I help review submissions for an online magazine. This issue, the magazine’s theme is Hope and the Resilience of the Human Spirit.
Cool theme right?
A lot of the submissions we get are pretty poor. (If you’ve submitted to this magazine and happen to be reading this, I am of course not talking about your submission, I’m talking about everyone else’s.) When our theme is something like, ‘supernatural happenings’ that doesn’t bother me (other than having to read all these quite bad stories).
But this month I’m reading every story that comes in as if it was a response to ‘Hope and the Resilience of the Human Spirit’. (You know, like people actually read the prompt before they submit.) All the (quite normal) cynicism and lack of people-hood in the characters is particularly noticeable because it’s not just bad writing, it is a part of the story speaking directly to the prompt. I’m asking, “What do you believe about hope and the resilience of the human spirit?” and they are answering, “There is no hope, and humanity is horrible. If it is resilient, it is only in the same way that nuclear waste is resilient: It is awful, and awfulness takes a long time to fade.”
I would feel better if I thought all these submitters were committed cynical nihilists and they truly believed there was nothing redeeming in humanity, because then at least they would have thought about something. Instead, I get the feeling that they want to write something deep. But they don’t really know what deep they want to right, so they write something awful instead. (I’m not sure when we started equating stories where horrible things happen with books that have something meaningful to say about humanity or life. I can understand why we did, the two do often go hand in hand. But really people.)
It’s not that I want fiction to have a point. I don’t think that people have to have their themes in mind to write good books. But I do think that what we believe about people and about the world and how we feel comes out in our writing. And I do think that when we write we convey something, even if we don’t mean to and we don’t know what it is. Each story has a point, whether we want it to or not.
Sometimes, like when I have to read like twenty stinkin’ submissions, I wish that people thought about their points a little more.
Not that I’m saying we have to think about this all the time. I sure as hell don’t. But like, at least they could before they submit to a journal where the theme is HOPE AND THE RESILIENCE OF THE HUMAN STINKIN’ SPIRIT, you know what I mean?
In summary, this week, if you’re submitting a story to a magazine, please think about how your story relates to the prompt and if you are accidentally saying something horrible. Also, maybe you should think about what you believe about people.