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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

One Rejected Writer's Manifesto--Listen Up!

In response to yesterday's Churchill quote ("If you are going through hell, keep going"), some beautiful anonymous left this bit of brilliance, which I love and am posting here for your consideration:

"Ok, I'll take him up on this logic. I'm striking out on where to send my stories, so I thought I'd see what things were like back when Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and compare to now...

Here's a classic story from the time by a famous author: "The Camel's Back" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

According to that page, it was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1920. Fitzgerald was paid $500. The story is 9,000 words long, so that means that he was paid 6 cents a word. Now let's adjust for 2008. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for 1920 is 20.0. For 2008, it's 211.080. So to calculate what 6 cents a word in 1920 would be in 2008, we do: .06 * (211.080/20.0) = 63 cents a word.

(There's an automated inflation calculator at the gubmint's CPI page.)

The circulation of the Post was about about three million a week in 1920, and according to here it was not only one of the most popular magazines in the US but it was also popular abroad, so publishing in it would definitely make you a world-famous writer.

Ok. We wonder why there are no great American authors today, no authors comparable to Scott Fitzgerald in talent and stature and in the public mind. But let's figure out what magazine today in 2008 (print or web) pays 63 cents a word for fiction and would buy a very readable and entertaining (yet still "literary") 9,000 word short story with not a single vulgarity in it, with a traditional voice, a love theme and even a "corny" ending, and pay a sum of $5,670.00 US dollars (2008) for it?

Editors who are reading this: would you pay 63 cents a word for a 9,000 word story like this? Would you want a writer like this in your magazine? Sorry, Willesden Review, you'd reject this story outright on about ten different "principles", including the many misspellings in Fitzgerald's original draft. Who else. Anyone? David Granger, I know you're looking -- would you buy this, or let Tom buy it? Stacy Morrison, would you consider this for Redbook? Anna Wintour, take off the sunglasses and look: would you buy this for Vogue? Mr. Curtis, I know you have good taste and in real life you're quite a fine fellow, but please: 63 cents a word, 9,000 words and none of them cursings, The Atlantic's summer reading issue, does it add up? I'm looking for readership of millions, here and abroad, and my first guess is The New York Times -- Sam Sifton, you listening? Got room for 9,000 words of good, clean fiction in that culture section of yours?


Then who would do it? And if not, why? Editors, it's up to you -- what the dickens is stopping you?

I'm sorry, but I've tried you all and you're not buying anything like this. I can't list a single market that I know for sure would buy something like this today, at such a rate. I leave it to the rest of you. And I also ask: Is literature in trouble? Is our culture in trouble? Is it worse than ever to be a professional writer?

Yes, Churchill, I'm shoulder-deep in Hell right now. Do I keep going? Where? What to do?"

Doesn't any publisher or editor out there want to give this anonymous rejected writer's work a read? Clearly this is a voice that shouldn't remained silenced. I volunteer to act as agent (no commission necesary).


Internet Marketing Badger said...

Unfortunately, if you consult surveys from the National Writer's Union, payment rates at major magazines - for nonfiction - haven't budged any since the Seventies.

So not only is it harder and harder (okay, let's just admit it - impossible) for fiction writers to get paid decently from journals, it's next to impossible for today's non-fiction article writers to negotiate for decent pay per word for their writing.

The response is usually, "Hell, no, why should we raise our rates? Even though we pays ya nothin', ya still send us stuff."

On the flip side, I hear psychotherapists who specialize in self-esteem counseling have found a new boom with taking writers as clients. :)

Jennifer aka "Internet Marketing Badger"

Anonymous said...

I read through this and don't know what to say - I'm still catching my breath! Brilliant lovely little manifesto and yes, this does sound like a writer whose voice needs to be heard. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

After some thought on this good post I have a few observations:

* Followed the link to read "The Camel's Back". It is, indeed, a "very readable and entertaining (yet still literary)" short story. It reads "fresh" today. Definitely classic.

* Either people were much more intelligent/had more interest in literature in 1920 than now, but there was a mainstream, commercial demand for stories like this where now there is not. (Unless there is a demand, and it's not being met so people have to settle for television.)

* To do this, you need a mainstreaem outlet that reaches millions and pays commercial rates, leaving your options at about two.

