When, at the age of twenty-four I sold my first short story - for ten dollars to the now defunct
Colorado Quarterly - I had already accumulated, by count, 576 rejection slips. I had also, by this time, written seven unpublished novels. About six months before, after an especially discouraging run of rejections, I'd tried to wallpaper my one-room flat with these slips. I spent the morning reading through them and sorting them out - the form letters to one side, the personal notes to the other - and the idea seemed antic, daring, wonderful. I arranged the slips in stacks, by size and color, and after lunch I began taping and stapling them to the wall above my desk.
In some perverse way these small squares and rectangles of paper seemed, actually, to prove to me that I was what I doubted most of all, and what I longed above all to be: a real writer. I would surround myself with a dazzling and ingeniously quilted patchwork made up of the words of those who were resisting me, and I would then - knowing who and where my enemies were - do them battle: I would become even more determined to keep writing, to succeed as a writer. And someday, I dreamt, when my work was published and praised and all these same editors came around to honor me, to solicit my fiction. . . .
To my surprise (I was, always, at least as naive as I was persistent), it took less that an hour of stapling and taping before I found myself in the blackest of depressions. I felt as miserable and defeated as I'd ever before been. I took all the rejection slips down and put them in the bottom drawer of my desk. I brooded on my writing, my non-existent career, my fate: I would never be published; I would never be happy again. The only sheet of paper I left on the wall was the one that told me where my various books, stories, and articles were, and when I had sent them out.
Then, one day not long after I'd gotten out of the wall-papering business, when I was typing up a new list of what I had out on submission, and after I'd typed the title of my new novel, the name of the publisher I'd just sent it to, and the date, I hit the tab key, let the carriage slide a few inches more to the left, and I typed in odds - 10,000 to 1. I made up odds for each other item on the list, and when I got to the bottom of the page, underneath the column of figures, I listed a Best Bet, Long Shot, Hopeful, Sleeper, and Daily Double. To the left, under the titles, I would keep a running score - "THEM" against "US." I've kept a scoreboard ever since, changing it every few months when my scribblings, after rejections and new submissions, begin to make the sheet of paper unreadable.
A few months ago - some seventeen years after I'd tacked that first scoreboard to my wall (the odds on film rights to my unsold novel were then 989,989 to 1; the odds on selected stories were 15 or 20,000 to 1) - I had twenty-nine different items (some on multiple submission) out at forty-two different places. In the daily shuffling of manuscripts from one envelope to another, the typing of covering letters, the weighing and addressing and mailing of manuscripts, the score-keeping and record-keeping and the posting of odds, I was, I felt, running my own one-man cottage industry.
The odds on some items, while not quite as spectacular as they'd been years back, were still excellent. Most stories went at somewhere between 500 and 1000 to 1, but on any given day the odds could drop to 50-1, or soar to 20,000 to 1. They depended, clearly, as they always had, as much on the odds-maker's mood as on actual track conditions.
One scoreboard during the past year had the most winners in history - four - and a shrewd bettor (the author himself?), foreseeing this run of luck, could have cleaned up. My novel, a Long Shot at 500-1, was sold, after a dozen rejections, to Holt, Rinehart and Winston (which had, fifteen months before, been the first to turn it down). A short story, "Noah's Song," that had been turned down twenty-four times and was listed at 2500-1 odds, was sold to
Present Tense; and two other stories - each with more than fifty rejections to its credit, and each leaving the starting gate at 1000-1 - were sold: "Leaving Brooklyn" to
The Literary Review, which paid only in copies, and "The St. Dominick's Game" to
The Atlantic Monthly, which paid a thousand dollars.
"The St. Dominick's Game" had been turned down by
The Atlantic twice previously, though nobody there remembered doing so. I had, in truth, written the story sixteen years before, when I was twenty-six years old. I could verify the exact month, because it was the story I took along with me, to revise, on my honeymoon - an act that I find as appalling now as I found it natural and necessary then. (To my wife Betsey it seemed equally appalling both times.) Through the years I had sent it around several times, without luck. Then, about a year ago, while rummaging through my closet in search of a different manuscript, I came across it. I read it and I thought, "Hmm, not a bad story - not at all the kind I would write now - still. . . ." I had it in a sealed envelope, addressed to a quarterly, when at the last minute I thought of giving it a final chance at one or two of the larger circulation magazines. It was, I've thought since, as if I had, on gambler's instinct, suddenly gotten out of line and moved from the two to the fifty dollar
At the same time that business on the scoreboard was at a peak - the most traffic it had seen in its history (lots of interesting stories at reasonable odds) - I began, from my office in my North Hadley home, to run what I came to think of as a second cottage industry: instead of being merely the receiver of acceptances and rejections, I became for the first time in my life - by accepting
Ploughshares's invitation to guest-edit this special fiction issue - the giver of acceptances and rejections.
I was, for many reasons, delighted that
Ploughshares had asked me. I'd had one of my own favorite stories, "Uncle Nathan" (21 rejections; 1200-1 odds) published in
Ploughshares in an issue that DeWitt Henry and Tim O'Brien had co-edited the previous year. I liked
Ploughshares's emphasis on fiction; I liked the kind of fiction it tended to publish; I liked its idea of a rotating guest editorship; and, most of all, I liked DeWitt's sense of what he was about in devoting most of his life to publishing a good magazine that had a circulation of 3000.
"There is such a thing as a purely literary motive," DeWitt wrote recently ("Public Publishing in Boston,"
The Antioch Review, Spring, 1980), "and in publishing, however hackneyed the terms, it is the attempt to encourage work of enduring quality, to establish standards of quality, to promote just appreciation and understanding, to improve and develop audience (rather than `market'). . . ."
In our first conversation, DeWitt suggested as a general guideline that I consider an issue that would contain ten to fifteen stories, with roughly a third being stories by writers I myself admired, a third by my peers, and a third by new writers - including, with luck, one or more "discoveries." We talked about budget, deadlines, and format, and we talked about writers and stories we each liked. DeWitt's hope, he declared, had always been to have one fiction issue of
Ploughshares that was (at least) equal in quality to the current volume of
The Best American Short Stories or
Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. He wanted, with
Ploughshares and through
Ploughshares, to provide what he called "contexts of merit" - to get people talking about what fiction was, to make writers write their very best fiction in order to be published in
Ploughshares. Often, when the name of a writer would come up, DeWitt would say - a sentence I would hear frequently in the months to come - "I'd like to get her [or his]
I sent out letters to about twenty writers, telling them of my admiration for their work and saying that I would very much like to have something from them to consider for the special fiction issue I was editing, and I began reading through the dozens of stories - unsolicited, for the most part - that
Ploughshares had begun forwarding to me. They came, along with my own stamped-self-addressed-envelopes, daily. I felt happy, optimistic, buoyant. What a fine thing it would be, I said to myself, to be able to put together a collection of good stories! What a fine thing it would be, I thought, to be able to give a good home to good stories, to be able to treat other writers as I had sometimes been treated, as I had always wished to be treated: with respect, with understanding, with honesty.
But - as with the wallpaper of rejection slips - I was unprepared for what followed. I was unprepared, first of all, for the sheer number and quality of good stories that I received. From January through July, to produce an issue of a dozen stories, we received and read well over nine hundred. Some of the stories came directly to me, but most went to the
Ploughshares office. A half-dozen readers (for no pay) went through these stories and sent those they liked best to me. (When we arrived at the cut-off date, we had an additional four to five hundred envelopes we had not even opened yet.) I recognized some of the writers' names (I could, during the first few months, from rejected stories alone, have put together almost two volumes made up solely of writers who had already had stories chosen for one or the other recent
Best Stories or
O. Henry annuals), but most of them were new to me.
To edit Martha Foley's memoir,
The Story of STORY Magazine (Norton, 1980), I had just spent the previous eighteen months reading through all of
STORY Magazine (for most of the decade Martha edited it, from 1931 to 1941, it was a monthly), and skimming through the volumes of the
Best American Stories that she had edited (1941-1977). The stories I was now reading in manuscript, by writers known and unknown to me, seemed as good as those I'd been reading in
The Best Stories. Within the first six weeks, when I'd read perhaps fifty manuscripts, I could have put together an issue of a dozen stories that I would have been proud of, and whose quality would have been, in my opinion, superior to most issues of
STORY, and as good as the general level of recent volumes of
The Best Stories. And I knew that I still had five months and hundreds of manuscripts ahead of me.
Where, I kept asking myself - and others - were all these good writers coming from, and who were they? Why were there so many good stories looking for a home in a magazine such as
Ploughshares, a magazine that paid little and had a modest circulation? And how sad, I kept thinking, that there were so few magazines left - two-and-a-half by my count (
The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and, occasionally,
Esquire) that both regularly printed good fiction
and reached a wide audience. But with
Esquire (as with
Redbook), which frequently published good fiction), there were severe extra-literary concerns that defined and limited the kinds of stories these magazines could run. Most of the stories I was reading would probably wind up in magazines that were seen, mainly, by the author's friends and a few other writers . . .
if they were lucky, and
if their authors were persistent. Why, then - knowing that this was the present market situation for stories - did these writers keep writing? Why did they keep submitting?
