Publication is a bit of an anomaly. In fiction alone we read thousands of manuscripts for each issue, selecting, say, four to be published. The odds of acceptance are minuscule. Popular database site Duotrope lists our acceptance rate at a modest .63 percent. Anyone quick with numbers could guess a truer percentage would fall closer to .001-.002. And this is simply for fiction.
Before anyone closes forever The Missouri Review‘s submission guidelines page, consider for a moment the relativity of those odds. There are magazines who see, easily, double our amount, maybe more, yet still publish the same number (or less) of stories.
The easy consolation? The pool of writers exponentially outnumbers the available literary magazines. There are only so many slots in the industry to fill. Having read through the slush pile for two semesters now, one of the quickest takeaways is the overall quality of submissions we receive at TMR. We could attribute this to many possible reasons, but let me say this, in my parting days as a TMR intern, because the overall quality so much complicates our job: damn you, writers.
“Your story does not meet our needs” is the rejection letter equivalent to ”I still want to be friends.” It’s supposed to comfort. But since those involved know its hollow intent, the condolence becomes that much more scathing. Of course I’ve received it myself (to which side of the equivalency I refer is…unimportant). However, there may not be a more articulate phrase befitting the vast majority of rejections we send. Much of what we reject is publishable. We have only four slots.
I don’t want to try to marginalize the disappointment of our rejected, and I thankfully never received a fuming reply from a rejected and insulted writer, so this isn’t an anonymous apology. As I’m sure many understand, no matter how sincere or invested the rejection letter, the inescapable stamp on its forehead is: “We liked too many pieces more than yours.” Ouch.
Someone (whom for the life of me I can’t recall or find) asked on Twitter last week, who is the best living writer never to have been published in the New Yorker–historically one of the biggest career makers. Immediately I thought of Cormac McCarthy. Maybe unfair, given he’s never professionally published a short story, but I couldn’t shake it. If interested, one can easily find two short stories of his from his undergraduate years at Tennessee. I’ve read them. They’re impressive. Maybe not beyond the “undergraduate” scope, but that’s home enough for me. His language is there–his cadence, his sentence weaving, the mythos, Gothic mysticism, it’s all vibrantly there. Even though he was a couple years older than myself when he wrote them, I added the shaming experience of reading those stories to a pantheon that already included the reluctant knowledge of Mary Shelly publishing Frankenstein at age 19, and T.S. Elliot Prufrock at 23. What am I doing with my life? Damn you, literary legends.
The early successes of all-timers should not be as disheartening as I goodheartedly allow them to be. They are, after all, the best of the best. However, as a writer, I believe I can write to any of their levels. It’s an inherent competition in me.
This is by no means to say I think I ever actually could. Merely, my mindset is that, if I invest, if I care, if I work, and if I do it all painstakingly, I can write with them. This may or may not be true, and whether it is, is irrelevant. I believe thoroughly every writer should possess some sort of confidence that pins them, if fantastically, against their most revered predecessors. We should neither disregard nor take for granted their impact, but we should believe that our work, in its own right, could one day demolish the greats of past and present. And in that same breath, no acceptance percentage should ever deter someone.
There’s a modesty to reading early works from the masters or recognizing similarities between your work and the work you’re rejecting. It’s humbling. Alison, in her post Tuesday, captured the sentiment well: “Are you bored when you go over [your] work? Then it’s boring.” Such an awareness of our own prose, over time, should allow us the means to reconcile our weaknesses and charge forward. Some authors, presumably like the aforementioned three, find that reconciliation earlier than others. We can hate our own work. Doesn’t mean we relinquish confidence or, therefore, approach. No, not every writer is capable of great writing, but the inward process in which we reach for it is personal and dependent on mindset.
This last weekend, I made my first excursion to California (woah). During a weekend that included, among many other things, an outrageously anticipated film release, getting a picture with the SAG star on Hollywood Boulevard, a macabre intrusion of mortality, a simple, nondescript encounter with a street musician on the Santa Monica pier struck me most. LA street musicians are like Nora Roberts novels in a Barnes and Noble (except the novels actually tend to receive the money for which they are there). This one was just a guy and his electric guitar, amp, and small poster propped up advertising his CD. He played songs like a slowed Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours”, John Lennon’s “Imagine”, Leonard Cohen’s (via Jeff Buckley) “Hallelujah”. Typical. Quiet. Nice. The latter two, in particular, unsurprisingly beautiful. Even with the local indie record company logo slapped onto his CD’s miniature poster, the dude just played. Proportionally, there’s about as much money in music as there is in writing. He’d scored the music world equivalent to notable graduate school literary magazine–a respectable stepping stone. Regardless, though, of the money it brought him, his contractual or aspiring future plans, he came out at night, with only the prospect of passersby’s extra change, to play music in front of, at any given time, maybe fifteen people. He played recognizable songs, but he played and sang them his way. You could see in his weary but unbeaten eyes honesty–an honesty which emanated an infectious pathos. His passion and easy love for what he was doing was visually obvious. Not even an eccentric, probably tripping character dressed in Jesus attire and dancing with his multicolored glow stick partner could distract the musician. Not much mattered outside of him playing, and that he was playing for a handful of people intently listening.
He is the perfect image I keep in my head with regard to what the TMR experience has added to me. While the development of an objective muscle in evaluating writing is vital and variously practical, my readings, fellow interns, and the staff here reinforced that there is more to the experience than the acquisition of skill. The essence, rather, of it all is to affect others, the only way you know–to enliven in others what the art enlivens in you. The skills will without a doubt assist me in future writing and editorial adventures. Skill is an outward thing. The essence will guide the rest. Thank you, Missouri Review.