Last weekend, I had the great good fortune to reconnect with someone I hadn’t seen since 1984. Back then, he was a high school student in the drama club I directed. Now, we’re both in our fifties, a notion I still find mildly shocking, but one I need to get used to since I’m bearing down fast on the day when only one of us holds that distinction.
Among my friend’s other accomplishments, he’s a writer of short fiction. In high school, he wrote all sorts of things, including a parody of the musical, 1776, that he co-wrote with another drama club pal. Now, he focuses on science fiction, fantasy, and horror. As we prepared dinner and compared notes, he commented that he used to read The New Yorker for its fiction because he felt he should, but finally he realized that he just didn’t like those stories.
In some circles, that would be a bold statement. Certainly, one would not expect to hear it at AWP, the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. (Why isn’t it “AWWP,” you ask? No idea. You’ll have to ask them.) AWP focuses heavily on the literary end of the writing spectrum, with seminars led by people with MFAs and a great hall full of tables piled high with literary journals most non-writers have never heard of. A writer friend who attended with me several years ago said afterward that she didn’t think she’d go back because the conference seemed to be primarily for writers of literary fiction rather than mainstream, commercial, or genre.
When I first began to write with an eye toward publishing, I veered toward literary journals primarily because my stories didn’t seem to fit any of the genre-based publications. This, as it turns out, is not a good enough reason to submit to a literary journal.
There’s a reason everybody tells you to read a few issues of a publication before submitting to it: because you’ll save yourself and the editor a lot of time. For example, I should have known from reading one well-respected journal that my stories were not a good fit. I read several issues, and my primary response was, “Huh?” I’m fond of stories with a discernible beginning, middle, and end; these editors did not appear to share this preference. One story I recall ran in two columns side by side, and I couldn’t figure out whether I was supposed to read one column all the way through and then go back to the other or if I was supposed to jump back and forth so that I finished both on the page before moving forward. Neither column made sense anyway. I stayed with it for about a page and a half before flipping ahead to something I had a shot in hell of understanding.
Also, most of the stories in that journal seemed to be fairly dark and/or obtuse. I don’t remember actually liking any of them, which may make you ask why I bothered to submit to that journal. The answer was that they published longish stories, which is where mine tend to fall, and they paid very well. Needless to say, we didn’t click. It was just as well. While I don’t require straightforward structure and a sunny ending, I do prefer a story I can understand that doesn’t culminate in a pit of despair with no scintilla of hope. If I want to be confused and discouraged, I’ll watch the news.
After racking up a respectable number of rejections, I have come to the conclusion that in the end, if you read what you like to write and write what you like to read, you will have much better success as a writer. For example, I’ve determined that my work is probably best characterized as “upmarket,” which has been described as blending literary and commercial fiction. As it happens, the same is true of most of the books on my shelves, at least the best-loved ones. I have some literary works and a fair collection of mysteries, but the ones I’m most likely to reread are the ones that might have been called upmarket or “book club fiction.”
(Mind you, I didn’t even know “upmarket” was a thing five years ago when I submitted my first story, and maybe it wasn’t. All I know is that I heard the term somewhere and it seemed to fit my novel-then-in-progress. So I went to a pitch conference, I told the agent my novel was upmarket women’s fiction, and she nodded and listened to my pitch and didn’t tell me she disagreed with the characterization, so there you are.)
The problem, of course, is that there aren’t a lot of places to publish upmarket short fiction. Then again, there’s also no real point in submitting to journals where your work doesn’t fit, because if your stories don’t appeal to their readership, they’re not going to publish them. This means I have to work harder to find appropriate markets, or I need to look into indie publishing, e-books, and/or adding a section on this site for short fiction. (For people who are interested in the indie route, I recommend checking out the illustrious Joanna Penn.)
What I don’t need to do, though, is to feel as if I should change what I like to write or read to fit some trend or market. There are plenty of readers to go around. At risk of sounding very Field of Dreams, I really do believe that if I—and you—write the best stories and essays and plays and articles and books we’re capable of writing, and we’re writing what we love to read and write about, and we put it out in the world and let people know it’s there, the readers will come, and they will read and they will love it and they’ll come back for more.
I’m not saying it’s easy—the reading, the writing, the publishing, the publicizing, any of it. But as my riding teacher used to say, if it were easy, everybody would do it.
So, that’s your assignment. Figure out what you love to read, and to hell with anybody who judges it. Then, go out and learn how to write it to the best of your ability, and share it with the people who love that kind of thing. Granted, you may not become rich or famous or end up on a talk show that gets you the coveted Colbert bump.
But if you write it, they will read. Maybe. Let’s hope, anyway.