Two Mistakes I Made on Twitter Last Week

Twitter is a favorite medium around our office, both for personal and professional use. It’s quick, informative, witty, and the links are terrific. Unlike other social media devices, Twitter loads fast on mobile devices and its mobile platforms retain all the best of the site’s navigation and simplicity without coughing up any user functionality. It’s a terrific way for us to reach out to our audience and provide—in 140 characters—a good sense of what The Missouri Review is all about.

Last week, however, was not my finest week for social media clarity. I had an a nasty cold I had, which made me super congested, foggy, and cough-y (not a word). Misspellings, bad links, incomplete thoughts, and other missteps were all over the place. But there are two in particular that I think are interesting examples of Twitter mistakes, both for writers and literary magazines.

Goof #1. I tweeted this on August 15th:

I get embarrassed when I find a lit journal that’s been around for a long time … and I’ve never heard of it.

We receive several literary journals in our office: these are “exchanges”—we send our magazine to Journal X, and Journal X sends their journal to us. We probably receive somewhere in the range of thirty to forty exchanges, and since many journals publish on a similar schedule, there is usually a three week period when we receive a ton of magazines. Last week, we received a copy of a journal, an anniversary edition, that had been around for well over a decade, and as my tweet indicates, I had never heard of the publication.

Off Twitter, one of my friends wrote me and suggested I delete the tweet. He’s a good writer and a sharp editor, too, so he has experience with this and knows what he’s talking about. He wrote that while the tweet didn’t bother him, he noted that statements like that can upset people. You know, “Oh, big bad TMR hasn’t heard of MY journal, huh?”

I think one of the biggest problems with literary journals (and this is also true of other businesses, not just lit mags) is a lack of transparency and honesty. I believe it’s all right for me to admit what I do not know, and either laugh at myself for not knowing or be able to explain why I couldn’t reasonably be expected to know. Duotrope currently lists over 4300 markets for fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. 4300! I just can’t be familiar with all of them.

So I decided to laugh at myself. I see my friend’s point … and yet, I disagree, and I’ve left the tweet up.

Goof #2. I tweeted this on August 13th:

I’ve just used my ten free NYTimes articles this month. Nice job sending me to the @washingtonpost guys!

Another writer wrote to me and questioned my decision. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, that if I start with NYT, clearly then, it has value, and isn’t that worth paying for?

I’ll say this upfront: I don’t believe there is a mistake here, by me or by my friend. He wrote in response, I wrote back, he wrote back and apologized for being presumptuous, and I wrote back and said he wasn’t being presumptuous at all. He had a point that is worth thinking more about (a future blog post I hope to soon write).

Here’s the angle, though.

This tweet received a DM from a writer who doesn’t actually know me. We’ve only interacted through Twitter, and my sense is that he was worried he angered me: you don’t always know how your online friends and colleagues are going to respond to 140 characters. He also might have been worried about calling out me, and by extension, TMR. He doesn’t know if I’m a vindictive bastard (I’m not! Really!) and might blacklist him for crossing me.

I’m a firm believer that if I post something online, it’s fair for anyone to respond to it, and I must be able to defend what I wrote. Or admit that I screwed up. Both of which I’m perfectly comfortable doing. I find the New York Times is trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, and this aggravates me, and there are terrific writers at The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times and The Guardian and a hundred other venues that don’t have paywalls.

Most people follow me on Twitter because I’m with The Missouri Review. When I post on my personal feed, regardless of any disclaimers, I’m representing my magazine. Even when I’m posting pithy comments or thinking about the Boston Celtics, I know that everything I write reflects on TMR. I understand and embrace that. I try, as best I can, to make my social media interaction as genuine as possible.

Charles Baxter’s “Dysfunctional Narratives, or: ‘Mistakes Were Made’ ” is one of my favorite essays on writing fiction. The phrasing he quotes demonstrates how social narratives, like the one Nixon pushed, created deliberate confusion and incoherence. “I made mistakes” is much clearer. And clarity—and transparency and honest—is something that I think all of us in the writing world need to fight for all the time.

I made mistakes. “I didn’t deny anything.” Let’s go from there.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

On The (Not So) Fine Art of Literary Rejection

Each semester, The Missouri Review gets new interns at our magazine. We also hope to have at least a few interns take the class for a second semester, and this semester, we do have six students who were with us in the fall. I don’t have to explain to anyone who has run a literary magazine (or, really, any business) how tremendously valuable it is to have good, reliable people working for you, and we’re very grateful to have them back with us again this year.

This also means we also have a new batch of interns joining us who haven’t read manuscripts for us before. The vast majority of manuscripts we receive, even the really good ones, are returned to the author, unaccepted. That’s just the nature of literary magazines: we receive far more manuscripts than we can possibly publish.

