Why We Chose It

David Lynn
October 4, 2011
Comments 12

By David Lynn, Editor

So I’m reading unsolicited submissions.  Some fail to grab me at all.  Others get off to a good start, only to flag, to wither.  Ah well.  Open another.

“It’s seven in the morning on a Thursday, and I’m already late for school when I walk into the dining room for breakfast and find Debi, my newborn sister, floating in the aquarium.  My dead newborn sister.  She must be dead—after all, humans can’t survive underwater—but the magnitude of this doesn’t register.”

That opening, to “A Family Matter” by Keya Mitra, surely stops me in my tracks. Beginnings are important—that’s Writing 101.  You’ve got to grab a reader’s attention, keep him or her reading until fully engaged with a story.   Good openings usually give off all kinds of signals about what kind of story lies ahead—how a reader should read, make sense of what it to come.  But a dead baby floating in an aquarium?  Is it going to be a horror story?  An absurdist romp?  A black comedy?  What sense can be made?

Here’s what I’m thinking with my editor’s cap on: that creating a story able to live up to and support—justify—such an over-the-top beginning is going to be a hell of a challenge.  But I do keep reading.

“Last week Ms. Monroe taught my eleventh-grade Spanish class the difference between ser and estar.”  So begins the next paragraph.  Huh?  What does this have to do with a dead baby in an aquarium?  Where’s the logic, the transition?  What’s going on?

Without giving too much away I can assure you there is logic to it—though it doesn’t come clear for a few pages.  But the story speeds on, pulling us along.  What emerges is a fresh take on what has become, in recent years, a familiar situation—an Indian family adjusting to everyday life in America, the parents still feeling trapped between cultures, the children fully American in language, tastes, schooling.  Yet they are also set apart by their skin tones, by their family.

If the everyday world reflected in “A Family Matter” is made up of its very ordinariness, with a dysfunctional Indian family paralleled by an equally askew American one, there is also a thread of profound disorder that runs through it, starting with that dead baby in the aquarium.  The narrator’s father, we are told, is crazy.  And the narrator worries that the craziness may be transmutable, which leads to brilliant sentences such as this: “What if Crazy is not confined to a single body but instead circulates through a family like an illness, settling in one person, then taking up residency in another, secure in the knowledge that constant movement keeps infections alive.”  The action of the language, the imagery, the sense of an imagination playing with a disturbing, haunting idea, that is very fine indeed.

The cruelest moment for an editor is when, coming to the end of a story that has been so promising all along, the narrative suddenly veers into disaster, beyond revision, beyond saving.  Many good writers paint themselves into corners.  “And then he woke up,” is rarely a successful solution.  This conundrum happens more often than you might think because, if beginnings are the most important part of a story, endings are by far the hardest.  So I was relieved—gladdened—to find that Keya Mitra does not provide easy answers or a neat resolution to all the questions and dramas that have been raised by this story.  The ending is sad and sweet, powerful and disturbing, light as a feather in its deftness, and deeply moving in its human wisdom.  What a wonderful discovery.

12 thoughts on “Why We Chose It

  1. That opening, to “A Family Matter” by Keya Mitra, surely stops me in my tracks. Beginnings are important—that’s Writing 101. You’ve got to grab a reader’s attention, keep him or her reading until fully engaged with a story. — No. Cliche. More to the point, false. By these standards Margaret Atwood and AS Byatt are not good writers. To make rules about writing (art) is to kill creativity and show the editor’s bias. As the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows, people who say they want, for example, new and innovative writing in fact do not; they are speaking to their image of themselves. Newness, something different, is horribly frightening to most people, even some artists who hold they are above this.
    As to Jeffery’s comment: the real inhibitors, the real leeches are the agents, the bottom of the Confucian social hierarchy because they make money off the hard, often life-long work of others. But, then, the popular market is not interested in that elitist thing quality.

  2. Patrick, I do not expect any editor to revise all or any of the stories that cross their desks/enter their inboxes. I am merely commenting on David’s pronouncement that some endings are so bad that *no amount of revision could save the stories*–an absurd claim that I would not expect any editor or writer to make. Any otherwise good story can be saved from a bad ending; whether the editor is the one who should do the saving is another matter entirely.

    I understand very well the quantity of submissions editors deal with, having been on the other side of this more than once.

  3. As a writer, sometimes we miss the true ending. Sometimes we have to grow into what it takes to get there and that can’t be rushed only delayed. But everything with a beginning has three endings, a bad one, a servicible one and the true ending. That said I loved the piece and I hope the writer doesn’t give up on ‘A Family Matter’.

  4. I thought that maybe in a literary forum like this, we’d avoid the trolls who frequent sports and entertainment sites, but apparently not. Thanks, David, for the insight into your decision-making process. For Jeffrey’s sake, I’ll mention that I’ve never published anybody (I don’t edit a journal), and I don’t think it’s a sin to attend conferences or to befriend other writers whose goals and interests parallel my own. My friends who edit journals have rejected my work more often than they’ve accepted it, and my work has been accepted by editors I don’t know more than by those I know. I think my story is typical. But if believing that everybody’s in cahoots helps you salve the pain of rejection, then do whatever works for you. As for “nliu” above: I wonder if you understand the sheer numbers of submissions editors have to deal with. Writers should expect their professors and writing-group friends to help them revise their endings. Journal editors simply do not have the time to instruct the thousands of writers who send in stories.

  5. What an oddly antagonistic comment, Jeffrey. Are you angry at David for reading unsolicited submissions because that undermines your perception of how publishing works?

    I understand the perception that’s out there, and I’d be naive to deny that connections are very important to some editors. But hundreds of journal editors are reading (and even accepting!) unsolicited manuscripts every day. There are a lot more variables in there besides just knowing people.

  6. You’re reading unsolicited stories, huh? How unusual. The name of the publishing game, pal, seems to be: “I’ll publish you if you’ll publish me.” Merit counts for very little in American literary journals. It’s who you know not what you’ve created that determines where you’ll be published.

  7. I appreciate this thoughtful blog post. It is so helpful, as a writer, to know what goes through the mind of an editor as he or she is reading someones work. It really helps me up my game.

  8. Indeed, endings are the most difficult part of a short story. Perhaps because the short story form is so condensed to begin with, it is inhumanely difficult to come up with a pithy, witty, emotionally powerful conclusion to an already highly distilled story that does not disappoint.

    When an ending works, it is made apparent in the satisfied smile on a reader’s face.

  9. When I started reading I thought, “Uh oh, another editor blogging about reading submissions,” but I continued.

    This blog post is succinct (Why do editors ramble on for 2,000 words on their Lit Mag blog on such a redundant topic?), and a beautiful interpretation of the powerful elements of “A Family Matter”, revealing enough to make the story seem immensely powerful and compelling, while not giving away the whole. This is how editors should write about the submission process.

    Well done, David.

  10. “The cruelest moment for an editor is when, coming to the end of a story that has been so promising all along, the narrative suddenly veers into disaster, beyond revision, beyond saving.”

    Presumably this is the moment when that editor realises s/he does not deserve the title. An ending (to an otherwise good story) so bad that no amount of revision can save the story? I wonder if you understand the concept.

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