Dearest MFA-getting Author-friends! We have a very special and sobering message for you today, inspired by the reams and reams of MFA-produced short stories and fictive efforts we have been reading lately, many of which are quietly pointing us toward the inevitable conclusion that whatever the hell they are teaching you up in there, it has nothing to do with Publishing. Lucky for you, little ones, you have us! to pour the ice-cold pitcher of Reality Water over your febrile and loftily-aspirationed heads!
1. Ask yourself the following questions: 1. Have I published a short story in The Paris Review? 2. Have I published a story in the New Yorker? 3. Am I Wells Tower? 4. Am I a talentless but famous white dude with lank, greasy hair? If you cannot answer "yes" to at least one of these questions, your odds of publishing a short story collection are somewhere around .001%. If you can answer "yes" to two of these questions, those odds will go up slightly (if you answer "yes" to questions #1-3, you should totally call us, we will buy you a beer at the Pencil Factory and you can tell us about being in a band with Al Burian). It doesn't matter where you got your MFA (sorry, Iowa!), it doesn't matter how much McSweeney's loves you, it doesn't matter how many awards you have gotten (unless one of them starts with Guggenheim or MacArthur) or how many times you have been in Best American Short Stories; your chances are very, very bad, and they are exponentially worse now than they have ever been. Half the reason we are so goddamn cranky is that we are constantly seeing profoundly talented people passed up for books that are "more commercial" (read: "OMG the hot new dude at school IS ACTUALLY A SUPERNATURAL ENTITY WHO WANTS TO DO IT WITH ME!!!!"); it makes us sad, but the industry right now is not a pretty picture, dear ones. Publishing in highly regarded literary journals will absolutely help your career, but it won't get you a book deal for a story collection. Read some of these people: Edward P. Jones, Lydia Davis, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Elmore Leonard, Mavis Gallant. Ask yourself: am I this good at writing short stories?* If the answer is no: write a novel. No really; WRITE A NOVEL. If you query an agent for your collection, and the agent says "Great! Come back when you have a novel," we're going to say we told you so.
2. Do they, like, hand out a memo on your first day of your MFA program telling you that writing about alcoholic working-class men who cannot communicate with their sons/fathers/wives is the only way to convey Authenticity? Well, take it from the assistant: we never want to see another goddamn book about an alcoholic working-class man who cannot communicate with his son/father/wife ever, ever again, particularly if that story is written by a 22-year-old white kid from Westchester County. Other important things you should know: abortion does not always Tear Relationships Asunder, and anyway Ernest Hemingway already wrote that story in 1927; people from the South occasionally do things besides beat their children; it is possible for a character to have a Moment of Self-Actualization without killing an animal with his/her bare hands; FOR CHRISSAKES HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO TELL YOU NOT TO OPEN YOUR STORY/NOVEL WITH A SNOWSTORM. Don't be sad; you should see what WE were writing when we were 22 (hint: it was fucking terrible). Everyone needs some time to crank out the piffle, except for maybe ZZ Packer. But you must learn to be ruthless with your own self. If it is bad, DO NOT SEND IT OUT. YOU HAVE TIME. Even if you are not 22. Trust us. José Saramago didn't publish a novel anyone gave a shit about until he was 57.
3. You have to write a query letter. You really do. Your query letter needs to tell us the following: 1. Who you are and 2. WHAT YOUR BOOK IS ABOUT. Even if you are a Stegner Fellow.
4. You may have more options if you are looking to publish with independent and university presses, who are often helmed by awesome and brilliant (if penniless) people who are much more open to the idea of, say, a surrealist short fiction collection, or an experimental novel written as an homage to Oulipo. The important thing to remember is that big publishing is owned by Satan, and what Satan cares about is money, and the prevailing sentiment in publishing is that short story collections/high fullutent literary fiction projects don't sell. (Is that even true? Who knows. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned sure seems to be doing fine. Oscar Wao spent a real long time on the NYT Bestseller list. As with some other conversations we've been having about what "doesn't sell," often times "it won't sell" is shorthand in publishing for "we don't feel like trying very hard to market it/we have no idea but it seems scary/we would rather spend money giving a large advance to Lauren Conrad/people of color?!?!? WHAT!! THEY READ??!?!.") Again, we are not telling you this because we think it is the way things ought to be; we think it is a rather awful way for things to be; but so is capitalism, and no one is listening to us on that count either, okay? Okay. Odds are good you're paying out the nose for that fancypants degree; make your program bring in real live agents! real live editors! and real live publishing professionals! who can talk you through the process and explain how the industry works. We are not here to discourage you!** but to make you stronger!
*One clue that you might be: agents will be contacting you, not the other way around.
**Well, we are definitely here to discourage you from writing stories about alcoholic working-class men who cannot communicate with their sons/fathers/wives, commencing with a snowstorm.