I’ve been saying recently that until I wrote the novel that’s currently floating around to publishers (called The Va-va-va VOOM! but may end up being retitled North Side Girl), I’d never really written about the neighborhood where I grew up.
I was wrong.
I wrote two short stories. One of them was called “Neighborhood,” and the other was called “The Tigers of Wrath” (I think, I don’t have a copy around for me to confirm). I also wrote at least one poem, “Michele Constance,” and maybe a lot more in a book-length batch of poems I’d never dream of inflicting upon you, called Intensive Care Ward.
The poem wasn’t bad. I forget where it was published, but it did get into print (now I remember – it was the magazine Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff edited called Oink!). The stories were probably good, too, or better than I’ve thought they were for a long time. They were pretty much universally rejected, though they received some interesting notes from editors. They were strong stuff. They dealt with revenge and cruelty. They had a very hard edge, and there was really nowhere to place such stories at the time.
The literary magazines and journals were looking for “New Fiction,” which was fiction allegedly all about itself. It was about technique, and cleverness, and blandness, and about being above your material. It was about the authors discovering that fiction was fictional, which was about as profound as discovering that an iceberg is made of frozen water. But it was all the rage, and no one was interested in a story about how the iceberg was going to sink the ship everyone was sailing upon.
The stories were sent to dozens of places. They always came back. I consigned them to the back of my file cabinet until Northern Illinois University asked me if I wanted to contribute some of my papers. They received them, and a number of other stories I couldn’t sell, and I never thought about them again, until now.
You probably wouldn’t like them anyway. A lot of bad things happen in those stories. The language isn’t buffered. The cruelty isn’t cloaked in innuendo. The narrators are sick, though they not sociopaths. They are deeply injured, and they do terrible things. The stories do not absolve them, nor do they allow their narrators to absolve themselves. We see more than the narrators think they are revealing. One might compare them to early Nelson Algren being grafted to early Hubert Selby, Jr. The implicit message was: danger! These people are there. They have wounds we can’t even imagine how to begin to heal.
We see those same wounds today, still festering, still incurable, still unanswered in our culture. And those same wounded people, I humbly submit, are still infecting the culture (or what’s left of our culture).
In way, they were horror stories, but they did not contain the one or two things that would qualify them for the short fiction “horror” markets, so those publications had no interest in them either.
So I wrote that stuff. And it didn’t sell. I moved on and wrote other stuff, because writers don’t give up after a couple of stories. And writers don’t keep on writing the same kind of stories over and over again, do they?
Not that I was going to write that 1970s-era “New Fiction” malarkey, which is still highly praised. Much of it, though, to me reads like a package without a product – an empty container.
At least my packages always contained something, even though when the editors opened them, the contents bit them. My submissions came with return stamped envelopes, and editors were unanimously all too willing to use them.
I do, now, remember one rejection, that came from a college literary journal, and it was sent by one of the assistant editors, one of the first readers, not from any of the “big” editors – big as one can get when the circulation of the publication was no more than 250. It was like once of those comments whispered to you when no one else is looking, one of those comments that begins like, “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but …”
The rejection went on to say, I’m paraphrasing, from memory: This is really good, uncompromising, vivid … but we can never use it at our publication. We haven’t the guts. I hope this story finds a place that does.”
At that time, I was a fairly depressed kid, or young man, stuck in a dead-end job, my academic training unused and apparently unusable. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong world. It wasn’t that I missed the bus – the bus stopped running. I was built for one job – making stories. I didn’t know much about how to make them, but make them was what I had to do. Except – kids from my part of the world weren’t supposed to do those kinds of things. And the world wasn’t ready to break any rules just for me. I was going to be one of those in the multitudes of failures – one of those who may have not failed for lack of ability or determination, but for no good reason at all. Like one of those millions of soldiers in millions of battles in millions of wars – the soldiers who didn’t survive for no other reason than that the bullet went here instead of there.
Rejection slips, the personal ones – they were these little notes slipped to me that both confirmed and negated my status in a world I chose to live in. You’re good, but it just doesn’t matter. Good we got. Millions more good writers than we’ll ever need. Sorry.
Well. What can you say? I tried to do it right, and what I got was “Sorry.”
The literary landscape faced one way. I faced another. I could try to write the stuff the literary editors liked, but … wasn’t that what my teachers taught me writers do in the “popular fiction” markets? Wasn’t that the thing we were supposed to avoid because we were real, true artists who didn’t pay attention to the beck and call of editors and readers?
So – “literature,” the light of civilization, turns out to be the same sort of marketplace that guides and guards this world with invisible hands.
Not that I’m complaining, or was complaining at the time. All I regretted was that I didn’t receive the memo sooner.
If you’re going to the market, you better bring something someone wants to buy. Eventually, I found something I could sell, and sold it.
But it wasn’t my old neighborhood. It wasn’t the people I knew. It wasn’t all I had grown up with, the things I observed, the feelings and the explicit expression of those feelings. Nobody wanted to read that shit, so I stopped trying to sell that story – until now.
Maybe this time I’ve figured out how to tell the story. Maybe this time I will find an audience that’s ready to listen.