Many literary magazines’ Submission Guidelines say something about it being a good idea to have actually read that journal instead of sending your work out as “part of a carpet-bombing campaign,” to quote the Chicago Review. But how important is this, really? If a story is objectively good, shouldn’t a good journal want it? How far-ranging can the literary tastes out there be?
In an interview with The Review Review, Crazyhorse’s fiction editor Anthony Varallo was asked what he looks for in a short story. Varallo said that:
I always know I’m reading a good story when I find myself saying “right” or “of course” as I’m reading it. That, or “nice move.”
In this series of posts, I will evaluate a random selection of stories from journals I myself am currently submitting to, to compare the “moves” they make, starting with Varallo’s Crazyhorse.
Joseph O’Malley’s “Ceci N’est Pas About You” appeared in Crazyhorse Issue 87. The story begins with a guy named Mike abandoning the window he’s graffiti-tagging as sirens approach, only to realize the sirens aren’t for him. Under the moniker “Pipedreamer,” he’s sprayed “Ceci N’est Pas A TAQUERIA” on the window of a bank that has displaced a taqueria. He thinks his “boyfriend” Sander wouldn’t approve of his socially activist-motivated tagging—or his use of the term “boyfriend,” for that matter. He and Sander met at an Occupy Wall Street rally when Mike was checking it out from curiosity and saw Sander leaving the investment firm where he works and asked him out to dinner, during which Mike, a personal trainer who went to art school, learned that Sander is actually a poet who works in finance so he can retire at 30 to write. After they sleep together, Sander makes it clear that they can have sex occasionally but that he’s “happy alone” and needs to “stay focused.” After they have sex a few times, it becomes more passionate, and Mike becomes convinced he can make Sander fall for him. He expects his exploits as Pipedreamer to garner notice and perhaps inspire others to advocate for change. He and Sander finally leave the bedroom to go see a play adaptation of “Bartleby the Scrivener” together, but then Sander remains firm about his inflexible bedtime. Later, Mike gets Sander to talk about his poetry but not to let him read it. We get exposition about Mike’s family’s reticent and then overly accepting reaction to his sexuality. Sander then invites him over on a Friday night, which Mike thinks is a meaningful gesture since they’ve never gotten together weekends, but when Mike suggests staying over, Sander turns him down, saying it’s not about him and intimating he might be sleeping with others. Realizing his own stupidity, Mike lashes out at Sander, and, thinking this will upset him, tells him he’s Pipedreamer—but Sander is completely ignorant of Pipedreamer’s exploits. Mike cries on the subway home and realizes he’s just like the rest of his loud and overly emotive Italian family. A bit later, as a blizzard rolls in, Mike is painting “Ceci n’est pas A WHORE HOUSE?” on the bank window at the base of Sander’s apartment building when the cops pull up and he flees, but in the newly fallen snow he’s easier to track. But he keeps running, his body a perfect machine, feeling free.
The story begins and ends with Mike fleeing the scene of his spraypainting from the cops, but at the beginning, the cops are not there for him as he initially believes, while at the end, they are. This mirrors Mike’s twin delusions that the story is constructed around: that he can convince Sander to abandon his pre-set plans and fall for him, and that Pipedreamer will become not only noticed but famous enough to inspire actual change:
He knew he’d tell Sander sooner or later that he was Pipedreamer, but it would be better after he was hooked on Mike for sure.
A big part of what makes the story satisfying is that the collapse of these two different delusions happens in the same scene. First, that of Sander’s feelings for him:
Mike propped a pillow behind him, sat up slowly in bed. “Oh. I guess I hadn’t thought . . .”
“Look, I thought we were clear. We’re both free to do what we need to do, right?”
“Sure,” Mike said. “Right.”
And here is where a fuck buddy manual would have come in handy, complete with helpful chapters.
How to Keep Sex Separate from Emotion
How to Tell the Difference Between a Booty Call and a Date
How to Keep Your Stupid Mouth Shut When You Realize Your Fuck Buddy Fucks Other People and Might Like Them Better Than He Likes You, You Big Dumb Fuck
Which is a nice novel way to relate the emotion of the climactic epiphany, rather than just straight up telling it.
Then, as a result of this epiphany, Mike makes the decision to tell Sander he’s Pipedreamer, an action that then induces the parallel/twin epiphany:
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sander shrugged.
And with Sander’s shrug, Mike recognized the fate of all lonely dreamers: he was famous in his own mind; that was the beginning and the end of it. Mike wanted to smash his superior, unperturbed face, or crush his soul. He spat on Sander’s wood floor.
The conjunction of these epiphanies, once Mike gets a bit of distance from the immediate vicinity in which he has them, then induces yet another epiphany, one about himself as a person:
Before, Mike had thought his family silly when they acted so immoderately, so ungraciously, so unbecomingly, but he saw clearly now that he was one of them and, not knowing what if anything he could or should do about it, he cried a little more.
