Friday, March 27, 2009

Time for New Voices

NOTE: This piece and some of my other work is also viewable on thenervousbreakdown.com!

I have been waiting nearly two years to see what was a new story of mine finally published. 

A few years ago, I got busy sending out this story to literary journals, and after flurries of rejections (all standard—I didn’t let it get to me), I finally had an acceptance at a prestigious literary review. I was very pleased.

I became less pleased when I learned that it might be nine months or so from the time of acceptance until the eventual publication. Sigh. Just standard publishing world time lag, I thought. Typical that it takes months to hear back from these journals, and then many months more before the story comes out.

As I filled out the writer’s contract, I read that I would be paid $50 upon publication.  I have to say that even though that is a pittance for the solid month or two of working time that this particular story cost me, I was kind of looking forward to fifty extra bucks. That’s a tank of gas, or two pizza deliveries. That’s a mani-pedi-wax. (It is not a new pair of shoes, a week of groceries, a massage, or even a tube of eye cream.)

Nine months passed. No story.  Needless to say, I could have reproduced by now, and parturition would be over, too—and all of that seemed to take forever!

Then twelve months passed. Um, where is my story? This was the absolute most time I was supposed to have to wait.

I wrote to the journal, just checking.  Apologies from them—someone made a mistake. They forgot to publish me! I’d be in the next issue. Ok. I was ok with that.

Several months later, still no story. Another mistake.

Six months after that, I waited, anxiously, for my story. I tried to buy the issue, but it was, strangely, nowhere to be found. I wrote to the journal’s editors. 

Huge mistake, they told me, terribly sorry (and part of me wondered if the journal just wasn’t being sold in Pennsylvania because of me, because of this mistake).  My NAME was published in the journal. My bio was published. I was listed in the Table of Contents and as a Contributor. But someone--and no one is sure how, exactly, this happened--forgot to publish my actual story.

I took a deep breath.  I was completely reasonable. I was, actually, exceedingly nice.  I was now being assuaged with publication (several months from this point, now—perhaps early 2009) in the next issue.

When the next issue came out, a season later, I checked it.  I was startled to find that it was thematically-based around a great, although deceased, author.

How nice, a tribute issue. But WHERE THE HELL IS MY STORY? I started to panic.

I e-mailed the editor. Again, I was pleasant, maybe more than necessary.  Oh, that, he said—well, that was a special issue. You’ll be in the next one--an even more special issue. The Big One.  The 50th Anniversary double issue. You’ll like that. We owe you.

I would like that. It might have a bigger readership than just a regular issue. I relaxed a bit.

But now the time for relaxation is over because this issue still hasn’t come out yet.  I can’t buy it. I can’t see it.  I have told everyone I know who matters to my career that I am being published in this review, and I look like a total ass because the story still isn’t out yet.

Needless to say, I am still waiting. Last time I heard, the issue would be published in mid-February. It is now just about April. No issue, no story, no nothing.

I have seen what has been published all the times I was supposed to be…mostly older things, or pieces that looked they’d been pulled from the wastepaper baskets of famous authors, probably crumpled up snippets of stories or poems that were retrieved by Dumpster-diver-stalkers and smoothed out, deciphered and typed up, readied for publication.

In the issue that I am to appear in, I have read the editor’s preface (this part is on the web site, though nothing else is yet).  New writers are mentioned, though, mostly, formerly-published-by-this-journal, “established” writers are touted, but my name isn’t listed. I find that slightly maddening.

Why not mention new names? Why not promote new writers? Why is every literary journal I’ve ever seen or been published in so busy promoting the fact that Older, Big Deals are in their journal that they almost completely neglect everyone else? 

I can see being proud of the fact that famous authors still give writing to your journal, still enjoy being published by you from time to time, thus proving your continued relevance in the literary world. But why are the dregs of another writer somehow equal to the innovative brainchildren of possibly-unheard-ofs? Does that even make sense?

I had a writing group leader say something to me a few years ago (around the time that I wrote the aforementioned story). As I recall, in the midst of workshopping my piece with a particularly astute but unsparing group of Philadelphia writers, he slapped down my manuscript and declared in a tired tone of voice, “It is a crime against humanity that you aren’t writing full-time.”

Aw, I thought, after a wave of relief washed over me when I realized that he wasn’t going to trash me completely. How sweet.  What a kind thing to say. And also, how awful. Way to tell me that my life is being wasted because I have bills to pay. I feel like Kafka sometimes, and I so do not want to feel like Kafka. How many writers feel like that, though? How many people that should be read and published just aren’t being seen?

As a writer, as a reader, and as a teacher, I am dying to see something new. Please, for the love of God, let’s get some new stories, new books, published, play new music on the radio. Why keep blasting old Police or Eagles songs when there’s got to be something we haven’t already heard a thousand times before? 

Some teachers freak when I suggest that “a Shakespeare a year," but not much else by way of literature, is no longer cutting it for English students. Yes, Shakespeare is worthwhile, and useful and brilliant. But students respond much better to contemporary work, to The Road and to The Life of Pi. It is time to stop fearing changing the system, to add new classics, new work, to branch out and learn something else, something fresh.

Everything has its season, every writer (hopefully) has her or his time. Let this be the time for new voices, I say. Let this, please, finally be a time for me, too. And I still want my $50.