The statement in the title may be misleading. No typescript stays for long on my desk. As soon as I’ve written a page or so of comments I send typescript, comments and my recommendation back to the editor. Yet my desk is the end of one road for many a promising piece of fiction. The author, perhaps the friends or advisers of the author, perhaps a literary agent—these people have considered the typescript worth sending to Meanjin. The editor and the assistant editor of Meanjin have read the typescript and have liked it. Then the typescript has been passed on to me, and soon afterwards—sometimes as soon as I’ve read the first couple of pages—the way to publication in Meanjin has been blocked off.
Meanjin has a poetry editor but a fiction consultant. The difference may not be clear to every reader. The poetry editor receives all the poetry submitted to Meanjin and is wholly responsible for deciding which poems are published. As fiction consultant I receive only a selection of the fiction submitted to the editor.
About 700 pieces of fiction were submitted to Meanjin during 1988. Each of these pieces was read by the editor; many were read by the assistant editor also. About a hundred pieces of fiction were passed on from the editor to me. Of these hundred I recommended about twenty-five for publication. Among the remainder I found about a dozen promising enough for me to suggest to each author that the piece might be publishable after it had been rewritten.
I sometimes remind myself that about 600 typescripts of fiction were returned to their authors during 1988 without my having learnt even the titles of the pieces or the names of the authors. Perhaps a few of the 600 stories that I did not see during 1988 might have impressed me more than they impressed the editor or her assistant, but I have never wanted to change the system. I could not find the time to read, let alone to comment on, any more typescripts than I receive already. Besides, I like the checks and balances of the present system. When I take a liking to a story by an unpublished writer, I know that at least one competent judge has already liked the story. The question in the title would seem to have been answered by now: as consultant, I consult no-one. Yet the matter is not so simple. At the moment when I look for the first time at a piece of short fiction, I find myself performing what might almost be called a mental exercise: I find myself consulting my better self.
In 1980 I became a full-time lecturer in fiction-writing at a college of advanced education. In each year since then I have had to assess between 300 and 400 pieces of students’ fiction, each piece being of about 2000 words. I mention this not by way of boasting or complaining but because it has to be mentioned. I have to mention also that I not only read each story from each student; I edit each story and I write detailed comments on it. After I’ve spent an hour on a story I sometimes cut short my comments but not my editing. The average story takes about an hour and a half to assess in this way.
People who hear from me what I’ve just written often ask me whether my tasks as a teacher of fiction bore me. I answer that I’m often bored while I’m reading a student’s story. I say that I’m often irritated and sometimes exasperated. But then I say what is the point of these paragraphs about my teaching duties. I say that I always feel a certain pleasure when I pick up a student’s story for the first time; I feel expectant and hopeful. After I’ve read the first few paragraphs I may be already bored or even irritated, but while I’m preparing to read a story for the first time I’m hopeful that my pleasure will continue.
As a teacher of fiction-writing I assess each piece of fiction by registering the persistence, or the decline, or the decline followed by the resurgence, of the pleasure that I felt when I began to read the first sentence. As fiction consultant for Meanjin I do somewhat the same. The comments that I type while I read each story for Meanjin are similar to the comments that I write in the margins and on the verso pages of each student’s story. Occasionally a student complains that my comments have a harsh tone. I answer that I was trying to express through my comments not harshness but disappointment. Occasionally an author complains to the editor of Meanjin about my comments. I have not time for entering into correspondence with any author, but I hereby state that I pick up each typescript hoping that I’ll be surprised and delighted and hoping that I’ll have to write only the one comment: ‘Recommended for publication’.
When I prepare to read a piece of fiction I look forward to learning something that the author could have told me by no other means than the writing of the piece of fiction in front of me.
When I prepare to read a piece of fiction I look forward to reading something that is true in a way that no piece of scientific writing or philosophical writing or biographical writing or even autobiographical191 writing can be true. The narrator of ‘Landscape With Freckled Women’ in my book of fiction Landscape With Landscape speaks for me when he claims that he can never be sure of the truth of any words except the words spoken by a character in a work of fiction whose narrator has declared that the character in question is speaking truthfully.
When I speak or write about what I call true fiction, some people suppose that I think of the best fiction as a sort of confessional writing. I deny this. What I call true fiction is fiction written by men and women not to tell the stories of their lives but to describe the images in their minds (some of which may happen to be images of men and women who want to tell the truth about their lives).