* Undeniably, short stories are a dead market. Which explains why no talented writers are producing anything like this at all.

* The best equivalent I can find in more modern times, after wracking my brain for some time, is Donna Tartt: "A Christmas Pageant" (Harper's, '93) and "A Garter Snake" (GQ, '95). But that goes back 15 years. GQ as a top fiction market, too funny...

* You will get this rate (maybe better) from The New Yorker. Probably from The Atlantic, but fiction goes in only one issue a year, and half of it is from John Updike and other people who are not you. But....

* Stories that match this "aesthetic", for lack of a better term, do not fit The New Yorker (didn't fit in 1920, either). As described ("not a single vulgarity in it, with a traditional voice, a love theme and even a corny ending") but also literary, I have to concur unfortunately, with the author. No publication I've seen "in 2008 (print or web)" would support a writer like this.

And that's a damn shame.

Anonymous said...

Well well well. Rejected, you werent bluffing when you said David Granger was reading: ESQUIRE.COM just put Fitzgeralds "The Crack-Up" on their home page!

I cant believe it. It shows that there is a demand, or at least a feeling that today somethings quite lacking. Now why they don't take guys like you seriously and buy stories like they used to I dont know. I share in your incredible frustration, not only coming as a writer (Im not that good) but as a reader. That story on here about the tailor shop was one of the better things I've read in a long time.

Anonymous said...

The Fitzgerald story was published pre-TV, pre-movie rentals, pre-computer video games.
Many now-defunct magazines offered fiction to a public that wanted it (and the New Yorker ran four stories an issue instead of one); pros like John P. Marquand and John O'Hara made a very good living off the sale of their stories. They knew how to entertain.
But that was all "pre." When did the change occur? I would say the late 60's and 70's. (At the same time that the writer became an academic.)
You can fight an enemy like Hitler; you can't fight apathy and disinterest.
(PS -- the last comment refers to a story about a tailor shop. What would that be?)

Anonymous said...

the markets have shrunk to the point that it's impossible to make a living at it. at one time, just about every general interest magazine in america published short stories (even "cosmo"! which was known for publishing great stories. and "playboy," etc.). but one by one, they stopped doing it. doesn't publish fiction any more.

now, is it because nobody wanted to read fiction in their "cosmo"? i'm afraid so, and i can't blame helen gurley brown for it.

also, short fiction stopped speaking for a wide audience in the 60s and 70s as post-moderns and meta-fiction writers carved smaller and smaller niches in the genre.

Anonymous said...

p.s. i totally dig this site and will visit again in the future, posting my inane commentary on literature and rejection.

Anonymous said...


Tailor shop story is here.


I agree with both you and Anon above that the change was in the late 60s and 70s. The same change that made Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Doris Day all fade out. The same change that killed the tiki bar and cocktail lounges and dining out in fine attire. The same change that threw out everything traditional, ie the counterculture.

The baby boomers embraced it, academia thrived off it .... but nobody wanted post-modern meta-fiction in their Cosmo, and the old fashions and styles were suddenly unhip and marginalized.

Marginalized, unhip.... but not dead.

Even tiki bars are having quite a comeback now. So is trad fashion. Maybe the "cocktail nation" was a precursor for this (it was ironically featured in Esquire around when Rust Hills retired as fiction ed).

This disaffection about fiction we've discussed here is always coupled with some kind of yearning to pre-counterculture attitudes and ideas. See this comment on trad fiction.

That's what it is, trad lit, entertaining and smart. And completely in the face of all of today's expected mores and norms. If there truly is a huge unserved readership out there hungry for stories like we're talking about, I think we have something big here.

Anonymous said...

Ah, "A Change of Season." Small town clothing store, actually. Got mixed reviews. Some enthusiasts, some "ho hums," some who thought it was downright bad.
No editors, as far as I can see, have been beating on the door of this site, asking to publish it.
I wrote it, so I'm biased.
Not to be a space hog, but want to see another story by me? The only reason it hasn't been rejected as often as "Change" is because I stopped sending it out. It marks the point of my giving up.
It's called "The Man Who Looked Like Perry Smith."
Know Perry Smith? One of life's losers.

None said...

Sweet manifesto. Couldn't sleep first time I contemplated it. I'm not an editor or publisher, so I'm afraid I can't with that aspect or I would.

But it burns my blood to see Larry Dark squander his power and position yet again by saying how healthy and good the short story is. It's like he's trying to spite the people like your manifesto author, who sound like they're putting their life and blood on the line ... and who actually make sense!

Hey pr, I like your work. But unfortunately, like I just said, I'm not an editor or publisher. I am, however, a reader ... if that still counts in this crazy mixed-up world.

Anonymous said...

Hm, the same day this came out, Jordan Barber's essay was published, "The Disappearing Short Story." The most heart-wrenching to me is this: "The 1952 issue of Life magazine that contained the first publication of The Old Man and the Sea sold 5.3 million copies." WTF is wrong with us today, that we don't have an equivalent of this?

I think this public manifesto or public examination of what's going on here is a major first step in getting us there, to a time where 5.3 million people might read an issue of something with the best of our stuff.

Jordan says we need a scandal. Or actually he quotes Ann Patchett who says the short story needs a scandal. Maybe this is that scandal.

Now let's all go read “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” so we can send Jordan an email.

Anonymous said...

Well, pr, seems no one here has an interest in seeing another story by you.
Rejected by Rejected!
W,R hasn't responded. But he wasn't too hot about the story.
I looked up "A Change of Season" on Google and found a story by that name that appeared in Epoch (and Best American) in the 80's. It was by someone named James Bond.
Could you, pr, be Bond . . . James Bond?
But if you're merely the lowly pr, I have two bits of advice for you.
One, do as the other author whose story appeared here did -- don't give the story's title or your real name. Despite your avowals of resignation, I detect that ambition stil gnaws at you, and an editor will not publish a story that previously appeared elsewhere.
Second, read the comments under "Has Short Fiction Gone the Way of the Old Fashioned Movie Star." They get to the futility of it all.

Writer, Rejected said...

Oh, Lord, previous Anonymous, if you only knew how many times a day someone makes that tired old "rejected by rejected" joke. Mostly, I get it in emails when I haven't responded quickly enough, or gotten around to posting a submitted rejection.

But, anyway, listen, I'm not sure where we netted out on whether or not LROD jumped the shark when it started posting rejected stories. Some people really objected, and I myself wasn't sure. So I thought I'd see what everybody else wanted to do about posting another story by pr, which is a generous offer. I'm game if readers are game. Or we can pass. Up to you.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's worth waiting just a bit, because this debate on the short story seems quite, I don't know, relevant and important... I think it's true, the short story has left the building... but I want it to come back! But I'm all for pr. I'm even more for pr getting his work published in a place where lots of people will read it. (I guess that rules out 99% of all literary journals then? Hrm, if you can add a hit counter to an individual post, we can see how many people read it. And compare that to the circulation numbers of the journals.) I'm all for seeing more rejections. I'm all for more about agents and editors and what goes on behind the scenes. I'm all for things getting much better for us perennially rejected.

Anonymous said...

Although James Bond and I share many attributes -- particularly the sexual magnetism -- I am not the author of the previous "A Change of Season" (though I'd like to read it).
The first bit of advice you give, Anon-of-the-tired-joke, is worth consideration. That's why, I guess, I've withheld my name. How many bridges are left to burn? (You're right, I do have ambition, though it doesn't "gnaw.")
I agree totally with the last post, in all its pessimism.
Worth pursuing this, W,R? What I found recurring in the many commments on "Change" was that the story did not fit into what is currently accepted. So if what is currently accepted is lacking, what's the alternative (or one of many alternatives)? I mean in the beleagured genre of literary fiction -- which, to me, simply denotes good writing.
A lack of yeas or nays from your readers may be due to few visiting this old post.
I wouldn't submit more that 2 stories to you. This second story would be IT.
The story in question is relevant to your site because it's about the calcifying effects of rejection (though not of the literary kind).
I'm not begging. I won't cry if the answer is No. James Bond doesn't cry.

Anonymous said...

Hi, a friend at the American Studies Program at the University of Virginia recently put together a display you might like: Urban and Urbane. While the collection online is based around The New Yorker, it also has other magazines of the 1930's, and all published short stories. (Collier's, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and of course, the Post). Of the latter: The Saturday Evening Post "became symbolic of the reading fare of middle-class America." Symbolic reading fare of middle-class America now? I'd say New York Times. There are no general interest magazines now, maybe Time or Readers Digest fits. Or the listings in TV Guide. Any way you cut it, no stories inside!