Such questions were, of course, rhetorical. The work itself was always, in the end, the justification. But when one did look up from the work - when one did continue to send a story out to magazines of increasingly small circulation - it was hard not be be disheartened. When I looked up from my own work - when I leaned over and crossed out, on my scoreboard, the name of one magazine and wrote in the name of another, I often glanced left - at a sheet of paper I'd taped to my wall a few years back. The sheet contained a quote from George Gissing's
The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, and I thought now of forwarding it to those authors I was rejecting, in whom I sometimes imagined, as with myself, the sprouting of despair and bitterness - the presence of the unwarranted and deadly conviction of failure.
. . .And why should any man who writes, even if he writes things immortal, nurse anger at the world's neglect? Who asked him to publish? Who promised him a hearing? Who has broken faith with him? If my shoemaker turn me out an excellent pair of boots, and I, in some mood of cantankerous unreason, throw them back upon his hands, the man has just cause of complaint. But your poem, your novel, who bargained with you for it? If it is honest journey-work, yet lacks purchasers, at most you may call yourself a hapless tradesman. If it come from on high, with what decency do you fret and fume because it is not paid for in heavy cash? For the work of man's mind there is one test, and one alone, the judgment of generations yet unborn. If you have written a great book, the world will come to know of it. But you don't care for posthumous glory. You want to enjoy fame in a comfortable arm-chair. Ah, that is quite another thing. Have the courage of your desire. Admit yourself a merchant, and protest to gods
and men that the merchandise you offer is of better quality than much which sells for a high price. You may be right, and indeed it is hard upon you that fashion does not turn to your stall.
As I read through the stories and as I began, necessarily, to send many I liked back to their authors, telling them what was the truth - that I simply didn't have the room to print all the good stories I wanted to print - I was by turns, exhilarated and saddened: exhilarated by the act of reading so much good fiction, and saddened by the realization that most of this fiction would never be read by all those people - could the stories only be placed in front of them! - who would be able to take pleasure from them.
If I was unprepared for the number and quality of good stories I would receive, I was also unprepared for the number of stories I would receive from friends. Earlier, when DeWitt and I had discussed which writers we knew and how best to approach them - to solicit their work (a few favorites, I discovered were bound up by
New Yorker contracts) - I had, somewhat apologetically, noted that I did not know many writers, that I led a very private life - that I lived out in the country and got to the city infrequently and simply had not, through the years, met many other writers or cultivated friendships among them. The announcement that I would be guest-editing this
Ploughshares issue transformed this situation at once. I quickly discovered that I had more friends-who-were-writers than I had ever realized. Some friends telephoned to ask if I wanted a story. Some brought their stories to my home. Some sent friends who had stories for me. Some had their agents and editors send me their stories, and, in some cases, some sent manuscripts of whole novels from which I was to feel to find an excerpt.
I was unprepared, too, during these early weeks, for the wavering of my own judgment. Before this I had been, as it were, merely a reader and lover of stories. When I read one that gave me pleasure, that moved me and/or delighted me, I would look for more stories by the same author - I would recommend the story and author to others, I would talk to friends about the specific riches I'd discovered in this story, this author.
I knew what I liked when I read it. But now I had to make choices, and I was reading many stories, that, though I didn't especially
like them, were, clearly, well-written, original, dazzling. What was I to do? Were some of these stories that did not - in subject, tone, style - especially appeal to me, to my sensibility - were they nevertheless, because they were so accomplished, deserving of publication? And what was I to do when, after an afternoon of reading a dozen or more stories - after I'd read my second story about a nursing home, or my third story about a single-parent-coping-with-separation-and-child-and-singledom, or my fourth self-reflexive post-Borgesian construction about the relation of art-to-the-artist (kinds that showed up frequently) - what was I to do when I felt that the very (surface) similarity of these stories was blurring my ability to see each story clearly? And how would I ever have the sheer time to read each story with the care and ease (privately, without distractions) that good fiction deserved?
Sometime during this period a story of mine ("Jai Alai, Far From Home"; 26 rejections, 1200-1 odds) was taken by the
Minnesota Review. "Reading mss. for this particular issue," Scott Sanders, their fiction editor, wrote me, "I've been more excited and more depressed about the state of fiction in American than ever before. Here we sit, small publication, don't pay anything, no fame - and in the last month before our deadline for the fiction issue, we received about 300 stories, perhaps fifty good ones and a couple of dozen very good ones. Where are all those people? Who's reading them? Whom are they writing for? And if we see this kind of work, what must
The Atlantic see every month?"
