Interview with Brigid Hughes on unsolicited submissions and emerging writers

Brigid Hughes was named Executive Editor of The Paris Review in early January. Her appointment followed the death of George Plimpton, the magazine’s founding editor.

In interviews after she accepted the job, Hughes emphasized her commitment to publishing new writers and cited Yiyun Li as an example of a young writer whose work was pulled from the pile of unsolicited submissions (“slush pile”). Shortly after these interviews were published, a website noted that Yiyun Li’s work appeared in The Gettysburg Review last summer, before the Paris Review story came out, and that a story in The New Yorker followed closely on the heels of the Paris Review publication. I was surprised and mentioned the succession of publications a few days later.

Toward the end of January, the news spread to the Underground Literary Alliance (ULA), which decried the characterization of Li as a new writer and cited a biographical blurb in The Gettysburg Review, from last summer, which says that Li’s “essay about the Tiananmen Square massacre was published in The Journal, and a short story is forthcoming from Glimmer Train. She is an M.F.A. candidate in The Writers’ Workshop and The Creative Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.”

Joshua Glenn of the Boston Globe picked up the story from the ULA. He quoted a brief essay written by ULA member Steve Kostecke. Kostecke charged that the characterization of Li as a new writer is “nothing but a gross attempt at the perpetuation of the myth … that the American lit world operates like some kind of fair democracy, instead of the shut-off, where-are-your-papers?, meaningless institution it has become.”

Since then, Li has received The Paris Review‘s first annual Plimpton Prize. The award announcement said the prize was for Yiyun Li’s “first published story, ‘Immortality,’ which appeared in the fiftieth-anniversary issue (Fall 2003).” According to the press release:

The Paris Review Foundation inaugurated The Plimpton Prize to honor its longtime editor, George Plimpton, who presided over the magazine for fifty years, until his death in September 2003. The prize will be awarded annually for the best piece of writing by a newcomer to appear in The Paris Review in a given year, continuing the tradition of the magazine’s Discovery Prize, which has been awarded to such writers as Elizabeth Gilbert, Julie Orringer, and Karl Iagnemma.

Some unpublished writers of my acquaintance, even those for whom the quality of Ms. Li’s work is not a question, have pointed to this award and the rapid rise of yet another graduate from Iowa as evidence that it’s impossible for an emerging writer without a literary pedigree to break into the serious literary magazines. The reasoning is that when one prestigious magazine picks up a story from a new writer, the others follow suit, and submissions from other excellent writers are ignored.

I emailed Ms. Hughes to ask whether she’d be willing to respond via email to my questions about the slush pile policies at The Paris Review, the publication of Li’s story, and the chances for new writers submitting to the magazine. She agreed. Her answers reveal that Hughes believes the best writers’ work will find a way to publication. Given the countless stories of rejections endured by award-winning novelists, skeptics like me will remain unconvinced.

But Hughes is friendly and intelligent, and her responses provide a window into the selection process at The Paris Review, where there is (in contrast to The New Yorker) at least a stated commitment to new and emerging writers.
1. I recently re-read William Styron’s letter published in the first issue of The Paris Review in 1953. Styron urged the editors to relegate critical essays to the back pages of the magazine and to focus on publishing “the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axegrinders. So long as they’re good.” In the intervening years, many have characterized the letter as an exhortation to publish new and emerging writers. Do you think that’s what Styron meant?

I think the founding editors were especially interested in work by new writers, which is evident if you look at the work published in early issues. The Paris Review has continued to emphasize work by newcomers, but I think the magazine is most interesting when it presents the work of new writers alongside that of more well-known writers.
2. How do you think the relationship of The Paris Review to unpublished writers differs from that of other big guns in the world of short fiction publishing, particularly general interest magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire? How about newer, purely literary magazines like Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, and Open City?

Well, given the comment in question 3, I would say that submissions to the slush pile are taken more seriously at The Paris Review than The New Yorker. But they’re very different magazines. In the publishing community, little magazines are the equivalent of the slush pile. People read The Paris Review and magazines like it — McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, Open City, Granta, Poetry — to discover new writers. Granta debuted a young Thai writer, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, in their winter issue this year. And Open City published Lara Vapnyar for the first time in 2003. And of course The Paris Review published Yiyun Li in last year’s fall issue. (Vapnyar’s first book was published last year. Lapcharoensap and Li have books forthcoming.)
3. Deborah Treisman, Fiction Editor of The New Yorker, said last year that writers submitting to the slush pile aren’t very savvy about the business of publishing and therefore must not be savvy about writing. Do you think there’s a connection between writing well and having an instinct for peddling fiction in the publishing marketplace?

