Thursday, May 03, 2007

Literary Fiction, Short Stories, and Getting Published

Many people have questioned how it's possible for the next generation of great literary masters to get published, what with people like me rejecting everything that comes in the mail. The answer (or one possible answer) is that generally literary fiction operates in a slightly different way than genre fiction does. Genre fiction, if well-written, can generally be sold to a major publishing house by a first-time novelist without any background. Not so with literary fiction.

Almost all of modern day literary fiction authors get started with short stories, and I don't mean the one or two you managed to get published in an online zine that paid you $5. These are generally people who get published in huge magazines like Atlantic Monthly or The Michigan Quarterly Review or even The New Yorker. And they don't just do it once. They've got a good 6 or 7 stories published before they sit down to write the novel.

Said novel is very appealing to us because those are some serious writing credits. The novel is good, so it's published, and to some critical acclaim, or makes some money, or quite possibly both (but not necessarily). At this point, the agent turns to the novelist and says, "What else do you have?"

"Well, I've got these short stories that I can now republish because the rights have expired with the magazines."

"Uh, there's only like 6 of them. Throw in a bunch of unpublished ones and something you've written recently and we'll put it out as a collection."

If you ask any agent, they will generally say they don't take short story collections. What they mean is, "We don't take short story collections from people who haven't had at least half of those stories published in major literary avenues," which rules out almost every applicant. Most short story collections by novelists are the bunch they got published, a few that they didn't, and maybe one or two that were thrown together to fill out the book. The publisher might even pull some strings and get one of the new stories published in The New Yorker at the same time the short story collection comes out to push the book. The collection feeds on the fame of the novel, and the literary novelist gets some more writing credits and some time to write the second novel. Or they might stay in short stories if they can't think up a new novel but have a few short ideas floating around their head, and keep publishing anthologies until they have enough to make up a "greatest hits" collection.

Can you see how the success of one thing kinda feeds off the other? People pick up books by names they recognize. It might help to have an "author of the acclaimed New Yorker piece..." sticker on the cover. Next time you're in a book store, pick up a short story collection and see how many pieces were previously published and where they were published.

You don't have to write short stories to get into literary fiction, but it helps.


susan said...

Excellent piece of advice for those of us in this genre--thank you.

Hope you don't mind, but I've posted this in our writers group site and given proper credit along with the link.

writtenwyrdd said...

I've suspected as much. Thanks for spelling it out.

Thomas said...

A number of genre fiction writers are also known for their short works. Stephen King and Issac Asimov both come readily to mind.

Does this sort of collection come about in the same way or is it a product of the writers' post-novel successes? How can short stories play a role in the career of the non-literary writer?

Anonymous said...

thomas - I've known SF/F authors who use anthologies in the same way as Rejecter mentions. I'm not sure whether single-author anthologies of not-previously-published short stories are a viable method or not.

With genre fiction, especially speculative fiction, another aspect to consider is that multi-author anthologies are as viable a market as magazines. Sometimes the authors are solicited by the editor of the anthology to write a story on the anthology's theme, sometimes there's an open invitation to submit. Many of these, though not all, want unpublished stories.

The important thing is to keep your name out there in between novels. Anthologies are one way to do it. One of Canada's most successful SF authors, Robert J. Sawyer, is a relentless self-promoter - in addition to novels, he has at least one anthology, attends genre conventions, teaches classes, you name it. Other authors use blogs and regularly updated websites to their advantage (Neil Gaiman, Holly Lisle, Jennifer Crusie...). But now I'm way off topic!

Anonymous said...

So, once again, you're saying: the industry lies.

Anonymous said...

So what about those "one or two you managed to get published in an online zine that paid you $5"...? Good place to start, or a waste of time?

Anonymous said...

If you don't write short stories, submit self-contained novel excerpts. A good deal of people do this.

Kaylea said...

I have this site bookmarked as a source of opinion about literary journal prestige. I suspect it's dated, but I find it useful as a starting point:

For actually finding current markets to submit to, in my experience nothing out there beats Duotrop --

Anonymous said...

Thanks, kaylea! That information is quite helpful -- exactly what I was looking for.

Anonymous said...

About those short stories published in online literary magazines that only pay you $5 and using said stories as writing credits, how about this:

One afternoon, a young agent’s assistant named Dan Lazar was having lunch at his desk and spotted a short story at Carve Magazine, an online lit mag, that by the way, happens to pay their authors $0 for their work (as many online mags do, the compensation for this being the wide Internet exposure for your work). Lazar liked the story so much he immediately told his boss, Writers House uber-agent, Simon Lipskar, that he wanted to contact the author and ask if she had any novel-length work he could look at.

