Why We Keep Reading

The literary magazine in America does awesome and vital work: in a culture dedicated to sweeping any trace of virtue up into the smokestack of big media, the literary magazine makes a home for the Good but Offbeat. Or the Wonderful, Present in Nascent Form. Not to mention the Wild But Undisciplined. Or, most importantly: That Which is Coming From Somewhere Previously Underrepresented. In short, it allows for those products of our culture that have not put on the garb of the mainstream but are nevertheless vital. So as the garb of the mainstream becomes dumber and tighter and more dedicated to serving the status quo, the literary magazine protects the democracy, by protecting diversity. It does so by listening, and listening well, to the odd and unknown voices that come through its doors, which most often arrive without agents or industry contacts or lengthy impressive vitas. There are many truths, and a democracy had better hear them all, whereas our democracy, more and more, seems dedicated to hearing the same two or three over and over, especially if these two or three help the powers that be to move product.

—George Saunders, “A Remembrance,” Quarterly West #53, Fall/Winter 2001–2002

We Thank You (A 21-Note Bricolage)

(1) Many thanks for thinking of [our literary journal] for your work. We aren’t able to use this piece for the magazine, but we appreciate the opportunity to consider it. All of us at [our literary journal]. [sic] Thank you again. (2) Thank you for allowing us to consider your work. Though we find we are unable to use it, we consider it a privilege that you thought of us and regret that the volume of submissions precludes a more personal reply. (3) Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work. We regret that we are unable to use it at this time. We wish you the best of luck placing your manuscript elsewhere. (4) Thank you for letting us consider your manuscript. We regret that it does not suit our present needs. (5) Thank you for sending us your work, but I’m afraid we can’t use it in [our literary journal] at present. (6) Thank you for sending your manuscript to [our literary journal]. We will not be able to accept it for publication, but we appreciate your interest in the magazine. (7) Thank you for submitting your manuscript. We regret that we are unable to publish it, but we appreciate your interest in [our literary journal]. (8) Thank you for submitting your work to [our literary journal]. Though it doesn’t meet our current needs we appreciate the opportunity to consider it for publication. We wish you the best of luck in placing it elsewhere. We are doing everything we can to reply to manuscripts in a timely way, and hope that we haven’t been too slow in considering this one. Keep up the good work! (9) Thank you for submitting your work to [our literary journal]. Unfortunately, we are unable to accept it for publication at this time. We wish you the best with your writing and thank you for your interest in [our literary journal]. (10) Thank you for the opportunity to consider your manuscript. We’ve read it with care but have decided not to accept it for publication. Best of luck placing it elsewhere. (11) Thank you for the opportunity to consider your work. The editors have read your submission and regret that it does not meet our present needs. We wish you the best of luck placing your manuscript elsewhere. (12) Thank you for the opportunity to read your work. We regret to inform you that we will not be able to publish it. Because we understand the time and effort that goes into writing a story, we’re sorry for the brevity of this reply. (13) Thank you for your recent submission. We have given careful consideration to the material but we regret that your manuscript is not suited to the current needs of the magazine. We thank you for giving us the opportunity of reading it. (14) Thank you for your submission to [our literary journal]. Unfortunately, we must pass at this time. Best of luck placing your work elsewhere. (15) Thanks for sharing your fine work with us. We receive a large number of submissions but can publish only one in a hundred. Since our space is limited, we must often turn down well-crafted writing. We wish you the best of luck in placing your work. (16) Though your work has been declined by our editors, we thank you for allowing us to consider it. (17) We have read your submission carefully and found that it does not fit our current editorial needs. However, we do appreciate your interest in our magazine. Thank you for sending your work to [our literary journal]. (18) We regret that the manuscript you submitted does not fit our current editorial needs. Thank you very much for sending us your work. (19) We regret that we are not able to place your work in our magazine. We’re sorry to disappoint you, and we thank you for submitting to [our literary journal]. (20) We thank you for having given us the opportunity to read your manuscript, but regret that it does not meet our particular needs at this time. (21) We thank you for the opportunity to read your manuscript. Unfortunately, your work does not meet our needs at this time. Because we know how much effort went into this submission, we regret the use of this form. But the volume of manuscripts we receive makes a personal reply impossible.

Sudden Fiction and the Google

In the editors’ introduction to New Sudden Fiction, Robert Shapard and James Thomas note that, in the years since their most recent anthology of short-short stories came out, the World Wide Web has changed the way we write, publish, and read fiction, with scores of new online literary journals having started up since then. So what’s out there now? they say they wondered. “We Googled all kinds of short-shorts,” they write—by which I believe they mean they searched for all the various names for the genre that they’d mentioned two paragraphs earlier, such as “flash fiction” and “skinny fiction”—

and found most entries were for ‘sudden fiction.’ Could this be right? True, it had been around longer than some of the others. We checked our finding against the number of Google pages for recent New York Times best sellers. ‘Sudden fiction’ beat out several of them, including those made into movies—even some chosen by Oprah. As a final check, we tested the first phrase that came to mind (‘armadillo sex’) and found this too out-Googled the New York Times and Oprah. We concluded Google wasn’t necessarily a good judge of literature.