Anonymous said...

Internet Marketing Badger: the National Writer's Union more or less does not exist. The NWU, as a force, has not done anything substantial since the early '90s. Even the NY Times case was really minor. The NWU never got their act together, so theey never were a force to help writers. Especially freelancers. The NWU has had many internal conflicts over the past 15 years, including cases of embezzlers working on the inside. Once in a while they did come up with a press release or document that had some helpful tips. In 1999, I think it was, they published a document that criticized the magazine industry, because the trend then was to lower rates for freelancers. I think it asked everyone to boycott those magazines that didn't pay a living wage to writers, and said basically that no writer should work for any magazine that paid less than a dollar per word. They published a list of magazines that paid that much. It included oh I don't know Vogue, Self, Vanity Fair, New Yorker, GQ the big ones. Hearst and Conde Nast dominated that. Oh, and just about none of these magazines bought fiction even then.

Now here's the catch. These magazines began to pay less for freelancers. The contracts are WFH (all rights). As you know the cost of living has gone up since 1999, so that rate should be even higher today than a dollar a word. But you won't find too many who pay even a dollar a word to freelancers anymore. The NWU quietly took this document away from their site and they never kept up their end of the deal. No boycott, no public taking-to-task of these publishers, nothing. Authors Guild is quiet on this too, don't get me started on them.

But who writes for these magazines now? Staff writers and part-timers. And how much do they make? Not much.

It's a bad joke. Unfortunately we are the punch line, and it hurts.

Anonymous said...

But back to me.
I suppose the first paragraph of the Jacob Appel story is what sells (or wins the prize) nowadays.
I know that what I'm writing in this post is buried deep in a landfill, but it was in the trash can by the curb when you, W,R, left it "up to you" (the public) to decide whether they wanted to see another story by pr.
Give me credit for this: I didn't recruit people to clamor for another story, nor did I do so as Anonymous.
But no hard feelings. I thank you, W/R, for running "Season." It got quite a bit of attention, of a controversial nature, and that signifies something.
I thought the "Perry Smith" story, being about rejection, would have an added relevance.
But I understand that you're not my agent.
Did you get others wanting you to use their stories? Or were there only the two that you ran?
LROD is a good blog, in which the same thing is being said, in different ways, and is often said well. Even artfully.

Writer, Rejected said...

Not exactly the garbage heap, since it is the first item on this blog's popular posts listing. But I am in no position to reject anyone or anything. To answer your question, I haven't received other stories. So feel free, PR. Send your second one in and I'll post it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, LROD is the Web in top form. This blog should be nominated for Best of the Web or The Best American Nonrequired Reading or something.

Anonymous said...

I just meant, W,R, that your proposal for the public to choose whether or not to see another story by pr came as the 13th comment on this "manifesto" post. I think the readers of your blog are regulars, and they tend to move on to the next new thing.
I'm very surprised that only two have asked you to run their stories. What's going on? Does everybody else know that the water isn't safe to drink? (And why isn't anybody warning us?)
But I don't care that much anyway. What's a little attack of dysentry?
I'll give the story-in-question a lookover, and then get it to you.
It got a paltry 18 rejections, but that was because I quit sending out fiction altogether. It received only two comments, but both were of particular interest.
My character, Ray, has a bad mouth; I hope this is no problem.
Thanks for the consideration.

Writer, Rejected said...

You mean they don't read every inch of my blog? I'm devastated.

I love a bad-mouthed protagonist; send the story and we'll see how it flies.

Anonymous said...


This is so depressing.


Because it's true.

Anonymous said...

This is a great manifesto. But what has it done? February 2008? Has it made a dent even? Did anyone "in the biz" even read the thing? Or is this all a bunch of blogger hot air.

Writer, Rejected said...

Blogger hot air.

Anonymous said...

I don't think "The Camel's Back" is a particularly good story, and critics agree that it is definitely not one of Fitzgerald's better stories. He said himself that he wrote it in eight hours because he wanted to buy himself an expensive watch.

He could do that because he was already famous. You could do that too, if you were John Updike. It doesn't mean the establishment has changed; it just means you're not John Updike. Yet.