Dear Mr. Gates:
We appreciate the recent flow of stories you’ve sent our way. And our quick mailmerged replies seem to not be getting through. Please stop. I’d like to take a few moments, perhaps, to further comment on what it is exactly that we feel you’re missing.
First, it’s not even what’s missing; it’s the extra stuff that’s there. Last month you’d sent us a story with three acts and a post-script paragraph worthy of early Fitzgerald, or at least of early South Park. Now, it wasn’t the moralizing at the end there that threw us off. We quite enjoy reading stories with final paragraphs like the following:
“Without solace and without solitude, she entered the sex-club’s doors like she was Persephone; this underworld could be her new home, but only for a season. He was still waiting in her apartment, and her promises of a swift return would leave him thirsting like Tantalus for his lady’s loins, or so she assumed.”
Now, that might have been fine, and surely in another author’s hands this paragraph could have captured what was a fairly interesting story about a woman’s inner conflict of loving her unendowed boyfriend, and seeking solace through extracurricular sex. But only in another author’s hands. Because this paragraph is immediately preceded by an advertisement for another story of yours that we’d already suggested you shop elsewhere, an advertisement delivered with the subtlety of a carnival barker with a recent steroid injection. And this was not the only ad. You seem to have learned drama from the dubious school of Mr. George Lucas. We get that you can count to three. We get that this story mimics a sitcom, and that the graceless, somber prose is at odds with the voices of the advertisers. And we also get the product placement; you’ve inserted not just three commercials to the three stories that we had already swiftly rejected, but you felt the need for allusions within the story of a further reference to twelve more stories, unless, of course, we missed any.
Mimicking television in a short story is not just insulting to our readers, or us, but also to yourself. Literary fiction tries to set itself apart from popular culture, to provide an alternative for the stream of misinformation, your tweets and your blogs and your porn and your pirated television. Our art is a remembrance of something forgotten, something we think of as significantly closer to pure, almost elemental.
Secondly, we are actually unable to deduce from your prose just how misogynistic you intended this to be. Is it ironic that the woman seeks agency without the man from a sex club, or is it accidentally ironic that she feels she has no other options for finding an adequately hung man? It feels like the movie The Room. And by that comparison, we’re certainly not suggesting that your story, or indeed, your prolific body of work, deserve any sort of cult status or critical queries. Third-person omniscient was a wonderful choice for this piece. It seemed, possibly, to be about the loneliness and inability to connect without impotent gadgetry and sterile devices that act as electronic intercessors, which culminated with the vibrator scene. Again, we can’t tell where the irony begins or ends, or if indeed it should. But why use such a limited point of view and then switch into first-person monologues for the ‘sex’ scenes? The guy’s thoughts seem incredible; literally, they are not to be believed. And the woman? We’ve begun to wonder if this isn’t simply some pedestrian art-school product, a groupthink project where ten people enjoy the liberty of hiding behind a useless nom-de-plum. We’d enjoy it immensely if you would just stop, however many of you there are. With you, it’s less that the authorial intention is dead, but rather that the authorial intentions are undead, existing solely in a zombie fugue of cheap beer and television. It seems that what you really need is not a career coach but a hobby coach. Would that they had such a thing!
Thirdly, and this is maybe beside the point, the Sisyphean meta-struggle with which you’ve presented us does not even deserve the attention of anyone. Thirty stories in half a year? We stated explicitly that we would like to read one story per submitter at a time. You have cleverly circumvented our explicit and underlined statement by tricking the computer with multiple email accounts. Kudos, but again, tricking submission managers is kid’s stuff, or at least would be if kids submitted to prestigious literary journals. It is a faster rate of submission than most, but please believe us, you in no way jeopardize the servers we employ. This does somewhat feel like an attempt at a slowmotion denial-of-service attack.
Finally. Please stop the personal attacks. I do not know how you know of our Poetry Editor Dawn’s recent broken engagement, but the prose poem you submitted three months ago crossed a certain line. The never-ending cascade of iambs was bad enough, but the implication that her fiancée left her for her own golem was not only creepy, but felt vaguely anti-Semitic in the context you presented.
Bernice Shaves her Vegan Grown Hair. Yes, we have an intern named Bernice. Yes, she has a shaved head. Yes, she is one of the three people whose job it is to scour the slush pile, looking for something interesting. And yes, we realize that she has over five thousand Facebook friends, as well as a public profile, so it would be really easy to find out that she’s a poly-vegan-Marxist. Appropriating Fitzgerald’s title, as well as his basic premise was cute. The bit on how to identify the undercover instigating cops at meetings was amusing, three days sobriety being the operative words. Pointing out that surely if Marx meant the opium/religion comment as a dis, then surely the dis works as well for literal opium as well as opium as a metaphor. That was getting a little personal. The rant against polyamory seemed childish and genuinely hurtful in nature, although I secretly enjoyed the bit about how if marriage was a trap for women, then perhaps if someone had told Bill Shakespeare, then maybe he could have left Anne Hathaway his first best bed, and it could have been the same bed. Clever. But it did not go over very well when our Bernice read it. So, feel free to write as many Bernice characters into your stories; she quit, so she will not read them, and we will not publish them.
