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Among the “Unsavvy”

Being published in the New Yorker has long been a fantasy for many writers, and the magazine’s recent change in the fiction chair appeared to offer more hope for the underpublished. Appearances, however, can be deceitful.

Among underpublished writers, the news late last year that Deborah Treisman would be replacing Bill Buford as fiction editor at the New Yorker so Buford could shine ‘Molto’ Mario Batali’s knife rack full-time was greeted with cautious enthusiasm. Yes, Buford had brought some fresh voices to the magazine (Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, and Zadie Smith, among others), and had made the pages safe for stories containing unconventional sex, but he also continued to publish stalwarts like John Updike, Alice Munro, and Julian Barnes with sigh-inducing frequency.

And what of Treisman? She’s young (32), stylish, hip, and married to an indie-rocker whose band apparently sounds like a cross between The Who and My Bloody Valentine. Clearly, she is one of us, or at least a much cooler and more interesting version of us. At last, Updike and Munro would be put out to pasture because Treisman knows that the kids are alright! In the Times story announcing her elevation, she commented, ‘We publish the best work we receive.’ This sounded good to us since we knew our stories were plenty good, but as of yet, we hadn’t met Salman at any cocktail parties.

Sure, Buford had won some national magazine awards, but, more important to us, he had always disdained the magazine’s legendary slush pile. (They reportedly receive close to 50,000 unsolicited manuscripts every year, a figure likely higher now that they accept email submissions.) In an interview, Buford once referred to the number of submissions as a ‘problem’ and never could recall having chosen a story directly from the pile.

This failure is significant, because for an unknown short-story writer, the New Yorker is, literally, the lottery: an instant stroke with the power to change a life completely. Witness Nell Freudenberger, whose story ‘Lucky Girls’ was chosen for the 2001 debut fiction issue, and who was soon being offered a reported $500,000 for a short-story collection that had yet to be written. In a shrewd move, Freudenberger had the good sense to work at the New Yorker, thus bypassing that whole ugly unsolicited-manuscript business.

As admirable as Buford’s discoveries were, like Freudenberger, most seemed to arrive via the literary network, through agents, publishers, or other writers (my evidence is culled from the frequently coincidental occurrence of a story appearing in the New Yorker just as the author’s PR machine is warming up). Prior to Buford’s tenure, it seemed that once every year or so, a story would be plucked from the pile. While acceptance remained a falling-out-of-bounds-full-court-heave, at least it was possible. For generations, the New Yorker has been the unknown writer’s Broadway, our dream of a name in lights (or at least next to Seymour Hersh and Susan Orlean), and for many, this provided part of the fuel for the writing of millions of words in concentrated, serious solitude. As long as the New Yorker continued to publish its mailing address, that door was cracked open just enough to slip a manuscript from any old schmo inside.

Under Buford, the New Yorker seemed to have shut that door completely.

As someone who likely read from the slush pile during her time as a staffer, and who is of the generation that embraced and empowered independent film and music, surely Treisman would recognize that there must be fresh and exciting work going unrecognized by the more mainstream gatekeepers and tastemakers—those who are wholly tied to matters of commerce. Certainly Treisman would dive into the slush and find previously undiscovered gems that we knew were there, wouldn’t she?

By all accounts, Deborah Treisman is a fine person, and a keen editor of fiction (just as Buford was), so it’s probably unfair to judge her on a couple of months at the helm, but reading her comments in a recent Book Magazine ‘Q&A,’ it appears that an unguarded bit of ‘Lottian’ honesty escaped:

Q: Have you ever rescued anything notable from the slush pile?

A: Someone who’s submitting themselves directly to the fiction editor probably isn’t all that savvy about publishing and probably not about writing either. Though I’m sure there are exceptions to that. Particularly in poetry. A lot of poetry comes from the slush pile, because poets don’t have agents.

That we are unsavvy about publishing is not news to us, since we always had to double-check if Bill Buford was the New Yorker guy, or the former drummer for Yes and King Crimson (that’s Bill Bruford). No, that’s no big surprise to us—but that we are also unsavvy about writing, and that it is this savvy that the New Yorker is ultimately interested in, rather than or in addition to the keenness of our creative vision, crushes us with the hard force of truth.

Perhaps, though, we should appreciate Deborah Treisman’s candor. The idea of the New Yorker as knight in shining armor arriving via self-addressed stamped envelope to deliver the unknown writer from anonymity may better serve us as delusion, rather than mere unlikely fantasy. The position of fiction editor of the New Yorker carries an inordinate degree of power as a unique nexus of favor-currying for agents, writers, and publishers (try to find a single disparaging quote about Buford with an actual attributed name), and maybe now, thanks to the curtain finally being pulled back all the way, only the savvy remain yoked to its tyranny.

But as we move through the stages of grief brought on by this truth and settle on anger, we recognize Ms. Treisman’s comment for what it is: complete and utter ignorant, elitist moose-shit. (Was that also unsavvy?) We know that there are undiscovered and unappreciated geniuses everywhere, working in every artistic medium. Unfortunately, many of these brilliant artists do not have the skills or resources for cultivating the proper garden of connections to place a manuscript on Bill Buford’s—or now—Deborah Treisman’s desk.

Even more worrying is that many among the unsavvy have reported that under the magazine’s email submission system (inaugurated in the post-September 11 anthrax scare), they had altogether stopped receiving rejections for manuscripts electronically submitted to the New Yorker slush pile. Where before one could always at least count on a politely worded rejection form arriving in three or four months, it appears that as the 4,000-manuscript-per-month pile that used to topple from editorial assistants’ desks has been squished into bytes, the ‘problem’ has become easier to ignore.

But because I am certain that the sheer size of the slush pile at the New Yorker guarantees that it contains the work of more than a few of the unsavvy—yet brilliant—I am making the New Yorker an offer:

Dear Deborah Treisman: for the purposes of a contest, I want you to subcontract your slush pile to me for one month. In keeping with the New Yorker’s political leanings, perhaps it’s best to think of the idea as affirmative action for writers. We shall call it ‘Great American Writer’ after a popular television show airing these days.

During that month, I will personally screen the approximately 4,000 unsolicited manuscripts you receive. Conventional wisdom says that 90 percent of the slush pile is unreadable, irredeemable crap, dismissed quickly and easily. We’ll ask Norman Mailer to make cutting remarks about the very worst submissions. (People seem to enjoy that.) Since an additional 9.5 percent of the stories are likely to be competent, but ultimately uninspiring, that will leave a field of 20 potentially excellent stories. These 20 semi-final stories will be picked over by the New Yorker editorial staff to choose a fortunate final five.

The final five manuscripts can be excerpted for public comment and 1-800-number voting, with the winner announced live at the 92nd Street Y (I’m thinking Steve Martin for host) and broadcast on C-SPAN. Binky Urban can agent the ultimate champion, with an auction on the winner’s unwritten book to immediately follow the ceremony.

Think of the anticipation and excitement, the breathless profiles of the final five on the Today show. We’ll have people interested in reading again (they stopped when Oprah terminated her book club). The ultimate winner (and likely more than one of the other finalists) will be launched into a promising career, you can make good on your pledge that you publish the best manuscripts you receive, and your magazine can shake its reputation as being staffed by a bunch of narrow-minded snobs unable to see past the shores of Manhattan.

Sounds pretty savvy to me.

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TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner