Thursday, March 29, 2012


This has been a week of excellent news in my household. The fact that I'm opening a rant with good tidings surely demonstrates that my wife is correct: I am an unrepentant curmudgeon.

The first happy note came from my daughter (okay, sorry, Mike, my stepdaughter), who texted to report that she's been accepted into the Iowa University creative writing program. My responses were dual, simultaneous, and irrevocable. I was THRILLED for her. I was thrilled because I knew this is something she wants, something she deserves, and something she was afraid she might not get. I also felt—well, duh. I mean, she's amazing, brilliant, talented, clever, and she loves to write, so why wouldn't they take her? She also loves to draw. Her old notebooks are full of her writings, but they're also crammed full of drawings. Not just art class papers. Her differential equations homework is crowded to the limits of legibility by her lithe anime characters. With her skill set, I don't know whether to expect her to be the next Joyce Carol Oates, the next Frank Miller (minus all the whores), or the next Martin Scorsese. The girl has vision and voice. I hope she gets to use them.

The other happy note was that I got a freelance job I for which I had applied with trial work. Groceries. Yay!

So why am I saying I hope Girltzik gets to use her vision and voice? Why shouldn't she get to use them? It's what she wants. It's what she's targeting. In light of her skills, it's certainly what she deserves. Won't a just universe allow her to use her wonderful skills?


What worries me is that—like so many of us in the past—she'll get slapped down by the system again and again until she just tires of submitting story after poem after play after novel after screenplay into a system that's been broken as long as there have been writers. How many published writers have complained of rejection after rejection prior to their first publication? How many great works of literature has the world been denied by half-alert assistant editors and interns churning through slushpiles under dim light and fueled by inadequate nutrition? I don't know what bothers me more, that Confederacy of Dunces remained unpublished until after the poor bastard offed himself or that a well-known author managed to get it published after his death. Both of these facts bother me, and I didn't even like Confederacy of Dunces.

Now, I've published a few stories and poems over the years. Never enough to make anything like a living wage, but a few. I know how enervating and painful a rejection slip can feel. Worse than the form rejection slip, on three occasions for stories in different genres (one SF, one horror, and one magic realism), I received promising critiques from editors. Make some minor changes, they suggested, and we might publish this. In each case, the editors eventually gave up. One of the stories I later published (the SF).

Many years ago, I read some commentary from Harlan Ellison, the one-time enfant terrible of speculative fiction, about editors. Now, I'm paraphrasing (I could probably find it, but I'm not sure where to begin), but I believe he said, "All editors are idiots." Knowing Ellison's typical commentary, he probably said something more colorful, comparing the brains of editors to flaming ungulate droppings, shattered tinkertoys, or small communities of shellfish. In any case, at first I thought he was just being arrogant. In my experience, a good editor is a terrific commodity. By editor, however, I mean "someone who edits your work." My wife is an excellent editor, and I get paid for editing, so I must have some skill in that department, myself. Over the years I've come to understand what he really meant. First, Ellison, by editor, meant "someone who decides what to publish." It's not the editors themselves who are brain-dead. It's the system. Sadly, the system most magazines use is more likely to get it wrong than right.

I understand their plight. As a sometime technical writer and former English graduate student (which means "someone who taught rhetoric and composition for slave wages"), I am well-aware how many truly bad writers the American educational system produces. I've known brilliant scientists and engineers who could learn a good deal about proper sentence structure from a sixth-grader. A college degree—even a degree in English—does not prove that you know how to write. Some people who write, shouldn't, and far too many of those submit their drivel to the magazines of the world, clogging the slushpiles and making life difficult for the rest of us.

Two other problems, however, get in the way of talent and writing skill. First, there's the nasty matter of preference. Published writers are more likely to get published again. But the problem doesn't end there. One of my college professors, Pete LaSalle, used to rail against another practice common in the editorial boards of the nation's literary magazines. He told me that the best way to assure you get your work published in a literary magazine is to edit one yourself. You publish my story; I'll publish yours. And, make no mistake, kiddies, publishing IS a zero sum game. Every story published is one less open slot. So, back to Confederacy of Dunces, if I can't get anyone to publish a great novel that I've written, will Walker Percy be able to get it published for my widow? If so, is that justice?

The last problem is the tyranny of prevailing style. Michael Chabon has already written brilliantly on this matter. I highly recommend his Maps and Legends. Read the first essay.