Since 2005, Nathan Holic has taught writing courses at the University of Central Florida and has worked as the
Graphic Narrative Editor at The Florida Review. He is also the editor of 15 Views of Orlando (Burrow Press), a literary portrait of the city featuring short fiction from fifteen Orlando authors young and old, local and far-removed, established and aspiring. His work stretches across genre, from comics to prose: his fiction has
been published in print at The Apalachee Review and Iron Horse, and online at Hobart and Necessary Fiction; his graphic narratives include the serialized adaptation of Alex Kudera’s novel Fight for Your Long Day (available monthly at Atticus Review), and Clutter, a graphic novel structured as a home décor catalogue (available at
Smalldoggies Magazine). Other work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
Listen via There Will Be Words
Perhaps the toughest task for Franklin, in the months of reconstruction following the zombie apocalypse, was the tasteful crafting of The New American Literary Review’s submission guidelines.
The old literary journals were all defunct, of course. Their editors had been the sort of humans eaten during the first hours of the outbreak: they were portly old men with fading eyesight who never even realized that the zombies were zombies, and even if they had realized, they would’ve tried to reason with the undead rather than fighting; others were middle-aged women who smoked too much, who wanted to run away when the attacks began, but who found themselves too short of breath to go far. In some cases, the editors were hipster twenty-somethings in major metropolitan areas, and their age and health should have allowed them to survive the initial outbreak, but they were also the type of young men and women who traveled by public transportation, who spent their time on the subway with eyes fixed on the latest issue of n+1 or Artifice or—if they had iPads—The Rumpus or HTMLGiant or some obscure philosophical text they hoped others would notice, their iPods blasting indie-music playlists that prevented them from hearing the groans of the zombie mobs pushing through the subway doors. And the grad student editors? Most of them were unable to tell the difference between Zombie Professors and Human Professors until it was too late.
The zombie outbreak was bad for a lot of people, needless to say, but it was especially bad for writers, editors, and academics.
In any case, publishing new editions of The North American Review and Iron Horse and Prairie Schooner was no longer a priority once the living dead began lurching through city streets and university campuses in search of human food. No one cared to review the latest Michael Martone collection, or compose an interview with Robert Olen Butler about how dreams influence the composing process, or write a short story where a married couple argued over furniture, not when they’d just seen roommates and friends ripped to bloody pieces, chewed and swallowed by dead versions of former loved ones.
Certainly some of the old print editions of these journals had survived the widespread fires, even while entire cities burned to the ground. Certainly there were still-standing homes across the country whose bookshelves held dusty copies of The Southern Review and Witness and Quarterly West, and certainly the looters had left the books alone while they scoured homes for canned beans and butcher knives and clean underwear. But the online literary magazines? These had gone the way of the Internet, as Franklin had always predicted they would, even while—as a grad student—he’d struggled to give away his own fiction to online markets with names like Dead Hooker Review and The Spoiled Scrotum: it had all disappeared, as simple as flipping off a light switch: the Internet, wireless access, 4G, Facebook and Submittable and Yahoo! and Amazon.com. Blink: gone.
So the tricky part about submission guidelines for The New American Literary Review, then, was how to avoid all that had been left behind in the old world. How to even know. Guideline #1 was non-negotiable, a directive from the university president himself: “We will only accept new work, previously unpublished, and produced after the apocalypse.” The country was mired in a new Dark Age, only pockets of civilization reclaimed, only a single university ready to open its doors, and the president had been clear: “We need to publish something new,” he said, “something that shows that we are still capable of producing great art.” Okay. New work. But how could they ever prove that work was previously unpublished? A thousand print journals, ten thousand Web publications, a hundred thousand individual issues, a million short stories, ten million poems, countless memoirs, blogs... What was to stop the surviving “shotgun submitters” of years past who might recycle their old work, claiming it as “brand-new”? What was to stop some disingenuous would-be writer from re-typing a great short story from the 1989 edition of Black Warrior Review and slipping in his own name as author? Hell, what was to stop the art-as-protest crowd from doing this to prove some point about how “art was dead,” or “art was a zombie,” or whatever?
When Franklin was in grad school, just before people began eating each other, he and several other grad students had re-typed an old Philip Roth story, submitted it to a handful of journals under the pen name “William Henry Devereaux,” the exhausted English professor from Richard Russo’s Straight Man. The story had been form-rejected at each and every journal, with only one editor taking the time to hand-scrawl a short note: “Thanks! Just wasn’t
our thing.” This submission experiment had then become the subject of a laborious group-written essay, which Franklin used as a vehicle for his rants about the glut of literary journals, the dilution of talent, the poor skills of student readers employed by the university journals, the death of fiction, the rise of a world where
everyone wanted to be a writer and no one cared enough to be a reader... “That’s a bad idea, sending out that essay,” said Franklin’s roommate, a boy named Patrick who spent long late-night hours at his computer writing a novel about a young man disappearing into the worlds of his favorite fantasy writers in to order to escape an abusive father... Franklin nearly cried while reading individual chapters, but he kept that to himself...
“The essay isn’t honest,” Patrick told him. “Your conclusions would have been the same even if every journal had accepted the story.”
“You write fiction,” Franklin said, shaking his head. “What do you know about honesty?”
Patrick had been right about the essay, though: it was rejected by a dozen journals, one editor scrawling the note “Faulty logic” and nothing else. Eventually, Franklin posted it onto his personal blog site, hoping he could still make a searing statement, but no one read it.
