Friday, January 17, 2014

Fish with wine, grapes, and cream -- and Your Work

Enclosed please find (as one used to say, back in the days when one submitted unsolicited manuscripts and formal cover letters to magazines and agents) something light, quick, and pretty to look at, adapted from Marion Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1986). It must be my reading a mystery novel set in ocean-girt Scotland that has inspired thoughts of fish. Speaking of The Five Red Herrings (aha), I have reached the point in it where the detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, has satisfied himself as to the murderer's identity, but has not told anyone else. This is always a satisfying place to be in a whodunit, no matter whether it's Wimsey or Miss Marple or anyone else doing the soft-focus musing. "Oh, yes, it's quite clear, isn't it," the sleuth always says. "I thought so, it was only the missing button [or pencil, or hat] that confused me. The murderer would scarcely have forgotten that, would he?" And so on. I never have the slightest idea who it is.

Fish with wine, grapes, and cream

Melt 2 Tablespoons butter in a heavy skillet. Toss in 2 cups seedless green grapes and 1 teaspoon salt. Pour on 2/3 cup white wine.

Bring the wine to a simmer.



Lay about 1 pound or so of mild, whitefish fillets on the grapes. Cover the skillet and let the fish steam until done -- 10 to 15 minutes for fresh, half again as long for frozen. Remove with a slotted spoon, pour in 1 cup cream, bring to a boil, and boil to reduce the sauce a little. Pour over the fish or serve the sauce separately in a gravy boat

And, did you know -- by the way you'll want a rice pilaf or some couscous with this, plus a green vegetable and a glass of something crisp and white -- and we've gone off thinking about mystery novels and fish just for the moment, and are back to unsolicited manuscripts -- did you know there is a site called Rejectionwiki devoted to the classification of rejection slip verbiage? You may log in, type the name of the journal or magazine that has most recently turned down the chance to publish Your Work, and investigate whether you have received a standard rejection slip ("Dear Author, no thanks"), a "second-tier" notice ("Dear Mr. Smith, we read your article twice, but still no"), or a very encouraging personal letter ("Dear John, Sorry this won't work, but the story was lovely and please send us more").

Even better than Rejectionwiki is Literary Rejections on Display. This blog is so amusing that, paradoxically enough, it has earned attention from the kind of gatekeepers who reject manuscripts. The gatekeepers' badges, proudly displayed on the blog's sidebar, make up a most esoteric collection. Among them we see Entertainment, Psychology Today, The Village Voice, The Boston Phoenix, Gawker, and Poets & Writers. All have found something of interest at LROD; for my part (do you think I'll get a badge?) my favorite post is this one from August, 2011, in which our author/collector takes a moment to sigh over the rigorous standards maintained even among the small fry of the publishing world, in this case at the editorial offices of Grist. With Grist we are talking about the literary journal of the University of Tennessee, and therefore, about twenty-three-year-olds wielding red pens. "Ah, college students," LROD mourns. "How innocent they are. Founding a journal and learning to reject at an early age." And then he (she?) treats us to the whole of the kids' letter:

Thank you for sending your manuscript to us at Grist via the online submission manager. After careful consideration, we regret that this submission does not meet the editorial needs of the journal at this time. We do hope you will send to us again in the future as we could not publish Grist without the many quality submissions we receive. Although we would like to send an individual response to everyone, the number of manuscripts we receive makes it difficult for editors to respond personally to each submission. Please know that we are devoted to giving each submission to Grist at least three reads and an editor personally reads each submission. We do appreciate your interest in Grist, and the opportunity to consider your work. Thank your for supporting our journal with your writing, reading, and subscribing. Sincerely, __________.

Anxious wordiness here tries but fails to cover a multitude of compositional sins, from missing verbs ("after careful consideration, we regret [to say, to conclude, to inform you, pick an infinitive] that this submission does not meet," etc.) to the long-winded tautology struggling to escape at the end --  "we are devoted to giving each submission at least three reads and an editor personally reads each submission." Emphasis added. Make that two tautologies.

