Monday, September 20, 2004

Getting your short story into print

Last Saturday’s Financial Times magazine carried an article by Jan Dalley (the paper’s literary editor) on the ‘renewed status’ of the short story as ‘a bastion of serious literature and unbridled creativity.’

That phrase ‘serious literature’ should have been enough to put me off, but I did actually read the article. It took the form of a review of William Trevor’s latest volume of short stories, plus a couple of other books, and included an interview with Trevor. You can find this piece on the web but you have to register to read the thing and frankly I wouldn’t bother; I happen to have read the paper version and in any case I will tell you about the only interesting bits.

The article makes mention of a conference on the short story which took place recently at Charleston in Sussex, the former home of Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Charleston is an interesting place to visit if you’re in the area, and my wife’s cousin’s husband’s aunt was the cook/housekeeper there during the Bell/Grant era. I saw the advance programme for the short-story conference and it looked as if it would include one or two interesting sessions, but it was too far away for me to make the trip.

Anyway, the conference demonstrated (apparently) ‘how varied and vigorous the [short story] form now is.’ Personally I would have thought that the form was always varied and vigorous, pretty much from the start of time, but never mind, that’s just me being argumentative as usual.

The main point of Dalley’s article, if I read it correctly, is that the short story has for some time been viewed as a second-best medium to the novel, which is where the real action is, but that the short form is undergoing a renaissance. The Arts Council, it seems, is now supporting such get-togethers as the Charleston affair.

Well, personally I would have thought that Arts Council support was the kiss of death for anything, but once again that’s just me.

Dalley does, however, make one sensible point, which is that, unless you’re a big name like Trevor, there really isn’t anywhere to publish short stories, at least if you’re hoping to get paid for it and to make some sort of name for yourself.

Oh yes, there are masses of small magazines, some of which do actually pay a fee. (If you want to get a feeling for the number and variety of these, read a magazine called The Fix.) But the point at which Dalley’s article loses touch with reality, I feel, is in the failure to give any idea of the difficulty of getting a short story published anywhere, even in a non-paying magazine, because of the sheer volume of competition.

The big boys attract huge numbers of submissions. The New Yorker, which is probably the most prestigious short-story market in the world, is reportedly sent 2000 unsolicited short stories every week, and I doubt whether, in a year, it publishes more than one or two of these.

The Paris Review is another highly prestigious journal, and I want to make a number of points about it in the earnest hope that what I have to say might be of value to young writers who are still hoping to make some sort of mark on the world.

If you read even superficially about the short story as an ‘art form’, so called, you will pretty soon discover that the Paris Review is talked of and thought of as the place to get published. If you can say that you had a piece in the PR last month, you will widely be thought of as someone to be reckoned with.

Let us just examine that concept for a moment. The Paris Review is a quarterly magazine with a circulation of about 10,000. (In June this year Maud Newton interviewed the new editor.) Have you ever seen a copy of the PR? I can’t remember doing so myself, and if I did it was in a university library. Have you ever met anybody who subscribes to it? I certainly haven’t. Have you heard, even third hand, of someone who eagerly awaits the next issue because it’s a cracking good read? I very much doubt whether you have.

So, we have the bizarre situation that a very obscure magazine, with an extremely modest circulation, is thought of as being the place to get published. And because of that, the magazine receives somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 unsolicited submissions a year (a number which, please note, is approximately double the number of subscribers to the magazine).

Let us assume that there are 18,000 submissions a year, which is 1,500 a month or about 400 a week, i.e. 75 or 80 a day. That’s 75 big fat envelopes dropping on to someone’s desk, every day of the week. Consider, if you will, the sheer labour of opening these, connecting them up with the enclosed return envelope (if there is one), and then attempting to sort out the amazingly brilliant from the oh-my-god.

Could you do this job? I couldn’t. I would go nuts. (The Maud Newton interview, by the way, reveals that those who do read them are often mfa students. If that doesn’t put you off, it should. Mfa = Master of Fine Arts = people who are deluded enough to think that a one-year postgraduate course in creative writing will turn them into the next John Updike or whoever. Worse, they are people who actually want to be the next John Updike.)

How many stories do you think the PR publishes in each edition? The contents list of the current edition lists four names. That’s 16 stories a year. Out of 18,000. So the hit rate is 1 in 1,000, or thereabouts.

Do you have any confidence whatever that the 1 story in 1,000 which is selected is, in any sense at all, the ‘best’ story in those 1,000? I don’t, and neither does Maud Newton.

Why would you bother submitting yourself to trial by lottery in this way? It is, as I may have remarked before, a process characterised by randomness. Is there not some better way to proceed?

Well yes. There are several ways. For example, you can publish your stories in book form, as I did myself last year. (King Albert’s Words of Advice.)

You can post them on the web, through a site such as Fictionette.

And you could publish them on a blog; e.g. the incomparable

Almost any of these methods, it seems to me, would be a more sensible way to proceed than posting stuff off to the Paris Review.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I think serious writers gave up on literary journals a good five years ago (and few of them have really tried to maintain a lively online presence). On a positive note, the previously inaccessible literary network is now quite fluid in the blogosphere. (Now if only someone could figure out how to make any dough off and quit that day job.

I subscribed to the Paris Review in the 80's and early 90's. It was actually well edited but overpriced (like other litmags). Of course, no one could beat the PR interviews. Current content management systems online might make it easier to run a literary review site more easily and at substantially less cost (I'm at work on my own at www.

Robert Nagle, aka idiotprogrammer

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree:

Hoplit.netStill. Wouldn't mind being the Paris Review.

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Anonymous said...

But the worst thing for me is that if you write something OTHER than a "literary" short story, you don't have a fart's chance in a windstorm of getting it published. The only publications who are interested in short-stories are interested in the MFA-generated contemplative fiction. There is no way to get them interested in action-based short stories. Not only are the numbers against me, the genre I write in practically disqualifies me. Is "action" a four-letter-word?

Susan Cronk said...

Insightful piece. It's a wakeup call to would-be writers seeking publication. I wrote a piece titled "Storming the Fortress" a couple years ago that dealt with the stresses, heartaches, and hopelessness new writers feel when trying to acquire a patch of creative real estate for themselves. Needless to say, it was only published in my own little newsletter.

And as for the lit publications, I've all but given up on them. I buy occasional copies at the newstand in hopes that the content might have come up a bit, but if what many serve up at "literary" writing today is the standard to aspire to, I'd rather not be listed among the literary.

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