Here’s a word every fledgling author must deal with: submission. I suppose that should be a hint from the very beginning as to what the publishing process feels like. Official definitions are as follows: surrendering power to another; meekness; the feeling of patient humility; the stepped-on side of a gonad-busting fetishistic sex ritual; a wrestling position whereby an opponent is pained under threat of loogie into crying uncle. On good days, the first two definitions apply. On those days, you give up your snootiness about the process, you stop being a prima donna, submit to the will of the God of Literature, and you stop kidding yourself about getting into the New Yorker.
On the bad days, it’s one of the other two, or worse, the a la Opus Dei cat-of-nine-tails flagellant mortification of the flesh. You try your specially formatted best, submit, and hope the smell of your offering is pleasing. It’s not exactly great for one’s self esteem, especially the kind of daring nervy chutzpah self-esteem required for writing in the first place. I’ve often thought it takes a certain amount of arrogance to want to be a writer, to want to write. As Dickens said, you write to be read, and writers have to assume what they write is going to be worth reading, that people will want to hear or consider what the writer has to say. It’s like the sidewalk preacher assuming people really like him. It’s a paradoxical conflict. Writing is holding a mirror up to the ass-end of humanity so humanity may become aware of itself, whether it would like to or not— and that’s bold and stupidly gutsy and requires an artist willing to be slapped for the sake of art.
But submission is different. Submission is anti-art. Submission is bureaucratic red tape. It’s snobby order on artistic chaos. Submission is an iconoclast begging for acceptance, acknowledgement; submission is paying club dues to a club that may never, ever let you in, sometimes just because the doorman asking you for the secret password suspects you have cooties.
Paradox is a natural condition for an artist, though, as is breathless indignation at traditional processes. It’s the classic vocational vicious circle. In the “real” world, you can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job. In the mirror world (the world where artists live) you can’t get published unless they know you, and they can’t know you if you can’t get published.
It doesn’t help that every single literary magazine/publisher on the planet wants you to submit in a different way. Some want email attachments. Some want your work posted in the body of an email. Some, even now, don’t take email submissions. Some want your name on every page. Some don’t want your name on it all. Some want bios. Some don’t care. Some only publish stories about nurses who work the third shift—except the ones in maternity (screw them!). Some demand cuffs, others ropes.
One source estimates that at any given time there are 600 literary magazines operating in the United States. That’s 600 different pretty girls at the bar with 600 different ways of getting down and a barrage of fumbling suitors trying to come up with the right lines to say to them and none of them knowing that each of those girls “has a boyfriend” already, even if it’s clear that if she did have one he’d be dang upset his girl went to a Friday-night dogfight in a meat dress. Not having to play stupid games like that anymore is one reason I like being married.
It’s a far cry from how I imagined it, but how I imagined it is wildly stupid and romantic. How I imagined it, too, is an impossible reality oddly matching the expectations of some high maintenance mags, especially the big ones. Those high-maintenance mags want you to submit completely. As if they feel it is unfaithful, those trophy-wife magazines want you to submit to them only and give them six months to write you a one-line rejection. If they lower themselves to accept unsolicited advances, they want you to submit by snail mail, write a cover letter, use two-inch margins, not go over 1,000 words (or under 20,000), send them a $15 reading dowry, and mail it all in a #10 envelope addressed in very specific way so that it may be delivered by a pale eunuch on a jenny mule on Palm Sunday. Don’t write about love. Don’t write in diary format. Don’t even think about writing in verse (or not in verse). Make sure your submission is marked with chicken blood and is bound with the hair of a virgin.
I read the submission requirements, sit back, and think who has justification and time for all that? I have a full-time job, three part-time jobs, a volunteer gig, and a family, and I don’t think this is what is meant by “suffering for your art.” The writer those folks are looking for is reading over their requirements while sipping from a brandy snifter in front of a fireplace. The writer they’re looking for, after he finishes his breakfast mimosa and slips out of his silk pajamas and into his smoking jacket, leisurely writes out manuscripts by hand with a special pen and sends out his pure bred hound to get the mail, which may or may not have a long awaited and sweetly-worded reply within. When accepted for publication, he’ll throw a lovely dinner party full of very interesting people and have little impromptu poetry writing contests and tell Moby Dick jokes.
But those mags accomplish their purpose: weeding out hoards of wannabes. Just try to bring up ten literary magazine websites without three or four of them beginning a sentence with “Because of the volume of submissions….” They have to be picky, and not everybody who’s in this game should be. Some are the highly unfortunate American Idol tone-deaf who can’t take a hint.
Aye, there’s the rub, right? How does one know which artist he is? How does one acquire humility and hubris simultaneously? How do you be humble enough you don’t assume you’re Hemingway but arrogant enough to believe you could be. If you’re going to play this game, you have to take on a certain reality about yourself. You have to, even if approval never comes, imagine yourself sipping brandy in your smoking jacket. You have to assume that arrogance and weather all storms of rejection. You have to be the guy who has no idea he's not handsome or cool. You have to remember that writers from Stephen King to Dr. Seuss got rejected a lot. And you have to be okay with the idea that you might not ever make it. Because that’s what being an artist is: doing art because you love art, not because you get recognized for doing it.
And yeah, that bites. I informed my father yesterday if ever I reached the point I made 100 grand in one year just from my writing, I’d forever onward go forth to literary events dressed like
Hannibal Means. I’d become the stereotypical crazy and high maintenance artist demanding bowls of green M&Ms because I’d feel like I earned the right to be nuts.
On the practical side, I’ve been streamlining the submission process, and hopefully maintaining some sane dignity because of it. I’ve weeded out those bent on weeding me out. I’ve broken up with them first, and it wasn’t mutual. If they play hard to get, then they don’t get the benefit of considering my unique brand of brilliance. Snail mail only? Rejected. Reading fee? Rejected. No simultaneous submissions? In half a year I’ll tell you that’s unacceptable in an age with fierce global competition and zero time for brandy sniffing. And I’m doing what I hate most, making a spread sheet, and only the pubs friendly to modern writers make the list. Every single one might reject my work, but at least by submitting more and being submissive less (<--awkward, eh?), it won’t feel so much like groveling at the boots of a few cruel mistresses.