One of the strangest stories, "Night Flight to Stockholm," is actually a meditation on the process of submitting to literary journals. The unnamed narrator finds an agent who can get him published anywhere—to acclaim—if he follows certain simple writerly advice, and then surrenders a body part. The Paris Review is the magazine that launches the character's career (he cuts off his pinkie). It must have been amazing to find a story so perfect to close Object Lessons.
Right? The Dallas Wiebe is one I hope everyone reads. Deeply bizarre, mordantly funny, and as harsh an indictment of this business as has ever been written. We have a large jar of pinkies in the office, obviously.
A pinkie is bad enough, but he gives up both testicles to have his work run in TriQuarterly. Is it really that hard to get into top literary journals? Do people want it that bad?
We're a quarterly, and publish maybe four pieces of fiction in a typical issue. It's not a lot. And yes, there are a lot of submissions. The good news for writers is that, thanks to the Internet, there are more and more good venues that allow one to publish, and be read, and hopefully without sacrificing too many extremities.
What do you make of the advice given to the narrator of "Night Flight"? Some of it seems sound—strive for clarity, excise extra words, and so on—and yet he's mutilating himself, and wiping literal blood and sweat of the pages. I can't tell if the author is critiquing the painful corset one must slip into to receive mainstream success, or if it's more about the way you must give up very real, living parts of you to write well.
Both, I'd think: Wiebe was a subtle writer, even if sometimes outrageous. You could also argue that he touches on how society loves a sob story or grotesque: The less "normal" he becomes, the more he is honored and feted. Ultimately, he is a limbless stump being wheeled onto the Nobel podium.
And it strikes me almost as a kind of meta-commentary on the kind of issues we're talking about. His stories become more polished, more technically perfect, but perhaps lose some of their wildness. Editors keep asking him to wipe certain body fluids off the page.
No question, you can polish the edge away. A little blood, sweat, and tears make for good reading, if not comfortable writing.
When editing a story for neatness cohesion, or even comprehension—do you ever risk taking out its beating heart? How do you balance this?
That's editing in a nutshell, isn't it? The trick is to value what's important in the first place, know you can trust the writer, and learn to have confidence in your instincts. Like writing, editing calls for chutzpah. Ideally, that should be earned. And decisions should always be collaborative in any case.
In an interview with The Millions, you addressed the challenge of securing all the rights to the stories. Many of them had been sold decades ago by unagented writers over a handshake. How did this process give you a sense of how journal publishing has changed?