Thursday, January 06, 2005

Maud Newton: Blog

I buy every issue of Open City. I can't say that about any other literary publication.

Like many of its contemporaries, Open City offers a mix of traditional and experimental offerings, but here the blend actually works, managing to be lively and harmonious at once.

When I pick up a literary magazine -- or any volume that collects short stories from different authors -- I flip around. I skim. If I find a story I like, I start over and slow down. Reading cover-to-cover doesn't tend to work for me. Many of the offerings are disappointing, and I end up doubting myself: maybe that Barthelme rip-off has some deeper significance; perhaps this story about a young woman's forced marriage would move me if I only read past the fifth page; it's possible that the culture does need twelve writers exactly like David Foster Wallace.

I read Open City randomly, too, but for me the final ratio of stories finished to stories skipped is much better than with many more popular magazines like, say, McSweeney's. And some of the stories stay with me. I've read Greg Ames' 'Physical Discipline' and Cynthia Weiner's 'Amends' three or four times each since the 17th issue appeared in the summer of 2003.
I attribute much of Open City's appeal to the editors' willingness to feature new writers' stories alongside work from more established names. In an October, 2000, article for Slate, one of the editors, Thomas Beller, wrote about his frantic efforts to track down an unknown writer, Vestal McIntyre, when his short story, 'Octo,' was uncovered during a mass reading session after sitting in the slush pile for six months:

It was a 34-page story about a slightly disturbed 12-year-old and his pet octopus, Octo. By Page 18, I was moved and amazed by it and convinced it should end there and already formulating my case for cutting the second half of the story. Then I read the second half of the story. It had been a cold day in January, the sky white with clouds, and at dusk it had begun to snow. We raced out to my car and drove to the address on the cover letter. There was no phone number and he was not listed. He had submitted the thing six months earlier. For six months "Octo" had sat in our slush pile! I was terrified that he had sent it elsewhere. We pulled up to Rivington Street; he seemed to live in a huge school building that had been converted to apartments. We found his name, buzzed, and stood there while snow fell in fat dry flakes around us. It was very exciting. But no one was home. Then Vanessa Chase, who was part of the search posse, spotted the name of a college friend, who was home, so we first paid a brief visit to the friend who greeted us at the door with a look of confusion and slight embarrassment to have been dropped in on, and then we went to Vestal McIntyre's door and I shoved a note under it saying please call, we want to buy the story. His roommate called later that evening and said he would call from work, which turned out to be the graveyard shift at Florent, a restaurant that is open until 5. Sometimes it's a wild scene of club-goers and transvestites and outré tourists, but it was Sunday and snowing and when I burst into the place it was empty.

For the first of an ongoing series, Beller agreed to answer a few quick questions about the prospects for unpublished writers at Open City. (His co-editor, Joanna Yas, was traveling, but wrote in to say, in essence, "what he said.") Beller's answers confirm that the McIntyre story is an anomaly and that most slush pile submissions ultimately are rejected -- but also that a handful of unpublished writers who send in good work will receive an acceptance every year.

How do you guys approach slush pile submissions these days?

Fear, loathing, anticipation, curiosity. Think of a slot machine. Any given day you get a combination of those four options, sometimes all one flavor, sometimes a mix. And there is a broad mix of readers. Another slot machine whirring at the same time.

What's the average turnaround time for the manuscript of an unpublished, unagented author?

2-4 months. (more...)

Posted by Maud at Wed, AM


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