Best of lists for 2008 are already starting to pop up. Amazon recently posted its Top 100 of 2008. The surprise at the top of the list is The Northern Clemency, the Booker shortlisted novel by Philip Hensher. The year’s fiction phenomenon The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was fifth, and Millions favorites Neverland and 2666 land at 15 and 24 respectively.
1. Mark Farrington, my first writing teacher at the Johns Hopkins MA Program in Writing in the fall of 1998, suggested we should start sending our stories out “when they are as good as we can make them.” That may seem obvious, but I’ve found it to be a great rule of thumb. Perhaps you’ve had several rounds of feedback, you’ve revised, and while you still see problems, you don’t know how to fix them. When you’ve taken a story as far as you can on your own, send it out. 2. Send stories out broadly – ten to twenty journals at a time. This is particularly important if, over time, you hope to receive useful feedback. Since sending my first story out in January, 1999, I’ve sent to 225 journals, contests, or competitive retreats; I’ve received 219 rejections and had six stories published. But I’ve received some kind of encouragement – from formal letters to “send more” checked on a postcard – from 71 publications, about one-third of all my submissions. 3. Aim high. Make a list of the top tier journals you’d love to have your story published in, then start at the top and move down. I submitted my very first story in 1999 to 12 places, including the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, Zoetrope, and Virginia Quarterly Review. While the odds are very low, any feedback you receive can keep you going. 4. Another of Farrington’s suggestions I’ve tried to follow religiously over the years: Send only to journals that pay – however little. Sure, writers should be paid for their work, but this is not just a question of principle. Payment (cash – not contributor's copies) signifies an added seriousness, a heightened commitment to the piece being published. Using pay as a guide crisply sorts journals into two categories: those that do; those that don’t. While there are certainly serious, respectable journals that don’t or can’t pay, by and large payment is an efficient surrogate for quality.* 5. Send smartly. Read a journal’s submissions guidelines. Pay attention to page limits and manuscript needs. Don’t send to AGNI in July. Don’t send Fence a hard copy manuscript (they only take electronic). Most writers I know don’t read all the journals they send to in advance. But at the very least familiarize yourself with a journal’s unique pulse before sending, or take your lumps. Perhaps the most embarrassing (and humbling) rejection I received came from the Chariton Review, then published through the English Department at Brigham Young University: “Sorry – but we can’t consider anything with an f word in it. You surely must know that BYU is church-sponsored.” 6. Find out which journals respond personally to your work, and keep sending them stories. Even if they never take one, you’re likely to get a steady stream of feedback. Keep a file, tabbed by journal, of all the responses you receive – whether a letter from an editor or a form “send again” card; good, bad, or otherwise – so you can track them over time. 7. When you get a positive response, always reference it when sending your next story. Do this even if all you’ve received is a scribbled, unsigned “nice work” or an auspicious check mark. Sometimes, someone will initial their comments. Take the time to look them up online, and address your next story to them. I’ve started many letters: “Thank you for your encouraging note about my last story...” This immediately establishes your relationship with the journal, and can help lift your story off the slush pile. 8. Don’t take rejection personally. Every writer knows this, and yet it’s one of the toughest things to truly internalize. I once received an email from the Paris Review that felt, well, pretty personal: “I just finished ‘Innkeeping’ … I found it able but not, to be honest, terribly distinctive, and the tone sort of YA – not for us, I’m afraid.” I consider myself fairly well steeled, and, still, the email stung. Less than two months later, though, I received another email, from Field Maloney at the New Yorker: “I want to apologize for our taking so long to get back to you on ‘Innkeeping.’...I enjoyed reading this one – the voice is natural and distinctive – and I’d be glad to read more of your fiction in the future.” I keep both notes in their separate files, with a Post-It note on the Paris Review comments, reminding me of the New Yorker’s. 9. If you are fortunate enough to get a story accepted, immediately write or email the other journals where the story is still under consideration, letting them know your story has been placed. 10. Celebrate rejection. I’m not kidding. Each rejection is a chance you gave your story to live in the minds of readers; each, an opportunity to toughen your writerly skin. Mark milestone rejections by subscribing to the journal that didn’t take you. I did this when I received my 200th rejection – and in so doing, I owned the rejection, instead of letting it own me. Now, each month when One Story arrives, I’m reminded of my triumph. *I recently contacted Farrington, still an instructor and faculty adviser at Hopkins, to run this piece by him. He said while he still recommends writers submit to journals that pay, he offered this addendum: “Sometimes there will be a story that you sincerely believe is finished – it doesn’t need to be revised, or put on a shelf for awhile, it is what it is – but it’s not a story that’s had success with the top tier journals. That’s a story I would feel absolutely fine about sending to a journal that doesn’t pay.” Bonus Link: My Life in Stories Image credit: gbSk/Flickr