I was not alone. Nor was I really, after the first few weeks, panicked or frustrated or in danger of losing friends. "Don't worry about rejecting what doesn't perfectly suit you," one writer wrote back. "You shouldn't print what you don't like, and sometimes it's not even possible to print what you do like. Serious writers should certainly know that and be sympathetic to editors." As they were. Most of us would admit, to ourselves and to one another, of our desires and hopes and ambitions: for certain kinds of fame, for the ever wider - and just - appreciation and recognition of our work. "Not to worry about the stories," one friend wrote. "You're the editor, and it's always a difficult position." Still, there was, I knew, disappointment, hurt, and pain associated with any rejection of one's work. But there was also, coincident with this, I was now reminded by letters from writers, things that - along with crushed hopes and bitterness
and envy - joined us to one another: the knowledge of our common lot, of a shared struggle; the desire, most simply, to write the books and stories one yearned to be able to write; the desire to see one's work into print; the desire to be read. And there was, always, no matter the quality of the work and the energy that produced it, the common fact and possibility of
not seeing one's work into print, of
not being read.
I found after the turmoil of the first few weeks, that I was enjoying my editorship as much as I'd ever enjoyed any experience connected with my career as writer. I enjoyed, most of all, simply spending many afternoons and evenings reading good stories and writing to their authors about them. I enjoyed sharing the stories with DeWitt and Betsey - discussing them, reading sections from them aloud, re-reading them, editing them, savoring them. I developed what proved a workable method. If a story engaged me in any way, I would put it aside, let it sit for a week or two, and then read it again. Some stories paled on a second or third reading - some seemed richer. Some stories, I decided, on a second or third or fourth reading, had, as it were, fooled me - I'd missed what was actually going on in the story, or - conversely - I'd been taken in a bit too much by more superficial qualities: glittering surface, relentless pacing, starkness of scene, and by what I came to call cinematic verisimilitude
(a surface that seemed utterly real and compelling in the same way that the surface of a good foreign espionage movie seemed real and compelling).
And some stories I loved on first reading, and loved more each time I read them.
As my own standards and tastes became more apparent to me, by the process of winnowing and selection - I began also to feel less obliged to do anything but choose those stories I myself liked most. If I was the editor, then the stories
should reflect my editing; I had no obligation to be catholic in my tastes. I realized what, of course, I'd known before about my preferences but had not, perhaps, ever, in this particular way, had to put to use or to name.
I tended to like stories that were realistic. I liked stories that showed the evidence of a single, unique mind working freely - stories in which images and incidents and characters were so striking and compelling that I did not believe that any other author could ever have invented them. I liked stories that were well-written - beautifully written. I liked stories that had what I referred to as
edge - stories that were seen clearly and sharply, and that had a voice informing them that was steady, severe, spare. I liked stories in which the writer's eye was always on the object - stories that were, in terms I used when debating with myself, all sinew and muscle. I liked stories that had substance - that were about people, events and ideas that mattered. I preferred, that is, stories in which the authors cared deeply about their creations - about their characters and their characters' lives. I liked stories in which - whatever the form or plot - the sense of time made itself felt, stories in which I believed in the passage of time and thus was made, by the author, to sense intensely my own mortality, my own flesh. I liked stories in which there was the sense of a particular life lived, one in which the history of that life, past and future, was suggested and felt beyond the beginning and end of the story. I preferred stories that were centered more in the heart than in the mind.
I did not choose stories that lacked - that were somehow in opposition to - these qualities. I did not, for example, give second readings to stories in which the authors clearly despised or condescended to their creations or characters, or in which the primary interest of the fiction lay in the writer's ability to invent and observe (cleverly, ingeniously) rather than in what it was that was being invented and observed.
I came to realize that my preference for certain fictions ran very deep, and I came to trust, more than ever before, these preferences, though, as here, I studied them and questioned them. I came to realize that my preference for certain kinds of stories and novels was very much like my preference for certain kinds of music. When I listened to a sonata, a concerto, or a symphony, I knew, I waited for - preferred - the second movement. Not always, of course. And not all second movements. But there was something in me that loved second movements most - that loved the lyrical, the beautiful, the peaceful, the sad, the sweet, the hard, the melodic - and whatever it was that preferred second movements, it occurred to me one day - and when it did, the realization made me suddenly happy - also preferred certain stories, voices, subjects.
