On “Beauty in the Age of Chaos and Savagery” by Michael Nye
I think some writers suspect editors of taking a ghoulish pleasure in saying “no” to a submission, the way that, as a student, I imagined teachers rubbing their palms together and cackling while assigning Ds and Fs. Now that I’m both an editor and a teacher, I can say that I take no pleasure in either. I do not enjoy rejecting things. But saying “no” is easy, seductively easy. When there are fifty stories in your personal submissions box, and literally thousands more in the general queue, the quickest way to get one neatly archived away is to reject it. Sometimes the only palpable sense of progress in hours of reading submissions comes from rejecting them. Forget “editing” in that quaint sense of actually working with an author to make a story stronger: most of us who edit for literary magazines spend the majority of our time simply saying “yes” or “no,” and in practice that means we spend the vast majority of our time saying “no.”
Why am I talking about this in a newsletter feature dedicated to the pieces we’ve said “yes” to?
Because I came dangerously close to saying “no” to Michael Nye’s wonderful story “Beauty in the Age of Chaos and Savagery.” I first read Nye’s story sitting in a hotel room, waiting to be fetched for a visiting author event. I was trying to get as much work done as I could before my host arrived.
Listen to Michael Nye read “Beauty in the Age of Chaos and Savagery”.
The story is about Denny Birdwell, a former NFL lineman. Thirty-nine years old, Birdy has been retired for four years, and he is falling apart. He has headaches, blackouts, “the bones in his neck and shoulders rattling like dice.” He washed out as a real estate agent. Now he renovates and flips houses, but at one point he drives all the way across St. Louis to a job site only to realize he’s forgotten his tools at home: “had this been normal forgetting, or was this from the headaches?” His marriage over, Birdy’s most meaningful relationship is with a neighbor girl, a talented athlete Birdy is training to be a quarterback. That he’s teaching her to play the sport that’s physically destroyed him is an irony the story doesn’t belabor; what football has cost Birdy is evident on every page, along with the fact that he doesn’t have any alternate vision for what his life might have been, or might still become. Birdy’s plight could have felt ripped-from-the-headlines, the story clumsily topical or heavy-handed. It didn’t. The story felt real and moving, and both Birdy and the neighbor girl were characters I knew would stick in my mind for a long time to come.
My reservations about the story, as I first read it sitting in that hotel room, were minor. But as I read and re-read and tried to put my finger on what wasn’t quite working yet, on how I might explain that to an author who might find my suggestions unwelcome, I felt the temptation of “no.” This was not good sense speaking, or high aesthetic standards. This was the anxiety of the minutes ticking down until my ride showed up. This was the knowledge that in the hundreds of stories that still awaited me were too many fantastic pages to ever fit into the magazine.
In the end, I did what editors are supposed to do, and Nye found room to make a fantastic story even stronger. We’re so excited for the Spring 2014 print issue of KR to include “Beauty in the Age of Chaos and Savagery,” a heartbreaking story that is important without ever being self-important. Nye lets his characters speak for themselves, and the results are moving and memorable.
The piece has stuck in my mind for its characters, for its situation, but also because saying “no” to it would have meant we all missed out. I would have squandered the opportunity to actually be an editor, to share the best version possible of the very best work I find in the submissions queue; Nye would have missed out on having his story published with KR (though it would no doubt have found a home elsewhere); KR readers would have missed out on reading it; and KR would have missed out on the happy honor of publishing it.