Former Managing Editor Jodee Stanley introduces “Smoke on the Water” by Michael Russell, from NER 21.2 (2000).
My discovery of Michael Russell’s story “Smoke on the Water” has become an inspirational anecdote I like to share with my student editors at that point in the reading period when they are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of submissions. The majority of their slush reading is digital, of course, which is not how it was back at the turn of the twenty-first century. Try to imagine it, I tell them: I’m surrounded literal piles of paper, each manuscript packed neatly in a manila envelope so I have to slide the whole thing out and set aside the cover letter in order to get to the first page. Now imagine I have been doing this for an entire afternoon, trying to catch up on my own backlog of reading, just like the backlog you’re facing now in your Submittable account. I’ve read forty-five, fifty stories, maybe more. My eyes are exhausted. My head’s exhausted, and not a single one of these stories has stood out to me—not one has given me the “ping” in the nerves that tells me there’s something special here. I have one final, nondescript manila envelope staring at me—it’s the last one in the pile I promised myself I’d complete by the end of the day. And I’m thinking, can I do it? Should I do it? Maybe I’ve lost it, maybe I’ve worn myself out so much I wouldn’t even recognize quality writing now anyway.
This is the fear: that at some point your eyes are just running across the words, truly unable to distinguish good from bad.
But I’m a little bit type A—I like order, I need closure. So I sigh, and tell myself it doesn’t matter, because what are the odds of finding anything at this point? And I pull out the story, and read the first paragraph, fully prepared for disappointment.
There is a certain kind of writing—confident but not pretentious, authentic but not sloppy—that quietly grabs you and tugs you into its tale so effortlessly that you don’t even know it’s happening. “Smoke on the Water” is a gentle perfect storm of humor, empathy, and quiet desperation. I was three pages in to it before I realized that I was reading with a fully immersed pleasure—I had forgotten momentarily that I was at work in an uncomfortable desk chair, surrounded by discarded envelopes. I knew immediately that we would publish this story, and that it would forever be one of my favorites.
I have strong, fond memories of several of the wonderful stories we published during my days at NER, but this is the only crystalline memory I have of that breathtaking moment of discovery. But that one moment, that ping, is all it takes to remind myself that this is why we do it—this is the true joy of being an editor.
“Smoke on the Water” by Michael Russell
Jodee Stanley served as Managing Editor of New England Review from 1997 through 2003. She is currently Director of the Creative Writing Program and Editor of Ninth Letter at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her fiction, essays, and book reviews have appeared in journals including Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Crab Orchard Review, Hobart, Cincinnati Review, and others. Her essay on literary publishing, which originally appeared in the Mississippi Review, was reprinted in the anthology Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine (2013), and her fiction has received special mention in the Pushcart Prize and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies and named to the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Stories.