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Hierarchy of Quality

Posted by on February 23, 2015

You are Katherine Heiny, and when you’re 24, you write a second-person short story for an MFA creative writing workshop at Columbia University¬ — “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” about a graduate student who is secretly in love with her male roommate — and you send it out to 31 literary journals, all of which turn it down. One editor writes you a harsh note, attacking the story as indicative of what is wrong with MFA programs and saying that your story demonstrates you have nothing to say.

When you tell a friend that no one wants your story, she asks you what The New Yorker said about it. You admit you have not sent it to that magazine, and your friend laughs. She says you were supposed to start with The New Yorker.

So, on a Thursday, you send the story there, and the next day Roger Angell, the fiction editor, calls you — early enough that he wakes you up — and says he wants to publish it. You do not believe him: you are a poor grad student, behind on your rent, and you think the caller is really your landlord trying to trick you into talking to him. And you doubt the magazine reads stories so quickly.

But it really is Roger Angell, and your story appears in the September 1992 issue of The New Yorker. Half-a-dozen years later, the magazine reprints it in an anthology.


If each story has a particular value, a place in a hierarchy of quality, and if people can recognize it, it would be impossible for a story to be rejected by 31 obscure literary magazines while being accepted by a magazine of vastly greater prestige. Maybe Angell can recognize quality that is invisible to 31 other literary magazine editors. But if those others can’t recognize its superior quality prior to publication, how will they recognize it after? If its superior quality was invisible to 31 editors, how will it be visible to readers? If Heiny’s story’s rejection by 31 magazines was insufficient proof that it’s bad, what proof would be sufficient? If her story was good enough for a New Yorker “best of” anthology, she would have been a fool to change it in response to 31 rejections by lesser magazines.


The Booker Prize is probably the most prestigious literary award given for a single work (the Nobel is a lifetime achievement award). Each year its winner receives a long and detailed cover story in the TLS, and its author appears on Charlie Rose. Note that only the winning novel receives this treatment, not the other short-listed novels or other novel published that year, and definitely not the slush pile books that were rejected.  “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel was rejected by a number of publishers in Britain before being accepted by a Canadian company in 2001 and selling ten million copies. Given what we know of publishing company response times, it’s very likely Martel’s book spent most of the preceding year being rejected. If one takes seriously these notions of inherent quality, one would have to conclude that the “best” book of 2001 was not even good enough to be published at all in 2000—that the “best” novel of 2001 was worse than every single novel published in 2000. Either there is no hierarchy of quality, or there is but nobody can recognize it (which amounts to the same thing).


Tobias Buckell writes (, regarding acceptances and rejections: “I sort of view it like a combination lock. A tumbler, where all of the elements have to line up to create a sale. The story has to be right, the editor has to be right, and the time has to be right.”


That’s one way to look at it. Another is that there is no “right” and he’s describing a process dominated by chance. If a scientist claimed to have proven the truth of astrology, and his evidence was that one particular individual born under the sign of Scorpio was focused, brave, ambitious, and manipulative, and he responded to counter-example of other individuals born under the sign of Scorpio who were not those things by saying there were other factors not “right” in some unspecified way with those other individuals’ histories, we would justifiably think him not a very good scientist.


“Maybe you’re just shy of the breakthrough and not able to push on through.”


If one takes seriously his previous point about it being like a combination lock, there’s no reason to believe one can achieve a breakthrough by modifying the content or style of one’s stories. The idea behind the combination lock is that stories are rejected not because there’s necessarily something wrong with them, but because something wasn’t “right” with some other aspect of the process, but now he’s contradicted himself by recommending a long list of activities that are supposed to improve your stories.


“I do put some stories away and stop submitting them. I don’t do it because they’ve been rejected too many times. I do it because after time passes, I can look at them and understand that they’re not good.”


I don’t doubt he now feels differently about stories written many years ago than he did when he wrote them, but I do doubt we have sufficient evidence to say he feels rightly. That his feelings have changed is certain; that his judgment today is an improvement over his judgment of the past is uncertain. How does one know one’s stories or judgment are improving with the passage of time? Maybe they’re getting worse. Why is this notion that improvement necessarily follows with years of labor at one’s craft so commonly believed when there are so many published writers whose early works are widely acknowledged to be their best? How many people read Joseph Heller’s second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth novels? Does the principle of improvement through diligent work apply only to unsuccessful writers, and ceases to operate once one has become successful? The inevitability of improvement with time doesn’t seem to have been true of successful writers of the past, so why should we believe it’s true of us today? What changes to produce the breakthrough is not the “quality” of the writing, but the quantity of credits, the prestige of the venue, the support of influential patrons, or some other extraneous element.


“Remember that before a breakthrough is when you’ve been pushing for the longest and are the most vulnerable.”


I’m sure that’s been true of his life. Each time he has gone a long period without a sale and he’s felt vulnerable, some reinforcement has come along that has renewed his faith in the endeavor. Most successful writers offer such advice because had it not transpired that way in their own lives they would not be in a position as successful writers to offer advice at all. Those for whom “pushing for the longest” was not followed by a breakthrough are conveniently excluded from the sample. Similarly the miraculous healing powers of the waters of Lourdes are given powerful testimony by the deathly ill who took them and subsequently recovered, only one might ask, “Where is the testimony from those who took the waters and died?” Many not versed in the scientific method are taken in by this kind of evidence.

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