I suppose it really isn't nice to laugh even at the kids, especially when the laughter does seem to come from one's suffering a case of sour grapes. "Hollow, sir," Jeeves would label it. Complaints about the difficulty of getting published are as old as pen, paper, and those small human horrors, ambition, frustration, and jealousy, so why blame the kids? Samuel Johnson and James Boswell lamented the evasiveness of "literary fame" in the 1770s, when there were oh so many competitors for it. A hundred years later, in The Bostonians, Henry James allowed the heroine to question the hero on his failures as a writer. Whoever was manning them, the gates to a six-figure book deal were as impregnable as ever:
"Why don't you write out your ideas?"
"I have written many things, but I can't get them printed."
"Then it would seem that there are not so many people -- so many as you said just now -- who agree with you."
"Well," said Basil Ransom, "editors are a mean, timorous lot, always saying they want something original, but deadly afraid of it when it comes."
By the way, none of this squares with the strange anecdotes one sometimes finds in biographies of writers, anecdotes to the effect that so-and-so had a difficult time making ends meet at this point in his life, and "turned to writing to earn his bread." Benjamin Disraeli is said to have done this when he found himself hugely in debt as a young man. The teenaged Louisa May Alcott was given a set of pens as a birthday gift, so a legend goes, the gift serving as a message from her family to get to work, writing, to help fill the family coffers. Anthony Trollope's mother "took up a literary career at the age of 50 to rescue her family from penury." How nice for her. How on earth could anyone plan writing as a fallback career when success in writing has always been in the gift of gatekeepers not ready to bankrupt themselves sponsoring just every new talent?

If anyone can explain the puzzle to me, I shall be glad. At any rate it is precisely now, of all eras, when writers would seem to have almost no cause to whine about mean, timorous editors doling out their usual random helpings of injustice and obscurity. Not only did that nice Mr. Gutenberg invent his printing press some centuries ago, but thanks to the genius of his modern day equivalents, Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, and others, one may blog away on any subjects one likes, being all expressive and artistic, and gatekeepers be damned. How strange, then, that we all still seem to clamor for their shelter. Literary Rejections on Display shows off its badges from Psychology Today and Poets & Writers. Food blogs revel in the stamp from Saveur anointing "Sites We Love." One good recipe will do it -- perhaps that's why food blogging attracts writers who have the brains to know they don't want to pine away forever, waiting to be crowned a master of the short story, or hoping against hope to get embalmed in some foreign policy wonk biannual.

Or win a prize. Almost four years ago our dear LROD -- and we remember of course this is not a Chocolate & Zucchini or a Blue Kitchen, able to catch an editor's eye with a "Hello, sailor!" Turmeric-and-Ginger-grilled Pork Chop -- our dear LROD really stormed the gates of its niche, recording and adding to the outrage felt when a prestigious literary prize was not given out at all because the editor in charge of it decided none of the submissions she received was worthy of recognition or cash. Why should she bother? She had standards to uphold, no boss, and no crass food-editor incentive to make a reader click a nearby ad for ketchup or something. The fact of her being good-looking also got people's goat. "She got to the literary top," LROD fumed, "looking glamorous I might add, and didn't reach down to help anyone else a hand [sic]. I guess because by her stnadards [sic] we all just suck." Yes, but dear things, she spends her life it seems, this Miss Smith, running something called the Willesden Herald. Far from being the top of anything, that may be a tiny little hell in itself. Oh wait -- it's 2011. She's been promoted. Now she is a tenured professor of fiction at New York University and the New Books reviewer for Harper's. Bully for her. I must be wrong about the hell part.


Image shamelessly pilfered from Blue Kitchen, who actually earned it.

So we return to our ocean-girt Scottish mystery, and our fish with wine, grapes, and cream. Not exactly "hello, sailor!" material, but thanks to the technical efforts and business sense of people far brighter than me, I get to blog, I get to publish myself, about it. How Disraeli would crow, though he would wonder where the paycheck is. I wonder if I still ought to package it up, somehow, as something literary -- Vivian Grey Cooks -- and submit it to some authority figure in charge of happiness and acceptance. In verse, possibly, à la one Thanhha Lai of National Book Award fame. Or might I even submit to Harper's? Miss Smith works there, and Wikipedia says one of her genres is "hysterical realism."

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