Essays on Writing and Life
by James Sallis

Never mind working without a net; living as a writer is like working without even the tightrope, learning to balance, suspended, in mid-air. That's the way James Sallis has lived for almost forty years, publishing a blizzard of novels, short stories, poems, essays, translations and biographies in everything from "Transatlantic Review" to "The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction." Two rules, he says. Put your butt in the chair. Don't look down.

On Just Saying No

I love rejections.

For several years I saved rejection letters and forms sent me by literary and little magazines. I wish I'd started the practice long before, and that I'd continued it; the rejections give a marvelous map of small-press activity, high country to lowlands and all arable ground between.

The last edition of The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses at which I looked contained almost 500 pages of listings. Well over 250 colleges and universities offer courses in creative writing, perpetuating a supply that is, against all reason and logistics, its own demand. The magazines are deluged with manuscripts, every one of them.

And this is not even to mention the ongoing proliferation of ezines. How many of those particular angels dancing on the head of a pin there may be, no one knows.

So there's just an awful lot of writing going on out there, and you have to wonder: Is everyone crowded into the front of the car? Is anyone at all sitting in back, reading?

At first thought, it's surprising to come upon such a thriving underground in a nation given to creeping illiteracy, to absorbing the world in reductive thirty-second slices, to bombshell blockbusters and nonbooks published by subsidiaries of food companies -- rather as though orchids have somehow taken root in your potato bin. But on second thought, these very factors may go a long way towards helping explain the proliferation of small-press activity. Toss in the bin, as well, the aftermath of 60's liberal, arts-oriented education. People who grew up in workshirts at folk concerts and poetry readings and hugging the outer edge of English departments have become writers endlessly looping poems, essays or short stories around the circuit of these magazines and small presses in search of the great "Like to see more."

For the younger among us, who often want to cement themselves in place as outsiders, little magazines or ezines, like ambient music, tattoos and multiple piercings, may function as shibboleths, simultaneously announcing exemption from the larger society and privileged clanship in a smaller, exclusive one. They embrace Lionel Trilling's adversary intent -- perhaps without knowing who Trilling was.

Nonetheless, whether balding and limping or rotating studs every 24 hours, these proud authors will almost certainly end up having to give their issue away, which may prove no easy thing. Like street hustlers flogging sisters to tourists, they'll be forced to whine, cajole, beg, barter and deal. And they may spend as much as twenty or thirty dollars on postage [think of it as earnest money] before persuading someone to take their poor orphans in. With the acceptance, or for that matter with the rejection, they'll receive a pitch to subscribe to the magazine. One editor, scribbling that he couldn't use my stuff, was kind enough to inform me nonetheless that copies of his own book were "up for grabs" at seven dollars. It's tough out there, folks, it's a jungle. You gotta fight tooth and clause.

I have to tell you that I think these 'zines, e or print, are important, their presence crucial. But I have to tell you also that much of the activity centering about them is incestuous, boneheaded, divisive, silly: random Brownian movement, nothing more. Editors publish other editors, send one another congratulatory messages, generally try to shore up mutual presumptions that they're engaged in some urgent, dangerous endeavor. The same names tend to show up in predictable bunches. About the work, too, there can be a dulling, seasonal sameness.

Like vegetarianism and aleatory music, little-magazine publishing is, after all, an alternate track, a rejection of common social values for uncommon ones. Set at a hard right angle to the leveling tides of American life, given to thumbing its nose at the giant and stealing back the beans, it requires uncommon support, continuous rededication. At worst a subculture similar to that of science-fiction fandom can develop, semi-detached from the literature itself, self-supporting, self-fulfilling.

Certainly there's a callowness to many of these publications, to others a peculiar insularity. But to some of them, too, there is a great energy, an energizing sense of true purpose. With current monolithic publishing trends these publications become ever more essential, not only in providing young writers venue, training ground and voice -- any one of which would ratify them -- but also in challenging the literary status quo. Little magazines have a proud history as literary underground. Now they are dangerously close to our only ground.

My file of rejections, though dated, reflects all this as I shuffle through.

