Show Us, Mr. Faulkner
I picked William Faulkner because of his unique style and voice, and because many pundits and critics still laud him as one of the past century’s literary geniuses. From his four-book novel, The Hamlet, I extracted a 4,000-word excerpt. After making adjustments in the opening and ending pages, I re-titled the story and submitted it under my own name to a gaggle of respected literary magazines. I was curious to find out how the interns and editors of these publications would react. What criticisms might they have, and would they catch on that they were reading almost verbatim Faulkner?
What drove this curiosity? Over the last decade, well-known literary journals across the country have declined to publish my short stories. In the beginning, this persistent rejection made me doubt my abilities as a writer; however, as my experience and expertise grew, and as I examined the situation more closely, I saw things in a different light. I noticed that the selection process seemed fickle if not shady, that the standards applied by these organizations were wide-ranging and inconsistent, and I was also bothered by the generic attitudes and dithering literary philosophies purportedly driving the decision-making process.
This led me to wonder if any sort of code or intellectual ethics is in place, a set of rules or ascetic values leading the selection procedure. Or is it little more than a system of literary good-ol’-boy-ism, academic insider trading, and arbitrary rulings handed down by pedagogical editors who fancy themselves the stewards of American Literature? This being the case, the difficulty facing aspiring writers—beyond the challenge of producing high quality work—is the biased if not inept judgments rendered by the institutions controlling the proving grounds of American Literature, i.e., the major literary journals.
In addition, other disturbing issues have bothered me. For example, the lexicon of grammatical rules, literary regulations and taboos that are harshly held over the heads of unknown writers seem to magically vanish when it comes to established authors. From among the many comments I’ve received included with my hefty stack of rejections, no two editors or interns have ever agreed regarding technical criticism of a specific work. In some cases remarks have been contradictory, and they are often tinged with a degree of arrogance in the offhanded manner in which they are handed out. “This piece is a bit trivial … too glib … too cliché … excessively expositional … not really a short story.…”
Ouch! Those comments hurt—but rather than dwelling on my bruised ego, let us, just for a laugh and a poke in the literary ribs, find out what some of America’s leading literary-magazine editors and interns had to say about Mr. Faulkner’s most recent short story.
The first to respond to my fraudulent submission was The Chariton Review, of Truman State University in Missouri. The editor was kindhearted. He actually took time to make written comments on the first three pages; and he also had a very good ear, for he mentioned that my style was reminiscent of Faulkner. Interesting enough, he cited the opening paragraph as being “very Faulkneresque,” but then pointed out that by the third paragraph I had changed voice. The tone was no longer consistent with the opening, although I had written most of the first paragraph myself, imitating Faulkner’s voice in order to give the pirated excerpt the semblance of a real short story. By the third paragraph, it was Faulkner’s own writing, almost word for word.
The editor of this magazine is a decent fellow, and I mean that sincerely and praise him for having taken time to check over a submitted story—very few editors bother making such an effort. But surprisingly, the phony submission tricked him and he didn’t realize he was reading a reworked excerpt from The Hamlet.
Next, The Missouri Review offered the following: “I enjoyed your writing style a great deal, but this piece is a little under-dramatized.” The intern failed to realize she was reading William Faulkner, but at least she enjoyed it! Mississippi’s Jabberwock Review proclaimed: “This reads more like a summary of this character’s life, rather than a story with tension and connections.” The Arkansas Review had this mixed review: “The language at times is quite lovely, but the story seemed insufficiently embellished—a lot of summary and very few scenes. But that’s just one opinion.”
Francis Ford Coppola’s ever-hip Zoetrope sent their rejection. Penning in azure ink, the intern generously cited a musty workshop mantra for my benefit: “Dear G. D. McFetridge, with regards to your submission, more showing and less telling. Good luck.”
Five or six other literary magazines, which for brevity’s sake I won’t mention by name, also rejected this piece. A few comments were included, such as: “Too much description … lack of character development … too slow.” But strangely enough, not a single intern or editor realized he or she was reading a William Faulkner rip-off.
Recently, just to see if the old magic was still there, I sent my Faulkner rip-off to another editor (Sulphur River Literary Review), an arrogant fellow who had boxed my ears over a previous submission, telling me it was theoretical gobbledy gook—“the kind of thing that finally drove me out of grad school before I had finished my thesis.”