So O’Malley’s emotional climax occurs when the main character’s overly demonstrative response to being romantically and professionally jilted simultaneously causes an epiphany that he is not better than his Italian family. A lesser story—one that the editors would have rejected—might have ended with the scene of his crying on the subway home. But the narrative escalates a step further when the story ends in a cathartic physical rush after Mike is caught by the cops in the course of taking revenge on his jilter. The cherry on the narrative cake is that as Mike flees, the qualities that caused him to be jilted start to turn into assets. In the action of running, he appreciates his body:
His body was a gorgeous machine of health and vigor.
His body is in large part a product of his profession, which we’ve seen his insecurity about with Sander when he’s self-deprecatingly referred to himself as a “‘Guido meathead’”—describing himself as he thinks Sander sees him. Free of Sander, Mike can appreciate new things about himself.
But Mike feeling free at the end of both Sander and the delusions related to him could also possibly be an objective correlative description for his being freed from certain aspects of himself, like his overly emotional responses to things. Mike has realized he’s like his Italian family, but that doesn’t stop him from then trying to take vengeance on Sander in what is perhaps not the most mature way by spraypainting his building. O’Malley underscore this immaturity by having Mike include a penis and balls in the painting:
In the upper right corner he originally painted an arrow pointing up toward Sander’s apartment, then modified it to look like a big cock with curly blue hairs sprouting from the pink balls. Standing back to get a better look, he saw a swirl of blue and red light flash off the window.
That the dick-and-balls is a modification is interesting in that it could actually signify emotional progress: since he’s trying to hide that the arrow points to Sander’s apartment, balls might actually be slightly more mature than that accusatory arrow. It’s significant that it is this moment where the cops pull up. They’re catching him for the graffiti, but they’re also symbolically catching him for his emotional immaturity. He should know, from the realization he just had, that this probably isn’t the best way to handle things. That epiphany in itself was not enough to cause him to change his actions, but we get the feeling that having to run from the cops might be. He feels good at the end because he’s fleeing from the emotional baggage that induced the need for him to take such vengeance.
The move with the snow used in the concluding line is Joycean:
He ran east toward the river, the stormy pewter sky silvering with morning light, his boots shushing this, this, this through the powder, the blood in his ears singing in high pulses free, free, free, the light flakes of snow shimmying every which way, obeying no silly laws like gravity, loosened from all the rules and freely falling.
Compare this to James Joyce’s last line of “The Dead”:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
“Freely falling” v. “falling faintly.” Joyce’s protagonist Gabriel has throughout the piece struggled to hear various things, thus his hearing something as quiet (nay silent) as snow falling now concretely manifests the character’s larger emotional change after having the ironically life-affirming epiphany that he will one day die, which pushes him from internally-oriented to more externally-oriented—a change not dissimilar to the one O’Malley’s Mike goes through.
So then here are the “moves” summed up: Mike suffers from twin delusions that come to a head in the same climactic scene. His realization(s) regarding the true nature of his delusions induce the epiphany that he’s like his family. But this in itself does not cause him to change. When he takes an action indicating this lack of change, external forces (the cops) induce an even larger-scale epiphany that manifests not mentally, as with the prior ones, but physically. This physicality is a form of showing-not-telling that makes the story powerful enough to be published. O’Malley has essentially crafted an epiphany daisy-chain.
It is worth noting that one of the epiphanies in this chain—the third one, that he’s like his family—depends on a section of exposition we get right before the section that segues into the climactic one-ended fight with Sander, that does not itself ever segue into a scene, but then is revisited explicitly in the climactic scene:
So Mike did what everyone in his family did when uncomfortable: he started talking. This came mostly from his mother’s side. They talked before thinking, talked to fill space, talked to figure out what they thought before they actually thought it through thoroughly, sensibly, silently. Their voices rose to the rafters in attempts to clear the air, but more often it fogged everything up as clouds of sound, and hurt, and bad feeling.
It’s also noteworthy how O’Malley uses the objective correlative of the play they see on their “date” to describe the arc of their relationship:
They saw an adaptation of Bartleby the Scrivener, in which Bartleby’s persistent “I would prefer not to” followed a slow, devastating trajectory from comic to tragic.
Sander is Bartleby, saying he would prefer things not get more serious, while Mike’s reaction to this insistence—to treat it so lightly at first so as to not actually believe it–moves from comic to tragic.
Another nice move to heighten the emotional significance of the climactic one-ended fight is a memory that comes back when Mike is listening to Sander talk about his poetry:
Once, travelling alone in Europe, Mike had walked out early one spring morning down a small side street in Rome to see louvered wooden shutters opening out in house after house to let in the air and the light. His heart had stopped briefly as his lungs filled with morning air, his nose with the smells of coffee, baking bread, new buds on trees. He stood still watching the series of houses opening their shutters, and thought, “This is how life should be.” There was something of the swinging open of those Roman shutters that Mike saw in Sander’s face as he spoke.
This is then swiftly and efficiently redeployed in the climactic scene:
Mike watched the shutters close on the tender thing that he’d imagined had once throbbed between them.
Basically, this seems like a publishable story will make editor go “nice move” more than once.