on that here – JDB]. That same guy (and they are all, for some reason, guys) submitted the script of Casablanca to a bunch of movie agents—as if the movie business had not changed a whit since 1942, and those agents who were foolish enough not to recognize the classic dialogue were proving some point about how the people at the top have no idea what they’re doing.
Thus, it’s hardly news that the name attached to a story might help it find a publisher. After all, what’s going to sell more copies or trigger more downloads, a fresh story by Neil Gaiman or John Scalzi? Or some story by a schmuck lawyer who writes fiction in his spare time that nobody’s ever heard of? After all, most markets I’m familiar with want to know what other publishing credits you’ve notched up. If the pure merit of the story was enough to get it published, why should they care?

The bigger issue, of course, is why a name is so important when it comes to art? Why doesn’t the work itself stand on its own merit? Consider the saga of Teri Horton.

Horton, a retired long-haul trucker, bought a painting for $5 in a thrift shop as a joke gift to give to a friend. It was too big to fit into the friend’s house, however, so it lived in Horton’s garage until an art teacher spied it and wondered if it was a Jackson Pollock. Horton’s response - “who the fuck’s Jackson Pollock?” – gave the title to a documentary about her later crusade to establish the painting’s authenticity and, more importantly, it’s value. If it’s really a Pollock, it’s worth millions. If not, it isn’t.

But here’s the thing – either you like the painting or you don’t. I happen to like Pollock’s style and those who followed (K, the fiancé, most definitely does not – can this marriage me saved?). While there’s something to be said for going back to the source, at the end of the day the quality should stand on its own. Right?

Of course, I’m guilty of this myself. Take this, from my review of the latest Marillion album, Sounds That Can’t Be Made:
Sounds That Can’t Be Made is a pretty good record. Admittedly, I’m a fanboy, so even bad Marillion album (I’m looking at you, Holidays in Eden) ranks pretty high compared to the rest of the world. But it’s not amongst their best work and, in 2012, that means it’s pretty far down the table.
In other words, had a band other than Marillion (say, maybe, the Beavercreek Fucknut Bulletin) made that album I’d have liked the album better. That’s the flipside of blessing it with higher esteem because of the name attached to it. I’m no better than the slush pile readers Cameron was trying to tweak.

Which should not be a surprise. We all try and make a “name” for ourselves, after all. Writers are no different. Heck, I pimp my one measly credit for all it’s worth. Not because it’s required or expected, but because I want to suggest that, just maybe, I’m not full of shit with this writing thing. Unfortunately, the nature of the business means that the only way I’ll ever find out if that’s true is if someone out there looks past the name (or lack thereof) and falls in love with something I’ve written.

Hey, a guy can still dream, can’t he?

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't find a good way to work this into the post itself, but on the subject of editors' expectations and desires, this is a neat little short story: