Descent of Man: Stories (Contemporary American Fiction)

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Miss You, SASE: On Postal Submissions

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The Whippany River flooded my hometown post office in August 2011. Hurricane Sandy would cause far more damage statewide, but Irene pushed the river across Route 10 and through the front door. The post office has never reopened. Whippany now receives irregular delivery from the Morristown branch. Inquires from our congressman, Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, have received circuitous responses from the Postal Service.

I drive past the abandoned post office when I visit my parents, and can’t help but get nostalgic. The mail was a source of surprise during my youth: issues of Amazing Spider Man, Uncanny X-Men, and The Sporting News, letters from my French pen pal, or postcards from my sister in college. I would shoot baskets in my driveway so I could catch afternoon delivery. The low hum of the mail truck’s engine announced its arrival, and while it looped toward my mailbox, I envied the lives of those mail carriers. They delivered people’s hopes and disappointments, bound in rubber bands. There was a quiet dignity to the legion of men and women who delivered mail. It seemed like the entire town counted on this ritual.

That innocent perception has been tempered by our current reality. The United States Postal Service lost $334 million in the final quarter of 2013, for a total loss of $5 billion for the year. First-class mail revenue has plummeted. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has pushed to end Saturday mail delivery as a cost-saving measure, but Congress has blocked the attempt. Postal Service retail outlets are being opened in select Staples stores, and will be staffed by store employees, not members of the American Postal Workers Union.

In 2014, products are shipped to us. We are recipients of mail rather than creators of it. Bills are paid online. Invitations are sent on Facebook. Letters, handwritten or typed, are a rarity. We have chosen speed and convenience, and have redefined what it means to have a personal connection with another human.

The current literary magazines that only accept postal submissions are some of the finest “little magazines” in the country: The Gettysburg Review, Conjunctions, Epoch, The Southern Review, Zoetrope, The Yale Review, The Sewanee Review, Denver Quarterly, The Hudson Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, The Paris Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, River Styx, ZYZZYVA, and Image. Their reasons are both practical and philosophical. The Gettysburg Review’s explanation is tongue-in-cheek: “We’re not an e-journal or e-zine…Neither are we neo-Luddites. Several of us actually enjoy using computers; however, we, like many of you, understand that the computer is not necessarily a piece of labor-saving technology. E-submission, while possibly a convenience for writers, is definitely an inconvenience for us.”

Electronic submissions have evolved from direct e-mails to editors, to the Council of Literary Magazine and Presses’ Submission Manager, to the now industry-standard Submittable system. Since electronic submissions have become the norm, editors have complained about writers who submit new work immediately after a rejection is received, or, even worse, rescind a submission only to revise and resubmit the work. Electronic submissions have put the writer in the editor’s office, like some cinematic wordsmith tramping into Random House with a manuscript under his arm. I would never think of calling the editor of the Southwest Review to check on the status of my submission, but e-mailing that editor somehow feels less intrusive. It shouldn’t, and unfortunately results in some writers eschewing professional decorum. Until an unsolicited work is accepted for publication, there should be a comfortable distance between writer and editor.

At Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading page, Agni editor Sven Birkets recalls the “labor-intensive era before e-submissions, [when] going through the stack that was several days’ accumulation had certain assembly-line aspects: open, extract, examine to gauge general caliber, sort into one of several stacks. Return, return with note, look closer, pass to trusted readers.” While putting together the first issue of his editorship, Birkets received a snail mail submission from David Foster Wallace. The story was titled “The Soul is Not a Smithy.” This was 2003; Wallace could have placed the story anywhere. Birkets was excited: “I took myself away from the desk. I found a private place with decent light and no phone; I did whatever one does to narrow the beam of attention down from wide-angle receptivity to full-on focus.” Granted, Birkets knew Wallace, but the story was a surprise, and Wallace’s work and self were made new by the spontaneity of that silent submission.

T.C. Boyle has called literary magazines the “meat and potatoes” of American literature. His first collection, Descent of Man, was published in 1979, and although it included stories from “the slicks” — The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Esquire, Penthouse — it also included stories that originally appeared in The Paris Review, Epoch, TriQuarterly, The Transatlantic Review, Fiction, Quest 77, Quest 78 and the South Dakota Review. Those publications were not merely means toward the end of a book; they were small victories. As Ben Percy writes, even after acceptances have “become the rule rather than the exception,” he feels like a “lonely madman crumpling messages into bottles and sending them off into a midnight sea.” The responses from editors make for a distant but real community. Nowadays writers like myself have connected on social media with other writers and editors, and while those connections are often meaningful and sometimes enlightening, writers remain solitary artists. As Percy notes, we are all “hidden away, only occasionally showing our faces, but engaged in an intimate, sacred togetherness made possible by journals whose pages serve as ink-stained harbors.”

My favorite bookstore is still D.J. Ernst Books in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. The bookseller has an almost cult following since 1975 among undergraduate creative writing majors at Susquehanna University. I bought armfuls of books, but mostly talked with “Homer” about fishing for bass in Penns Creek, running, kayaking, and God. Like other great independent bookstores, it was a place that made me believe imagination mattered.

I bought the 1992 edition of Best American Short Stories from him. I’d loved Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, and he edited that year’s selections. It’s an incredible collection: “Days of Heaven” by Rick Bass, “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” by Robert Olen Butler, “Emergency” by Denis Johnson, “The Pugilist at Rest” by Thom Jones, “Carried Away” by Alice Munro, and my favorite of the lineup, “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace. I had read novels and collections from those individual writers, but I liked seeing them collected in an original form, with the magazines of original publication listed below. It was a lesson: American literary culture is built through literary magazines.

I flipped to the back of the book: “Editorial Addresses of American and Canadian Magazines Publishing Short Stories.” This was 2000, so much of the information was outdated, but there were mailing addresses and names of editors. Puerto del Sol: PO Box 3E, Department of English, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM 88003. Edited by Kevin McIlvoy and Antonya Nelson. Virginia Quarterly Review: One West Range, Charlottesville, VA 22903. Edited by Staige D. Blackford. I would dip back between the stories and their original publications to find which magazines best fit my style. I say style and not substance: I was very much a young writer, and it would take a steady dose of sentence-to-sentence examinations of writers like James Alan McPherson, Joy Williams, and William Gass in order to understand fiction.

My fiction professor had a “Publish or Paris” cartoon on his office door, and the pun wasn’t lost on me. In order to be a writer, I also had to be a submitter. I printed some of my stories and followed the magazine’s guidelines. I typed and signed cover letters. I prepared SASEs, which felt like a strangely formal and unnecessary action to receive a response: folding an envelope and stuffing it into another envelope is the literary equivalent of matryoshka dolls. I soon understood that literary magazine editors and staff had to deal with cataloging, reading, and responding to thousands of submissions, as well as pleading for university or donor funding. They didn’t have the time or money to buy and provide stamps for responses.

I mailed stories to Cimarron Review, Artful Dodge, and Prairie Schooner. I thought about the submissions from time to time, but I was an undergraduate with more than enough distractions. The form rejections arrived on thick, cardboard stock cards, or on computer paper sliced into squares. There was the occasional “Thanks!” or a suggestion to subscribe. No meant no. There were no explanations. I needed to hear those cold, distant rejections. My writing mentors were constructive but caring: they would edit my stories down to the single sentence worth saving, but they would do so with guidance and interest. Editors owed me nothing: no words of encouragement, no line edits, and not a swift response. In order to impress them, I had to write better fiction. I knew that writing was a slow process on my end. I scribbled story and character ideas on napkins, in the margins of junk mail and newspapers, or in a series of notebooks. Those ideas became handwritten drafts, which were typed, printed, set aside, and then revised on the printed page. I typed those revisions, and then repeated the process. Ideas come in a flash, but stories must be built. I am the son of a carpenter who almost became a priest: planning and ritual are the modes of our lives.

Back then, I had no idea what happened to my submissions when they left the post office. Did editors really read my stories? I had an intimate connection with my own drafting, writing, and revising, but my submitting life was wrecked with unknowns. Submittable is a wonderful resource, but I long for those days when I don’t know whether a story is “received” or “in progress.” The method of write, submit, and resubmit has its real artistic perils. At the National Post, poet Michael Lista thinks the contemporary literary culture “encourages, for its own survival, a writer’s worst attributes: vanity, assuredness, sophistry, mutual flattery, imprecision, inefficiency and an unselfconscious fluency that is the surest sign of a minor writer. The qualities that contribute to producing great work — skepticism, deliberation, patience — are not in the system’s interest.” The ease of submission has cultivated a lack of self-discernment. Simply because a story can be submitted does not mean it should.

I miss having my envelope of stories weighed and mailed. I miss the handling of paper, the process of submission. The great, unlikely gift of postal submissions was the building of patience and discipline. Now we can publish at any and every moment: status updates, tweets, posts. There are benefits to tearing down those fences between our words and the world, but there is worth to relative silence, to communication between a single sender and recipient.

This is how I satiate my nostalgia for the old rituals. I go through my typical motions of drafting and revising, until a story feels ready to submit. I find a few potential markets and list them in an Excel spreadsheet. Then I print the story, fold it, and leave it in an unsealed envelope, tucked in a desk drawer. Weeks later, I take that story from the envelope and read it with new eyes: the eyes of an editor, a discerning reader who does not owe me anything. Those weeks of gestation are an abbreviation of the response time to a postal submission, but they are metaphorically enough. Postal submissions taught writers that this vocation is not a sprint. Writing is a series of marathons separated by long respites, where we regain breath and build strength. It is time for writers to slow down again, so that our performance in the next race can be better, more meaningful, and if we are lucky, closer to the eternal, mysterious rewards of art.

Image credit: Unsplash/Mathyas Kurmann.

Goodbye Old Friends: On Selling My Books

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As I write this sentence, I’m surrounded by old friends. About 1,500 of them. The bulk of my books, stacked on seven tightly packed bookshelves. I see yellowed paperbacks of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Donald Barthelme’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. All purchased at the Northwestern University bookstore in 1970 by a disoriented, overwhelmed freshman from Dubuque, Iowa. From Ethan Frome to metaficton in a matter of months. It was like a non-swimmer being tossed into arctic waters.

Or the green, stained hardcover edition of Marion French’s Myths and Legends of the Ages (1956), with its (to me at least) iconic illustrations by, I swear, Bette Davis. I had left it in my classroom on my last day at Bryant Elementary School, but it had my name in it and a kind teacher sent word to me at junior high to stop by and pick it up. I must have. I just looked up its market price for the first time. I could only find one copy for sale: $156.00.

Oh, I go on periodic weanings, but a lot remains. Take the row of Ace paperback editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, purchased for 40 cents each at the Book Nook on Main Street when I was 11 and 12. These were being reissued contemporaneously with fantastic Frank Frazetta covers: a barely clothed woman with sculpted hair, a six-foot spear, flanked by snarling, but clearly domesticated, saber-toothed tigers. I can pick one up today and still feel a touch of that old excitement, the delicious anticipation of going on yet another adventure to Pellucidar, the stone-age world under the north pole, populated by a fantastic race of dimorphic humanoids whose males look like Neanderthals, while the women are clones of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Who could resist? My well-used copies would be lucky to fetch $10.00 today.

I’m putting them all up for sale. Well, not all. I’m not willing, like the minions of part-time booksellers on, to list thousands of titles priced between $0.01 and $2.00 (my guess, hoping to make a dollar or two on handling and shipping). And there are a few I can’t part with. Yet. So I’ve decided to list the ones that, after painstaking research, appear to be worth at least $10.00, while not so dear to my heart that it would haunt me to see them go.

My idea is to whittle the shelves down. Who else would want the burden? Some 15 years ago, the last time we relocated, the burly, but middle-aged mover looked me up and down suspiciously as he climbed down from his van.