Gobbledy gook? In any case, here’s his proclamation concerning Faulkner’s storyteller: “How in the world did the narrator become so erudite and eloquent without, apparently, any formal education? The voice didn’t seem to fit the man.” How could Elvis sing without formal lessons? Or Paul McCartney compose when he couldn’t read music? A simple answer: Natural Ability. This editor has tipped his own hand; he’s operating under the general assumption that only formal education allows someone to be erudite and eloquent, while at the same time complaining that theoretical gobbledy gook drove him out of grad school. Make up your mind, mister!
Aside from the obvious fact that I am aglow with self-satisfaction over my Faulkner prank, what do we make of all this? I think it’s indicative of a problem that exists in the American literary scene. If these highly educated editors and their aspiring interns don’t recognize a blatant con job when they read it, then what sort of credential and mentality governs the process? And if they dismiss a luminary such as Faulkner with inane buzzwords and sophomoric jargon, and attack his narrative style, what credence should any aspiring writer attach to comments included with a rejection?
The American Dream declares that if you work hard and are dedicated and persistent, you’ll eventually achieve your goal. As it should be, otherwise what’s the point of having dreams and aspirations? Unfortunately, too many literary magazines have become a forum dedicated to advancing an exclusive club of literary pretty people and insiders, many of whom are university professors, editors of other magazines, academic golden boys and girls, or established authors for whom agents and publishers are busily pulling strings. Don’t believe me? Check the Notes on Contributors section of any celebrated literary journal.
To extend this investigation a step farther, and as an exercise in futility, I submitted one of my own short stories to The New Yorker, and included a cover letter wherein I candidly asked the “reader/editor” to inform me whether a non-persona such as myself (a working-class writer sans MFA or gold-plated literary résumé) had a prayer of getting published. I received the following sage advice: “Re: Your note—perhaps you might try building up your publication history with some literary journals, etc. We do publish new writers, but it is indeed a rare occurance [sic]. Best of luck to you!”
That the irony inherent to this proffered wisdom has escaped you, I cannot imagine—although if it has, I say without reservation that you are neither an aspiring author nor have you ever heard the phrase Catch-22.
Next I telephoned one of America’s leading literary magazines and chatted with the office manager. After gaining her confidence, I mentioned that I had heard it rumored that established writers, particularly famous ones, didn’t have to submit stories through normal channels. Either they or their agents could, via a telephone call to the managing editor, get a manuscript fast-tracked past the incompetent interns and the much feared slush pile (a claim I would later test for myself).
“Is this really true?” I asked. She said yes, it happens all the time. Then I asked her if manuscripts were ever accompanied by large donations, in an effort to promote a mutually back-scratching transaction. After a long pause she took a breath and said in a loud whisper, “I can’t say that that doesn’t happen.”
We’ll leave it at that.
In a last hurrah, I decided to put this business of literary submission to a final grueling test. I took two short stories, one from a leading best-of-the-year anthology, another from Atlantic Monthly, and copied these works word for word, re-titled them, and then submitted them under my own name to two literary magazines. Here’s what the editors had to say:
Story number one: “Stylishly done, but needs more substance. Vignettes like this are hard to elevate to a satisfactory level of story.”
Story number two: “This story certainly has some appeal, but despite some nice language (touches of Annie Proulx), this story of a girl on a cow farm mourning her dead father doesn’t really go anywhere. The mystery of ‘who killed the cows’ fails to grip.”
As per the first comment, regarding the anthologized work, how can anyone succeed as a writer when these people reject the cream of the crop with such smug authority? Or is it true that the cream of the crop is in fact unsatisfactory?
Regarding the second story from Atlantic Monthly (once considered by many as one of the premier outlets for modern fiction), most importantly, the story is not about who killed the cows, that’s backdrop. For anyone with literary brains, the story is about the girl coming to the realization that her dead father was having a homosexual affair with the young hired hand who worked his dairy farm.
To quote a famous writer: “Jesus H. Christ! Who’s running the store?”
One thing shines through with glaring certainty. The selection process in our great literary arena is rife with self-serving subjectivity, basic incompetence, flat-out corruption, preferential treatment for the privileged (just like government & politics), and an atmosphere polluted by classism and an elitist undercurrent. And who’s going to dispute me? A bunch of editors who epitomize the Peter Principle, who reject Faulkner and a prize-winning story, who are busy pontificating questionable opinions while scratching each other’s backs and giving favors to literary agents, pretty-people writers and bigwig publishers?
