I was still feeling the afterglow of the Alice Munro announcement, so I headed over to Munro’s Paris Review interview. One of the things I was struck by was her description of the first fifteen years or so of her career:
I was about thirty-six [when my first book came out]. I’d been writing these stories over the years and finally an editor at Ryerson Press, a Canadian publisher that has since been taken over by McGraw-Hill, wrote and asked me if I had enough stories for a book. Originally he was going to put me in a book with two or three other writers. That fell through, but he still had a bunch of my stories. Then he quit but passed me onto another editor, who said, If you could write three more stories, we’d have a book. And so I wrote “Images,” “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” and “Postcard” during the last year before the book was published.
Did you publish those stories in magazines?
Most of them got into Tamarack Review. It was a nice little magazine, a very brave magazine. The editor said he was the only editor in Canada who knew all his readers by their first names.
I’m not sure of the circulation, but since the Tamarack Review editor claimed he knew every reader by name, it can’t have been very large. Fifty? A hundred?
I myself spent a few years trying to place stories in journals like that. What finally made me give up is not the discouragement of rejection – I was fine with that. These places get hundreds of submissions and only have a few slots. No, what did me in with the little magazines was this: I did not know anyone who read them who was not themselves trying to get published in them. God bless the editors, who were working like crazy for not much more than a love of literature; it would be wonderful to have a person like that approve of your work. But what is that, in the end, but one person approving? Is that really so different from a few five star reviews on Amazon?
That seems like the biggest difference between the publishing prospects for literary fiction today and the one that existed in the second half of the twentieth century. Today you can upload your book and make it available to the world. For free? For 99 cents? For $4.99? It’s up to you. Maybe you’ll get three reviews. Maybe you’ll get ten. But you will have some readers. Not many, you say? Well, that’s not so bad. You’re just getting started. And it worked for Alice.