A post by David Cameron at The Review Review has been making the rounds online this morning. In it, Cameron describes a little “experiment” he recently attempted after “a few glasses of two-buck Chuck.”
I grabbed a New Yorker story off the web (no, it wasn’t by Alice Munro or William Trevor), copied it into a Word document, changed only the title, created a fictitious author identity, and submitted it to a slew of literary journals, all of whom regularly grace the TOC of Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, O’Henry, etcetera and etcetera. My cover letter simply stated that I am an unpublished writer deeply appreciative of their consideration.
You can probably guess where this is headed. All of the magazines reject the story, using only “boilerplate ‘good luck placing your work elsewhere’ auto-text,” and Cameron takes this as the latest bit of evidence that the name at the top of the story matters more than the story itself. He declines to name the magazines—“mainly because I don’t want to be denied any free drink tickets at the next AWP,” he says—with one exception: The New Yorker itself, which, shockingly, rejected stories that it had already published.
Of course, it would be much more shocking if the magazine had accepted previously published stories. That wouldn’t have happened, obviously, because at some point the actual fiction editor would have taken a look, if whoever was reading the slush pile had thought the story was worth her attention. The fiction editor would have recognized the story, and the slush pile reader would have had a very bad day.
Cameron assumes that the initial reader did not recognize the story, given the boilerplate rejection. But that’s an iffy assumption. The New Yorker gets a huge number of unsolicited fiction submissions, and, once you’ve decided to reject a story, it’s easier to send the standard, agreed-upon rejection letter than to write a personal note—even if that personal note says, “Sorry, pal, I already know this story. Nice try.” Why engage with someone who is wasting your time?
Which is what Cameron is doing here. Even putting aside the question of whether the already published piece of fiction was recognized, what has he proven? That it helps to have a personal “in” with The New Yorker? That it helps to make your name elsewhere first? This is news how, exactly? And different from other areas of life in what way?
Many other writers have indulged in this silly exercise before. There was the guy who sent Jane Austen novels to several U.K. publishers five years ago, as if it made sense to write 19th-century-style fiction in 2007. (Even assuming that some of the publishers did not recognize, e.g., Pride and Prejudice—which I doubt—it would still read like pastiche, and not very interesting pastiche.) There was the other guy who sent part of a lesser Jerzy Kosinski novel around. That same guy (and they are all, for some reason, guys) submitted the script of Casablanca to a bunch of movie agents—as if the movie business had not changed a whit since 1942, and those agents who were foolish enough not to recognize the classic dialogue were proving some point about how the people at the top have no idea what they’re doing.
Of course, to some degree, when it comes to art, no one ever knows precisely what they’re doing. (In the movie business, it’s a truism.) There is, unavoidably, a huge amount of subjectivity involved. Even well-placed arbiters of fiction and movies do not all love the same things. A good story might hit one of them one day and not another, for any number of reasons. And we’re all more interested in work by artists we already find fascinating than by people we’ve never heard of. A lesser story by Vladimir Nabokov will interest us in part because it’s by the man who wrote Lolita. Is that fair? Given how good Lolita is, I say yes.
This is especially relevant when it comes to The New Yorker, which is not devoted in any significant way to publishing new voices. Most New Yorker writers got their start elsewhere. The fiction editor has even said that writers who do not have agents are unlikely to get published in the magazine. (Though she has also said it happens occasionally.)
There are many, many other literary magazines out there that publish short stories, and if you want to make a go of it writing fiction, you should find ones that seem suited to your own sensibility, and begin submitting. (If you’re only interested in being published in The New Yorker, then you must not be particularly committed to the inherent value of your fiction.) This being 2013, you could also consider just publishing it yourself! What you shouldn’t do is get a little tipsy and blanket a bunch of magazines—some of which may not even accept simultaneous submissions—with plagiarism. All that does is leave the beleaguered slush pile readers even less time to maybe, possibly, find something by an unknown writer that they really should give a chance.