Volume 22, Number 4

One Man’s Meat

A Rebuttal of “Show Us, Mr. Faulkner”

F.J. Bergmann

In response to G. D. McFetridge’s essay on literary-magazine editorial practices. “Show Us, Mr. Faulkner,” I have a number of criticisms and observations to make about why his efforts to be published, on behalf of both his own work and that of others, were unsuccessful, and I dispute his conclusions. In my capacity as the poetry editor of Mobius, and with a long-standing and demonstrable interest in the mechanics and ethics of the submission process, I feel competent to elucidate upon why that process is not flawed in the manner which he would like to believe.

To summarize his diatribe-cum-exposé, he performed several different impostures involving prominent American literary journals: 1) he submitted a segment of Faulkner's writing under his own name; 2) he submitted contemporary published stories under his own name to journals; 3) he submitted his own work under a false name while simultaneously endorsing it under the guise of a well-known writer. He concluded from the results of these pranks that editors are capricious, uneducated and ass-kissing, and that it is necessary to be already well-known, or to have the endorsement of the famous, to succeed, proving the American literary establishment to be both incompetent and corrupt. Of course, it may well be so (Mobius excepted, naturally), but his experiences provide no supporting evidence to that effect.

What Mr. McFetridge submitted as a short story under his own name was part of a Faulkner novel. Not only did he insert his own beginning and end, which are critical elements of shorter work, but the work he excerpted (not, as he says, from The Hamlet, but from an abbreviated movie tie-in, The Long Hot Summer) was not intended as a short story, and it is not surprising that it may have failed in that role. The criticisms offered support this conclusion: "under-dramatized," "very few scenes," and "too slow" refer to traits more appropriate to a novel, where characterization can be developed at greater leisure. A short story needs to be faster-moving, with more immediacy and tension.

An ominous statement: "it was Faulkner's own writing, almost word for word." The "almost" is extremely disquieting; as a poet, I know that there is a large gulf between le mot juste and the earnest-but-insufficient effort. "Faulkneresque" can mean a parody; it can mean a bad, unpublishable imitation.

McFetridge's admiration for Faulkner (The Hamlet was published in 1940) and his mention of The Peter Principle—pop-psych from 1969—seems excessively dated. The bottom line is that non-contemporary work is not likely to be published in contemporary lit journals: styles change. Faulkner no longer enjoys much popularity, and does not figure in most academic syllabi these days; given that he appears to be passé in most circles, I am not surprised that his excerpted "story" went unrecognized.

There is a distinction between generic statements intended to soften the blow ("I enjoyed your writing style a great deal") and actual comments on the quality of the work. From such reading-between-the-lines is the fine art of rejectomancy born. In particular, getting any personal comments with a rejection is a sign that one has made the final cut, so to speak. Most editors have learned the hard way that constructive criticism is wasted on those who need it most. It is predictable that "remarks have been contradictory": different editors have different tastes, and styles vary markedly across the literary landscape, making it essential to familiarize oneself with the type of work a particular journal publishes before submitting there—or to resign oneself to a much higher rejection rate. As the adage goes, one man's meat is another man's poison.

McFetridge's failure to place a story with the New Yorker is hardly surprising. Not only is it rare that they publish new writers, but I suspect that the acceptance rate for published writers is vanishingly small as well.

An incident at an unnamed journal is mentioned, where McFetridge claims to have elicited a confession that work may have been published as the result of a "donation"—bribery. While every profession has its bad apples, I doubt that this is a common practice in literary publishing. Even the watchdog site Foetry was only able to identify possible chicanery in a small minority of poetry presses and awards.

McFetridge's next attempt involved submitting stories from a best-of anthology and from the Atlantic, retitled and under his own byline, elsewhere. These stories failed to please at their new destination, which is not unusual. It cannot be stressed too much that tastes vary; acceptance is dependent upon the journal's style or theme (I have rejected wonderful poems submitted to Mobius—that were by no stretch of interpretation suitable for our focus on Social Change), the editor's discernment, and the slush reader's familiarity with the lexicon. One journal whose name I can't remember at present uses a team of editors, and it can be heartening to find that, while one's work was ultimately rejected, at least one editor argued vociferously for its inclusion. I am personally convinced that publishing is much less a cabalistic conspiracy than it is a crapshoot.

One point that McFetridge does not address is what he would have done had the works of others that he submitted under his own name been accepted. I do him the courtesy of assuming that the plagiarized work would have been promptly withdrawn, but shenanigans like these would promptly blacklist him with any reputable journal—and probably with others whose editors are acquainted with each other. It is also not unknown for submissions to be published without notification of acceptance, leading to an unpleasant experience—and legal difficulties—for all concerned. Editors resent having their time wasted, and resent even more strongly being put in a position with serious legal and ethical repercussions.

The admission that famous writers—or those whom they recommend—can bypass the slushpile should not shock anyone. The thing is, these folks are already, by implication, a level above the group the slushpile readers are trying to weed out. Sturgeon's Law—90% of everything is crud—applies to slushpiles as well. The main reason for preliminary readers—interns, to McFetridge—is to eliminate the crazies and the hopelessly incomptetent, leaving Writers We Could Maybe Publish.

It is true that famous writers have an edge when it comes to acceptances. This is partly because fame sells magazines. In many cases, an editor is forced to consider not only his own preferences, but what will sell on the front cover. I can testify that there is a thrill involved in finding one's own name up there in the Same Size Font as Norman Mailer's. And sometimes, an author is famous because their work is, in fact, excellent and widely admired. It is not inconceivable that an editor could be an actual fan.

With respect to insider recommendations, the first thing to consider is that agents effectively are preliminary readers, with their own slushpiles, so that anything recommended by an agent has already, perhaps more arduously, passed through that process. Which makes it perfectly appropriate that they should have a direct route to an editor. With respect to recommendations by famous authors, prior contributors, the editor's friends, etc., taking precedence over whatever crosses the transom, this also seems reasonable as part of the process. I myself have been published by invitation, because an editor heard me read a piece that he admired, and requested it. Is McFetridge suggesting that this is, in some way, cheating?

The subtext of his essay is, of course, ‘Literary publishing is inherently unfair,’ by which he implies the more specific ‘I'm not getting published as I deserve, not because of any deficiency in the merits of my work, but because of a vast conspiracy in the world of American letters.’ This comes across as whiny and self-defeating—and most readers will assume, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, that perhaps the real reason is that the quality of the work leaves something to be desired, or that he simply lacks persistence or is insufficiently prolific. These last two qualities, I might add, have much more to do with getting published than any inherent quality of the writing.

All of the accusations McFetridge levels at the editors of lit journals have been made from the fiction side of the fence. I find it impossible to believe that the poetry side—and most of the journals he mentions publish poetry as well—is substantially different. Poetry, arguably the world's most prestigious poetry journal, regularly accepts work by poets that have never been published before—and prides itself on doing so. I have no literary academic background, yet I have, by dint of interest and persistence, accumulated what I am told is an enviable publication history. My personal observations strongly support the premise that persistence in submitting, more that anything else, will result in success.

It is obvious that familiarizing oneself with editorial tastes prior to submitting at any given publication will save time and trouble for all concerned. Even if a writer cannot afford to subscribe to a print journal, Googling their roster of contributors will give a good idea of what that editor is likely to accept. Not reading a recent issue of an online journal before sending in one's work is inexcusable.

Of course it's infuriating to see work published and win awards that one dislikes or holds vastly inferior to one's own writing, especially after encountering rejection at the same venue. It can be, again, a matter of taste; it can be a failure to recognize one's own deficiencies; it can be an unaccountable lacuna in the editor's experience or education. The only way to find out is to keep reading, writing—and submitting work.