By Jared Chausow
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The New Yorker holds such powerful allure for writers that some aspiring contributors convene in what Montandon calls "strategic planning" sessions, during which writers compare notes on the best ways to approach the magazine, whether to submit a full story or a pitch, and whom to query. And some writers, in lieu of solid evidence that they are coming any closer to getting a story accepted, search for meaning in the minutiae of their interactions with the magazine's editors.
"I feel like I've been pretty close a couple times," says Alex French, a 28-year-old freelance writer and Silence contributor, who has pitched Talk of the Town about a dozen times over the past two years. "What I've found is that when you're pitching an idea and they don't like it they let you know right away, almost an instantaneous e-mail. When you feel like they're thinking about it, you wait about a week, and maybe they are thinking about it, and that makes me feel like I'm getting somewhere. That's encouraging." While some might find French's quest obsessive or masochistic, there's something quite impressive, even poetic, about his dedication to fulfilling his "long-term dream" of one day writing for The New Yorker. Montandon's site, he points out, is not for the thin-skinned or those writers embittered by their fruitless efforts to publish their work in Talk of the Town. "More than anything it's for people who love that section, who are just so enamored by it."
Perhaps part of the reason writers like French and Montandon persevere in the face of repeated rejection is because the staffers who field Talk queries are just so damn nice. Several Talk rejectees mention Lauren Collins, who Montandon says has "written some of the nicest rejections I've ever gotten. They're short but sweet." French isn't disheartened by rejections because, he says, they make writing for the magazine "feel like it's something feasible and attainable." Yet knowing that his dream of writing for the magazine is just out of reach makes him want it even more. (Montandon and French declined to share their New Yorker correspondence with the Voice, fearing that doing so might antagonize editors at the magazine. Another Silence contributor declined to even discuss the site, writing in an e-mail, "I'm not sure I want to officially weigh in on it, since I still aim to make it to The New Yorker someday.")
While it's certainly not impossible for a freelancer to crack Talk of the Town or other sections of the magazine, the odds are still pretty long. Susan Morrison says the section receives upwards of 100 pitches and submissions weekly, while only greenlighting about 10 unsolicited contributions per year. Over the years, she says, Talk's already sparse real estate has increasingly been taken up by the magazine's staff and contract writers. "These days," she says, "there just isn't that much space left after our own writers have written their stories." But every once in a while, a particularly enticing pitch comes over the transom and catches her eye. This was the case with a query by freelancer Erik Baard, whose story, in a recent issue, revealed that a rare and famous Revolutionary Warera painting of a black mariner is actually a clever forgery. The painting, which was slated to be featured at an exhibition at the Fraunces Tavern Museum dubbed "Fighting for Freedom: Black Patriots and Black Loyalists," was in fact a portrait of a white sailor that was at some point repainted to depict a black man, ostensibly to increase the painting's value.
Quite often, Morrison says, she receives submissions that are wildly off the mark, such as personal reminiscences, stories about people's cats, and "things that are self-consciously oddball." Silence of the City, which has received unrelated stories despite its very specific submission criteria, also shares this problem. Unlike The New Yorker, however, getting rejected by Silence, where the chances of placing a nixed Talk of the Town story are virtually 100 percent, takes a premeditated lack of forethought. Still, Montandon says, "the thought of rejecting anyone is funny to me."