Recently had the pleasure of listening to a (recording of a) lecture given at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College delivered by Caitlin Horrocks. The name of the talk is “When Bad Stories Go Good,” and it came to my attention because she mentions my story “Kink,” which is slated to appear in the Kenyon Review Online later this summer.
It’s a great lecture, funny and interesting, sobering and inspiring in the right places. Anyway, she points out–correctly–that the first few paragraphs of “Kink” will give experienced readers some cause for alarm; it’s a familiar and kinda gimmicky setup for a literary story (though I won’t spoil it here). About two-and-a-half strikes’ worth, I’d say. Luckily for me, she soldiered on and found something worthwhile in the rest of it.
The next example she gives is from a story by George Saunders, who we share a love for, and she brings up a point so obvious I rarely think about it: when a story’s title page says “George Saunders,” you’ll give it a fair shot. When it says “Chris Drangle” (or Lucy Talluto, or Angus Fothenfeather, or some other unknown name), it’s reasonable to be more immediately skeptical.
This is not a complaint. When I’m reading through the pile of submissions at Epoch, I’m much harder on the first few pages of a story than I am on, say, Alice Munro’s latest thing in The New Yorker. There are lots of reasons for that, but they’re not important to my point.
My point is for my fellow non-Saunders-level fiction submitters: submit a lot. Reading and editing staffs, at magazines big and small, DO want to publish your stuff, but their jobs are hard and the sieves they use are necessarily fine. Your job is not just to write something good, but to help it get to an editor who will give it a chance. That might mean submitting to three places, or thirty. Not every reader will forgive you for the garbage you insult them with on the first page, but, if you submit enough, you might find a Caitlin Horrocks generous enough to try page two.
You could also, I suppose, not insult them with garbage on the first page, but that’s very hard.