My experience has been that a writer begins to write a piece of true fiction not knowing what he or she is trying to explain. In the beginning, the writer knows only that a certain image or cluster of images seems to mean something of importance. At some time after the writing has begun, the writer begins to learn what that meaning is. The writer goes on learning while he or she writes. Sometimes the writer is still learning after the writing has been finished or even after it has been published. My experience has been that a writer has to trust his or her better self in order to write true fiction.
Readers of ill will may suppose that I use the term better self for something that they call the unconscious. Readers of ill will seldom understand any statement not in accordance with fashionable theories of psychology or politics or economics. Readers of good will will understand me when I write that my better self is the part of me that writes fiction in order to learn the meaning of the images in my mind. The same readers will understand me when I write that my better self is the part of me that reads fiction in order to learn the meaning of the images in other minds.
Most stories passed on to me from the editor of Meanjin have covernotes or letters attached. I try to separate the text of the fiction from its attachments without learning even the name of the author. I prefer to be influenced only by the sentences of the text.
I read slowly the first sentence of each story. I hear in my mind the sounds of the words and I feel in my mind the rhythms of the sentence as a whole. While I read the first sentence, images appear in my mind. Most of the images have to do with the words of the sentence, but one image seems to lie on the far side of the other images. The far image is at first more a ghostly outline than a clear image. The far image is the outline in my mind of the person who is the source of the sentence in front of my eyes.
If the first sentence of the text has been a clear and honest sentence, if the sentence has persuaded me that the writer wrote the sentence in order to describe simply and honestly an image or a cluster of images in his or her mind with the aim of learning in due course the meaning of the image or images, then I begin to believe that the image of the person forming behind the other images in my mind will be an image of the better self of the person. In that case also, I begin to feel towards the better self whose image has begun to form in my mind an attitude of trust.
The term better self in the context of this article is a term that I devised myself. I had thought of using the term ‘implied author’, which is used by Wayne C. Booth in his book about techniques of narration. The Rhetoric of Fiction, but whereas all better selves of writers are implied authors, not all implied authors seem to me the better selves of the writers. I use the term better self for any implied author that I feel inclined to trust on the grounds that he or she seems to have written from the best of motives. The previous paragraph should have made clear what I regard as the best of motives for writing fiction.
If the first sentence of the text has been a clear and honest sentence, then I begin to read the second sentence. If the first sentence has not been clear and honest, then the images in my mind will be blurred and the implied author of the sentence will not yet have earned my trust. In that case, instead of beginning to read the second sentence I begin to write the first sentence of the page or so of comments that I address to the editor of Meanjin for the benefit of the author. I may write that the first sentence has seemed vague or unclear or stilted or pretentious. If I write such a comment, I try to explain which word or phrase or which fault in the shape of the sentence caused me to write the comment.
I go on reading sentence after sentence and writing a comment whenever a sentence has disappointed me. Sometimes, after having read only the first couple of pages, I decide that the story is not interesting enough to be published in Meanjin. To put the matter more bluntly, I decide that the story is too boring to be published in Meanjin.
Some readers of this article may be surprised to read that the fiction consultant for a publication with the prestige of Meanjin uses for his criteria such everyday terms as interesting and boring. Perhaps those readers will be less surprised if I add that I’m interested, as a reader, in whatever the writer is truly interested in and that I’m bored, as a reader, by anything that bores the writer. Many of the disappointing stories that I read during 1988 seemed to have been written by authors who chose their subjects only because they seemed subjects that would impress an editor or a fiction consultant.
An interesting story convinces me from the first few sentences that the author has written the story in order to discover the meaning of some part of his or her experience. (If any person concludes from this that I prefer to read stories written in the first person or stories that are obviously autobiographical, then that person has not begun to understand what I am saying here.) A boring story usually puts me in mind of an author who is confused or vain or anxious to impress or who thinks that Meanjin stories have to be about the things that some journalists call issues or have to have characters who talk about idea.
The most common fault that I found during 1988 in stories by previously published writers was shoddy sentences—sentences that seemed to have been dashed down and never read aloud, let alone revised, sentences seemingly unconnected with human thoughts or feelings. Stories by previously unpublished writers most commonly made me suspect that the writers were nervous—that they had not yet learnt the value of their own memories and dreams and thoughts and feelings as material for fiction.
The two best means that I’ve found for helping students of fiction-writing are to comment on their stories sentence by sentence and to discuss with them some of the practical accounts that writers of fiction have written about their craft. Of the many of these, I quote to students most often a single sentence by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Often during 1988 when I was trying to explain to an author that his or her story was not interesting enough for Meanjin, but trying at the same time to encourage the author to write a better story, I found myself quoting the same sentence to the rejected author.
The sentence goes: Before I write a story, I must have a conviction that it is a story that only I can write.