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The prospect of breaking into the seemingly impenetrable fortress that is The New Yorker can make a writer contemplate crazy and desperate things. So it was for Mac Montandon, when, a couple years ago, he received an assignment to write an article on spec for the magazine's Talk of the Town section. To Montandon, who'd been trying, unsuccessfully, to break into the magazine, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But on the day he'd arranged to conduct the crucial interview, one that couldn't be postponed, his wife went into labor with the couple's first child. "I'll probably sound like the bastard of all time," the 35-year-old journalist says, "but I was a little conflicted."
On the day his daughter, Oona, was born, he was to meet Bob Pollard, the frontman of the band Guided by Voices, who, Montandon had learned, planned to announce the dissolution of the band to a capacity crowd at the Bowery Ballroom that evening. It promised to be one of those offbeat New York moments that Talk of the Town stories capture so well, and Pollard seemed the type of quirky, yet complex, persona that might intrigue New Yorker readers. Luckily, Oona was born in time for Montandon to meet Pollard that afternoon. And making trips back and forth from the venue to the hospital, he even caught one of Guided by Voices' final performances. Later, Montandon framed his story with the elegance, wit, and detail he believed were the ingredients of a successful Talk story. In the end, though, the magazine never published it. "I think that was the closest I've come to cracking into the golden tower," recalls Montandon, a senior editor at the soon-to-be-relaunched Radar magazine, who estimates he's pitched Talk of the Town 15 times over the past four years. (One of his most recent: a piece on the etiquette of holding subway and elevator doors open for other passengersdo you make a token effort with the "dainty one-toe" technique or take "the full-body approach"? In retrospect, he concedes, his pitch may have been a bit too "high-concept.")
Rejection, of course, is simply a rite of passage for most writers. For Montandon, though, it formed the seed of an idea. Since there was no shortage of writers like him who'd tried and failed to make The New Yorker's pages, he figured there was an abundance of unpublished Talk stories lying around New York City. About a year ago he set out to provide a home for the orphan submissions, quietly launching silenceofthecity.com, where he resurrects the unpublished contributions of Talk of the Town rejectees. Montandon insists the site is every bit a tribute to The New Yorker, not a parody of it. It maintains the look and feel of the magazine's signature section down to the font and, in the top left corner, the profile of Eustace Tilly, the aristocratic fellow who appeared on the cover of The New Yorker's first issue in February 1925 (and on many others since). On Silence, however, Tilly trades his monocle for an eye patch to reinforce the theme of the sitework that under other circumstances wouldn't have seen the light of day.
Though Montandon has yet to receive any feedback from The New Yorker about Silence of the City and was unsure whether anyone there had even come across it, staffers at the magazine have been aware of the site for some time. "We were flattered by it more than anything," says Lauren Collins, a 26-year-old New Yorker staffer who writes for Talk of the Town and assists in putting the section together. "I think it's good-humored and a fun spoof on what we do."
"I thought that the stories were pretty good and fun to read," adds Susan Morrison, who's edited Talk for the past 10 years, "so it's providing a service, I suppose, because we don't have that much space to run many stories."
Though Silence has yet to draw the expected avalanche of submissions (perhaps due to a minimalist approach to marketing), it has become a forum for a group of successful working journalists and writers who share both Montandon's dream of one day cracking the "golden tower" and the experience of being turned away by its gatekeepers. One of them is local author M.M. De Voe, whose Talk submission, rejected in 2001, profiles a college student who snuck onto the set of A Beautiful Mind and wound up becoming Russell Crowe's pet extraor as the crew called him, "Russell's kid."
"It's pretty hard to know what will tickle their fancy," says De Voe. But she, like other New Yorker rejectees, isn't particularly bothered by being rebuffed. Recently she received an e-mailed rejection from The New Yorker's fiction department telling her that despite the "evident merit" of her work, the magazine would not be publishing it, nor could they "reply more specifically" due to the volume of submissions the magazine receives. But instead of disappointment, she says, "the fact that they said in spite of its 'evident merit' made me say 'cool!' " In fact, whatever the outcome of her various attempts to interest the magazine in her work, De Voe finds the experience of submitting her stories to The New Yorker oddly exhilarating in itself. Perhaps it's like that feeling you get when you buy a lottery ticket.
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."