The Masters Review Volume VII – Introduction by Rebecca Makkai

October 11, 2018

Our seventh anthology of outstanding work by emerging writers, with stories selected by Rebecca Makkai, publishes later this year. We are so excited, we couldn’t wait until next month to share Rebecca Makkai’s wonderful introduction to these ten awesome tales. We are so grateful to have worked with Rebecca on this volume, and we can’t wait to share it with you.

“What I’m always looking for, in everything I read, is the airplane factor. I don’t mean whether or not I’d enjoy this on an airplane. I mean: Is this a good pilot? Does this pilot stall out on the runway, or are we up in the air before I know it, happily captive to the plane’s course?”

What does it mean to be an emerging writer? All I know is that I was labeled as such at one point—I was invited to several festivals featuring “emerging writers,” all around the time when I had stories out but no novel, or one novel and no clue what was supposed to happen next—and that sometime thereafter, with no warning, I stopped emerging. It felt wildly unfair to me at the time, because wasn’t I just a brand new little baby writer with nothing but exciting promise? But no: by the time your second book appears, apparently you’ve emerged. Recently, I was joking with a couple of friends (writers who “emerged” before I did, and more thoroughly than I ever have) about launching, for those of us who’ve been around the block, a Submerging Writers Festival.

Which is all to say: I know, I remember, that this “emerging” thing is both fun and terrifying. As much as I look back with nostalgic longing at the moment when my first story was accepted for publication—when everything was potential and excitement—it’s only now from this point, looking back, that I know what that moment was the start of. At the time, for all I knew, it was a fluke. It was a mistake, soon to be corrected with an awkward follow-up note. The journal would fold before the story came out. A printing error would omit half the piece. No one would even read it. Everyone would read it, in horror that it had been published. When the journal in question finally arrived at my house (nine whole anguishing months later!) I couldn’t bear to look directly at the story. I made my husband look at it and check that it was real, that all the words were there, that they’d spelled my name correctly.

To judge any contest is daunting, but one for emerging writers is especially so. There’s the question, first of all, of what this would mean to the writers chosen—something I have no way of knowing. Is this a writer on the verge of giving up, or one who’s received ten acceptances and a six-figure book deal this year? If I squint hard enough, can I tell? (No; I cannot.) And then there’s the question of promise versus polish. Everyone here has an abundance of both, but for the final spot, as I’m considering a story weighted more towards spark and promise against one weighted more towards polish… Which way do I go? (Well: spark and promise. But not without a lot of hair-pulling.)

What I’m always looking for, in everything I read, is the airplane factor. I don’t mean whether or not I’d enjoy this on an airplane. I mean: Is this a good pilot? Does this pilot stall out on the runway, or are we up in the air before I know it, happily captive to the plane’s course? Do we fly along smoothly enough that I can take in the world from this height, see new things, or am I jolted along, constantly reminded that I’m in an airborne tin can? And finally—and, good lord, this is the hardest thing—can this pilot land the plane? I’ve had so many wonderful reading flights (award-winning books included) end with an unceremonious thunk. A great ending shouldn’t just conclude a story but add to it. I’ll go farther: A story is largely just a vehicle to get to the ending. The ending should be the whole point. Just like landing safely at O’Hare is the whole point, no matter how much you enjoyed your flight.

One story here, “Little Room,” could be its own master class in endings. I loved it all along, and had no clue where it was going, and when it ended with a lovely gut-punch from the side, it leapt straight into my “yes” pile. Another story, “The Sand Nests,” made me cheat and peek at the ending before I was done. It was partly because the plot had me in such a state of panic that I needed to know how things would turn out; and partly because I loved it so much that needed to know, right then and there, that the author had not muddled the ending. (In fact, she absolutely nailed it.)

Some stories I found so wildly entertaining that I forgot I was flying above the earth and managed just to enjoy a view I’d never experienced. “Rogue Particles” was like that, its core a broken friendship so compelling that I read the story in one huge gulp. “Shrove Tuesday” is so strange and liquid that it swept me up with its first line and just kept going. “The Collectors of Anguish” had me worried for its characters from the very start, and wouldn’t let me look away.

And once in a while there’s a story that keeps you constantly in mind of its form. (I’ve never flown in a hot air balloon, but for the sake of keeping this strained metaphor going, I’ll say that when you’re in a hot air balloon, you never forget it, but that’s kind of the point.) “Questions for Anesthesiologists” and “Pilgrimage” both play with form to great effect, drawing attention to their own structure in ways that enhance rather than detract from the message. The snapshot narration of “The Process” kept me riveted not just to the story but to the angle of its telling.

Other stories took me places I wasn’t expecting, and I’m always thrilled when I can’t tell from the first paragraphs what a story is going to be about or where it will land. “Ghost Print” and “Doctor, Doctor, Doctor” did that for me—and not just because the courses of the stories kept changing, but because the point of view characters kept changing in fundamental ways as well.

What I can say, at the end of it all, is that these writers are truly and fully emerging. Their work is ready for you, if you’re ready for it. These are voices you’ll be hearing from quite a lot, voices with some lungs behind them. If you happen upon this anthology years from now, you might smile at the notion that some of these writers were ever considered new.

To the ten writers chosen, and indeed to all thirty of the writers whose work I was privileged to read and to consider: Yes, this is it. Big things are happening, because you’re ready, and the world is a dumpster fire but we need you and we need your stories to take us up above it all. This is it. Ready for liftoff. Let’s go.

by Rebecca Makkai


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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