As it turned out, Stephanie Kallos did. Dan Lazar (these days an impressive up-and-coming literary agent with a full client list of his own) along with Lipskar, not only sold the story to a publisher, but Broken For You was also nominated for a 2005 Quill Award.

Read more here:

By the way, Kallos' short story, titled, Blanche Before And After is still among the story archives over at Carve.

Kanani said...

I think short stories are so important because it's where you hone your voice and make things happen.

Recently, I dug through the library to find a collection of short stories edited by Gordon Lish, who pretty much worked with almost everyone who is in the literary genre today. Amy Hempel, Lily Tuck, Joan Silber.

It was great to read such finely wrought and edited short stories.
One thing I'll always remember from my short story teacher: she had submitted one story 70 times and had it rejected. Finally, on try 71, someone said YES.

Anonymous said...

I believe you but I wish things were different. I've gotten one short story accepted for publication--at a university-affiliated, paper-based, we-reject-99.9999%-of-your-submissions journal, to boot--but in general I can't write short stories for my life. Any idea I get, before I can say "short story", blows up into a novel. Even the piece that's getting published is ~8000 words long.

But I take comfort in knowing advice-givers would have told me: "Oh no, no one will publish this, it's too long." In fact one writer (he had an MFA--wowee, was I impressed) even suggested I concentrate on flash fiction because it's an "easy" way to add names to your list of publications.

Easy for him, maybe. I'd have an easier time writing a five hundred page novel than a five hundred word story.

The Rejecter said...

Actually, that's very often the case. I have a lot of trouble with short stories. Many short story writers can't move into novels and vice versa. Many short stories are failed novels, and many novels are padded short stories.

Anonymous said...

Ah! Reading your advice...reminds me that as an unpublished author (now 36) who works solely on my writing but not the publishing of it, I have a better chance of being struck by lightning than being published. What counts is not the work itself but-- I suppose I could send one of my fragments to the New Yorker, though the gesture would probably have the same effect as Robert Walser sending one of his to Cuba. I suppose my imagination far exceeds my ambition. Take care wise sage! And: what do you call a work that is not literary or genre fiction? Think idea-based, not a single idea, but the same effect as a book of thematically linked aphorisms, only in this case poems & short stories/pieces interspersed with images. I wouldn't know where to begin marketing such a wonderfully flawed contraption. I think I have created The Perfect Coffee Table Book For Nihilists. Good thing you have comment moderation enabled! Almost forgot to mention: love your name.

bluemlein said...

Twenty years ago I wrote my first novel; my country's most famous writer - whom I had known almost forever and whose judgment of talent was conceded by the industry to be laser-sharp - called it brilliant and tried to help me get it published. It sat in various publishers' offices for varying lengths of time.

The title was "too esoteric" so I changed the title, not a major worry of mine although the original title suited it very well. It contained too much "experimental" work; I reread it, agreed with that comment, and took out those elements that, on reflection, were a bit precious and vulgarized the tone of the story. A publisher in another jurisdiction said he was very interested - until nearly a year later when he rejected it.

Then I wrote my second - for which I received a grant. Which my friend termed brilliant. Which to this day has no takers.

And my third, for which my friend had his own secretary put it on disk - it is a brute and was largely written in second person singular which, these many years later, appears to be enjoying a minor vogue.

And my fourth, which sat at the offices of a publisher for 13 months as they dithered before deciding that the work - about a serious subject, the negative impact on a person's life of horrendous childhood event - did not have enough humour.

And my fifth, the subject of which was and still is topical and relevant, which has really good characters, a definite story, place, mood, point of view, etc etc. and which cannot be fobbed off with the characterization of experimental fiction It sat with another publisher for a number of months and was returned without comment. My friend requested an explanation for the rejection - how can one change what one does not know???

It was promised; it was not received. In the meantime my friend died.

Like him, I am really shocked and amazed by the things that are published. Much fiction is disposable entertainment for people who are trying to unwind from their stressful lives or to wind up from monotony. I cannot write in that Brown/Steele/L'Amour way.

That leaves anyone such as myself -who seeks to explore character, beaviour, meaning, randomness and the strangeness of life - looking at an extremely slim market which is itself subject to fashion, though many of its participants would try to deny that. I have recently begun a blog which, I know, will have rather limited readership because it examines popular personalities, events, etc. in more depth and less scabrous terms than the sites that attract the hundreds of thousands who can't get enough of celebrity and people's failings.

mary said...

What is the value of the MFA degree? Do editors at university-sponsored literary journals discriminate against writers without an academic credential?