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I am a fan of nostalgic genres, as my last list testified: Not the least of the charms of the country house movie, following in the tradition of classical pastoral, is that the country house comes to represent a pre-Lapsarian, Edenic space associated with leisure, pleasure, and harmony. Usually this harmony is destroyed or interrupted ("Brideshead" is the archetypal example of this: Ryder returns to a decayed and abandoned Brideshead as a soldier during World War II, and begins to reminisce about the golden age gone by), but it's the idea that - however fleeting or fragile - such happiness and peace and pleasure shared with friends is possible.Today I share with you another list, for another nostalgic genre: the school story. These pieces are often simultaneously nostalgic for the youthful abandon and friendship and simple pleasures of schooldays, and meditations on the betrayals and abandonment that turn children into adults. I largely exclude American high school movies (they seems a different beast) in favor of boarding school novels and films:Claudine a l'Ecole, ColetteNicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens (Oh, the horrors of C19th Yorkshire schools: now in a good movie adaptation with Charlie Hunnam and Jim Broadbent.)Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (and numerous film versions)Vanity Fair, William Makepeace ThackerayThe Group, Mary McCarthyHow I Grew, Mary McCarthy's autobiographical reminiscences of boarding school in Seattle, and a deflowering scene to match (outdo?) the famous one in The Group"To Serve Them All My Days" (BBC miniseries)School TiesRushmoreThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (Maggie Smith in her prime playing the titular Miss Jean is a knockout)Picnic at Hanging Rock (awesome and insane - Victorian repressed sexuality done 70's style - it will haunt with you)The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola was definitely watching Picnic at Hanging Rock before she made this)Young Sherlock Holmes (an early Barry Levinson movie - if you didn't watch it in the 80's as a child, do now)Flirting (great Australia movie: Thandie Newton, a very young Nicole Kidman, and Noah Taylor, plus a priceless scene involving boxing and Jean-Paul Sartre)The Children's Hour, Lillian Hellman (women beware women)Frost in May, Antonia White (also the translator of Colette's Claudine novels)Maurice, E.M. Forster (novel and film both great - the brief joys and inevitable tragedy of homosexuality in turn of the century England)Trouble at Willow Gables, Philip Larkin (one of my favorite books of all time - PL's imitation/parody of 1940's girls school novels is beyond delightful - sensual, campy, absurd, delicious)It Was Fun in the Fourth, Nancy Breary (an original 1940's author of English girls boarding school novels - a hoot, and great read with the Larkin)Tom Brown's School Days (oh, brutality. And now in a fine film adaptation with Stephen Fry as headmaster.)"Such, Such Were the Joys" (George Orwell's essay on the horrors of the English public school, the full text is available at george-orwell.org)Harry PotterA Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnet (there's a recent movie adaptation of this C19th children's classic, but the book's great - some problems with Orientalism, I grant you, but I stand by this childhood fave)Dead Poets' SocietyLost and Delirious (Mischa Barton and Piper Perabo: A Separate Peace/Dead Poets' Society for girls: also features falconry)A Separate PeaceCruel IntentionsBrick (I know it's set in an American high school - but it's so noir-y and all-consuming it feels like a boarding school: plus Joseph Gordon Levitt is becoming Heath Leger circa 10 Things I Hate About You - uncanny)The Skulls (It takes place at a college, but there’s something juvenile about a secret society)Goodbye, Mr. ChipsPrep, Curtis Sittenfeld (I haven't read it, but I want too)The Emperor's Club
We don’t know when it will happen -- whether some April or July or December will be the cruelest month -- but we know poets are fascinated with the end of the world. Novelists and essayists ponder the apocalypse, but poems are particularly suited toward capturing the anxiety of the end. Consider Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk,” which narrows from the grand expansive -- a hawk's wing that “scythes down another day” along the “crashless fall of stalks of Time” -- to the airless and anxious: “If there were no wind we might, we think, hear / The earth grind on its axis, or history / Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” The relative brevity of Warren’s poem enables its power. We don’t need volumes upon volumes to proclaim the end: we need one final, focused gasp. In a letter dated May 16, 1945, Wallace Stevens posed a question as a statement: “At the moment, the war is shifting from Europe to Asia, and why one should be writing about poetry at all is hard to understand.” Faced with destruction and death, the action of criticism feels cold and academic. Poetry, on the other hand, becomes necessary as the world crumbles. After 9/11, poetry seemed natural; many of us in New York City and its shadow carried folded copies of W.B. Yeats's “The Second Coming" and “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden. If we accept Stevens’s definition of the poetic act as “the desire to contain the world wholly within one's own perception of it,” then poems about the end are simultaneously selfish and heroic attempts at survival. Here are 10 poems to prepare us for the end of the world. 1. “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo “The world begins at a kitchen table,” Harjo starts. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Communion and community thread throughout her poem. “It is here,” at a table, where “children are given instructions on what it means to be human.” Harjo thinks our end has been foretold: “We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.” Her poem concludes with resigned hope: “Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” Her focus on a shared domestic space helps us forget about the enormity of the poem’s backdrop. 2. “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost Is Frost’s poem a microcosm of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno? Maybe. Yet I also like the origin story from astronomer Harlow Shapley: while Frost was a poet-in-residence at Harvard, he twice in one night asked Shapley how the world would end. Shapley’s response formed the polarities of the poem. Read by countless middle-school students in requisite units on American poetry, “Fire and Ice” is heavier than its nine lines appear at first glance, and like much of his other work, darkly comic. Equally apocalyptic in spirit, and perhaps even more final in its small-town sadness, is Frost’s poem “Out, Out,” which ends with a minor apocalypse: a boy’s injury leads to amputation and then death, but the townspeople, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” 3. “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski The September 24, 2001, issue of The New Yorker had a black cover, and on its back page waited this poem. Zagajewski wrote the poem before 9/11, but like the verse of Yeats and Auden, sometimes words need to wait for their proper moment. Note the evolution of the titular statement throughout the poem: we are called to “try to praise,” and then “you must praise,” “you should praise,” and finally the exasperated, exhausted, and yet somehow calm final “Praise the mutilated world / and the gray feather a thrush lost, / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.” Zagajewski said there was not one particular event that birthed the poem, rather, “it’s the way I have always seen the world” -- on the brink, and yet beautiful. 4. “Disappointments of the Apocalypse” by Mary Karr Maybe we will be laughing at the end. Mary Karr seems to think so. “Warring factions” will set the date for the end of the world. Physicists will send “copies of the decree to paradise / in case God has anything to say.” A lunar eclipse portends the end, and “Those who hated the idea stayed indoors” but will step out “onto porches and balconies to see / the human shapes twist and rise / through violet sky and hear trees uproot / with a sound like enormous zippers / unfastening.” Karr’s lines unfurl toward hilarity and back again, and yet her lines capture quite what we’d expect an absent God to sound like as he watches his creation combust: “where the last spreadeagled Xs clung like insects, / then vanished in puffs of luminous smoke, // which traveled a long way to sting his nostrils, / the journey lasting more than ten lifetimes.” 5. “A Song On the End of the World” by Czeslaw Milosz “Those who expected lightning and thunder / are disappointed” on the day the world ends. From bees circling clovers to fishermen mending nets to vegetable peddlers shouting in the street, the world moves on, unknowing of its end. We almost certainly will not know when the end will come, and Milosz especially thinks those who expect “signs and archangels' trumps” will be disappointed at the lack of ceremony. If Harjo thinks our end is our beginning -- or perhaps symbolic of one of our daily customs -- then Milosz thinks our end will be a surprise for most. Except one: “Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet / Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy, / Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: / No other end of the world will there be, / No other end of the world will there be.” 6. “How it Ends: Three Cities” by Catherine Pierce Three iterations of the end of the world: Austin, Texas; New York, N.Y.; Okemah, Okla. In Austin, grackles line the pavement, “tails oil-black.” Nobody calls out of work. Instead, they “just sleepwalked to the Red Pony Lounge and dropped into silence.” There a man “reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a bird.” The narrator wants to wake it up. On the east coast, at lunchtime, the city smells sweet. Everyone hunts for one last taste. Even a “feuding couple falls silent in front of a window display of petit fours, chocolate tortes, marzipan apricots.” Finally, in the Midwest, the animals slowly become strange. “Goldfish leap down the street's puddles. Hermit crabs scuttle over lawns, and cockatiels preen dirt from their wings.” A horse gallops down the street. The narrator's dog “dives into her lap, and as the stars go black she is laughing.” 7. “End of Winter” by Louise Glück All stories about the end of the world are really about the end of our own worlds, the little, often unnoticed deaths that surround us daily. Glück's poem has always felt strangely personal and interrogative for me. It begins with a bird's call during the “still world” of the winter, but then immediately becomes direct in the second stanza: “You wanted to be born; I let you be born. / When has my grief ever gotten / in the way of your pleasure?” Later: “never imagining the sound of my voice / as anything but part of you— / ... only / persistent echoing / in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye.” Is this a mother? Is it God? It might be both: creators alike, after all. 8. “Econo Motel, Ocean City” by Daisy Fried I love the skill and restraint needed to develop a poem in a single room -- a motel room, no less. Who among us has not felt that his or her particular end would come in some aberrant motel room, “Korean monster movie on the SyFy channel, / lurid Dora the Explorer blanket draped tentlike / over Baby's portacrib to shield us from unearned / innocence.” If we are to believe Pierce and others, the end will arrive with a bit of blurring: “Grease-dusted ceiling fan / paddles erratically, two spars missing. Sheets whirled / to the polluted rug.” The family is splayed in this comfortably uncomfortable place: “My glasses on the side table / tipped onto scratchproof lenses, earpieces / sticking up / like arms out of disaster rubble. Your feet hooked over my feet. What miasma / lays gold dander down on forms of temporary / survivors wandering the promenade?” They are at peace in this “Sad Armageddon / of marriage: how pretty much nice / we meant to be, and couldn't make a difference.” 9. “The End of the World” by Dana Gioia We should lighten up a bit as we near the end of the list -- a little poetic calm before the concluding storm. The narrator and his companions “stopped the car where the river curled,” at what is called the end of the world. They “scrambled down” beneath a bridge, cross the “gravel track of a narrow ridge” and thread the woods to reach the actual river. The narrator stands alone where the “white water goosetailed with eddying swell.” As in many of Gioia's poems, he brings us to the final resting place of the poem and then steps back. We are with the narrator at the end of this world, looking downstream, where “There was nothing but sky, / The sound of the water, and the water's reply.” 10. “The End of the World” by Archibald MacLeish This is how the world ends: at a circus. MacLeish's sonnet is actually a single swollen sentence. “Quite unexpectedly,” it begins, as Vasserot, the “armless ambidextrian” lit a match between his toes, and the lion is biting a performer's neck -- while the theater of the absurd reaches its pinnacle, “Quite unexpectedly the top blew off.” The final stanza is masterful, garbled, clunky, recursive, and as close as our inadequate minds can image to the real, messy end. Most likely then, above our paled faces and “our dazed eyes,” there will be “nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.” Image Credit: YouTube.
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (A Virtuoso at Work: Joyce Carol Oates Turns 75) All That Is by James Salter (All You Have Is What You Remember: The Millions Interviews James Salter, James Salter’s All That Is: From Dream to Reality) The Circle by Dave Eggers (A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s The Circle) The Color Master by Aimee Bender (Childish Things: Aimee Bender’s The Color Master) The Dinner by Herman Koch (After The Dinner: A Round Up of Newly Translated Dutch Fiction) Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem (Queens As a Metaphor for the World: On Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens) Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Everything I Know About America I Learned from Stephen King) The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (The Life that Develops In-Between: On Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point) The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Rachel Kushner Is Well On Her Way to Huges) A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel (The Chemistry between Fiction and Reality: The Millions Interviews Ramona Ausubel, a Millions contributor) Half The Kingdom by Lore Segal (The Smile in the Bone: Lore Segal’s Half The Kingdom) The Infatuations by Javier Marías (The Darkness is Deep Indeed: On Javier Marías’s The Infatuations) The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (Sing It, Sister! On Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings) The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (When the Stars Align: On Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries) MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood (The Past is What Matters: On Margaret Atwood’s Vision of the Future) A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (Something Stark and Essential: On Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift) Schroder by Amity Gaige (Living a Lie: The Millions Interviews Amity Gaige) The Son by Philipp Meyer (The Last of the Comanches: Philipp Meyer’s The Son, Delusion is Crucial: The Millions Interviews Philipp Meyer) Tenth of December by George Saunders (George Saunders and the Question of Greatness) Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Peeling Back the Oprah Seal: Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie) Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel (Alienation for Two: Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely, a Millions contributor)
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