How we handle rejection is a delicate thing. It’s very easy to think of it as just another mindless task when there is always a fresh stack of manuscripts that have just rolled in and need to be read. In our first production meeting of each semester, our associate editor, Evelyn Somers, always emphazies the same critical point: we read looking to accept, not to reject. It’s a tremendous difference in your frame of mind not to say “What’s wrong with this piece?” but to say “What do I love about this piece?” In class, I regularly remind our interns that the writer spent weeks (and, really, more like months or even years) writing the story that they just read and that we need to treat each manuscript with the same amount of respect and patience that went into creating it.

We’re two weeks from AWP, and this will be my third spin with The Missouri Review staff. When writers come and visit us at our table, they tell us how much they appreciate our rejection letters: I’ve heard that “you send the nicest rejection letters” and “you give the best responses.” To be fair, usually, people do not come up and curse us out and tell us our rejections are cruel and unfeeling. AWP tends to be friendly. Still, saying, essentially “That was nicest refusal, like, ever!” used to strike me as a very odd thing to say.

However, the more I write, and consequently the more work I send to other journals, the more rejections I receive. I get it. I really do. How we handle your work matters. I’ve brought up specific things every single week to my class—compliment or comment but not critique, keep it professional but friendly, don’t make assumptions, etc.—and our staff takes this task very seriously.

This past week, I received three rejections on the same story that bothered me a little bit. And a taste of my own editorial medicine is a good reminder that there is someone, always, who receives those SASEs from us and that even with the best intentions, can get pissed off. Including me.

The point of this post is not to point fingers or be angered that they turned down my work. Hey, I wanted my story to appear in their magazine because I know they publish terrific fiction. They turned down the work, not me, and that’s just how it works. I know that better than anyone. No, what bugged me were the comments. Each editor gave comments that were, I believe, intended to be helpful. Instead, their comments made me question their judgment, that they misread the story in such a fundamental way that I wondered how on earth they had read the same story I wrote.

In one of his essay collections (I’m afraid I can’t recall which essay), Charles Baxter wrote about receiving a rejection letter from an editor. I remember being stunned that Baxter’s stories still got rejected (his are probably from the New Yorker. But, still) but also how he viewed the rejections: he understood the editor’s position but also believed the editor was wrong about the work. The editor had seen so much of a certain type of story that his exhaustion immediately turned him off to Baxter’s story, making him believe Baxter was attempting something that, in fact, he wasn’t.

All three editors focused on a particular part of my story that, I knew, was the most challenging, both for me and the reader, and that if the story fails or succeeds, it’s probably right there. I’ve never received such a length response to my work from an editor (unless the editor was accepting it), and so I know, from writing such lengthy responses myself, that these editors were genuinely trying to be helpful. But the commentary turned into criticism, and suggested that I do something that I am less and less interested in fiction: explanation. One editor suggested nothing happened in the story up to this particular scene, which is about two-thirds of the way through the story. Another editor asserted that all the events in the story should be explained, all the connections drawn clearly, scene by scene, so that the reader could completely understand exactly what the story was trying to say.

Well.  This sounds awfully didactic to me. I don’t quite see why any work of fiction (or any other form of creative writing) needs such a clear explanation. The more things get explained in fiction, to me, the more the story feels less imaginative, less engaging, less true (in whatever sense of that word you want to go with). This is a fine line to be sure; stories have to make sense within the milieu they exist in. But, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the reader of my story hadn’t experienced heartbreak before. I made a judgment on the editor, as a person, and that’s absolutely the wrong way to view editorial comments. It’s just about my story. That’s all.

Maybe my story needs more work. Maybe it gets accepted today. The point is that even though the comments I received felt off to me, they were written with genuine belief that the story deserved a detailed response. These editors were being generous, and despite my initial annoyance, I understand that. All of us at TMR know how awful rejection is. We all do. Every single person on our staff that has had stories, poems, and essays rejected knows it all too well, and we know that our work will be rejected again in the future. It’s not pleasant. And if we screw up and send you one of these rejections, one of these notes that angers or annoys you, believe me, it was not done with any malice. We’re doing our best, whatever failing that might bring. Keep having faith in the work we do. Because we’re definitely keeping our faith in yours.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

The Puppy Chews Its Paws

Discussion of the Best American anthologies has been all over our blog recently, and my guess is that it has appeared on many other sites, too. Sometimes it gets ripped for being generally terrible, such as Adam Gopnik’s selections for Best American Essays 2008, and other times the collection is generally considered solid. Rarely does anyone come flat out and say the collection is brilliant and breathtaking and all inclusive. How could it? Even when limited by the series editor, the guest editor has his or her own preferences for what constitutes good fiction (or poems or essays). Perhaps this is a tad unfair, but his name is on the cover and spine, in clear and large font, so the selections in this year’s Best American Stories are the Best American Stories According to Richard Russo.

