Barrelhouse recently opened for nonfiction submissions, and though our previous call was quite restrictive (we were looking exclusively at essays between 18k and 35k words), this one is wide open. Having lost faith in most people to even read the submission guidelines—our call for very long essays elicited a surprising number of young adult novels, in addition to flash fictions, one-page essays, and dozens of poems—I decided to avoid the frustration of writing out detailed guidelines only to have them ignored anyway.
Still, I thought it might be helpful to share some expanded thoughts on the essay types I see most often, and the reasons I feel burned out on them. Two of the most common questions any editor gets at conferences are, “What’s your biggest submission pet peeve?” and “What topics are you tired of reading about?” Every editor’s answer will differ, but I think it helps to be transparent about how all of this works. My goal here isn't to be discouraging, but to share some insights into my thought process, and also to maybe save both of us some time, so you're not submitting work that has little chance of getting published, and I'm not reading essays that aren't right for Barrelhouse.
Some important disclaimers before we get started:
- With one exception (essay type #6, below), submitting a piece that falls into one of these categories does not mean you’ll automatically be rejected. It doesn’t mean you should immediately withdraw that piece from Barrelhouse or any other magazine. What it does mean: I’ve seen a ton of essays like this in either content or style, most of them haven’t worked for me, and this one may have an uphill battle to win me over.
- HOWEVER, there are major exceptions to every essay type listed below and I’m aware that for every rule or restriction imposed on authors, there is some brilliant person who has proven that rules are meant to be broken, etc. Please proceed with the understanding that we don’t need to spend all day pointing out the exceptions to one another.
- Barrelhouse exclusively publishes nonfiction that has a pop culture angle of some sort, and while we have sometimes stretched to make a beautifully written essay fit our needs, we’re pretty firm on that requirement. I do reject essays, even some truly excellent essays, on that basis all the time, and it’s sometimes frustrating, but that’s the deal. That’s our thing that we do.
- For what I hope are obvious reasons, I won’t be sharing specific examples from actual submissions below.
- Every editor will tell you that in any batch of submissions, there may be a few standouts that you have to accept, but very often, there is a massive middle class of submissions that are competently written, polished, pretty good in some areas, and hard to distinguish from the pack. Sometimes you make the wrong call on which ones to take. Often, it comes down to some subjective distinction that is impossible to quantify.
Okay, let’s get into it.
1. My Time At Summer Camp- Maybe it’s because I never went to summer camp, or because in every undergraduate nonfiction course I’ve taught I’ve gotten a half-dozen summer camp essays, but I would be fine never reading another one ever again. I get that camp is a formative time, there are some important coming-of-age moments, there’s usually a sex scene, and usually a drugs-and-drinking scene. There’s a young person feeling alienated and lonely, and there’s all the funny and sad stuff kids do to fit in. There are lots of potentially fascinating and dramatic elements in play. And yet, every summer camp essay reads the same to me. They typically end with a rote lesson about growing up. They offer no surprises. More than any other essay type I’m listing here, the summer camp essay can often be very well-written and indicate the author’s talent, and yet still be incredibly boring. Please, if you must continue to write about your important summer camp experience, include some werewolves or a sea monster or something.
2. I Remember the 60s, Do You Also Remember the 60s? I’m 35 years old. For 25 years of my life, I’ve been bombarded by paeans to the life-changing effervescence of the 60s. Every time I type “the 60s,” that Buffalo Springfield song starts playing in my head. I acknowledge the importance of studying history and I also acknowledge that great writers can mine strong essays out of territory that has been covered a million times before. But also, let me assure you: these are the most formulaic of all essay submissions I receive. They too often rely on stock imagery and phrasing. They too often exalt the radicalism of the Baby Boomers, who right now are devoting their retirements to dismantling all the fundamentally good things about our country. They say things like, “Vietnam changed all of us,” in a way that suggests it’s meant to be profound. Nostalgia is poison for memoir; it has only a passing resemblance to the truth, and it glosses over all the ugliness and darkness that generate energy and tension.
