TRYING TO PLACE short fiction in the so-called "little" magazines is not to be recom- mended to the practical soul.
One's chances of placing a story in one of these publications--which include everything from The Southern Review and The Paris Review to Harpoon and A Shout in the Street--are sometimes less than 1 percent.
The Antioch Review, for example, reports receiving about 2,000 stories in one recent year; the editor selected 16. The Michigan Quarterly Review warns: "We get 350-400 stories a year, can accept 6-8." And George Core, editor of The Sewanee Review, "America's Oldest Literary Quarterly," gives no specific figures, but communicates the situation well enough when he writes:
"I have a huge backlog here in every department--no mere inanimate object but a beast. I am now trying to starve this monster into submission by feeding it only an occasional review. In the meantime, I would have to get a story nearly as good as 'Haircut' or 'The Dead' or 'Barn Burning' to tempt me to add to the backlog. So, in the circumstances, I am nearly unreasonable and more demanding than ever."
Not just unknown writers are peddling wares. This year's Best American Short Stories shows that the following "name" writers placed pieces in the little magazines in 1982: Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ward Just and Alice Munro. To say nothing of Jonathan Baumbach, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Frederick Busch, Eleanor Clark, Peter Collier, Leon Rooke, Louis D. Rubin Jr. and Lynne Sharon Schwartz, most of whom have not just one or two but several books to their credit.
I've been sending stories to these magazines since July 24, 1978. I am still amazed at my good fortune. Nine days after I sent my first, Joyce Carol Oates wrote back to accept the piece for The Ontario Review, my first choice. Indeed, this semiannual, which she and her husband edit, was the first place, large or small, to which I had sent a piece of fiction.
"Help! Help!" I said as I ran outside to the garage to tell my husband, covering my head with my arms. He was working on a car, and later said he wondered if he should pick up a tire iron to defend me; he thought I was being attacked.
Why was I crying for help on such a wondrous occasion? Because I felt then, as I still do, that just as surely as this piece of good luck had befallen me, an equally bad piece of luck could happen to me just as easily: I was covering my head so that a meteor wouldn't fall from the sky and kill me.
I called my former workshop teacher and told her the news. I had begun to write fiction for the first time, under her direction, seven months earlier. "What?! That's highly unusual!" she said. In class she had told us, "Stories are placed in the quarterlies," meaning that a writer had better have an "in"--or a prayer.
I told a well-published poet what had happened. She looked at me pityingly and said, "That'll help you through the bad times."
I've had eight other stories accepted since then, all of them out of the blue by editors I have never met, and have not met still.
I've also collected enough rejection slips to wallpaper a medium-sized room. I sent one story to 31 places before The Greensboro Review took it. I sent Oates 20 more stories before she took a second one to publish. I've sent a favorite story to 65 editors; it remains unclaimed. Yet, I know it is at least a passable piece: The New Yorker had four editors read it, had me rewrite a couple of passages and resubmit it, before they wrote their final criticism and ultimately declined.
I submit stories to the larger-circulation magazines before I go the rounds with the smaller ones now. Bigger, paid staffs--in contrast to the usually overworked, unpaid readers of the quarterlies--translate into a faster turn-around. It is not uncommon to wait four months for a little magazine to send its buck slip. Fiction magazine holds the record for keeping a piece of mine: 1 1/2 years.
Some would say I am a fool. After all, it isn't free. I spent $350 on postage last year. And the most I've ever been paid for a story has been 40 Canadian dollars, which netted about $35 at the bank.
And while it is true that many well-known writers have launched their careers from the pages of literary journals--Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor--I think it's safe to assume that many more have been buried between small-magazine covers.
On the other hand, why would an editor choose an unknown's work and publish it--often at his or her own expense (of time and effort if not cash), with no chance of remuneration, and usually with silence to expect from the world?
To say nothing of the editor's writing friends--perhaps of stature, perhaps of talent, perhaps even able and willing to publish a writing editor's work in a publication, in exchange for the same.
Why would this editor take a story by me?
The inescapable conclusion is simple, singular and sweet: The editor must like the story.