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Things I’m Tired of Seeing from Members of the Literary Community

5046379960_2f7d8f2b43_oI’ll admit it: I was once the girl who had been told by disgruntled English teachers that she couldn’t write creatively. Heck, sometimes I still am the girl (maybe woman) who’s told she can’t write creatively.

I read stories and poems I’ve written in the past and think, “Oh, hell no.” And sometimes other people tell me the same. Recently, the online literary magazine Freeze Frame Fiction (FFF) sent me a rejection that included comments like “Left me feeling indifferent. Wasn’t interested in the main character or her point of view…” and “Seemed kind of pointless to me. I don’t see a real story here.”

One day I’ll probably reread this rejected story and understand what the editors’ comments mean, but all I can do right now is frequent the FFF site like a teenage girl Facebook-stalking the boy who turned down her invitation to the school dance.

On one such visit, I stumbled upon a guest blog post titled “things i’m tired of seeing in lit mag submissions,” written by Nathaniel Tower, managing editor for Bartleby Snopes. In the post, Tower describes many trappings of the beginning writer, who’s prone to cliches and not experienced enough to see the forest for the trees (see what I did there?). To summarize, Tower hopes never again to see the following: death endings, opening scenes with sex or masturbation, sentimental cancer stories, stories that open with light streaming through the window, stories that begin with someone waking from a dream, Alzheimer’s stories, and cheating significant other stories.

I agree that all the scenarios Mr. Tower describes can slip into cliche. For a moment let’s ignore the cliches he uses in his own post (“humble little lit mag,” “virtual doors,” “for as long as I live,” “For the love of everything that is sacred,” “pack as much punch”). Instead, let’s focus on some great stories that do include the scenarios he describes: “In September, the Light Changes” by Andrew Holleran (story that begins with streaming light); “Bullet to the Brain” by Tobias Wolff (story with a “death ending”); “People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” by Lorrie Moore (sentimental cancer story based on true cancer story); The Fermata by Nicholson Baker (basically a 300-page self-love whackathon); “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro (Alzheimer story); and nearly every short story I mention in this essay I wrote about failing relationships in literary short fiction (cheating significant other stories).

My question for you, Mr. Tower, is this: when was the last time any of these wildly successful authors submitted their work to Bartleby Snopes?

As a writing instructor who teaches Introduction to Creative Writing, I understand that most beginning writers don’t realize why their work is cliche because they don’t have enough experience with reading and writing quality work. That doesn’t mean these students don’t have potential. In fact, the use of cliche is a sign that the writer has the mental capacity to tap into a universal feeling, something that can be understood by the “anyreader.” He or she just hasn’t yet found the voice to describe that feeling in a unique way. Hey, it’s a start.

Even today I’m embarrassed by work I submitted to literary magazines just a year ago, but I’ve grown and will continue to grow. I understand that the occupational hazard of editing a literary magazine is standing on the receiving end of that growth. But what bothers me most about Mr. Tower’s post, and what really prompted me to write this response, is a sentence from his final paragraph: “If these are the only ideas you can come up with, then please stop writing forever.” I’d like to see Mr. Tower’s first short stories, the ones he wrote when he, too, was just a beginning writer. I wonder how he would have felt if someone had told him to stop writing forever.

I’ve been told I don’t have talent. I’ve been told to stop writing. But abandoning writing, for me, would mean death. And we can’t have any death endings, now, can we?

(Photo by Flickr user Al_HikesAZ)


  1. What a great response to a harsh post on clichéd writing! I think it’s important that wherever we make it in life, we must be humble. Always remember where you came from. Thank you for this. <3

  2. Great post. I happened to read your commentary before I read the original article by the Bartleby Snopes guy, and I have to say that I’m of two minds about the concept of editors telling writers what they *don’t* want to see. The first is that it’s kind of handy, at least if you want to submit to Bartleby Snopes. I’ve written stories that at least verge on the themes that Mr. BS mentions (and I call him Mr. BS with a mischievous twinkle in my eye and not a snarky jab to the gut–I’m an editor as well as a writer, so I sympathize with both sides). And I’m enough of a masochist that I want to know what it is about my work that editors are giggling about behind my back. The problem is that Mr. BS’s tastes are not the Word of Law when it comes to stories–there may be editors out there who are interested in death and not interested in, say, zany metacommentaries that squish together all of the overused storylines that literary editors are cynical about. Posts like this one, I think, to file under “what NOT to send to X magazine.” That’s helpful information. Many editors can’t express what they don’t want to see, or they have this mushy “well, if you do it *right*, I want to see it!” attitude about submissions that doesn’t help anyone, particularly beginning writers. What I would do if I wanted to write an Alzheimer’s story is a) writer it, and b) avoid sending it to Bartleby Snopes. You don’t want to self-reject or not write what you want to write, but you also want to find the right market/audience for your work.
    And that “stop writing forever” comment–I took that as projection. So many lit editors these days are writers first, and they’re dying for their own work to be accepted and celebrated and loved. Maybe Mr. BS did, in fact, write stories like this and he’s re-living his own anger at himself for possibly boring or aggravating some editor/writer like him. Bottom line: if the Bartleby Snopes editorial staff doesn’t want to read your take on a Biblical tale, send your story elsewhere. Editors are as different as snowflakes.

