Open City: Unpublished Writers’ Prospects

Open CityI buy every issue of Open City. I can’t say that about any other literary publication.

Like many of its contemporaries, Open City offers a mix of traditional and experimental offerings, but here the blend actually works, managing to be lively and harmonious at once.

When I pick up a literary magazine — or any volume that collects short stories from different authors — I flip around. I skim. If I find a story I like, I start over and slow down. Reading cover-to-cover doesn’t tend to work for me. Many of the offerings are disappointing, and I end up doubting myself: maybe that Barthelme rip-off has some deeper significance; perhaps this story about a young woman’s forced marriage would move me if I only read past the fifth page; it’s possible that the culture does need twelve writers exactly like David Foster Wallace.

I read Open City randomly, too, but for me the final ratio of stories finished to stories skipped is much better than with many more popular magazines like, say, McSweeney’s. And some of the stories stay with me. I’ve read Greg Ames’ “Physical Discipline” and Cynthia Weiner’s “Amends” three or four times each since the 17th issue appeared in the summer of 2003.

I attribute much of Open City’s appeal to the editors’ willingness to feature new writers’ stories alongside work from more established names. In an October, 2000, article for Slate, one of the editors, Thomas Beller, wrote about his frantic efforts to track down an unknown writer, Vestal McIntyre, when his short story, “Octo,” was uncovered during a mass reading session after sitting in the slush pile for six months:

It was a 34-page story about a slightly disturbed 12-year-old and his pet octopus, Octo. By Page 18, I was moved and amazed by it and convinced it should end there and already formulating my case for cutting the second half of the story. Then I read the second half of the story. It had been a cold day in January, the sky white with clouds, and at dusk it had begun to snow. We raced out to my car and drove to the address on the cover letter. There was no phone number and he was not listed. He had submitted the thing six months earlier. For six months “Octo” had sat in our slush pile! I was terrified that he had sent it elsewhere. We pulled up to Rivington Street; he seemed to live in a huge school building that had been converted to apartments. We found his name, buzzed, and stood there while snow fell in fat dry flakes around us. It was very exciting. But no one was home. Then Vanessa Chase, who was part of the search posse, spotted the name of a college friend, who was home, so we first paid a brief visit to the friend who greeted us at the door with a look of confusion and slight embarrassment to have been dropped in on, and then we went to Vestal McIntyre’s door and I shoved a note under it saying please call, we want to buy the story. His roommate called later that evening and said he would call from work, which turned out to be the graveyard shift at Florent, a restaurant that is open until 5. Sometimes it’s a wild scene of club-goers and transvestites and outré tourists, but it was Sunday and snowing and when I burst into the place it was empty.

For the first of an ongoing series, Beller agreed to answer a few quick questions about the prospects for unpublished writers at Open City. (His co-editor, Joanna Yas, was traveling, but wrote in to say, in essence, “what he said.”) Beller’s answers confirm that the McIntyre story is an anomaly and that most slush pile submissions ultimately are rejected — but also that a handful of unpublished writers who send in good work will receive an acceptance every year.

How do you guys approach slush pile submissions these days?

Fear, loathing, anticipation, curiosity. Think of a slot machine. Any given day you get a combination of those four options, sometimes all one flavor, sometimes a mix. And there is a broad mix of readers. Another slot machine whirring at the same time.

What’s the average turnaround time for the manuscript of an unpublished, unagented author?

2-4 months.

Approximately how many stories by previously unpublished writers have appeared in Open City within the last year?

I don’t know the exact number. I’d guess between four and six. But I do know that while we have published some well known writers (including ones like Martha McPhee, Irvine Welsh, Sam Lipsyte, and Lara Vapnyar, who were unpublished until we published them), most of the writers in our magazine in the past few years are either getting published for the first time, or close to it. I don’t think we’ve ever published an issue without having at least one person whose work was getting into print for the first time. Two of these writers, Amine Wefali (Westchester Burning) and Vestal McIntyre (You Are Not the One), recently came out with books.

But lest it sound like Open City is some kind of first time haven, the slush pile is gigantic, we publish not that often, and on a macro level it is a drop in the bucket.

On a related matter, I think it is fair that a writer send out a story to a few places at once. A few years ago I had an exchange with a serious editor at one of one those distinguished literary journals published out of the south, in which he said he wouldn’t consider a story of mine if it had been sent elsewhere. His logic was that if he takes the time to read it, he should know no one else is reading it at the same time. Underlying this is a sound etiquette that goes beyond manners and is in the interest of the writer, namely that if you send out tons of stuff, the act invariably creeps into your soul, and the whole process of hope, evaluation, and either rejection or publication is actually a little poisonous and needs to be kept at bay.

But at the same time, I couldn’t take the thought that the manuscripts that get lost in the shuffle or even those that do not, but still linger in our pile for months and months, are the only representative of that story out in the world. If we read it and like it while it’s still on the someone else’s desk, lucky us, and vice versa.

Is preference given to graduates of MFA programs?

Yes. We also ask for SAT scores, a self portrait in pencil, a copy of a postcard someone once sent you, and a recommendation from teachers at the elementary and junior high school level, and if you can’t find one that remembers you even for a bad recommendation, we’re just not interested.


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