The Other Side of the Thing | Dan Chilton

Editing, Publishing, and the Pressures of Literary Realism

Very early in my writing career, I remember submitting some of my work to my community college’s literary journal. Some experimental pieces about restaurant work that were trying (in vain, mind you) to mimic the styles of the beat poets, which I was reading avidly at the time. A couple of poorly structured essays that had required much more extensive editing. A few poems.

There was a degree of uncertainty that came with this action of submitting. An uncertainty that was fed by my inexperience mixed with the obscurity of those journals’ profiles on Submittable, whose editors (I gathered from various literary articles) were career writers who’d certainly graduated from some top-tier MFA program. The type of program that vigorously scrubbed you clean of all that dirty genre writing and replaced it with the more respectable, high-grade label of literary realism. The Hemingway and Steinbeck types.

Despite the constant questioning of myself and my work, this was the next logical step to becoming a writer (with a capital W). That is, getting published.

Eventually, I received that bright red “decline” notification on my Submittable profile—the digital world’s rejection letter—and nothing more. No feedback. No explanation. Just that residual sting of rejection.

While the lack of explanation or feedback, I’d come to learn, is the standard these days (even for those poor souls who’ve fallen victim to the many pay-to-read literary journals crowding Submittable), the dilemma remained. Following that initial toe-dip into the lukewarm waters of the publishing industry, I was left stranded and haggard back onshore, my cheap coffee, pen, and paper, the only things to keep me afloat. Them and my existential dread. I had no guidance and no idea where to go from there.

Many other budding writers who have themselves tried to cross this threshold find themselves in a similar space. With no idea where to go next, nor any way of uncovering the mysticism and obscurity of the publishing industry, many disillusioned writers abandon the idea of becoming published or abandon ship altogether, returning to shore with the shame of Captain Ahab’s lost leg but no grand story to accompany it.

For younger me, it took the guidance of just a couple of genuinely great professors, writers themselves willing to unveil some of these mysteries while encouraging me to try again. Them and my fortune to work as an editor these last couple of years.

What I’d like to offer here is some of that same consolation to those lost on the drunken shores of abandon. To give some insight into the other side of the thing. To unpack the pressures of literary realism on those approaching publishing, and to offer a few tips that I’ve picked up along the way.


I suppose the most useful place to start is to offer a transparent gaze into what a life in editing actually looks like—with all of its scabs and ingrown hairs. To better consider how our work is being treated and by whom. Not to say that it’s all bad, not at all (in fact, many editors love their jobs). More so that there is a certain sheen applied to these types of positions when looking inward as a writer who has yet to be let in on the bit.

As an editor of a small magazine (a very different experience than, say, that of a book editor), the primary aspect of my job is reading submitted works for our annual issue, an amount of submissions (often called, somewhat derogatorily, the slush pile) that can number in the hundreds if not thousands. In a week, I might read anywhere from ten to twenty-five pieces of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and essays. Some of these pieces, especially in the fiction category—where I’ve been particularly designated—can climb to five thousand words (or about fifteen pages).

And it can be damn near exhausting.

On top of being a full-time student, juggling my own writing and reading projects, the workload of the other magazine I edit and write for, the hungry screams of my cat in the gray hours of the morning, and everything else that life throws at me on a regular basis, this is ultimately unpaid labor. Something that’s not uncommon in the world of small literary magazines.

Most editors, myself included, are passionate readers and writers. People who got into this line of work because they love the craft, the art of writing. Despite this, the work doesn’t always go as planned. Some weeks I have to backload all of my submission readings over the weekend due to a heavy school load or a bad mental health rut. Sometimes my reading sessions get interrupted by one of a million different things, interpersonal drama and (literal) cat fights among them. And some weeks everything goes smoothly and I’m able to offer every piece of writing the thorough review and consideration a writer submitting to our journal deserves—something I quickly learned could not possibly be afforded by every high-strung, overly caffeinated-editor, no matter how driven we are.

And we have to be driven since many (I daresay, most) of us are working for free—all in the hopes that one day this won’t be the case.

This is the life of an editor. It’s a constant juggling act where you hope an audience member doesn’t lug a beer bottle at you just to see if you fuck up. The audience, of course, being life in general.

If one of those pieces in a given week’s readings stands out, I may label it for discussion where it goes on the docket for the next week’s acquisition meeting. Once there, it’s read by the entire editorial team and subsequently discussed. If it makes it past all of the obstacles up to this point, it’ll be voted on by the group and possibly published (if it hasn’t been published elsewhere already).

For writers who only know the obscurity of Submittable, these are invisible obstacles. And there are many of them. An editor’s biases and mental health status, balanced by a finely tuned caffeine (or alcohol) addiction, are surely among them.

While there’s often a certain message of objectivity being sold on the surface of the literary world, reading, writing, and (perhaps especially) editing are wholly subjective experiences. And regardless of a given literary magazine’s bio assuring you otherwise, this subjectivity leaks into every facet of the process. A good editor knows this and attempts to be aware of it, knowing that the human aspect cannot be changed and, ultimately, how essential it is to good art.

If I had known any of this information when I’d first signed up for Submittable to send in my work, perhaps those rejections would have gone down a bit easier. Perhaps they still can for new writers approaching the bench.


But back to the literary realism of the grad school writer-editor. The type of writing I’ve often seen literary journals refer to as avant-garde. A term so oversaturated in today’s literary landscape that it appears magazines who rep themselves as such have a deep misunderstanding of the idea of originality and experimentation.

Yet, it’s a term that you’ll often find being used by journals to describe the philosophies of their magazines. They want cutting edge literature. Ingenuity. Something that sets them and their editors apart from other journals. Though, dig into their catalog and, more often than not, you’ll find a distinct lack of experimentation or genre writing. Stories so familiar that they practically read themselves.

Prior to my inception behind the publishing curtain, I understood writing in a commonly fallacious mindset, fed by this literary staging. Primarily, I bought into the idea that there were certain types of writing that were more worthy of praise than others. You should be familiar with this line of thinking. The trope of the pseudo-intellectual who only reads “classic French literature.”

Literary realism vs. genre fiction. Highbrow MFA writing vs. everything else.

It’s an easy line of thinking to fall into. After all, if you can prove that you’re even vaguely familiar with the Western high literary works of Nabokov, Faulkner, and Milton, perhaps you’ll prove your literary savvy.


Sardonic ramblings aside, genre fiction of all kinds, until very recently, have been largely ignored by literary critics, magazines, scholarly canons, and MFA programs. Even Tolkien’s The Hobbit was either critiqued or ignored at its time of release as a children’s story, unworthy of your time.

One of the many issues with funneling all praise into literary realism is oversaturation. I once heard the phrase “McWriter” to describe this type of grad school author. Implying that there’s so many of them and they’re all so similar, that literature has simply become another easily packed and consumable product.

Ursula K. Le Guin satirically noted in “Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love” that “…the kids keep bringing home these garish realistic novels and talking about them, so I know that it’s an incredibly narrow genre, completely centered on one species, full of worn-out clichés and predictable situations…”

As an editor, I’ve declined countless literary realist works from multi-published, award-winning authors with two-paragraph long bios listing their achievements (editor’s note: when it comes to bios, less is more) simply and because the pieces were boring—an adjective rarely heard in fiction workshops, often replaced with more considerate and wordy synonyms in order to constructively critique. And these rejections were in lieu of pure technical excellence. Works crafted in the laboratories of graduate level writing workshops may hold the prestige of scholarly proficiency—sterilized, bleached, and sanded down to a fine grade—but does that make it “good” enough writing to be published? Not necessarily. Subtract that special something that works for the literary realism of someone like Hemingway or Steinbeck, and suddenly it’s the equivalent of watching paint dry (if you don’t already feel that way about Hemingway or Steinbeck’s writing, that is).

What’s important for me to state here is that you don’t need to be an MFA alumnus writing literary realism to be published and respected. Working for a university literary magazine, most of the fiction slush pile is realist fiction. Most are all too familiar. Every day that I work through that pile, I hope to come upon the rare genre piece to refresh my imagination from the same, worn-out literary tropes I see day in and day out.

Don’t be fooled. In today’s climate, avant-garde is usually more indicative of established tropes of bland and boring characters, plots, and subplots, taught by aging professors at ivy-league schools than it is experimental writing, contrary to what the phrase would have you believe.

The difference between the MFA writer and the degreeless writer has more to do with knowledge of the process (and perhaps the privilege of schooling) than it does with publishability. A topic to be explored at another time.


And what of the practical insights I’ve gained from my editorial work?

Well, one of the biggest pieces of advice that I like to offer people looking to submit their work for publication is the importance of beginnings—the first sentence and first paragraph. As many editors will attest to, they’ll normally have a hunch as to whether a piece will get an upvote or a downvote within the first couple of pages. After all, if we’re not enjoying reading it at that point (as avid readers ourselves), how can we expect our audience to feel any differently?

That’s not to say that we should rewrite our stories to mimic the oversaturated styles of Dan Brown or Tom Clancy—not by any means. Still, the beginning is one of the most important elements of a short story, especially in consideration of how the publishing and editing scenes function. Offering a hook sooner rather than later will give our stories the greatest chance of catching an editor (and the perceived reader) who has been poring over submissions all day.