  3. Holly Walrath Holly Walrath

    I have to give Bartelby Snopes credit for putting out an article like this. How often are editors this specific in what they are/are not looking for? Usually they just say “read our journal” when writers ask what they want. Also, Bartelby is perhaps one of the only literary journals that is committed to giving writers free feedback, when the rest of literary journals are shoveling out form rejection letters in the tons.
    True, there will be those who see this and say – what about the good stories with these subjects? You’ll notice that in the article Tower mentions that they do accept these cliches if they are good. “That’s the rub.”

  4. Great letter in response. I got the same basic letter from 4 people at FFF and I would rather have gotten a simple “doesn’t work for us”.
    Nate’s “Humor” can be biting as I’ve noticed in his other essays and there always some truth in what he has to say.
    Keep on keeping on.

  5. I liked your article and I think you make some great points. I too have many qualms regarding the literary community and as a result, my own writing has found a home within the realm of genre fiction, a much different kind of community than those touted as “literary”. That said, I do need to “put in my two cents” 😉 regarding my friend Nate Tower.

    My problem with your criticism is that Nate was speaking in generalities about the over 15,000 stories he has read as an editor, while yours seemed to be more of an attack on him specifically. You ask which of several famous authors submitted to his magazine; my guess is none, but do we judge a story based on whose name is attached? That seems to be a “lit” problem that could have been addressed in your rebuttal. Add to that that I can’t imagine any established authors who would submit to an online indie lit magazine for no payment, and it makes the point irrelevant and mean spirited (did I mention that I DID like your article? It was well written, interesting, and did express some very deep truths about the “lit” community).

    Cliche’s are novelty beaten to death, and the fact that the things Nate mentions are things they see over and over and over is a testament to that fact. And even if we occasionally use a cliche, it doesn’t negate the truth that writing should excite the editor, make them want, nay, NEED to share the work with the world. I’m am not an editor, but I can understand why seeing the same tired expressions and devices over and over would make an editor want to write a humorous article about the things they have seen over and over.

    I met Nate Tower via numerous rejected submissions. Finally, Bartleby Snopes became my first ever acceptance. Through this process, I learned that Nate is a very supportive editor. His criticism is always balanced and meant to help improve the author’s story rather than just to berate the writer’s attempt. In fact, the BS Submittable page even has a category for submitters who specifically want feedback, which Nate and the associate editors provide for free, this is something we don’t find often as we scour Duotrope for a relevant market. BS also includes in their submission guidelines a list of things that “generally” turn them off, some of which are mentioned in Nate’s recent article. So inclusion of these elements is a pretty good sign that the submitter didn’t take the time to read the magazine let alone what they like to publish, resulting in a submission that says little more than “I can’t be bothered to look at your publication, but what can you do for me?”

    Nate started as my editor and I now consider him a friend, so of course I’m biased, but who isn’t when it comes to this fucking writing shit? Sorry, I swear too much. Another criticism Nate has offered me. I do earnestly suggest you submit your work to Bartleby Snopes. No submission is a sure thing, but I can assure you’ll be met with professionalism, respect, and a suggestion or two that might help. To me, editorial criticism has always been the proverbial spinach on a writer’s plate. It doesn’t taste the best, but Mom is right: It’s good for you and it will make your stories big and strong.

    As an aside I’d like to mention that Nate is also a talented fiction writer. If you haven’t read anything by him, his story collection “Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands” is superb.

  6. Good response. Two interesting solid points and very enjoyable to read. Cheers.

  7. You’ll have to forgive me for a view from the distant posting that is the UK, but because of the size of our literary market/community, we have nothing like the extensive range of literary titles you do, we barely have any creative writing at our universities, few university based/embedded publications. So you might have to bear in mind that the sheer welter of titles based in the US with good strong university credentials, populated by people with MFA qualifications, means you have a range of literary tastes which is so diverse as to offer the aspiring writer a chance to place their work by finding the right home.

    Can an editor lay out what he seeks and what he can’t abide? Absolutely. Can he dismiss literary aspirations of writers? Probably not. Writers are always on a hiding to nothing when they extend a discussion that is first and foremost based around a rejection or a bad review.

    And remember, if you write genre there will be a decent smattering of receptive titles for your work, unlike the UK. And if you write experimental stuff then again you could well find yourself a home. try placing experimental prose in the UK!

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