By my Googling, as of this morning: the phrase “sudden fiction” appears on about 128,000 pages on the World Wide Web; “flash fiction,” about 639,000; “skinny fiction,” about 61. Taking a few titles, randomly, from Oprah’s Book Club Archive (oh, dear Oprah, living writers of the forthrightly made-up love you, please start picking contemporary fiction again!) from 2000 (searching for both the title of the book and the author’s name, both as exact phrases): The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver, about 243,000; House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III, about 58,000; Drowning Ruth, Christina Schwarz, about 46,000. “Armadillo sex,” on the other hand, comes in at about 274. Which leads me to conclude that either no one ever told Shapard and Thomas about Googling with quotation marks—or that, sometime in the past ten years or so, there was some magnificent, mysterious book published, a book that everyone wanted to read, such that it became a huge best seller, but no one ever blurbed or reviewed or discussed this popular yet secret book, it was a giant, quiet conspiracy, an elephant in the library, no one wrote about it at all, ever, anywhere, except for one or two Web sites, here and there, sites more obscure than, say, our understanding of the mating habits of bony-plated nocturnal omnivores.

Wanting the world to still have undiscoverable, un-Googleable secrets, I’m hoping it was the latter.

With Our Sincerest Regrets

Dear Professor (and Mrs.) Weitzman:

Thank you for your letter requesting a joint residency at the Cuckchafe Colony. We greatly appreciate your interest in Cuckchafe, and enclose, for your convenience, our actual, paper application for residency, which is required of all our applicants, even those who are, or may once have been, “a household name.” We also appreciate the enthusiasm for Cuckchafe implicit in both your demand for “the biggest and ritziest cabin [we’ve] got,” and your avowal regarding the haste with which you intend to drive up to our “Godforsaken backwater” corner of Vermont—hence our speedy reply; our apologies if we’ve sacrificed sense for promptness. However, we tend to believe that all Cuckchafe applicants often feel “too damn busy to bother with the rules.” Many are also, we imagine, equally “sick of the damn undergrads.” Thus, we regrettably must ask all our applicants to let us consider their requests for residencies at least a few months in advance, and certainly never as soon as “next week.” (I am hopeful, Professor, that you will receive this letter prior to your threatened departure date!) Please also note that in addition to the missing paper application, we also never received a writing sample; perhaps you sent it under separate cover—in which case, perhaps it went missing in the post?

Which reminds me of a further consideration: Professor Weitzman, your enthusiasm for your third wife’s “creative spirit” and “untapped potential” warmed all of our hearts. It even tempered some of the ill-will some of us on the committee have harbored for you since your second wife’s infamous suicide, not to mention your destruction of her last, unpublished manuscript—although I was somewhat surprised to discover that I was the only member of the committee who has always taken you at your word that the novel you burned was “the embarrassing effluvia of a crazy lady.” Nevertheless, we do insist that, however many “fantastic anecdotes” the present Mrs. Weitzman might harbor in her “adorable little noggin,” Cuckchafe Colony protocols, no matter how old-fashioned they might be, stubbornly require that such stories exist in material form—i.e., written down—and that the committee have the formal opportunity to consider between ten and fifteen pages’ worth of said writing (again, I refer you to the enclosed criteria).

When you do have an opportunity to peruse our application, you’ll also note that the Cuckchafe Colony, unfortunately, does not offer such a thing as a “joint residency.” We cannot, even when our applicants insist that they need their spouse around at all times, as you so charmingly put it, to “keep the bottle on its shelf and the snake in its pants.” Have you considered applying to, say, the Bodhidharma Center for Creative Expressiveness in upstate New York? Although some might balk at the compulsory meditation, as well as the steep residency fees, meal fees, etc., their application requirements are refreshingly unrestrictive. My fellow committee members also insisted that I protest your wife’s caricature of Cuckchafe as a “pussy farm;” the portrait drawn of our institution in Grover Jablonski’s 1972 play of that name was a gross exaggeration, and besides, the place has mellowed considerably since Dr. Lenox’s ouster not long after the play won the Pulitzer.

On a personal note, if I may, Professor Weitzman, all of us on the admissions committee privately agreed that your stunning first novel, The Petulant Seed, was one of the most important and influential books any of us read in our teenage years—who, at the time, did not identify with Harry Seed’s rage at a cold world, and an even colder mother? We all share a certain fondness for the book, if an understandably tainted one; without question, its portrait of the archetypal “angry young man” of the era may have been taken far too literally by some readers, but I personally have never blamed your writing for the assassination of Senator Berkholder, or the attempted assassinations of Senators-elect Hobbs and Comiskey. I still proudly, publicly profess my love of the novel, and at every opportunity I take issue with those who agree with The New Yorker‘s Janet Purser’s legendary slandering of the book—with the ease of 20/20 hindsight, I might add—as a so-called “irredeemable template of sociopathic behavior.”

I think none of us need convincing, Professor, that since then, your career has, as you mention on page five of your thoughtful note, “tanked.” Indeed, it probably was a stroke of luck that you got tenure before “that little Harry Seed-wannabe bastard picked up a gun,” although I confess that the extensiveness of the coffee stain on that particular page makes me uncertain that I’m quoting you accurately here. All of us on the committee share your hope that your best work is ahead of you, and your belief that Cuckchafe would probably be a great place for you to “bang out some classy stuff;” and although we sincerely hope we do not see you, your rental car, and your typewriter in our driveway later this week, we unreservedly look forward to you and your wife’s timely, correctly assembled, and completely separate applications in the future.

Kindest regards,
The Cuckchafe Colony Admissions Committee