Unlike the form of the novel, who’s reader has accepted that the story may be a slow burn given the overall length, the reader of the short story holds the expectation of immediate consequence and action.

In fact, there’s a lot that can be said on this matter of literary beginnings. Donna Freitas explores this idea in “Hook the Reader and Hold Them: Why More Writers Should Study the Lessons of YA.” She writes, “[i]n YA, you can’t be afraid to play, to push, to crack open the structure, to step through that magical wormhole that puts the storytelling above all else, that lets you break from reality if need be, that teaches you to let the urgency of a protagonist’s needs, desires, the conflict they face, appear on page two (or even better, page one).”

While I surely don’t have the required (book length) space here to write about literary beginnings and the importance of hooking your reader, this is an insight that I heavily rely on when crafting my own short stories that I know will eventually be thrown into the slush pile alongside a million other short stories, each desperately trying to catch and hold the attention of an exhausted editor.

A second tip is to edit, edit, and when you’re finished editing, edit some more.

This is entirely unoriginal insight and anyone who’s taken a writing workshop or simply written enough will certainly be familiar with it. Writing is rewriting is editing. For short fiction though, everything needs to be airtight. Unlike a novel project, where a writer may send off their work-in-progress manuscript to an agent who can see the vision and help it come to fruition, the only way a short story makes it from Submittable backlog to publication status is by thorough polishing.

Through my editing experience, I’ve also noted that while a few grammatical errors in a submission are completely acceptable, finding (unintentional) character inconsistencies, clunky prose, or (worst of all) a flat and disappointing ending are all causes for rejection. As writers ourselves, editors can tell when a piece hasn’t been developed enough or simply needs a few more editing sessions (or has been edited too many times, its characters and plot points now resembling literary overparenting).

I’ve been told that writing is 33% generative, 33% editing, and 33% submitting. In practice it means that our time and energy around our craft should be evenly split if one is interested in getting read. If we spend too much time generating content, I suspect we’ll find that our content is never as polished as it could be. On the other side, too much time polishing doesn’t allow the characters and story the room they need to grow. Much like gardening, our stories need a proper balance of seeding, watering, and an allowance of space and time to grow and blossom.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I think that most writers would benefit from trying new things—experimenting.

As literary realism (or avant-garde, depending on who you’re talking to) has become the standard and normative within MFA programs and literary journals, it seems that writers ironically fear to try new things. To deviate from the well-worked tropes. The drunken and misplaced father. The overworked mother. The unseen child. The reliance on a perfectly placed epiphany to wrap up a narrative.

Charles Baxter, in his essay “On Defamiliarization” from Burning Down the House, wrote “…that it is not always enough simply to tell a truth in art, especially if the truth has no dramatic tension or has lost its emotional force. The truth can get dull.”

Exactly. The truth is that literary truths, epiphanies, and insights, are often and usually dull. When a narrative relies too heavily on the idea of a character or narrator landing on one of these realizations about the world, the story falls into that dead space where nothing interesting happens. I think this often takes place when the writer has over-planned their story and, in doing so, has disallowed anything surprising to occur. Thus, both the writer and the reader are left uninspired and drifting away from the page.

We need to defamiliarize our processes and our ideas. Throw some metaphorical wrenches into the machinery just to see what happens. Most certainly in doing so, we’ll sometimes find ourselves with a messy story that makes no sense. Subplots that wind up nowhere and do nothing. Rules that are broken. Walls that don’t exist. We’ll find failure. We’ll have to rewrite. Maybe it’ll be so messy that we’ll abandon the story altogether, leaving it for an uncertain future in our digital backlog.

But perhaps, every once in a while, we’ll learn something new. Something that works to freshen our stories and our writing in general. Something intriguing that we’ve never tried before. A story that is complicated. A character that has shortcomings and flaws. Art that is raw and unfiltered and isn’t trying too hard to say anything in particular.

These are the things good editors look for in acquisitions. Things that are fresh and show us that the author is brave enough to try something new and daring rather than rely on the familiar and the overdone.

In experimenting, we further hone our craft. We grow. We become stronger writers.


Rejections still sting. I can’t imagine that’s something that’ll ever fully dissolve no matter how many more I receive—and I receive many.

What helps is knowing what exactly is happening on the other side of the thing. How human it all is. How it all works. How subjectivity often leaks into, takes over, dominates what some think to be an objective editing process.

When those feelings of uncertainty creep back in, as they like to do, I remind myself I’m not the only one. I continue to write and submit because being a writer is a choice. A choice that needs to be made every time I sit down to work, knowing that much of my art will never reach the bookshelf.

But when that acceptance letter comes, it’s all worth it.

Dan Chilton was born and raised in Portland, Oregon where he now studies creative writing and English at Portland State University. He’s a poet, essayist, and fiction writer.