I once pursued an unheralded career as a fictionist. I am the author of a bad untitled novel in manuscript, and thirty or forty atrocious short stories, two of which that actually saw publication. The novel was a roman à clef of my experience working in a mental hospital, a reverse take-off on One Flew Over the Cuckkoo’s Nest. In my story the orderlies were the good guys. I dreamed of literary fame as the Anti-Kesey. Today my novel “lives” in a cardboard box in a closet, and if the house ever catches fire, there it will stay. Or if my sun ascends maybe it’ll end up on some futuristic version of the “Antiques Roadshow” in a century or so.
My massive short story output has left me with two drawers of a file cabinet crammed with manila envelopes containing manuscripts, and two shoeboxes in the bottom drawer stuffed with roughly 200 rejection slips (I’ve always been a firm believer in multiple submissions) from some of America’s most prominent magazines. How was I to know that The New Yorker received 8,000 submissions per month?
These stories all reflect who I was reading at the time I wrote them. This is a cautionary tale, of course, because the short story writer who writes like that has no business writing stories. T.S. Eliot said: “Bad writers imitate; good writers steal.” The author of “The Wasteland” proved that plagiarism is the spice of the literary life. Though reflecting the general decline of Western Civilization, they don’t make plagiarists like they used to. After all, who do we now have to compare to Shakespeare hijacking big chunks of Julius Caesar out of Plutarch? Doris Kearns Goodwin? But I digress. Back to my honestly executed and extremely bad short stories.
I had the standard terse Hemingway phase that slowly evolved into a convoluted Faulkner one, where the sentences seemed to run all the way to my rejection slip- choked mailbox. I had a Joseph Conrad-Graham Greene-Robert Stone period, where all my male characters were alienated, nihilistic Vietnam veterans who dealt drugs, drank tequila from the bottle, had torrid love affairs with beautiful, dissipated women, and died violently in exotic locales like Thailand or Mexico. John Cheever was a temporary enthusiasm as I tried to apply his American suburban-angst motif to the “New West” when I moved here over a decade ago, as was Flannery O’Connor as I attempted to inject a bit of her Southern Gothic outlook into the life of small town Wyoming. I also wrote poor parodies of Larry McMurtry and Thomas McGuane, two contemporary Westerners who actually know the territory.
One “McGuanesque” entitled “And Jack Again” was published in Caldera, a “little magazine” (now defunct) out of glitzy Jackson, Wyoming. Little magazines brought out in upscale Rocky Mountain resort towns differ from their more staid academic counterparts in that they aren’t publicly supported, are infused with a narcissistic center-of-the-universe “sense of place,” and are published by pseudo-creative liberals with trust funds. In short, tons of private money on hand but no talent. They would drown in ennui and existential dread if they didn’t have a bad magazine to put out. I found it paradoxical that these earnest little rags always had money to “plow back into the magazine,” but paid their writers nothing but contributor copies.
My Caldera story was about a hard luck New West cowboy (Jack) who loses the ranch, gets a divorce and a much-hated job working on an oil rig, and starts to drink too much, the latter resulting in some slapstick comic adventures. One night while carefully navigating his pickup truck home from a bar, Jack pulled over and got sick. This was merely an understated device in the story to highlight Jack’s personal fortunes and state of mind. I didn’t describe it in graphic detail. But an illustrator at Caldera did. There in my first published short story was a crudely rendered pencil sketch of a slovenly dressed cowboy leaning on the hood of a pickup with strings of vomit hanging from his mustache like fangs. I suppose this was Caldera‘s way of dispelling the “Myth of the West,” my puke-spattered cowboy being a manifestation of editorial policy.
My other published story, “A Fine Day for Business,” showed up in a western pulp fiction magazine in Montana called Big Sky Stories. A scholarly look at the 1830s Rocky Mountain Fur trade, the piece also featured some rather gritty realism: Indian fighting, scalping, and torture (one poor guy has his arm chopped off). Rereading it reminds me that this story shows me at the peak of what I call my Cormac McCarthy-Sam Peckinpah period, with dismembered body parts used for great symbolic effect. Who knows? Maybe this obscure gem will someday be the subject of Harvard Ph.D. dissertation. And the magazine’s editor, a fellow with the unusual name of Happy Jack Feder, wielded his red pen with a ferocity that in the end seemed to pay homage to all the bloodshed.
Which brings me to rejection slips; while not lethally bloody, they do have a poison pill quality about them. There are two kinds: standard and personalized.
“Standard” is almost self-explanatory: “We are sorry that your submission does not fit our current needs. Good luck placing it elsewhere. — The Editors.” “Personalized” treats the author to all sorts of earnest — but in the end unserious — constructive criticism aimed at making a better writer. It’s all about character motivation and dramatic tension and plot resolution, and the writer is subjected to such clichéd golden oldies as “this story didn’t take me anywhere,” as if it were plane ticket. The bearers of these pedantic good tidings are usually graduate student interns who are themselves unpublished fictionists who write badly but impart the collected wisdom gleaned from countless graduate seminars run by people who also write badly and who have published mannered, contrived and self-indulgent fiction in other little magazines edited by people who also preside over graduate seminars and write badly.
I haven’t written fiction in years, thank God. Friends sometime implore me to return to it. As I shake my head, I can only offer them the example of Henry James who, after utterly failing as a playwright on opening night, said that writing for the theater was not “an art, but a secret.” But I think I have unlocked the mystery of my own big secret, and have discovered it is simply enough to be clearly understood.
All that sweat equity was not for naught.
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