Reading the collection “The Best American Short Stories 2015” edited by T.C. Boyle had a curious effect on me. Well, to clarify, I haven’t read it all yet. I’m several stories in. I’ve been reading modern short stories recently because I’ve been writing a good number of short stories recently. I want to glean what I can from the work of others: their triumphs, mistakes, nuances, styles, anything I can use to improve my own command of the short story writing craft. So I ordered this collection from Amazon to find out what literary editors consider the best of the best that’s being written these days.
The conclusion I have come to is that once you get past the obvious mistakes in grammar and other rudiments of rank beginners, it’s amazing how subjective are the choices that editors make as to what appears in literary magazines and anthologies. To be honest, I knew this already. Every story collection I read, whether they are single author or mixed authors, has good stories and bad stories. I don’t know why it hit me so forcefully now. Perhaps it was because earlier today I was marketing some of my own stories, deciding which magazines or anthologies would be best to send them to, and balking about sending off some of the pieces because they are so strange or different.
I should know better. Writers are rarely the best judges of their own work. All they can do is complete their stories, check them for mistakes, and send them off. Once I sat down to write a story, “The Disappearance of Juliana,” and I was simply fed up with rejections and worrying about the idiosyncrasies of the personal opinions of editors, and I decided to pull out all the stops and write the story however the hell I thought it should be written. So I alternated sections with second person present tense and third person past tense, and in some places, especially at the climax, I changed font sizes and created word pictures to accompany the text. The story was rejected a few times, but it sold faster than most, and I got paid more for it than any other story I had sold up to that time. You never know. You just never know.
Reading the stories in this recent anthology and noting the great differences in quality and style made me realize that every editor is just one person with an opinion. And there are no master’s degrees or doctorates in editing. A lot of people come to editing in roundabout ways. Sometimes they are failed writers who didn’t manage to make a living with their prose. Some are business majors looking out for the publishing company’s bottom line. Some got their positions because they knew someone. Admittedly some are very dedicated and have a genuine love of books, but even these people are humans with personal tastes that cause them to prefer one type of story over another even though the stories may be equally deserving of publication.
What does this mean for me personally? It means that if I want my stories published in traditional venues, I should get them out there to as many editors as possible. In the back of this best of the year anthology the magazines from which the stories are chosen are listed, and there are, says the editor of the volume, about two hundred seventy-seven entries. Now, I would discount over half of them right off because I am a professional writer and some don’t pay except in copies, if that, but that still leaves many options. Those many magazines all have idiosyncratic editors with different tastes, different preferences. There is no story evaluation computer program that they run them through to definitively determine which ones are most worthy. It’s all a matter of opinion. The editors read them and decide which ones strike their psychic cords or touch their literary sensibilities. Some editors have first readers to wade through the slush piles for them, and some first readers are students trying to earn a few bucks to make it through college or are failed writers themselves and have much less idea than the writers they summarily reject about what makes a good or bad story.
Anyway, so after I came to these conclusions, I sent off those strange or offbeat stories. Why not? The worst that can happen is that they do not suit the editors’ preferences. If that happens, I turn them around again and send them somewhere else. Or I upload them to self-publishing channels and make them available directly to readers.
All that to say: Writers, write from your heart. Don’t write to formula. Do the best work of which you are capable, get it out there, and then start on the next story. A piece you may have doubts about may end up in a best of the year anthology. Who knows unless you try?