“You’re not a professor?” he asked. I shook my head, guiltily, wondering if I actually smelled like a library. Over half of the household weight was in books back then, and I’ve bought more shelves since.

I imagine the groan in the room as my will is read when they come to the sentence “And I leave my books to…”

My idea when I opened an online bookstore at was to not only reduce the burden on my heirs, but to monetize my impeccable selections, most bought at used book sales for pittances. For instance, I was happy last year to pack off to Canada my copy of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (Yale, 1961) by Sir Charles Sherrington for $39. I’d bought it at an Iowa State University library sale for 25 cents in 1978. I’d studied his work in a graduate-level neurophysiology course at the University of Iowa and thought it might be worth something. No real emotional attachment there.

But what about the five books that Arthur Ashe took off my desk at the U.S. Tennis Association back in 1988 with a sly smile, saying he had to think a bit about the inscriptions? He hadn’t yet revealed his AIDS diagnosis, but would be dead of complications from it within five years. Included in the books he signed were his just-published, three-volume history of the Black American athlete, which he had written with the fury of the condemned, often in hotel rooms, carting a computer with him everywhere, long before the days of laptops.

One of the joys of scanning my library is spying the discoveries, the first or early books of authors acquired when they were far from subsequent fame. Each was like discovering an amazing new restaurant before the reviews start hitting and the crowds ruin the fun. I recall the wall of rejection letters T.C. Boyle used to decorate his office when a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I read his MFA thesis one afternoon in the library and recognized many of these darkly comic stories when his first, thin-selling collection, Descent of Man appeared. Years later, when I asked him to sign it at a Barnes & Noble in Kansas City, he looked at me leerily and said, “You know, these are getting to be worth a lot of money.” I told him I didn’t intend to sell it, and so far that’s been true.

I’m not sure how I was tipped to Carl Hiaasen, who remains one of my great reading pleasures to this day. But I bought a copy of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, back in 1986 and told everyone I knew to read it too. Or the pristine copy of Bill Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, purchased and read long before it was turned into Field of Dreams. Or knowing John Irving for his pre-Garp, hilarious Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man and his Esquire profile of wrestling great Dan Gable, in which he bravely took to the mat with him.

But I must come clean. As fun as it is to get a sale, my currently listed volumes are moving at a pace which would take some 70 years to empty my e-store. Of course, that’s assuming people will continue to prize certain books: great out-of-print novels, first editions, volumes signed by the author. As e-books continue to take market share, paper books may be destined to become decorative objects, like cupboards built to hold commodes or vinyl album covers. I’ve seen a number of designer rooms in magazines where the books are shelved with titles to the wall (what?) or sorted by color. Maybe the next generation will fill shelves with books the way Gatsby did — real ones, but uncut (i.e. unread). Perhaps our progeny will shop for books the way the latecomers to the book sale do: $2 per shopping bag, or carrying a tape measure.

In any case, my shelves are already packed with wonderful books of no particular cash value. What will become of these? Who would want a battered paperback of Joyce’s Ulysses, even if it was used in classes taught by both the critic Alfred Kazin and the novelist Anthony Burgess, filled (perhaps ruined further) with my annotations? Who could possible care about my complete collection of paperback Best American Essays, starting with the inaugural 1986 edition? How could I find anyone else who would take equal delight in the first sequential tennis stroke photos ever published, in my battered Volume Two of the American Lawn Tennis Library, Mechanics of the Game (1926)?

And to tell the truth, I’m still acquiring about 10 books for every one I sell. But, honestly, each is indispensible. True, the shelves are already full, but it’s always possible to cram a few more in. And when the neighborhood library has its next book sale (hardcovers $2), can I really leave those possible gems to the illiterates with scanners? Even if I don’t find another autographed copy of Tim O’Brien’s first novel, If I Die in a Combat Zone (sold for $120 to an English professor at the Naval Academy), how can I possibly lose?

Image Credit: Pexels/Stanislav Kondratiev.

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