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Cheat! It's the Only Way to Get Published.

Most writers have no choice but to bend the rules

Pavel Ilyukhin / Shutterstock

Unlike Michael Derrick Hudson, the white poet made infamous for his inclusion in this year’s Best American Poetry under the name Yi-Fen Chou, I keep no “detailed records” of my literary submissions. I prefer to focus on the successes, few and insubstantial as those may be.

Some years ago, I wrote a short story and began sending it around to the journals and small magazines, which (relatively) promptly declined to accept it. After a few failed efforts, I chanced upon a publication that offered detailed instructions on its website for unsolicited submissions. This was a bicoastal operation, with offices in Brooklyn and Portland (a lit-world cliché even then, but not quite on today’s order of eye-rolling magnitude), and the editors provided two mailing addresses: Portland for stories by writers without an agent; Brooklyn for those with agents. I was, at the time, “between representation,” by which I mean I had sent samples of my writing to a good 25 or so agents in New York and points elsewhere, without luck. The closest I’d come to securing an agent was at a writers’ conference I had attended in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My attendance fee bought me a five-minute sit-down with an agent named Cherry Weiner, which has nothing to do with this story, but: Cherry Weiner is a fantastic, fantastic name.

At the time of these submissions, I was a junior editor at an established magazine, and I decided to use this to my advantage. I typed up a cover letter on my employer’s very fine letterhead, slipped it and the story into an envelope embossed with our well-known logo, and rules be damned, sent it to the folks in Brooklyn. A few months later, an editor emailed me at work—stick it, SASE!—to say he would like to buy the story, which I think rose slightly-but-not-significantly above not-half-bad. It was published a few months later after a few skillful edits. I earned $500, which I believe is $495 more than I had earned in my fiction-publishing career to that point.

I determined never again to follow the submission guidelines of any publication. For university-based journals, I knew that the editor was often employed by the school. It wasn’t hard to find a .edu email address and send stories directly to him or her, never failing, of course, to mention where I worked, which seemed to cut more ice than the quality of what I was writing. I sent a story directly to the editor of a California journal after having first asked him to write something for me at my publication. He never did, but he took my story. Another editor gratefully accepted something I wrote and within days of publication had sent me a story of his own to consider. I never again mailed a story to anyone, never used a generic email address for the “editors,” and while my work continued to be rejected, I eventually found a home for everything. After a couple of years of this, I stopped writing fiction altogether, for a variety of reasons, one of them being that what I wrote wasn’t all that good.

I was one of four unpaid seasonal interns at my former publication before joining the staff, and one of our responsibilities was to read the piles of unsolicited submissions—the slush pile—and reject them. Once a month or so, the editors would order in pizza and beer for us and we’d spend a night in our group cubicle, dashing the hopes of foolhardy writers with money to waste on postage. I would make it through a few sentences on each one, drunkenly reading selections from the laughable worst, sign the rejection slip—slip!!!—with a fake name (Patrick Haste was my Yi-Fen Chou—I went WASP with my perfidy), and move on to the next.

The great majority of stories that crossed my desk were, of course, terrible. A smaller subset were mediocre; a tiny fraction were good; one was excellent; I rejected it, too. (It ended up in the Paris Review.) Graduate students, retirees, lunatics, published authors, and untold residents of this country’s federal and state prison systems sent me their work, as did one of the stars from the television show, Scrubs. To all I said no. The literary editor at the publication once told me that in his many years only one story had emerged from the slush pile and into print. He said it with some distaste. It hadn’t been his decision and he considered it something of a stunt. We would reject hundreds of stories at each slush session. Yet he would publish just twelve stories per year, each one from recognized writers via agents that he knew. Perhaps other publications handle their slush with more tact than ours, and some make a point of recognizing new writers, but the result is the same: The writers quite literally had no chance.

My point is that Michael Derrick Hudson could have found a more effective way to promote his poetry, or so it seems to me. His strategy would never have occurred to me: There has to be some honor, even among thieves. But it is a strategy, however misguided, and strategy is what is required to compete in this very small game. My small submission ruses were hardly innovative. The obstacles erected by publications could be disrupted more cleverly and quite without the racial clamminess for which he opted. I encourage all poets and short fictions writers to find them. Code-writing writers should game the electronic submission portals, and figure out a way to automatically shuffle a story to the top of the digital pile. Bribery seems an option (if you’re submitting to me), although since most literary publications pay nothing or next to it, I can’t imagine the point. And if, as Hudson implies, race wins out then win the race race, I guess. Yet I bet it doesn’t, even for him. His 49 rejections—40 white, 9 non—strikes me as far from conclusive evidence. Besides, what I’m counseling is cheating: You don’t have to be an asshole. The submission process is a rigged casino game, though, and all is fair in love and literary magazines.