When DeWitt had read through the first half-dozen or so of my final choices, he suggested naming this issue "Strangers in a Strange Land." I smiled. The themes suggested by that phrase, itself Biblical - of loss, exile, displacement - were, I saw at once (though I had not until then), those that most moved me and drove me. They were there in the fiction I'd chosen - and they were there in my own fiction. They were central to something in me and I was deeply pleased that they were - I was willing to trust that centrality, that sensibility. They were, in the fiction I preferred attended by other qualities: by mystery, by terror, by hardness, by passion. They were present as central concerns of the short story writers of the past whom I loved most: they gave life to the stories of Babel, Chekhov, James and Cather. And they were accompanied, when the stories were strongest and truest and most memorable, not only by a love of story-telling itself - but by a sense of the price at which things such
as beauty and art and knowledge and happiness were, when they did come to one in this life, bought.
Here, then, are 13 stories. My one regret, as editor, is that I could not have included more stories and that the stories I have included will not be read by nearly as many people as could take true pleasure and sustenance from them. My one misgiving is that, here and there, I may have sent back a story that, had I had more time (or, better yet, a magazine such as
STORY that published a dozen stories every month!), I would, reading it now, prefer to one that I've included. Although I discarded, early on, DeWitt's suggestion about a tripartite dividion, it turned out - by chance - that there are in this issue roughly a third by writers I've previously loved, a third by peers, and a third by new writers. The stories by David Laux, Deborah Mutnick, and Sue Miller - this is the source of my greatest satisfaction as editor, for until I heard back from these writers after I had accepted their stories, I did not know that it would prove so - are their very first nationally published stories.
I thought often through the past half year of what I would say in this introduction. I thought, at times, of saying nothing - of, as previous editors have done, merely presenting the stories and letting them speak for themselves (which they will do anyway). But I kept thinking too, especially when I had to send good stories back, of my own experience through the years - of my own hopes, successes, frustrations, failures. I kept the
Ploughshares folder - lists of possible acceptances, of letters to and from writers - under my scoreboard, and I thought often of telling the writers I wrote to about my scoreboard, of telling them about - the phrase repeated itself, again and again - persistence as a way of life.
Persistence as a way of life - the words settled inside my head and stayed there. My own example was, perhaps, more graphic - more intense, more extreme - than that of most writers; I kept wanting, as writer and as editor, to use it to give heart to other writers in the same way, I saw, that fiction itself had always given life to me, in the way that my reading of fiction had somehow, throughout my life, helped me to survive. I thought too, during the months I read stories for this issue, of what had happened in America during the last five decades - of how so many of the mass-circulation magazines that once printed good fiction had disappeared, of how those that were left printed ever fewer stories, of how there was really no literary magazine in existence (like
STORY) that published good fiction and lots of it, and that still hoped to reach a
I had my own ideas as to why this was so - as to why it was, generally, that people no longer went to fiction for news of how they lived - ideas that had to do with the taking over of contemporary fiction by the universities and English departments; ideas that had to do with the decline of privacy and of our belief in privacy; and ideas that had to do with the general decline in our belief in the imagination as a trustworthy source of pleasure and information.
To be alone with a novel or story that requires attention, reflection, and a sensibility that has itself been previously tuned and refined by the reading of good fiction seems, more and more, to judge from conversations with my own friends, students, and colleagues, an alien experience. My daughter's fourth grade multiple-choice reading assignments are clearly designed to train her not in reading, but in
reading comprehension. My undergraduate and graduate students seem to demand, even in fiction, a kind of instant and superficial gratification that, truly, films and TV can give more readily. And often they prefer the kind of fiction, so prevalent in academic quarterlies, about which they can (as if it were a recent foreign film) discourse in analytic and non-literary terms. It is easier, and, perhaps, more pleasurable for them to decode a mildly obscure text than it is, to put it most simply, to talk about why a story was beautiful, subtle, and moving.
And though I might feel sad that there is no magazine existing today that regularly brings large amounts of good fiction to a wide and general audience, I feel very pleased that, in this one issue of
Ploughshares, I can, no matter the effect - on others, on the writers' careers, on the literary world - help see some good stories into print. Not because I have any illusion that this will lead to worldly changes, but simply because it is good to write stories and to have them printed and to read them.
For though we may lament and analyze and try to change those things - economic, cultural, historic - that affect the fate of fiction in our time, what seems most important, in the end - always, again - is the good of the work itself. It is a wonderful thing - a
grand thing, to use Flannery O'Connor's word - to be able to make a good story, to create something that, like a newborn child, has no existence before, and once created, has a life of its own - a life whose full effect (on writer, on reader) can never, blessedly, be either fully foreseen or fully charted.
North Hadley, Massachusetts