The range is broad, from polite ("This seems to us a bit slight and unoccasioned") to the bluntly factual ("Nope") and concise ("Sorry"). There's also the indignant ("We do not read manuscripts in August, nor do we publish prose poems") and the touching ("Please don't give up on us"). The editor at one university-based quarterly inscribed a prim little circle like pursed lips about the word men's in my cover letter listing men's magazines among prior publications and followed up with an exclamation mark (a stamping foot?) in the margin.

A favorite of mine, one I turn to whenever I start taking little magazines too seriously: "These are being submitted elsewhere simultaneously. Don't bother sending us anything else." The International Directory entry for this 44-page quarterly with a circulation of 400, read in part: "We often write short criticisms on our rejection notices, but unless we specifically ask you to try us again it would be better if you tried your luck elsewhere after the first attempt....We have a game where we sit around in a circle and ridicule long vitas and absurd lists of previous publications, so include these accordingly."

Something of an extreme case, true -- the milk of human kindness clabbered right down to cheese -- but such arrogance isn't terribly unusual. One editor drew an arrow to the words "But no matter" on my manuscript and wrote (yes: on the manuscript) "You're right." Apparently still in a tiff, he or she also included a piece of notepaper reading "No -- negative, poor/personalized writing -- who cares?" Still another, returning a poem he or she had been kind enough to edit for me, including voluminous comments in the margins of my manuscript, suggested that I might "find it revealing to get a sample copy of our magazine." I found the rejection revealing enough.

Some of the most interesting experiences arise from publications edited by committee. One of these, after retaining a poem for ten months, to the standard rejection form added only that "The verdict was sharply split." Twelve Angry Editors? With another, in the process of having an essay all but accepted -- which is to say read, reread, revised, read again and rejected -- I dealt with three editors. How was I to begin my letters or emails: "To Whom It May Concern"?

And then there are the "Say what?" rejections, making all those routine six-, eight-month and yearlong waits seem worthwhile and which always run along the lines of: "After several close readings we have finally decided against this ambitious, impressive poem." You see a lot of this species once you've been at it a while. Meanwhile you go on getting a lot of impenetrable impressionist criticism: "There's a kind of neutral space to these poems....I don't feel compelled to pay attention....They don't assault the senses."

My final exhibit calls only for the comment that in poetry, which works so hard to make sense of the world and to make it large again, one well may become disheartened to encounter parochialism and a studied smallness. Here are readers' notes, scrawled on the envelope in which I'd mailed a clutch of fairly unconventional poems fueled by my reading of French and Polish poets. Inexplicably the corner of the envelope bearing these notes was torn away and returned along with my poems.

"I really dislike the work, find it offensive and meaningless and pretentious. Punctuation and deliberate obscurity seem affected. Might've been good if more straightforward."

"Profundity or bullshit? Inspired eccentricity or just Paris Reviewish pose?"

I have, mind you, something of an uncommon stance here. At virtually the same moment, almost forty years ago, I began publishing in literary journals and science fiction magazines. Nowadays, I earn my living writing mysteries and literary criticism. All along, however, I've continued courting literary magazines and small presses. A novel at least one other critic and I feel to be central to my work, Renderings, came out from Jerry Gold's Seattle-based Black Heron Press. Limits of the Sensible World, a seminal collection of stories, issued from Host Publications. Shorter work appears regularly in North Dakota Quarterly, The Boston Review, the Boston Globe, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, High Plains Literary Review, and on the Internet at Mudlark, Web Del Sol, In Posse Review, 3 A.M. Magazine.

There were periods, sometimes years, when I made few or no submissions to little magazines. I still wrote, and at considerable volume, the same kinds of poems and fiction, but finished pieces rarely got mailed out. Then I'd start up again. Reasons are many.

The old radical's love of running widdershins. Abhorrence of the commercialism and of the gradual, reductive impoverishment of America's popular culture.


Being asked.

Not least the appalling lack of other outlets. For if you don't write in fairly narrow, recognizable styles, forms and genres, you're not likely to be of significant interest to mainstream publishers.

Finally, though, it may come down to the fact that publishing, getting the stuff out there, is an integral part of the process. We're all just a bunch of sausage-makers up here in our towers, and if no one takes it, the stuff starts going bad, jams up the choppers and grinders and packers. And here you thought --- sometimes we did too -- we were above all that.

Previous WFL columns

Writing from Life
Babe the Blue Ox, and Mike
Stalked by Poetry!
Approaching the Page
Repopulating Oz