by Mark Jay Mirsky
When I am asked by writers what I look for in submissions to Fiction, I generally look blank. This is because I try to read the stories that come across my desk without preconceptions. I don't have a formula in my head. I know one editor of a prominent literary journal who announced that he could always tell from the first sentence whether a story was worth reading or not. I can't echo that. I do, however, usually know by the bottom of the first page whether or not I want to go on reading. Sometimes it is the language that draws me into the writer's world; sometimes it is the way the plot is already tugging at my attention. What convinces me that a story that has come my way ought to be in the pages of Fiction is that I want to live in its world. Why? Because it's full of surprises and riddles that I only half understand. If I want to go back and read the story a second and third time, even though it held my attention through the whole of my first reading, then I sense that I want to publish it. Since I regard myself as a writer first and foremost, a pang of jealousy is often a necessary ingredient. When the language lapses into cliche, no matter how interesting the plot has been, I don't want anything to do with the writing. If the story doesn't turn on itself in some way--embodying that brilliant title of Henry James,The Turn of the Screw, which is almost a motto for every good story--so that the final surprises leave me exhausted (by promising to resolve the questions only to open up additional ones), then I put it down disappointed. I like to paraphrase Robert Creeley when it comes to the process of writing; the poet, whose story "Mr. Blue" is one of my favorites: "I start wherever I can, and I stop when I see the whole thing coming round." Very few stories really accomplish this, so a half-turn of the screw will often do.
To go back and ask again the hardest question, what am I looking for in a submission? I want to be taken into a world that I don't know and find myself asking the same questions that the writer is asking, perhaps not asking with the same intensity or knowing how many of the answers live in the details, but intrigued and feeling that the author cares. I ask of Shakespeare, whose narrative questions continually draw me closer and closer into the text, what should Hamlet have done once his father's ghost has spoken? Should King Lear have let his let power slip away? And in the happier tales that the playwright staged, what is it about Rosalind in As You Like It that makes us like her so much, that makes us possibly fall in love with this virtual young woman?
Since American fiction in particular is so besotted with what is called "naturalism," or realistic portrayals of life, it is the strange, the bizarre, and the surreal, which are my particular delights as an editor. After all, I foundedFiction with writers like Donald Barthelme and Max Frisch, who were always on the edge, experimenting in fiction, and while I disagreed with some of Donald's enthusiasms, he was in every way my teacher. I try to imagine now what he would want to publish. You can't easily imitate masters of the imagination like Donald, Max, or other favorites of mine like Jorge Luis Borges and Robert Musil--writers who try usually end up with obvious knockoffs. Still, when I feel their spirit laughing in a story I have received, I feel that this new author belongs with us. There is, however, no hard and fast rule for being accepted into the magazine; fiction remains mysterious to me, and I can't entirely explain why I can't get enough of one writer while I remain cold to another. An author who recently wrote in to complain about our online magazine, Hot Type, claimed that he found a number of the selections conventional and that he was hoping for more experimental work in the spirit of Barthelme and Musil. Fair enough, but he went on to describe his cutting-edge experiments with computer-generated fiction. I am fascinated by the tension between the machine and the human--and cinematic narratives like Battlestar Galactica, texts like Norbert Weiner's God & Golem, Inc., deeply engage me--but experiment for the sake of experiment is not going to woo my attention. If I do err, it will be for the sake of language, image, metaphor, the rhythm its sentences beat out, but finally I want to feel the movement of a plot. "Plot over all!" to paraphrase a dangerous saying.
