Dispatches | September 18, 2012

Last week on Indiana Review‘s website, fiction editor Joe Hiland wrote a blog post titled “Three Stories Unlikely to Make it Beyond the Slush.” Aimed at fiction writers thinking about submitting their work to IR, Hiland touched on three story types that are far too familiar to the editors of literary magazines. These are:

  1. “The Sad Garage Sale” which is a post-breakup story involving giving away stuff and usually has little to no narrative drive.
  2. “[Insert Character Name] is Sick” about, well, you can probably figure it out, and has a heavy dose (overdose?) of pathos.
  3. “Scholars Misbehaving” are stories about academics who are disillusioned or drunk or both, and the prose is laden with esoteric references.

Hiland’s blog post hasn’t gone viral in an Elizabeth Warren video kind of way, but has certainly received plenty of tweets and re-posts and sharin’ to have caught the attention of writers and editors in the literary community. Here’s how its written on the Paris Review‘s blog (bold emphasis mine):

The three types of stories one editor always rejects.

Maybe I’m thinking too much about it, but the phrasing of this relatively simple sentence jumps out at me. In the last paragraph of Hiland’s post, he does write “I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from sending us stories that deal with these subjects, but I do want you to be aware that these kinds of stories have to do a bit more than others to make it out of the slush.” But that’s something that is really easy to lose sight of that detail.

Let’s break this down a little more.

Types. The problem with these stories, as Hiland points out, is that they are far too familiar. Editors can call these stories “types” because they don’t do anything particularly interesting with their subject matter. There is a common theme in these stories, usually one that is cliched and melodramatic. In our weekly pitch meeting, we discourage our interns from describing the stories they are discussing as a particular type of story.

But it’s really easy to do this because we get so many stories that deal with the same trope over and over and over again. This really can’t be emphasized enough: given how many stories we receive, it’s remarkably how often Hiland’s story “types” make it to our mailbox.

Strong, publishable, and dynamic stories that could be classified as these types of stories are, of course, not these types of stories at all. Here’s a good example: Kevin Brockmeier’s remarkable story “The Ceiling” is a break-up story. In essence, a guy whose marriage is falling apart doesn’t do anything about it.

Of course, if you’ve read “The Ceiling” (and I wouldn’t spoil it for you if you haven’t)(but, Good God, man: why haven’t you read that story?!) you know that calling it a break-up story or an inertia story misses the point. In fact, it’s almost impossible to view the story that way because of all the other powerful and wonderful things Brockmeier does with his characters.

And that kind of imaginative storytelling, even on a “type” story, is what editors want to publish.

One Editor. Simplest just to say that the mind of a good editor remains remarkably open to literature, whereas the mind of an average editor often does not.

What Hiland has expressed is what he wants to see as an editor. That’s all. Another editor, even perhaps one of his colleagues at Indiana Review, may have an entirely different aesthetic from Hiland. His blog post is about only what he is after. IR, and other good journals just like it, usually have more than one voice on the editorial staff advocating for a particular story (or poem or essay).

Good editors recognize their biases and preferences. The latter might be the better word. Magazines have preferences, and these preferences are ones that a writer-reader should be familiar with by reading copies of the magazine and reading the submission guidelines.

Always. Again, that’s not really what Hiland says. There isn’t really an absolute when it comes to fiction. Or poetry. Or nonfiction.

What Hiland emphasizes is that if a writer writes a story “type” than the story needs to do something unexpected and wholly original to have any chance of appearing in a literary magazine. The late Jerome Stern said this in his essay “Don’t Do This”:

Art is made out of broken rules. Art pushes at the envelope of the never-done, but also constantly recycles the forever-done. Cliches are the compost of art. Transformations, inversions, and reversions, and conversions continually revive fiction.

Can’t say it any better. Transform, inverse, reverse, convert—doing that with your work, your characters, your prose, is what will get your story beyond the slush pile. Always! Well, according to this editor.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye