C. Michael Curtis, a senior editor and longtime revered fiction editor at the Atlantic Monthly, published an essay called “Publishers and Publishing,” in On Writing Short Stories, a collection of essays, edited by Tom Bailey. It’s a pretty enlightening, amusing reflection on the fiction submissions he receives. Our fave part:
“Much of the writing that pours onto the desks of literary editors at both the serious-minded but commercial general magazines and the smallest, most fiercely independent quarterlies is inept, undeveloped, amateurish, crazed, obscene, unintelligible, or some combination of the above.”
At least, that’s what we thought. I mean, we’ve received rejection letters with comments like “uninteresting” and “meandering” and “seems to have no larger point.”
But “crazed?” “Obscene?” Just what the hell are people doing out there?
Here are some other amusing rejections we ran across:
“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” (Written about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22—believed to have been given this title because it was the 22nd publisher, Simon and Schuster, who agreed to take it on.)
“The American public is not interested in China.” (Seriously, what could be interesting about Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth?)
“This will set publishing back 25 years.” (Wonder why? Anyone read Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park?)
“Good God, I can’t publish this.” (Said about William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.)
“An absurd story as romance, melodrama or record of New York high life.” (Gasp! Blasphemy uttered about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.)
“Stick to teaching.” (Louisa May Alcott was urged to keep her day job after submitting Little Women.)
“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” (We get your point. But Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was still a masterpiece.)
“An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” (Maybe depressing and gory and violent, but William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was dull?)
“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” (Wonder what this visionary thinks of The Hunger Games. He rejected Carrie, by Stephen King)
“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.” (Give it up, Garth Stein. Even George Orwell’s Animal Farm can’t cut it.)
This is an awesome essay of Curtis’s by the way, and you can check it out here:
If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, let us recap a bit. He gives a great rundown of what editors are, and aren’t, looking for in submissions, including cover letters. He says only two things included in your letter might cause an editor to be more interested in your story than the average one:
- Citations of stories published elsewhere, particularly in periodicals of comparable size and reputation; and
- Mention of the fact that you’ve been enrolled in a reputable MFA program (or residence at Bread Loaf or Sewanee, etc.).
Other take-aways? Same as you’ve always heard:
- Don’t recap your story—let it speak for itself.
- Don’t talk about other magazines that have rejected it already.
- Don’t single space.
- Don’t send anything with typos or grammatical errors.
- Don’t try to dazzle them with your wit or sound hostile or desperate.
In short, just make your writing as fab as possible, keep your cover letter simple and direct, and send it out.
Spray and pray, people. Spray and pray.