Franklin worried that he’d now receive a world’s worth of published material in The New American Literary Review’s mailbox. And how to distinguish between “old literature,” regurgitated and re-submitted, and “new literature,” produced in response to the zombie apocalypse? Let’s say he received a quiet and poignant story about a man on a fishing trip with his son: God, such a story could have been produced at any time. It could be a powerful metaphor for the end of World War II, for the panic of Y2K, for anything. And to make matters worse, Franklin even began worrying whether this was a bad thing, to salvage and republish old poetry from an ancient issue of The Paris Review which might otherwise be lost forever. To unknowingly publish a piece from a forgotten minimalist, introducing it to a new generation of readers who would find value in its haunting message. To re-publish a poem that had only ever found readers on a computer screen...or maybe in a few dozen printed chapbooks...but that was now being submitted as “new.” To publish Patrick, even, that paragon of honesty. This was a noble endeavor, right? To discover and protect old literature?
Of course, this—the mandate of “new work”—was only the first submission guideline. There were others, some more problematic.
For instance, could Franklin truly impose format requirements upon potential writers? Times New Roman, 12-point font, one-inch margins, double-spaced... How many writers these days were working in well-lit offices, their computer desks organized just so, their electricity humming, their laser printers stocked with bright white paper? More likely, Franklin would receive poetry written on blood-spattered junk mail envelopes, memoirs scribbled in the same Sharpie marker that had been used months earlier to create poster-board signs reading “PEOPLE ALIVE INSIDE,” and hung from the sides of apartment buildings.
And content? When Franklin had been the graduate student intern at his university’s literary journal, he’d helped to craft submission guidelines that served as a snarky warning to the thousands of delusional amateurs who thought themselves “real writers.” “No vampire stories,” their submission guidelines had stated. “No stories involving werewolves, or sea serpents, or paranormal romances of any kind.” “No stories about magical orbs, or elves, or that use the words ‘portal to a different dimension,’ or even ‘portal to a different plane of existence.’” “No stories that you think would make great JJ Abrams movies.” “No stories where the word ‘penis’ is disguised as ‘throbbing manhood’ or anything in any way similar.” “No stories featuring talking cats.” “No stories involving serial killers, and especially no stories involving narrators who don’t realize that they are serial killers.” “No stories where the phrase ‘It was just a dream’ appears at any point.” “No stories about zombies, even if the word zombie is replaced by ‘walker’ or ‘walking dead’ or ‘undead’ or ‘flesh-eater.’ Dude, seriously. Everyone calls them ‘zombies.’ Do you think people in zombie movies haven’t seen other zombie movies?”
They went on like this, the grad school submission guidelines, all ending with the statement: “To know what sort of content we do publish, check out our back issues.” Franklin had always chuckled at this, had laughed at the worst submissions to their journal, starting a “Wall of Shame” of terrible opening pages, but...truth be told, even after looking through back issues, he was unsure what they did publish.
Patrick seemed to know. Patrick could find the gems in the slush pile, stories that Franklin had skimmed or dismissed. “Don’t be so quick to judge,” Patrick said. “Whatever they wrote, it was important to them, remember.”
Anyway. No matter what other submission guidelines he decided upon, Franklin knew that this—restricting “content”—was nearly impossible. Could he write—even now, post-apocalypse—a guideline prohibiting Twilight rip-offs, or Lord of the Rings fan fiction? Now that zombies were a real thing...so real you could still hear them in the night, miles away, trapped in houses and basements and cars and swimming pools...could you really prohibit a writer from writing about zombies? Derivative formulaic fiction had become real life.
In his own mind, Franklin tried to outline the future of literature, the observations that writers should make about the world as it now existed. The characters they should craft, the voice they should employ. But he couldn’t decide what was appropriate, what was pointless. He hoped that writers would never again delight in violence, in gratuitous descriptions of murder or killing, not after they’d seen their husbands killed, their wives killed; not after they’d traveled days and days by foot to Patrick’s parents’ house, growing close as brothers; not after they’d slept nights in houses where the walls were slashed with old blood and the refrigerators still festered with months-old groceries; not after they’d seen what a boy looks like when he finds his own father turned to zombie, the man lunging at his son, the son crying out and swinging a baseball bat at his father, over and over. Yes! Franklin thought, watching. How fitting! A perfect moment for my zombie memoir, Patrick’s bat crushing his abusive father’s face! Then, the two of us finding his mother, saving his mother, getting out, surviving... Only...Patrick’s mother was there, yes, a collapsed corpse on the floor, and she grabbed Patrick by the ankle, and Franklin froze, unable to move, unable to act as Patrick tried to break free even as his mother pulled him closer and his father—face and back misshapen by baseball bat—reached out for the son, and Franklin screamed, and he fled the house and left his roommate there with his dead parents.
Oh hell, the future of literature? He didn’t know what it would look like, but he knew damn sure that he didn’t want to read about shit like that. One needed only open the front door, step past the chicken-wire and trenches of the “Safe Zone” and out into the unclaimed wilderness, to see all the horror that the world had to offer. There was no need to record what had happened, how the survivors had survived, by what desperate and terrible means they’d clawed through the unthinkable.
“No zombie stories,” Franklin decided ultimately. “Give me marital disputes. Give me coming-of-age bullshit. Hell, give me a Twilight rip-off and a magical orb and a re-telling of the Spider-Man tale! Give me sunshine, stories without conflict, stories where nothing happens. Give me a future without memory, a future without honesty. Lie to me about who I am. Lie to me about everything, damn it!”
The tasteful crafting of submission guidelines? Well.
Franklin now decided that this was the easy part.
The tasteful crafting of rejection notes, on the other hand: that would be the real bitch.