Thursday, July 22, 2010


A long time ago I was invited to submit some short stories to Harper's. The editor who wrote to me loved the 2 stories I sent in. She said the committee thought one was opaque but liked the other (Harley), though John Sullivan had one minor editorial comment.

She then wrote explaining that she was leaving Harper's to concentrate on her own writing, but Sullivan would birddog the story. New verb to me, but OK.

Time passed. No word. I wrote.

Sullivan said the story had gone missing. I resent. (Re-sent.)

Time passed. I wrote.

Long silence. I wrote.

Long silence. I wrote.

Sullivan explained that the story had been looked over by the committee who did not think it was right for Harper's.

I learned much later that Sullivan had been working on a book. He had not been in the office much. 'Bird dog' should have alerted me to possible problems: who doesn't know a goofy Lab?

Much, much later I met Wyatt Mason, a friend of Sullivan's. I shared this story. Mason explained that this was why you needed an agent. Sullivan could naturally not be expected to do his job without assistance. Professional writers understand this: they put an agent in place to enable a salaried editor to do the job he is notionally paid for. (I paraphrase, needless to say.)

Somewhat unfortunately, I once read the autobiography of Leonard Woolf as light reading during an Easter vacation when I was supposed to be reading the Aeneid. Woolf was sent out to what was then known as Ceylon and spent several years as a colonial administrator; he came to an office with a backlog of years. The backlog never got any bigger, it simply went back for years. Woolf saw that there was no reason the office could not respond to new queries within 24 hours; it should do this, and meanwhile tackle the business of cutting down the backlog. By the time he left all queries were being answered within 24 hours. (I am probably getting this slightly wrong - read it a long time ago - but this was the gist.)

So when I was told that Mr Sullivan required an agent to assist him in performing the job for which he was paid, I reflected on the fact that Leonard Woolf had walked into an office whose unanswered correspondence went back for years, and I concluded that Mr Sullivan was no Leonard Woolf. Might it not be possible, was the natural thought, to give the job to a Woolf?

It might very well be possible, but it is more desirable than likely, which is, of course, why one tries to put an agent in place.

At some point, anyway, I put the couple of stories on my website. Anyone who wanted to do so could buy them for $5. Some have.

My impression is that a paywall looks like bad form on the Internet. That's just the way it is. No one expects to get a copy of Harper's for free, but if a story is online it ought to be free. Now that the stories have appeared online, anyway, they can't be submitted to magazines. So I give the link for anyone who would like to read them but was put off by this ignorance of Internet protocol. Samizdat here.

1 comment:

nathaniel said...

when there is a space between what people should do and what they actually do, disappointment inevitably follows. ideally, the two should overlap completely; they should be indiscernible from one another. unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case. and of course: the greater the space, the greater the disappointment.