Scooting around the internet last week I came across this: an engaging blog post by American literary magazine editor Cady Vishniac about what not to submit to litmags. A lot of the undesirable things seem obvious (porn, bigotry), but the fact they’re listed must mean there are people out there who think that including them in a short story is a good idea. Alarming. Others are things that I know I should avoid, but am never entirely sure I have (cliché, plot holes and extraordinary coincidence). These are the kind of errors you may only spot once you’ve left the piece alone for a while and then come back to it, and even then they can slip by.
It was the section on wishful thinking and revenge, though, that caught my eye. We’ve all been tempted (well, I have) to immortalise in writing an annoying acquaintance or particularly egregious work colleague. At best your aim may be a bit of fun; at worst, a chance for justice. And it never works. Not for me, anyway.
This quote from the post shows why: ‘Literary fiction shows us characters who have positive attributes and serious negative ones. Every protagonist has a deeply human, deeply flawed core, and even evil people exist in a context that helps us understand their choices.’ In a nutshell, you have to feel sympathy for your characters. Even the most appalling of them can’t be entirely irredeemable and doomed.
Sure, it’s possible to take elements from people you’ve met and disliked, and to incorporate those into a character, and for that character to work. But only when you don’t have a revenge agenda. Writing, an act of creation and, unsentimentally, of love, withers up in an atmosphere of negativity.
I’ve tried revenge writing, and the prose comes out airless, didactic and (worse) dull. It goes nowhere, because it requires the piece to be a cypher for the resolution of my own personal gripes. This makes it cryptically specific, cramped and closed-ended, as opposed to multi-layered, generous and relevant to wider human experience*. On top of this it’s hard to do, because it’s no fun putting down grievances on paper.
As it turns out, it’s no fun reading those grievances either. The author of the post points out that revenge writing is pathetically easy to spot, and embarrassing to read. A publisher’s rejection is, as she says, a kindness: it prevents you from showing your thinly-disguised wounds to the world.
The post’s an intriguing read, and has a sister piece on ‘Some Myths About Your Litmag Submissions’. It leaves me with even more respect for those who edit or read for magazines, and the reassuring knowledge that however many rejection letters there may be, at least I’ve never written a story in which ‘a guy spots a gal on a bus and she starts masturbating’.
*On a good day.