Not only do people get killed, but articles get killed, too. Sometimes it’s clear who the killer of the article was, sometimes it’s not so clear: it’s a mystery. An editor will say that her editor killed the piece, but to the writer that sounds fishy. In the end, the writer has no idea who killed it. Articles are killed all the time, but only half of the time is any believable motive given.
When a piece is supposed to run in a magazine or newspaper – but instead does not run – we say it has been killed. Some publications offer money when this happens, so instead of $3500 if the piece had run, the writer gets $500. This is what’s known as a “kill fee.” Only publications that bring in a lot of revenue, and make a frequent practice of hiring important writers with no time to waste, regularly pay kill fees. A place like Vanity Fair would pay up if they killed; a college newspaper would simply kill.
I have long wanted to collect the killed pieces of writers I admire and respect. I have had pieces of my own killed, and only part of the time do I think, “It’s because the piece was bad.” More often, it just didn’t fit in – either with the sensibility of the editor or magazine, or else seemed to say something that the editor didn’t want to hear anyone say. I knew other writers must have closets full of dead pieces, and I was interested to see what bringing them together would reveal about the sort of writing the world doesn’t let live among us.
I contacted forty-six writers (and a few visual artists), nine of whom I had been in communication with before – to see if I could publish a killed piece of theirs. Of the forty-six I contacted, thirteen people didn’t reply. Of the thirty-three who did, sixteen people said that they had nothing to send me – for one reason or another. One New York-based book critic wrote me back, apologizing for being among the sixteen, saying, “I haven’t written enough! (And I always followed instructions slavishly.)” A man who co-edits a literary and cultural magazine said he has no killed pieces because he reprints all his killed pieces in his own magazine. One female essayist, whose work frequently appears in The New Yorker, told me that there are “certainly subjects” she “bailed on,” but all the things she finished “(miraculously?) found their way into print.” Another well-respected female writer of creative non-fiction told me, “in the rare circumstances of a rejection the piece usually gets recycled” – meaning revised and published elsewhere.
Of the seventeen writers remaining, one wanted to see the magazine before submitting anything. One did have killed pieces, “and who doesn’t?” he wrote, “but – for various reasons – I still do not want to have them published.” An illustrator I know didn’t want to submit anything that was killed, out of fear of alienating the magazine that killed it and not being able to work for them in the future. The remaining fourteen sent me pieces for this project. One person misunderstood what I was requesting, however, leaving thirteen pieces. Then we were down to twelve, when a writer called to ask for his piece back; he had found a magazine to publish it.
I asked each contributor why they thought their piece was rejected. No one knew for sure. In one instance, the author requested that I not print the name of the magazine that killed his piece – why burn a bridge when so few bridges have money?
For the most part, the killed pieces were commissioned; the editor and writer would have agreed in advance how long the piece was going to be, and what the subject matter was.
It strikes me, reading these killed pieces in the aggregate, that the common phrase of rejection given to writers by editors – This piece is just not working for me – less refers to a resistance to the piece’s style or form (as I always assumed) than to its content or point of view. It’s not howsomething is said, but what is said which makes the editor feel bad, for reasons they often can’t quite articulate (and never really do). The bad feeling won’t go away, so the thing which created the bad feeling has to be killed.
I can imagine a very different alternate cultural landscape, in which things sent to the executioner’s chair were all that appeared in the glossy magazines. Would all our values be upside-down?