It Started with a Dead Cat
Letter from the Editor, Winter 2007 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
I T STARTED WITH A DEAD CAT. THAT'S HOW OUR STORIES STARTED: A DEAD CAT. Not my dead cat mind you. Nah, I can't stand cats- I'm allergic to cats in fact. I get this wheeze in my chest and the sniffles but... you don't want to hear about that. This story about a dead cat, it got me thinking that there was something wrong with the way literary journals accept and reject stories. Keep reading to find out why.
I was working as a reader for a fiction journal. The job went something like this: pick up thirty yellow envelopes, each with a story and a SASE inside and set them down next to a stack of thirty pre-made rejection forms, that's when I found the dead cat.
Two years ago I came across this story that opened with a guy tramping through snow outside of Chicago carrying his girlfriend's dead cat and a shovel. He was bringing it outside of the city limits to bury it. I loved the story, except for one thing- the guy blew the ending. The last four pages were pretty awful. I told my editor at the time that we should publish it but tell the writer to revise the ending. I said I'd be willing to work with the guy but my editor was against the idea. I asked him, "can't we offer the writer some advice on this? It's so damned close!" The editor, an otherwise cool guy, said he'd think about it and we went on to the next piece.
That guy got a nice note from our journal, something scribbled out on the rejection slip, but we sure didn't publish him.
Here at Our Stories we read every page. We respond to the entire story, not just a few lines.
Most journals don't spend time engaging in conversations about how to heal a broken story. It's either yes or no. That's it. (The cat is either alive or it's dead.) As the writer, you don't know how your work was received, whether it was read, or what anyone thought of it. At Our Stories we don't have any magical way of accepting all the submissions we get. We reject, but we give feedback. We tell you if you're close. If a piece comes in and we see its potential we ask the author to revise it with us. We believe a good editor says maybe and takes the time to see what the author is trying to say. This method makes for a better journal and, well, it adds a few better writers to the world. See, we might read so we don't feel like we're alone, but we write to participate in a conversation larger than ourselves. A work is never done until it's understood. The stories we published this quarter were edited and re-worked. Some even went through five drafts. Even George Saunders revised the answers to his interview.
So that's how I came up with the idea for Our Stories. The dead cat being dragged across Chicago. We thought, "what if we flipped this review process on its ass? What if our editors had MFA experience, workshop experience, and we showed each of you that we cared about your submissions instead of giving all our attention to five outstanding writers who submitted perfect pieces? What if we didn't want to compete with Tin House or One Story but decided to do something for writers who were just starting off?" Well, this is it and these are our stories.
We're the journal that says maybe. We've turned the submission process on its ass and we're the journal that wants to publish the dead cat story...but, hey, let's work on that ending.