A few years back, I worked at a magazine, a literary magazine, a major literary magazine, reading the slush. People the world over submitted their short stories, and it was my job to read them. I wasn’t alone. At any given time, there must’ve been at least half a dozen of us, people finishing grad school or preparing for grad school or staying afloat by working jobs as night watchmen and doormen and waiters. We didn’t have any credentials, just a love of artful lies, an openness to them. We yearned to be writers, all of us. That’s what brought us together, why we were here. To read the slush.
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I knew the magazine because I was a writer. It was one of the famous ones, top-tier, it was called. Before I ever started working there, I sent them a story, hoping they’d like it, praying they’d accept it. I knew placing a story there might be the break I needed to kick-start my career. I had to wait a long time for a response, so long, in fact, that I almost forgot I’d ever sent them anything. Then, one afternoon, I received a letter. It wasn’t a form rejection, but a personal letter sent on the magazine’s letterhead. They liked the story for this reason and that one, they said, but not enough to publish it. They encouraged me to submit again in the future. I never did. Less than six months later, I was on staff, my name listed in the masthead.
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I rejected most of what I read. It’s the same at all magazines, standard practice. I opened the envelopes, read the stories until they lost me, then rejected them. In fact, only once in all that time did I recommend a story to the editors, but they didn’t like it enough. I filled in the blanks on each buckslip, the writer’s name, the title of their story, then stuffed it into the enclosed SASE. The bad news would arrive at their doorstep by U.S.P.S. or its foreign counterpart. Some of those writers wrote back, letters or emails full of spleen. Others phoned the office, leaving voicemail messages, all of them some variant of “Fuck you, asshole.” Surely, some of them papered their walls with those rejections, or fed them to their dogs. All of them suffered, at least a little.
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The numbers were daunting. The magazine received between fifteen and twenty thousand unsolicited submissions each year. Such a deluge for a magazine that published only four issues each year, six or seven, maybe eight stories in each issue, roughly thirty stories total. At most one story from the slush made it into the magazine in a given year. One in thirty, or three percent, isn’t bad. But that’s the optimist’s view, since it’s one in fifteen or twenty thousand, too, at best point oh-oh seven percent. And that didn’t even account for stories sent directly to the editor from agents or writers who already knew him. The odds weren’t good.
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When I first started, I was overwhelmed, all but completely. But not by the workload. There wasn’t a quota per se. All I had to do was show up and put in a certain number of hours every week, which didn’t exactly feel like work. I was reading short stories, so I couldn’t complain. What disturbed me was the yearning. These people came from all walks of life, and they sent submissions from Australia, Canada, Chile, China, England, France, Japan, Korea, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, and Wales, not to mention most of the states in the U.S. Some of these writers were already famous academics, attorneys, broadcasters, and journalists, though most of them were just average people, and some of them were more than a little down on their luck. But regardless of what they did or where they came from, they were all united in their singular desire to see their work in print. As if publication were more important than anything. As if it would somehow imbue their lives with meaning.
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Many of the stories I read were well-written, and some of them were excellent. Of course, there were awful ones, too, such as the string of submissions I read in my first six months about sodomy, often violent, always unsettling. And there were the genres we didn’t publish, such as poetry or essays or screenplays. Some people sent their life stories, typed on thin translucent paper or else written out in shaky longhand, probably with an expensive fountain pen. Once, I even opened an envelope to find nothing but a series of dinosaur cartoons, hand-drawn in pencil on notebook paper. Most of these people had no idea where they were submitting, had never picked up a copy of the magazine. Yet something had compelled them to submit their work blindly to strangers. I felt unworthy of such intimacy.
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When I could no longer stand the guilt, I had to quit. Although the rejections were anonymous, so no writer ever discovered who had read what, it was enough that I knew. Each time I filled in a buckslip and slid it into someone’s SASE, I was complicit in their pain. I knew about their pain, I knew it, I shared it. So, as much as I’d enjoyed the work, the stories and the flexibility and the rest of the staff, I had to part company with the magazine. There weren’t any hard feelings. The editors understood, since several of them were writers, too. They were just tougher than me, hardened by circumstance, by the financial demands of families and unpaid debts. But they knew it, too. With each rejection, each of us dies a little inside.
J.T. Townley’s story, “All That Glitters,” will appear in TLR issue 5, coming out December 1. He has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.