Thursday, September 4, 2008

John Gardener Memorial Prize for Fiction

Guess who won?  (Not you, but read the winning story anyway.)


Robert said...

Appel is the Ikea of literary fiction. Fun and functional, affordable, but a bit cookie-cutter for my tastes. Built for mass appeal (or mass Appel?) There's no doubt he can write a story. No doubt. But tell me where any of his stories challenge you as a reader; challenge you to see the world in a new way, to change an opinion, to question an established belief. They don't. They're nice little ditties that are competent and surprising and nice...but to me, in the handful I've read, that's all the more I get from them. That said, it's easy to understand what the editors sponsoring these contests see in them: they are a safe choice.

Am I way off base on this one? I mean, let me say again that I think the dude can write.

E. said...

Wow! I haven't read enough Appel stories to comment on Robert's assertion. I just want to say Appel has short fiction publishing in the U.S. in 2008 figured out. He's said here at LROD that it's a numbers game, but I think there's more to it. I think the trick is to build momentum, exponentially, by getting stories in the right places at the right times. It's largely luck, but really, could there be an editor alive who isn't aware how widely published he is? A long list of publishing credits is shorthand to editors: put this story at the top of the pile for serious consideration. (I understand that for every acceptance he receives, he gets slews of rejections -- but I wonder if his batting average is higher than a name author who submits only a few stories a year.)

It's different for blindly judged contests, of course, which he's also cruising.

I mean, wow. Congratulations, man.

Anonymous said...

e., what you've said is somewhat true. the publications matter. i say this as someone who reads and edits a national magazine. they do add weight. we look far and wide for new talent in unsolicited submissions (read: unpublished), but it helps in the myriad of submissions to find someone that someone else (read: another editor that we know and trust, or two or three or four) has already found and who's still, presumably, in the early stages of her career. however, i'm still more surprised by how many of those authors' (read: published a few or more times in places we consider good quality) stories are average or merely competent. i don't want to knock appel, but he's one of these folks, someone who i've read a good deal of and someone we've consistently passed on (rejected) primarily because of the shortcomings the first poster has mentioned. they (the stories) tend not to move the blood much . . . what i mean to say is that this shorthand you're mentioning (publications=greater regard) is quite general: you're assuming a lot. in our case it generally means greater scrutiny because our expectations have been raised.

E. said...

Interesting insight, anon -- thanks for the post.

Yes, I'd imagine one expects a Joyce Carol Oates or Tobias Wolff story to knock one's proverbial socks quite off. But as has been observed, oftentimes there appear in national magazines and well-regarded journals stories by acknowledged "masters" that leave the socks securely in place. The New Yorker's series of Jeffrey Eugenides's latest efforts is a case in point; lots of head-scratching over how -- why -- they were published. Ann Beattie routinely publishes in journals and, while I admire her command of structure and craft, about half of what I read leaves me unmoved (and not because she's doing that minimalist, ambiguous ending thing for which she became known). So, is a journal more likely to publish Beattie than Appel? A lukewarm Beattie story over a hot piece that needs a little work by a relative newcomer? Nam Le is en fuego right now; is it because he has a new collection out, or did he get a collection because he published in a ton of places? (I know he's published in Zoetrope, Conjunctions, One Story, BNAV, etc.) He went to Iowa, is that right? And now he edits the Harvard Review; do those credentials on a cover letter garner closer examination? And is the expectation higher than for a non-published, non-MFA'D writer with no ties to editing? Does his story have to be even better than mine (me being unpublished in this example). By the way, I think Nam Le's work is amazing. I'm not begrudging anyone anything -- just trying to get a handle on the realities.

I can't help but equate it with politics: if my candidate says it, I swoon; if it comes out of the opposition's mouth, I tear it apart or dismiss it. Human nature.

Obviously, I'm not asking you for one-to-one answers to all these particular questions... just throwing out some considerations. Thanks for your insights.

Anonymous said...


I agree with the broader assertion to a point; that it seems that national glossies (new yorker, harper's, atlantic) publish a stable of authors frequently and that the work doesn't always live up to the expectations provided by the name (Murakami?). Again though, I think there need to be more specific considerations when thinking about how pieces are chosen and who's writing them. For instance, I doubt many, if any, places other than The New Yorker, Harper's, or the Atlantic, have an opportunity to publish an Updike, Beattie, or Eugenides story. In some ways writers of that stature are a bit like ballplayers, even if they're not hitting well they draw crowds; and it's nice to have Griffey Jr. on your list, if only because he used to be Ken Griffey Jr . . . this could as well extend to the whole notion of a major league, limited space versus abundant talent and the degree to which visibility affects management choices in acquiring and keeping both old and new talent (think of smaller journals, agents, publishers, as scouts etc.).

But our choices in the lower ranks are somewhat less fraught: we don't have to choose between your amazing story and Beattie's lukewarm work (and if we did we'd probably take both). To be fair, our cycle helps us generate just enough quality work (which is scarcer than writers would like to think) for each issue--with work evenly represented from slush and solicitations.

As far as credentials, I'd like to think they only get you so far, but this changes depending on the market. In our market, we're free from a number of considerations that might otherwise tie the hands of a place the size and scope of Harper's, Atlantic, or the New Yorker.

As an aside: One of your assumptions that I'd put to question is that there's work of higher quality waiting at the gates of every quality journal and magazine, written by writers patiently waiting for editors to stop investing in the god of stature, and I think that argument is correct, but only to a certain degree and only in certain markets (read: places whose considerations have constraints that go beyond the literary and whose volume of submissions versus space available approaches zero).

But back to your question: If you're looking for a specific answer to your hypothetical (you versus Nam Le with the space available limiting my choice to one of two) then it depends on the work (at least where I work it does). But here's the rub: if we're getting a Nam Le story then most likely he's been solicited by us for a particular space in a particular issue, so we're going with him (and he'd find himself alongside some younger writers whose work came to us via the same route yours might), even if your story were better. But here's the nice thing about the smaller journals: we most likely have space for your work in the following issue. Most likely we will make space, if we hadn't already.

And this is not such a terrible model, both small and large, since space in the lower, still-reputable markets easily accommodates quality work (people tend not to believe this because they're seeing rejection month after month, but I think if each person could read for a literary mag they'd find that consistent, quality work is far less common than people think--they might also find their opinion of their own work dramatically changed as well, for better or worse), but again this depends on the magazine's model. One Story, for instance, is such an excellent, and also troubling, model, because they're able to place a premium on the cache of the story by virtue of the product (one month=one story=an incredible amount of tough decisions). They've created demand and interest by intentionally limiting available space, whereas academic journals are most often creating space to fit quality work. My main point being that individual markets and their psychologies (their rewards and drawbacks) have more to do with this business than folks tend to realize.

I have less to say about MFA versus no-MFA, editing versus no-editing experience. Where I work these things don't matter much because the MFA alone or the title of the writer's job doesn't guarantee quality--I've read enough to know this. The work alone provides its own esteem (which is also why solicitation is always a gamble--there's more to this, but I've already written too much) . . .

E. said...

Again, anon, thanks for your generous response. It's informative and interesting to hear from someone who is in the thick of the journal business. And I hadn't considered the balance between solicited and unsolicited publications.

I've often wondered if One Story ever holds pieces for issues two or three beyond the one they're currently reading for. The editors must go mad.

Thank you!