3. Better As a Blog Post – Or maybe even as a tweet. About ten percent of the nonfiction submissions we receive are better categorized as “reminiscences,” not so much essays as brief forays into memory. Often a lighthearted, sweet memory of a dog the author once loved, or a car they restored one summer. There’s usually a clever observation or a nice line in there, wrapped in 600 words of window dressing. I’ve read and loved some very short essays, so this is not a rejection of flash pieces in general. A great flash piece is a monument to compression, to concise, sharp language that can often read like poetry. The pieces I’m talking about here have low word counts, yet still feel baggy. They feel like first drafts that could eventually turn into something better. Like good anecdotes to share over dinner.
4. “Courageous” But Hollow- There’s a big market for confessional essays, and I’ve both published and written pieces that fit that category. Confession and revelation are at the heart of a lot of the best nonfiction. But too often, even in essays that get widely celebrated online, I find that authors are relying on the act of revealing as the whole essay. They’re celebrated for being brave for confessing to having terrible thoughts, or to having hurt someone very badly. A great writer starts there and then builds on it. A lesser writer just keeps repeating the confession. People like to call this kind of writing “brave,” and it is, in a superficial way. But I want a piece that’s not looking for high-fives just for having admitted a bad thing. These essays would benefit from the author asking themselves, “So what?” over and over again until they come up with a good answer. Okay, you bulled someone in eighth grade – so what? Why should your reader care?
5. Man In Bar Thinks Trenchant Thoughts- Often falling into the category of DFW-lite, often written by Guy In Your MFA, often written by me circa 2005, these essays purport to be revealing some deep, meaningful truths about the world, but rarely transcend the misanthropic ranting of a pretty smart Philosophy minor. The most disappointing thing about these essays is how often their Big Ideas are facile repackaging of conventional wisdom. I love Thomas Bernhard too, so I get the appeal. But the bar to clear here is so high, because you’re asking a stranger to sit with you in a dank bar while you just pontificate and opine about things with no particular structure. I know this is a submission type that plagues many fiction editors too. You can get away with more pontificating in an essay than in a traditional story, but still, you have to give me a reason to care. And the things DFW and Bernhard had—and most other writers do not—were fucking genius brains and the ability to write some of the most complex, brilliant sentences in the world.
6. Why My Ex Was Wrong To Dump Me, I'm not Mad I'm Actually Laughing- Guys, don’t do this. Please stop doing this. Please understand that no editor in the world is interested in publishing a 6000-word essay about what a bitch your ex is, especially not if that essay is loaded with transcripts of all your texts with her. Please consider the possibility that if you’re writing (and trying to publish!) revenge essays, then you are not the protagonist of this story. It’s pitiful, and sometimes creepy, and it makes for very bad reading, and we’re never going to publish it. Why do I address this only to guys? Because in seven years as nonfiction editor, I’ve read a couple hundred of these kinds of essays, and they’ve all been written by men who are determined to let the world know that [REDACTED] from [REDACTED] blew her chance at true love because she’s too selfish or immature or stupid or whatever. About a quarter of these pieces have included interludes where the author stops to personally address the ex, in case she’s reading (and I’m sure the author eventually emails it to her too). Anger and rejection and misery are the motivators for countless works of great art; they’re also at the heart of the world’s worst writing. It’s on you to evaluate the piece objectively and determine whether your piece is petty revenge, or if it’s trying to elevate the story of your breakup to something much more complex and interesting.
I know the impulse of someone reading this list may be to immediately pick one of the items above, write a great essay that fits that category, and send it to me just to show me how wrong I am. I would probably think the same thing. And if that’s what you’re thinking, please go for it. All I want is to read great essays, so whatever you have to do to get there is fine with me.
If you are interested in submitting your essay to Barrelhouse, submissions will be open until July 15.
UPDATE: Berry Grass checks in on twitter with an egregious oversight by me.