The bit of slash fiction you wrote starring our Associate Fiction Editor Ted and a decrepit Superman crossed a further line. Ted has been out for at least fifteen years or so, and while I must say, I wish the prose had been a little cleaner — a little more Carver and little less Elizabeth Wurtzel — it was the only short short that anyone here has ever framed and put over his desk, before now. So maybe you should consider that one a success, of sorts. It won’t land you that academic job you probably want, but maybe you should put it on your list of publications: The Fortress of Solipsism, published on The Wall above Ted’s Desk.
Finally. In three different stories, you have suggested that I was forced out of my tenured Professorship, an action caused by a curious sexting mishap with an undergraduate female poetry student. Let me assure you, no such thing happened. I’m not even sure that my phone would allow me to pursue such an action, assuming for minute that I’d even be able to identify such a desire if I had even ever had it. So: three stories about the action, with allusions to the action peppered throughout your last ten stories, seems a bit beside the point. Yes, I am retired. However, you may not have noticed this, but I am still an employee of the University, as evidenced by my name on the masthead of the journal, as well as on our companion website with which you seem so familiar. There was no incident, and there was no forced retirement, and my wife has not and will not enter a letter-writing campaign for my reinstatement.
There was, however, a curious series of incidents that did hasten my retirement, if only by a matter of a few years. I had a student. He was a PhD student with an M.B.A, an M.F.A., as well as an M.A. in Architecture. He confided in me once that he had entered the PhD English program, because his father for years had nicknamed him ‘Master of None.’ He was a promising student, if substantially older than the rest of the students. When he began, he was already in his mid-forties. So he had begun life wanting to be a fiction writer, and he was quite prolific. Once he showed me a portfolio of his containing well over seventy short stories. But he had never been published. He was a precocious student, and a terrible T.A. But he had drive, and certainly part of me thought back to my own youth, when I’d thought that maybe I could take over the world. To be sure, I actually did take over about as much of the world as I’d initially imagined, but this middle-aged student had the spark, the drive, the thirst of Tantalus, as I’m sure you’d describe it. He was done with classes a few years later, writing more fiction on the side, when suddenly the journals started sending him acceptance letters instead of rejection letters. I was a fan of his drive, his obvious passion for the work, and would congratulate him appropriately when I saw him in the hallway, or at a dinner, or really wherever. Soon, he became the first person to have unagented work published in The New Yorker in over a decade, and to my knowledge, the last and only. Within a three-month period, he’d published enough fiction to fill two, if not three, collections of short stories. Nobody I’d known in my life had found such success so swiftly, and if perhaps it was overdue, again, he was in his mid-forties when it all began, then certainly everyone was happy for him, even dour old me.
He ran into me in the staff lounge one day. I said that it was great that one of our own was getting some recognition. I asked him what it was like to receive that much praise all the time. He politely pointed out that if anybody else in our department knew what it was like, then surely it was me. It was a point I conceded him, and we laughed for a quick moment.
“Do you think I could be published in your journal?” he asked.
Sure, I said. I pointed out that he could even save on the postage if he wanted to simply place his submission in the mailroom. My staff would certainly love to read something that he’d written.
“No, I could just give you something,” he said. I pointed out that we wouldn’t want to run the risk of seeming nepotism, and surely if the interns thought it was good it would make its way to the editors, who might even then pass it on to me.
“John, I don’t think you get it. You should publish me. It would be good for your journal.”
I promptly excused myself, wished him luck with his research and classes, and on the way out promised myself that I would never publish this arrogant little twit.
Soon, the emails began. Later, the phone calls. His surety that he deserved special treatment because this University in his mind was one big family did not elude me. He began to send stories to my staff at their home addresses. He would drunk-dial the interns, promise them notoriety and prestige for landing such a story. I told them to ignore him. This proceeded for months. I had finally downloaded the form for intradepartmental harassment from the University website, when I received a notice in my Inbox that he had just passed his orals, and would graduate in May. The flurry of calls stopped, the emails were no more, and I no longer saw him on campus. I have not heard from him again, and expect that he’s in a cabin somewhere in the woods, sharpening his pencils over and over, and waiting for the end-times.
After that, I decided that I’d been teaching for too long. The entire ordeal was too much stress, and I wanted more time to write fiction again, rather than the academic tomes that have been my bread and butter for the last few years. I enjoy my life now, and have more time than ever to involve myself, micro-manage even, this literary journal, which you, Mr. Gates, hold in such wonderful esteem.
There was no sexting incident. If you write fiction with characters with my illustrious name, please have them act out the story I have just given you. And then please send these those stories to other journals.
© 2012 Stephen Elliot Hunt. All rights reserved.