I think that being savvy about publishing and savvy about writing are two different talents. My instinct is that the very best writers will always find a way to publication–whether they’re savvy about publishing or not. As for the merely very good writers, well, it’s a crowded field . . .

Years ago, an editor here heard a writer read his work at some event, and asked to see it; the story was published in The Paris Review. I would have thought that would be the start of a career. Not so. For some reason, he didn’t like submitting his work. Was it a lack of savviness about the process? A lack of confidence in his work? Who knows. I heard he went to law school a few years ago.

Talking with new writers–good writers–I’ve been surprised by how many say they don’t submit to the bigger little magazines because they don’t think their work will be given serious consideration. It’s frustrating, and an attitude I’d really like to change.
4. I’ve read that The Paris Review receives more than 10,000 submissions a year. Is that right?

More or less. I think the number is closer to 15,000 to 20,000. Whatever the exact number, the mail bag arrives in the office filled with manuscripts every day of the week.
5. Can you walk me through the review process for the average slush pile submission at The Paris Review?

The slush pile submissions tend to be read by volunteer readers, who are often mfa students or avid readers. The readers at the magazine right now include a graduate student in English lit; a waiter; an mfa student in poetry; a recent college graduate.

However, at a recent Saturday slush reading session, the readers included three editors as well as current and former readers.
6. How’s the process different for an agented work?

The process is basically the same: Any story that is being seriously considered for publication is read by the entire editorial staff and then discussed at editorial meetings. The difference is that agented work tends to be read by the editors.
7. How many previously unpublished writers does The Paris Review publish each year? By “previously unpublished,” I mean authors whose work has neither appeared in nor been accepted for publication in another venue.

I assume you are asking about fiction writers. It varies year to year. We publish work by as many new writers as we can find. In the past two years, The Paris Review has introduced Wells Tower, John Barlow, and Yiyun Li (and both Barlow and Li received the new writers prize).
8. How often does The Paris Review publish a story from an unpublished writer without an M.F.A. or an agent?

In my experience, unpublished writers tend not to have agents–that certainly was the case with Wells Tower, John Barlow, and Yiyun Li. I think Li signed up with an agent at some point between submitting the story and its acceptance, though I wasn’t aware of the fact until the story had been published. Both Wells Tower and Yiyun Li were MFA students (Tower at Columbia; Li at Iowa).
9. Do you know how many new writers published each year are enrolled in or graduates of a prestigious M.F.A. program like Iowa or Columbia?

We have this conversation occasionally at the magazine. It increasingly seems to be the case that people who are interested in pursuing a writing career attend mfa programs.
10. How, if at all, have these numbers changed since the first issue of the magazine was published in 1953?

MFAs weren’t as commonplace in 1953 as they are today. As for unpublished writers, looking back it’s hard to tell. I mean, Philip Roth was really an unpublished writer when “Conversion of the Jews” appeared in Issue 18 in 1958 (though his work had appeared in a few other little magazines). But it’s difficult to think of him that way now. Ditto Jack Kerouac, Gina Berriault, Richard Yates, Richard Ford, Edward Jones, Rick Moody, Jeff Eugenides . . .
11. Was The Paris Review the first literary magazine to accept a piece of writing by Li?

I can only tell you that “Immortality” was accepted in July 2003 and published in the fall 2004 issue of The Paris Review. Her essay appeared in the fall issue of The Gettysburg Review. I have no idea when that piece was accepted.

But those articles miss the point entirely. Isn’t the real question: Is the story good? Did it deserve the acclaim it received? I think Li is a very talented writer, and I’m delighted that her work appeared in The Paris Review.
12. Was her story a regular slush pile submission?

Yes. The story was read by Alex Tilney, a reader at The Paris Review, and quickly passed around the office.
13. Did any letters from professors or telephone calls from established writers accompany or pave the way for the submission?

14. How do you think so many other publications became aware of Li’s writing and talent around the same time that The Paris Review editorial staff did?

She’s good. Li had submitted several pieces to various magazines at the same time she sent “Immortality” to The Paris Review. I think any reader who came across one of those pieces–fiction or nonfiction–would recognize her talent, so it’s no surprise that her work appeared in quick succession at two magazines.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.


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