Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Magic of Money

Let me share with you a little meditation on what literary magazines, genre or otherwise, bring to the world.

Short fiction. This is what they offer us. To some, myself among them, this is enough. I love short fiction. Salinger's Nine Stories, Nabokov's Dozen, Gibson's Burning Chrome, Poe's entire non-poetical oevre. There's a magic of immediacy in the length. A story, read in a single sitting, can deposit itself beneath your skin entirely undigested--its payload whole and potent--in a way that no novel can.

Alas, not everyone agrees with me (a state of affairs not limited, I might note, to issues of literature). There are those--an astonishing number of them, really--who regard short fiction as a frivolity. A beast entirely different from and wholly less than works of a more sober length. You, reading this now, may even be among their number. I account it a sin to think this way, but I will not try to correct you just now.

I can hold off on this (much needed) reeducation because the independent merits of short fiction are quite superfluous to the value of literary magazines. For there is something else offered to us by these publications. They give us writers.

An autobiographical aside: I have dreamed of being a writer all my life. In elementary school, I bound my schoolyard fantasies in cardstock and slipped them onto the shelves of my school library. An elegant shortcut, I thought.

I was twelve years old when I received my first rejection letter from an editor and seventeen when I received my first acceptance. It was for a short piece set within the world of a commercial role playing game and it appeared in a magazine printed by the publisher of that game. It was, in other words, fan fiction (a quite poorly regarded endeavour within the geek hierarchy). But any question of the merits of the piece or the caliber of the publication was rendered entirely moot by the fact that the acceptance letter was accompanied by a cheque for $42.00.

This cheque conveyed something that no amount of praise from family or peers could ever hope to. There were people, people who didn't know me at all, who thought that my writing was an actual contribution to society. Enough so that they were willing to part with hard-earned money to encourage it. And, in fact, they believed that they could turn around and resell it.

With that cheque, I had transitioned from aspiring writer to writer. It would be almost four years before I successfully sold a second piece. If one were to try to stretch out those forty two dollars across all the writing I did in that time, I am certain that my hourly rate would be measured in fractions of cents. But no matter. I was a writer. Published and paid.

That single cheque (and the all-important byline) was enough impetus to keep me writing through heaps and mounds of rejection letters and ill-mannered manuscripts.

In Annie Dillard's words:

"It takes years to write a book--between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. [...] Out of a human population of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms."

Writing a novel is such a massive undertaking--and a first novel, with no advance or guarantee of publication, such a terrible risk. Without a market for short fiction on which to cut their teeth, to learn what works and what doesn't, how many great authors would never dare to write a longer work?

It is no coincidence that the vast preponderance of literary giants, both in science fiction and mainstream literature, launched their careers from magazines. Without Astounding there would likely be no Asimov, no A.E. Van Vogt. Without the Paris Review would anyone have read V.S. Naipaul or Jack Kerouac?

And without AE to send out $42.00 cheques (though they will be for rather more, on average), who knows what masters of the future might never buckle down and take the great gamble of penning a first novel.

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