Rejection from The Carve Magazine’s Short Fiction Contest
And My Experiment with “Literary” Fiction
Written while listening to Ladies and Gentlemen, May We Present to You the Dark Arts by Gay Paris
I have been known to say that “if it hasn’t even got the possibility of a fairy or a dragon or a terror from deep space that might eat your guts in it, then it’s boring fiction.”
“Known” in the sense that I just wrote that down right now, and if you’ve read it then you know I’ve said it. I might even say it out loud, jus’ to cover my bases.
It sounds like a specious claim to make. And it is. It’s meant to get at a point.
That point being I believe in the value of escapism.
Not from everything, and not all the time. It would be a bit silly — although not unfounded — to complain about the shortage of cyborg zombies in your geology textbook. There must be limits. We must have standards.
That said, in general, when I set out to write or to read fiction I am interested in a certain degree of otherworldliness. I say otherworldliness, because it doesn’t have to be fantastic or impossible, per se, nor full of magic nor lasers, not in so many words. But I’d like it to be…larger than I am.
There’s been a lot of literature writ about how our monsters reflect what we fear. If you want to know the events that might have been frightening to a particular generation, look at their news clippings. But if you want to know how they felt about it, look at their monsters. Monsters are our attempt to give a face to things which we can’t otherwise articulate. They’re our metaphors for what would otherwise be incomprehensible realities.
People sometimes fault fiction with fantastic elements in it as being simple or easy or somehow lesser than “realistic” fiction. I argue that the dedicated fiction write, who seeks to give face to the elemental forces shaping our lives, will put as much thought into writing fiction as the “realistic” fiction writer will. I’d argue that the pursuit is the same: a metaphorical representation of an emotional state.
You’d be hard pressed to convince me that one’s better or worse than the other. We’re all entitled to our opinions. We may not like to admit that we’re all entitled to our opinions, and we may all wish that everyone else was not entitled to anything so good as an opinion. Love it or leave it, we are all allowed our opinions.
In some people’s opinion, “realistic” fiction is better.
You’ll never convince me of it.
On the other hand, if you ever say that, “in general, it seems as if fiction where there might be dragons is more entertaining,” I’m down with that.
There’s my little rant. I have said my piece on that.
You now see my perspective. I do, myself, believe that you can put at least as much thought into fantastical fiction as into realistic fiction. I put a huge amount of energy into my fantastical fiction. I attend to foreshadowing and allusion. I’m meticulous with my word choice, and I recognize — as far as I can — the cultural impact of my phrasing. Ask me about themes, and I’ll tell you about themes. Ask me about social commentary, and you’ll get some history and you’ll get some politics and you’ll get some commentary on social justice. Ask me about inspiration, and I’m as likely to tell you “Martin Luther King Jr.” as “The Tower Struck by Lightning.” Yes, I do know why that comma’s there. No, I do not want to consider moving that reference deeper into the book; it’s where it is for a reason, please leave it alone.
I am a thoughtful writer. It’s either a gift or a curse. Jury’s still out.
I told you all that so I could tell you this.
Recently, The Carve magazine ran a short story contest. If you don’ t know, The Carve is a magazine inspired by the life and works of Raymond Carver. Raymond Carver had a particular style. He’d write about blue collar workers a lot, and he wrote a lot of short fiction about them. His short fiction was spontaneous, quick, brief. His creative philosophy for most of his short stories was that they ought all to be possible to write or to read inside of one sitting.
Which sounds great to me. I’m a busy dude. Got TV to watch.
The prize money for The Carve’s contest wasn’t bad, but more’n anything else I wanted to see if I could emulate the writing philosophy of Raymond Carver and apply all of my over-thoughtful, fantastical-writings practice to the ordeal.
I enjoyed the experience, and I think I nearly enjoy the outcome. I ended up with a five hundred word story. You’d think that would mean it couldn’t be packed too full, right? No sir! Shorter is better, if you want your stories packed with depth. You can go over them twenty times and make sure every word adds to the intent and the image and the emotion.
The process was fun. The story feels sound, even if perhaps it isn’t the best of my output or the best you’ll ever read.
It is rich, though. It’s a full five hundred words. Every one of them is there on purpose — unless I missed one in that last typo-skim. The multifarious implications of every word and phrase and sentence are intentional, as far as I recognize them, and included on purpose.