Finding authors isn't easy. We field over a thousand submissions a year and sometimes two thousand. About a hundred of them come in from agents, and obviously, since the agent has served as a first reader, I ask to take a look at all of these. However, few of these stories serve our purpose at Fiction or interest me. The agent who serves on our editorial board, like my managing editors, usually knows what excites me and which authors on her client list I consider the tastiest, so to speak. I batter other agents with requests for work from writers I know and love, such as John Barth and Aharon Appelfeld, but despite the fact that we now pay for submissions, many agencies don't pay proper attention to what we are eager to see in our pages. Some, I suspect, send what they can't market elsewhere. That's foolish--the Barth manuscript we were able to obtain from an agent went on to be placed in The Best American Short Stories. Obviously, since I write books and have a substantial teaching schedule and obligations at The City College, which pays my salary, I can't read all the unsolicited manuscripts. This puts me, to an extent, at the mercy of my editorial readers, who sometimes understand what I am looking for and sometimes do not. They try to send on to me all the writers who have had any kind of serious publication in other literary journals and try to read, and to an extent respond to, every submission. Still, it is those writers whom we pluck out of obscurity, previously unpublished, from unsolicited manuscripts whom I am proudest of finding and putting into print. At the same time I try, however, to include several names that have national or international recognition so that readers in bookstores, librarians, and subscribers will pick up the issue knowing that within its pages there is a company of writers who merit attention. And I like, in particular, to discover work that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
What is the role of smaller journals today? How does publishing in a literary journal help an author's career and expose his or her work? Happily, we send out over 2,500 copies, some to subscribers, libraries (where they have many readers), and agents, as well as some free copies to writers who have published with us. These have a wide reach. To my surprise, several issues ago, a story I wrote about Scheherazade received a glowing review in Turkey. It is not infrequent for a distinguished writer like Joyce Carol Oates to send a note to an author she admires after reading a story in Fiction. Or for an agent to ask if a particular writer would like to talk about being represented. (Mary Miller, who was featured in the last issue, received just such a query.) Writers like Robert Stone and T. Coraghessan Boyle had some of their earliest publication in Fiction. Did we have any role in their subsequent success? I hope so. I am glad we recognized them. The materials that were not sought out by commercial publishing houses or were rejected by them are some of the treasured pages inFiction that make me glow. How did I find them? Hanging around writers, publishers, agents, and listening--hearing that Harcourt was not interested in publishing Max Frisch's William Tell: A School Text and jumping at the opportunity; or finding out that certain pages of Robert Musil's Diaries were available and begging for them; or learning that there were over 2,000 unpublished pages of Henry Roth's writing left in workbooks that had not been gathered into Mercy of a Rude Stream and that The New Yorker would only be publishing a limited number of them, and managing to bring some portion of the rest to light in Fiction's pages. The company of these undeniable masterworks offers some hope to the careers of those who publish alongside them.
I believe, since most writing careers are subsidized by others--universities, foundations, patrons--that publication in Fiction does not just launch a writer's life; it sustains it. In the scales of hiring, tenure, promotion, and grants, the magazine's forty-year history and its roster of great authors has real weight. A writer's life (with the exception of a few very lucky ones) is, in professional terms, generally lonely and often unrewarded. Looking back on the company one has kept by publishing in a literary journal is one of the few rewards that never loses value.
Even though the magazine, as a labor of love, comes out less frequently than I would wish, every year brings a number of letters from writers who have finally found a commercial publisher and who write to thank us for launching them into the world of publication. Despite a succession of young student managing editors, the burden of Fiction has rested largely on my shoulders and my wife's for many years. Not only the editing and physical production of the magazine, but also the grant applications, the filings with New York State, the IRS, the fruitless attempts to persuade entities like New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Cultural Development Fund, the New York Council for the Humanities, and others that a small literary magazine should be sustained. Luckily, New York State Council on the Arts has been a reliable source of funding for us, and our board of directors has also contributed to the magazine's continued existence. We survive on donations, not subscriptions. That's the truth of most literary magazines, a wisdom I learned from my friend, William Phillips, whose influence on American literature was immense as editor of Partisan Review. I remember Donald Barthelme lamenting the loss of "hot type," though the much cheaper cost of "cold type" (which uses photographic paper) is what enabled us to start a publication on very little capital. To go out of print would be to betray him. Donald, while departing early from editorial duties, was watchful throughout his life over Fiction, sending us stories and consulting on design. He was shocked that I kept the magazine going; he thought it would fade out of existence after four or five issues. If so, I am convinced that Manuel Puig's career, which was revived with our publication of sections of his Kiss of the Spider Woman, would have languished--in fact, I was the one who found him a publisher for the novel. Frisch's William Tell might not have come to the attention of Continuum, and Musil's Diaries might have waited many more years before being published. Not only do magazines launch and revive careers, they make a world swim into view, a community of writers for the reader. We may be out of the eye of most of "the wide world," but I think we are read by those who are looking for fiction that is worth reading and thinking about twice.
As I try to look forward into the future world of fiction and narrative without losing our commitment to print, I find myself intrigued by the possibilities of the web, ready to take more risks in terms of what we publish in our web magazine, Hot Type, which has been in existence for two years. Since at present much of this material is from previously unpublished or about-to-be published writers, it doesn't have the same cachet as work in the print versions of Fiction. Still, I notice that some agents are asking us to run work simultaneously, and I want to use the web as a way of striking out in new directions with what we think is fiction and finding narratives that probe the boundaries of what is real and unreal. What we need most is a community of smart readers who like to be challenged, not just coddled. I think that Fiction provides for its writers, beyond just helping their careers, an audience of readers who love fiction and are acute enough to enjoy its challenges. If I feel challenged, I think my readers will be as well.
If I had any last words with which to guide unpublished writers, young or old, my advice would be to remind them that the paper and print of a magazine, no matter how handsome, popular, or widely circulated, is just a stamp of love or approval. It's the voice of a group of editors or a single editor and that, again, what a literary editor is usually looking for is kinship and community. It's painful to know that you are excluded, but you and the editor are searching through the medium of writing--in my case, fiction. Often, the editor is himself or herself a writer, and it's wise to know something about what they have written and to respond to it in offering one's own work. The notion of anonymity is precious, but the more likely truth of the matter is that being properly introduced--through an agent, a friend, or through one's own enthusiasm for who and what the editor is all about--counts for much more than it ought to. The romance of being accepted--not because you know someone, but because the writing speaks for itself--is perhaps the most powerful fiction that we have as writers. In this regard, I find myself smiling at a recent note from one of my favorite writers, Sheila Kohler, who reminded me of a few lines I had sent her when her first story came in to the magazine. She had submitted a story, unsolicited, and said that her husband had gone to college with me. I wrote back, "I don't remember your husband, but I like your story." (Of course, I have to footnote her remark by saying that just that touch of the personal may have brought the story out of the vast heap of our unsolicited manuscripts to my attention.)
Whenever a talented student in one of my creative writing courses, at the graduate or undergraduate level, asks how to launch a career as a writer, the best wisdom I can offer them is to volunteer to work on a literary magazine. I was a neophyte when we began Fiction, running errands for Donald Barthelme, who was not only my senior but vastly more sophisticated. My association with Fiction, however, brought me introductions, interviews, and friendships with some of the world's writers who were then at the zenith of their careers, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Halldor Laxness, and Harold Brodkey. Some I only brushed against like Saul Bellow, Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, and Joseph Brodsky. Others, when I did meet them, were unexpectedly warm, like Joyce Carol Oates. Sometimes what was most precious was just a letter, a few courtly lines from someone I admired, like Juan Carlos Onetti. I like to think, however, that reading, knowing, and weighing writers whose work I admired and sometimes edited did in fact help me with my own work. Writing is a solitary act, and it takes what my mother used to stress as one of the most important skills in life, "zitsfleisch," i.e., the patience to stick to one's chair and keep to a task until it is finished. It's because of this that the society of writers is so important, and the best place to experience that community is not in a professional organization or a political cause, but in the common endeavor of writing--a community most happily encountered in a magazine where one has a chance of being read by one's fellows and recognized.
Mark Jay Mirsky is the editor-in-chief of Fiction, which he founded with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch and Jane DeLynn. In subsequent issues Jerome Charyn and Faith Sale served on the editorial staff. The author of thirteen books, among them the novel Blue Hill Avenue--cited by the Boston Globe as one of the 100 essential books of New England--he is the editor of Robert Musil's Diaries in English. His latest book is The Drama in Shakespeare's Sonnets: "A Satire to Decay." (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press)