May 2002 [Home]


Open Review
by Randy Cunningham

© 2001 Robert Dunn

. . .

Was I ready?

I had been scribbling in diaries and journals for years. My letters to the editor were known for their eloquent ferocity. A talent for writing was the only plausible explanation for my college degrees.

I had only recently discovered the essay as a genre. I took to it immediately and had had some modest success in getting my essays published in a wide range of publications, from paddling magazines to on-line literary journals.

Was I ready? Was I ready for a real test—to submit my work to the state arts commission for an individual artist grant? At first I thought the idea was laughable. Who the hell did I think I was?

My wife knew. She would hold my face in her hands and stare directly into my eyes as if I were some stubborn child, and say, "You are a writer! Repeat after me: 'I am a writer!' "

If my wife believed that, I would not argue with her. I would collaborate in the fiction for now. I began to search for the pieces I would submit.

I looked for the essays with a real punch to them. I would include those that had been published or had received at least an honorable mention. There was that one I wrote about going to El Salvador. Then one of my canoe essays. Not something corny like me and Ed on the Allegheny, but the one where I used paddling as a platform to view our Mad Max transportation system. I included another longer piece and then a couple of my short pieces.

Reviewing the essays, I became self-conscious about my style. It is too popular to be literary, and too literary to be popular. It combines gravitas with humor. There are well-regarded authors whose style is not so different from my own, but what style are the reviewers looking for? Are they the super pure literary types that will dismiss my essays for having a social or political consciousness? Literature! Not polemics! Jack Warner was right: 'If you want to send a message, go to Western Union! Take your soap box and be gone!'

I was making myself crazy. I am a writer. This writer will now print off these selections in the format required by the arts council, will put them into a manila envelope, go to the post office and send them to Columbus. Action, not agony is what is called for. You can agonize while waiting for a reply. You are an expert at that.

Later that summer, I received word that an open review of the submissions would be conducted in Columbus. I took off work, reserved a hotel room not far from where the review would be held, and got on a late afternoon Greyhound.

Sitting in the conference room where the open reviews are held is like sitting in a doctor's office waiting to hear the results of a particularly grave series of tests. Down the hall in another conference room, reviewers and staff are gathering, talking loudly and laughing over some inane item of office humor. At such times any evidence of levity on the part of others is an affront. Fantasies of imposing a rough discipline pass over you. You want to take these irreverent, mirthful souls and send them to their rooms without dinner.

First one, then the other reviewer comes in and joins the foundation staff at the table. Immediately the in group banter begins.

"You know Alice at Iowa? I just love her work!"
"Yes, I met her when I was in residence at Bennington."
"Was that the year she won the Pushcart Prize?"

The literary class system in all its glory. The MFA crowd reveling in front of the literary underclass. We who do not live in cool places. We who do not have cool jobs. We whose families and friends shake their heads condescendingly, as they wonder when we will finally join them in the squirrel cage of capitalism and resign ourselves to a life time of purposeless, alienating activity.

Finally the business at hand begins. The staff will read out the applicant's number and the reviewers will assign a numeric rating. The sum will have to be over three. Those who survive will go on to the second round, where their submissions will be critiqued. That is where I want to be.

Do you know how often it is that anyone actually communicates with you in the literary world? About as often as our radio telescopes receive greetings from alien civilizations. Rejections are short and brutal. If, however, you receive a note—even a rejection note that tells you why you are being rejected—your gratitude is boundless. You want to lick their hands—even if those hands have slapped you. There are other humans out there! Humans who actually recognize your existence—no matter how wretched it may be!

The scoring process begins. Christ! I think to myself. Either only illiterates submitted or these reviewers really don't like most people they read. Those who fall fall without comment, their obscurity and anonymity preserved.

I start to perspire slowly as the numbers march towards my own. I need a one and a two to get a three. A three will at least mean that although I will still lose, they will at least tell me why. I start to chant to myself: Come on one and two! Come to Papa!

Next door, the other review panel is still yucking it up. I start to fantasize about mass homicide. At least then I'll have plenty of time to write.

They are ten numbers away from mine and still the bodies pile up on the barbed wire. I feel like a soldier in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, preparing to charge the Hornet's Nest. I can feel Kirk Douglas pacing behind me, ready to blow the whistle to start the assault.

Five, four, three, two and my number comes up. Snake eyes! Two. You lose.

I put the handouts explaining the workings of the killing zone into my briefcase, grab my coat and leave the room.

Another contestant follows me out and confirms the grading system. He did not make it either. He pats me on the back and says, "We'll get 'em next year. Keep writing!"

His remark makes it all worthwhile. I'll keep writing, and I'll be back next year.

(This is Randy Cunningham's first contribution
to the magazine. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.)