I am proud to put my name on it.
I bet you can see where this is going.
You guessed it.
The Carve rejected it.
I’ve included the story here for your perusal. If anyone’s got some insight about why my “realistic” fiction never has any success, feel free to share your opinions. I know I don’t understand how to write “realistic” fiction, and I’d appreciate the conversation about it.
The story is sound. You’ll see that it hasn’t got the slightest possibility of dragons or fairies or aliens or Cthuluan overlords or even spies or detectives or murders in it. It is in the boring, real world, full of boring, real things, and boring, real emotions.
There’s no fantasy in it.
There is not a hint of monsters.
Or so I’d have you think.
Or, as the case my be, not.
“Free Will at the Low, Low Cost of Unspent Time”
Like dad always says: You’ve always got a choice. Just because choosing one way will get you fired doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice.
Evan makes his choice. His manager raps his knuckles on the steel filing cabinet on one side of his cubicle. David did that every day. Every day, loping around with his half-full coffee cup to ask small questions and expect smaller answers. A small king of a tiny universe. Evan chooses not to throw a cup of coffee at him.
Always have a choice, right?
Evan opens a fresh email — leaves the address and the subject blank. He types the first words of a speech from Macbeth. Got to look busy. He looks at David, pausing midsentence.
“Any big plans for the weekend?” David asks. It’s Thursday.
“Nothing big,” Evan says.
“Not going to go out and get wasted?” David asks. He smiles. “Holiday weekend.”
Is it a holiday weekend? What holiday?
Keyboards click on everyone else’s desks.
“I don’t really drink,” Evan says. David chuckles. Does David disbelieve? Evan feels his dull life growing a lascivious reputation, like little bindweed curls in his imagination.
Taking that as a cue to be done, David lopes away from Evan’s cubicle. Evan makes another choice when David knuckles rap on the next metal filing cabinet. “Any big plans for the weekend?” David asks.
Evan figures out who David reminded him of: ALF. Pigeon-toed and wobbling.
He can report, as seemeth by his plight…gorram reavers… Evan writes into the subject line of his email. He looks up the email address for HR.
“Evan, can I borrow you?” Margaret says over one of the cubicles. She grimaces. Perhaps some part of her fears something. Perhaps she has an ulcer. Evan recognizes and intentionally misunderstands that grimace. The grimace of the harmless seeking not to offend. “It’s for a computer thing.”
Evan does not snap at her, We have an IT department. He makes another choice. Leaving the cursor blinking on the beginning of his Macbeth speech, he helps Margaret with her computer thing. He thinks about Macbeth — fate and fortune on his quarrel smiling…but eating people alive? Where’s that get fun?
David comes by and raps his knuckles on the metal filing cabinet that fails to divide Margaret’s cubicle from the next one. The next one along is empty and has been since Evan started his job.
David asks if Margaret has any big plans for the weekend. She doesn’t believe Evan doesn’t drink either.
Evan goes back to his desk. He doesn’t think he’s fixed Margaret’s computer problem, but she thinks he has. He writes more of the email to HR.
David’s manager, Art, walks to Evan. Evan makes a choice not to say what’s on his mind. I’ve been working here a year, Evan doesn’t say, I still don’t know what we do.
“Hey. I’m told you’re the guy I need to talk to if I need a weekly breakdown of the OCR PDF application numbers,” Art said. “I need it cross-referenced Submit, Prohibit, Apply, Deny. Yellow, red, green, black.”
Evan wants to say something to Art. I’m sure that means something to you, up in your ivory tower — oh, too cliché? Fine. Making your BMW money for arranging paperwork. Your castle of papier mache world of dishonest promises. Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none, pissant. What are we expectin’ to find here that equals the worth of a turd?
You’ve always got a choice, dad always says.
“You’ve got it,” Evan says.
Art leaves. Evan looks up the email address for HR and keeps typing the Macbeth speech. Got to look busy.
Ever felt like the only relevant genre distinction is “stretches the rules” and “conforms to the rules”? Got any contest suggestions? Got any good contest stories? I feel like I read a lot about writing, but I don’t talk as much about writing. Who wants to talk themes with me?