What we know about any guest editor’s criteria comes from not only the writer’s work, but also from what the writer states in the anthology’s introduction. As I said two weeks ago, I was looking forward to reading Richard Russo’s introduction. I don’t know Richard Russo, but I like “him” as I perceive him from his essays, stories, and novels: a guy quick with laughter who is unpretentious and thoughtful. This might be a construct, of course, and if we learned anything over the last decade or so, public figures and celebrities construct a careful persona through a range of media outlets and services to make us believe they are Just Like Us. Naturally this tends not to be true.

So despite my personal groundless feelings on Richard Russo as a writer and all around good guy, I found his introduction to the Best American Short Stories 2010 to be lazy and frustrating. The introduction is built upon an anecdote of Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting Southern Illinois University in the early 1980’s. Meeting with students and faculty, Singer is asked “What is the purpose of literature?” and he says “To entertain and instruct.” Russo tells this story with more humor and skill then I’m bringing to it right now, but the core concept—to entertain and instruct—is the foundation for his introduction and, presumably, his selections for this anthology.

Russo writes:

“I’ll leave the defining of those two crucial terms to others”

Um—why? Aren’t you the guest editor who selected these stories? Wouldn’t this be interesting to discuss? Leaving this to others could be, I suppose, sly and funny, in the way that Singer’s pronouncement is sly and funny. It also seems reductive and simplistic. Compare this to the second paragraph of David Foster Wallace’s introduction to Best American Essays 2007:

“The truth is that just about every important word on the cover of The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out or make sense of—and that in general the whole project of an anthology like this requires a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the reader that might appear, at first, to be almost un-American.”

Now, that’s an introduction. Not just filler for the front of the book, but an essay worth reading for its own merits, one that forces the “others” to think.

The word that Russo uses that troubles me is “entertain.” Why does this word bother me? Because words aren’t static, and meanings and usage change with time; in the here and now, entertain is a word that strikes me as passive and submissive, a word for people wearing 3-D glasses, arms folded across their chest, waiting for It to appear and be … well, funny like a clown. One definition of entertain is “to keep and hold in the mind” but another definition (yes, definitions depend on the dictionary you use—see how word choice matters?) gives us this: to hold the attention of with something amusing or diverting.

Hmmm. Well, puppies are amusing.

Entertaining me with your writing often leads to the things that have troubled me, thus far, in BASS 2010: stories that aren’t so much wrecked by their endings, but take narrative turns that are both expected and perfectly average. There is a revelation at the end that feels cinematic. To be fair, I’ve only read a portion of the stories in BASS, and none of them are bad. None of them are great or “best” either, though Charles Baxter’s “The Cousins” is pretty friggin’ awesome. It also is the only story, so far, that has avoided this movie-reel moment at the end of the story.

What does Baxter’s story do? It engages. He is “occupying the attention and efforts” of the reader. The story is challenging, surprising, non-linear, beautiful, and strange. This effort to engage the reader, to make the reading a pleasing effort, is what makes the story moving and memorable: one is challenged to keep up and understand what has happened both physically and emotionally in the narrative. It is not neat and it is not easy. This is a reading experience that doesn’t allow the reader to sit back and wait for the puppy to chew its tail and flop around on its oversized paws.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with entertaining stories. I suppose there is nothing wrong with the growing defense of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard and the genre of pulp fictions that are getting more and more cache from other writers and academia, and that we can make “good writing” about vampires or werewolves or zombies, because those are fun, even for us literary dorks. I suppose that it’s okay that we are reading rather than watching television. I suppose.

But that feels like an awfully low standard for what is christened Best in any given year (or decade or century or whatnot). Perhaps it’s easier to just say that the Best American series is consumerist and designed to sell, as indicated in part by the name recognition of the recent guest editor, and just go ahead and accept that the stories they select are “entertaining” and leave it at that.

Or we can hope for more. Take for example the prize winner from the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 anthology, “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen,” by Graham Joyce. Unequivocally, this is one of the best stories I have read in years. To say that it’s about a British soldier’s experiences in Iraq during the first Gulf War doesn’t tell you much, but I would fail miserably if I tried to sum up Joyce’s brilliant and – here it is – engaging story. It’s a story that you can’t quite unwrap: you have to reread it and even then I’m not sure you can fully say exactly what it is that lingers. It’s the kind of story that occupies your attention and efforts for days, which is what the truly best short stories will always achieve.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review