Michael Griffith is the Fiction Editor at Cincinnati Review. For this segment of our Ask an Editor Series, we asked Michael what he typically looks for when he considers stories for publication (as well as what tips he could provide for writers interested in publishing their work). Here’s what he said:
WHAT SPECIFIC CRITERIA DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN CONSIDERING A STORY FOR PUBLICATION?
First and foremost, I’m looking to be surprised and delighted. I’m looking for stories that take risks, that seem genuinely fresh and new. John Berryman once defined poetry, as opposed to the “mere manufacture of verse,” by saying that it “not only expresses the matter in hand but adds to the stock of available reality.” There’s a lot of good, solid fiction that settles for the first half of that; I want the second, too.
COVER LETTER OR NO COVER LETTER?
Cover letter, but short and unvarnished. A fancy cover letter can’t help a manuscript, but it can hurt.
AS AN EDITOR, I SUSPECT YOU RECEIVE STORIES THAT AREN’T QUITE FINISHED. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR WRITERS CONCERNING REVISION/EDITING?
Part of the terror of submitting, of course, is that one has so little *control* over the process, is that there are so many nearly arbitrary factors that can affect whether a story gets accepted: Who read it, and on what day, and in what mood, and in what light, and amid what set of domestic crises or constellation of everyday griefs and worries? Has the magazine just closed an issue? Just opened one? Is there another story just accepted—this is based on a true example from many years ago, and not at Cincinnati Review–that also features a scene of sex with a barnyard animals, and the editors are fearful of getting the magazine a reputation? And so on. Deciding when a piece is ready—when it is truly finished to the best of your ability—is nearly the last thing over which the writer has absolute dominion. Use that power. Generally you’re only going to get one bite at the apple, and editors are awash in submissions, strapped for time, and they’re going to tend to accept the ones that need no work and merely to encourage the ones that are 99% excellent but need just a little more honing. It’s very, very rare for us, these days, to ask for a revision—or seriously to consider one unless it’s changed dramatically.
WHAT IRRITATES YOU AS AN EDITOR WHEN YOU’RE EVALUATING A STORY FOR PUBLICATION?
I’m not often irritated by submissions. More often I feel guilty and sad. The guilt has to do with the fact that we get lots of work I’d be happy to publish, but as a semiannual journal with around 200 pages to devote to fiction per year, Cincinnati Review can’t accommodate all of it . . .
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU PROVIDE TO WRITERS WHO WANT TO PUBLISH SHORT FICTION?
. . . The sadness is more complicated. We have a ranking system that uses scores from 1 to 5, with 5 being “Take it! Take it! Take it!” and 1 being “No” (in thunder). What makes me sad is the volume of stories we get that are 3s—accomplished, admirable work—but that never aimed to be anything higher than a 3. Padgett Powell, I’m told, sometimes says in class of such stories that they have been “executed to conception”: The story has accomplished what it set out to do, but it didn’t set out to do anything much. I’d much rather see flawed, weird, chancy work that fails than fiction that hugs the shore of convention and calm. If your story is a Sunfish, I want to see it in a shipping lane.