Q&A With Author Steve Almond: Literary Journals, the Perks of a Thousand Rejections

Author:
Publish date:

Literary journals—If you’re like me, you’ve circled them in a bookstore at one time or another in your writing life, sniffing at their doors, dazzled by their contents, wondering what they’re all about and just how the authors found their way in.

While I talked to different editors and agents for the literary journal roundup in the Nov/Dec issue of WD, let’s take it a step further—why not a writer?

Author Steve Almond, one of my favorite scribes in WD land (and source of one of the coolest quotes from the magazine in 2009: “All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies”) has been published in a slew of magazines and journals, and he took the time to share his thoughts on the subject.

Image placeholder title

Steve is the author of two story collections, and several books of nonfiction. He has two new books coming out—Rock and Roll Will Save your Life, a memoir about his obsession with bands we’ve never heard of (April) and a book of short shorts and short essays, This Won't Take a Minute, Honey (summer).

Here, he riffs on the role of literary journals, the art of writing short, the benefits of endless rejections and how you might eventually break into such publications yourself. For more about Steve, check out his reading and teaching schedule here.

Where all has your short fiction ended up, and how many publications do you estimate it has landed in?
My stuff has appeared in lots of tiny magazines and a few of the bigger literary ones. Mostly, the small ones. Oh, and I was in Playboy a few times. I always feel a little weird when people mention that, like I'm a pornographer.

When did you sell your first piece, and was it a struggle for you to break the barrier from unpublished to published? What was the key?
Well, I didn't "sell" a piece for quite a while, but the first pieces that got taken were in 1995. I can remember getting the acceptance, after so many rejections. It was the happiest five minutes of that whole decade. Then I went back to my default position of self-loathing. I'd probably gotten 100 rejections before the first one got taken, maybe more. The key to getting published was finally sending out a story that didn't suck. Don't mean that to be glib. It's just true that a lot of my early work was just really weak—more like summaries than actual stories. Very imitative of the writers I was reading. And it just takes a while to get past your evasions and to start to speak honestly (or let your characters speak honestly) about the stuff that matters to you most deeply.

What are the perks of publishing in literary journals and magazines?
For me, it really just kept me going in the face of rejection and doubt and unhappiness. It was like I was still in the game, as long as there was one magazine that hadn't rejected a particular story. It's also a kind of laboratory for emerging writers. There's incredible competition, so if you want to place a story, you really have to get better in a hurry.

Downsides?

Well, I guess for me anyway, it took a long time. I was publishing in small magazines for nearly a decade before I was able to get a publishing house interested in a story collection.

How do you think they have helped your career?

I don't think of them as having helped my "career." I think of them as having made me a better artist. That certainly helps your "career," but it really depends on what your priorities are. You've got a lot of folks these days who would rather find some kind of "platform" (God, I hate that word; it's just so marketing-scummy) than to practice their craft the old-fashioned way.

How do you view the importance of literary journals today, and what do you think their role is on the writing landscape?
As I've said, they're the laboratory for serious emerging writers. They're not for people who just want to be famous. They're for folks who are learning to take themselves and their work more seriously. In other words, they're insulated from the commercial concerns that act upon art like hydrochloric acid.

What are the basics of a solid short story—one editors like to read?
I edited a literary magazine for a year, so I can tell you what editors want most of all is something fresh. I saw hundreds of tepid stories of suburban angst, the kind of story where nothing is really at stake. I also saw a lot of writers who needlessly confused the reader, or flogged the language. In the end, I just wanted a writer who was going to find a way to tell me the truth about the stuff that mattered to her. Period. It will go without saying that the reader should never be confused, that there shouldn't be any extra words, that the story should dwell in the most complicated and charged moments.

What should you never forget when submitting?
That even a good story is likely to get rejected. I've been rejected thousands of times. You have to accept that as part of the arrangement, and allow it to make you more humble—and stubborn to succeed.

How does writing short pieces sharpen your overall craft ability?
To me, short stories are the hardest sort of prose to write, because every word has to count. You can't allow any bum adjectives, or metaphors to slip past your censor.

Some publications aspiring writers should consider submitting to:
I'm biased toward the ones that I read, but some of the ones I dig are Tin House, Southern Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, The Normal School, and Opium. But there are dozens out there, and they all have great stuff in them. Not being a Pollyanna, that's really the way it is.

--

WRITING PROMPT: Be Detestable
Courtesy of Steve Almond, feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

“Look at a recent story and write the whole thing from the point of view of the most detestable character. That's what I do when I'm stuck.”