At this point you may have concluded that I’m a frustrated malcontent holding forth over sour grapes and whining because I’m a big literary nobody. I’m fine with that; however, indulge me for one last revealing round of literary stings.
I phoned a lit-mag in Arizona—Hayden’s Ferry Review—and left a message pretending I was a well-known writer. Within fifteen minutes I got a call from the editor of the review, and she was obviously aglow that this gentleman had called her office.
Here’s how it shook out: After some friendly chitchat I told this editor that I ran a writers’ workshop in Montana and I had discovered a rare and unspoiled talent.
“He’s a rancher’s son who’s never been to university,” I said, “one of those rare diamonds in the rough we all hope for … a true natural … and I was hoping you’d take a look at his work. But of course I was also hoping we could get him past the interns, if you understand what I’m saying.”
“Oh, yes, absolutely,” she said. And we shared a laugh about how the average intern could easily overlook the best of writers. Then she offered her personal mailing address so my “budding protégé” could submit his story directly to her, freed from the interns and their page-crumpling monkey fingers. The last thing she said to me was this: “I really look forward to reading the story … and thank you so much for thinking of us concerning this recommendation.”
I couldn’t believe how easy this scam was, and how corrupt the process showed itself to be, so I decided to test this trick a couple more times. Under the made-up name of Billy Dakota I sent a manuscript to the Texas Review. In my cover letter I told the editor that my mentor (the same well-known writer) had suggested I submit the story. Several days later I called the magazine and left a message saying I wanted to make certain my protégé’s manuscript didn’t get lost in the shuffle. The following Monday the editor called back. Much like my previous victim, this fellow was clearly titillated that someone of literary stature had called his magazine, and he assured me Billy Dakota’s story was right there in his hand. I continued chatting him up for five or ten minutes and he was all ears, willing to give me all the time I wanted. Curiously enough whenever I call editors under my own name—if I’m lucky enough to get one on the phone, I can’t get the time of day. I guess that’s what we refer to as “social pecking order.”
Next, I decided to go after a bigger fish: The Missouri Review. I already knew the office manager’s name and had talked with her before; this time, though, I again impersonated the well-known writer when I left my message.
She called back in less than ten minutes.
So … I did my dog-and-pony show and she bit hook, line and sinker. She was effervescent, cheerful and sweet, and laughing at my jokes. It must be nice, having people bow and scrape because you have a little notoriety. I explained about my promising protégé and how he’d been getting bogged down in the intern slush pile, and she of course understood completely and mentioned that the real staff always appreciated getting a “heads-up” on special submissions.
To underscore this policy she supplied me with the head editor’s private email address … or if that was less desirable than regular snail-mail, she would personally see that the big guy got the story if it was put to her attention.
To fully appreciate this anecdote you must realize that I had talked with this woman before (six months previously), as myself, and had all but pleaded with her to help me get one of my stories past the interns to the head editor. She made it very clear that this was not possible. Yet on the weight of a single fake phone call, she was ready to bend over backwards to accommodate a known author to secure favors for his imaginary protégé.
Well … I think I have finally exposed the wheedling corruption that looms behind many if not most of the big literary magazines. It’s one thing to cheat, but it’s a whole other thing to pretend that you run an egalitarian operation when in fact you’re as crooked as a used-car dealer. The blurb should read something like this: The Pretty People Review is open to all submissions, but be forewarned. We hand out special treatment to insiders and the chosen few—and if you ain’t one of them … tough nuggets!
In conclusion, as to the rest of you frequently frustrated and fervent fiction writers out there, particularly if you happen to be a commoner like myself or have tried building your publishing history in the litany of illustrious literary magazines and journals of America, my best recommendation is this: Get your rich uncle to donate a new building to the university, or make sure you’re well ensconced among Ivy-League insiders and literary blue bloods. Because if you’re not, it’s welcome to the slush pile, pal.
And like the man said, William, “Show us, don’t tell us!” Too much description, not suitable for us, Mr. Faulkner, but it was a good effort. Try us again in the fall. And, oh, by the way, pump up the drama a little, would you? Good luck with your writing!