I made a point recently about my reading through submissions and finding that many stories had been submitted which didn’t fit the proposed anthology’s requirements. It was a literary anthology, but many of the submissions had strong fantasy or science fiction elements which stood out to the degree that the reader would have been thrown a little into wondering about the nature of the collection.
This, and a comment I read earlier on the Inner Circle Writers’ Group site, made me realise that there’s an important point here that seems to be overlooked quite a bit by writers who are trying to get published.
The word ‘literary’ is defined as ‘concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form’. That’s important. When dealing with literary fiction, we are looking for something beyond the tropes, templates, recurring images and themes of genre fiction — we’re looking for connections we wouldn’t normally expect, dimensions we hadn’t thought of ourselves, and resonances which strike us as unique and beautiful.
I think it was group member Mark Kodama who pointed out that the gatekeepers of traditional publishing — the people sitting reading submitted manuscripts, whose job it is to decide whether to proceed further with a piece or whether to ditch it — are normally employed on the basis of their education and background with regard to English literature. Not always, of course, but in sufficient numbers to make this a significant point: when you are submitting your work to traditional publishers, or even to a fair-sized independent, it is probably going to pass through the hands of someone whose training in what makes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writing stems largely from what they have been taught at school and university. They are 'literary' people, in other words, for the most part.
Of course, any editor and publisher also considers commercial potential. It’s a separate and valid point that they are generally reading your work not to admire its qualities or to give you a break but to see if they can use it to make money. But, setting that aside, part of their judgement at least draws on how they define ‘a good story’. And part of what makes a ‘good story’ to them will in turn be drawn from their past reading and learning about ‘good stories’.
Some of this will occur on a subconscious or subliminal level: they start reading your manuscript and logically perceive certain things as they read — quality of language, cohesiveness of style, plot structure, believability of dialogue and so on, all of which can be rationally outlined and explained it they put their minds to it — but emotionally or under the analytical surface of their reading something else is at work. On some level, comparisons are taking place: style comparisons, language comparisons, plot and character comparisons, for example. Comparisons with what? With what they have come to think of as ‘good literature’.
Consciously they might say to themselves something like ‘Hmmm, clipped dialogue… sentimental character description… plot too slow here…’ as they flip through your story; subconsciously, their minds, clicking away behind the scenes, are making matches and part-matches with classic authors: ‘Dialogue Hemingway-like; Hardy-esque character drawing; Dickensian plot machinations’ and so on.
In other words, as an editor or publisher reads through your submitted work, it is being held up to the light cast upon it by a mind educated in literature: it is being subjected to litmus tests of what is considered ‘good’ or ‘successful’ in whatever field your work happens to be in. A horror novel might be being consciously run through the net of horror tropes to see if it is original by the analytical reader; it might also subconsciously be being compared to King or Poe or whoever.
What does this mean when it comes to trying to improve the chances of you getting work accepted?
That brings us back to my first point about the literary anthology. As a generality — and it is a generality, within which you will find many exceptions — those who make the crucial decisions about your work are educated, literary people who have at some point been immersed in the classics and who will use both their aware, awake minds and their not-so-aware cultural and intellectual experiences to determine where to place your work.
It’s so important to understand that your work, no matter how original or unique you might consider it, does not exist in isolation but is part of the whole Western opus of fiction, and, in most cases, will have to pass through the hands of those familiar with that opus.
If your work fails these visible and invisible ‘litmus tests’, is there anything you can do about it?
Well, yes there is. But it’s so controversial that you might need to digest the above fully before I can tell you more about it. Don’t worry, I won’t be long.