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 Throw in a bunch of unpublished ones and something you've written recently and we'll put it out as a collection."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.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Postage Alert

For those of you unaware, there's a rate hike starting May 14th on stamps from 39 to 41 cents. If you think this is unfair, you can go to and be told in very complicated language to "eat it." Apparently some aspects of the rate hike are still under negotiation, such as the proposed plan to throw out all the reasonable options for international shipping and just make everything really fast but really expensive and not give anyone any options to save money by waiting.

Remember to address your SASEs and apply the right postage. Some agents give leeway (especially to stuff that's been sitting on their desks for months because they were busy with managing their new bestseller) and put on the extra 2 cents themselves. Sometimes the post office just ignores it. Some agents reject by email.

Nobody's happy on this end, either. We do a lot of shipping ourselves - mainly contracts and books, often overseas. I don't know if the government cut their budget or what, but they'd better have a damn good reason for this.

Edit: See the comments for a mailman's damn good reason for this.

Yeah, Yeah, We Don't Like Literary Fiction

Dear Rejecter,

I am dying to know:
If "Gravity's Rainbow" landed on your desk, what would you make of it? I ask because, as far as literary fiction is concerned, experimentation is often a big part of enduring literature. How open are agencies to experimental work? Do they give it a close look over, or would this type of writing be an auto-reject. How would "The Recognitions," "Infinite Jest," "Ulysses" etc. fare coming from an unknown?


They would get rejected, by not by everybody. I don't care much for literary fiction, but I like to think that I know when a paragraph is just written well, or turns the craft of reading up on its head (as Pychon is known for doing, often contradicting himself, speaking to his readers, or doing historical fiction with known inaccuracies). Against the Day is hard. You have to think. And then when you're done thinking, you've accomplished something (hopefully). Perhaps my favorite piece of literary fiction is As I Lay Dying, but the only reason is because I was forced to read it line-by-line in high school and try to interpret it as I went.

Writing at the highest level has the trick of writing both appealing prose and putting substance behind it. In our hectice lives, we might not have the time I had to start pulling apart Faulkner's paragraphs and seeing how they were tragic and comic at the same time. We might just say, "No one will read this. Reject." Or the author might not know how to write a good query letter and might not send a sample page or two with it, so we'll never read them at all.

Literary fiction is very, very hard to break into, so generally agents don't make a lot of money on the first sale, so they're not entirely interested (especially if the text is above them - who wants to try to edit Joyce?) in this person as a client. That's the harsh business angle look at it.

I wouldn't say I wouldn't reject Pychon if I saw him labeled as someone else, but he would be noticable above all of the thrillers that start with the protagonist waking up too early in the morning and then complaining about it.