Review: Cardboard Universe by Christopher Miller

written by (another) Christopher Miller

While my wife hunts for DVDs we haven’t already seen, I peruse Cherry Hill Video’s vast shredder1 shelves for interesting books. Because literary acclaim and commercial popularity are if not mutually exclusive then pretty antithetical, unlike over at Zehrs or Shoppers Drug Mart where it’s all overpriced, assembly-line pulp by publishing’s fistful of brand-name authors, here, for just five dollars, sparkle some real gems.2

Like a defensive tackle hunting for offensive openings, I shift sideways past long shelves. So many covers vie for my attention, it’s mostly a crapshoot. Serendipitously for me my name is Christopher Miller or I’d probably never notice “The Cardboard Universe” by,Christopher Miller.3

Curious, I pick it up. Thick,a generous number of pages. Interesting cover,a stack of paperbacks. Its promising title is displayed more prominently than our name,another positive. No Kirkus “review”,always a huge plus. Some accolades of course, but no industry blurbs,ever since Nelson DeMille described Dan Brown’s “Digital Fortress” as “intelligent” I’ve been leery of these. On the back it says Miller teaches at Bennington College in Vermont. A random scan of some middle page reveals clean, intelligent, accessible prose,something about a canned pig-brains diet. But wait,it’s his second book. Darn. Ordinarily this is a show-stopper, second books being the ones publishers “help” authors rush out on the off chance the first book flies (as Miller’s “Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects” certainly appears to have). So, again, lucky for me we have the same name.

Happily, I buy it (while my wife rents the next season of “Breaking Bad”). For the first few weeks all I do is drive around with it in my car. I show it to friends, coworkers, family members,lots of people. Everyone congratulates me and, until I come clean, exhibits newfound respect. Then, after I’ve finished using it as a novelty item (and given up on Updike’s “Couples”), I take it home and read it.

It’s in the form of an encyclopedic portrayal (complete with an index) of the sad and funny life and prodigious writings of science-fiction legend, Phoebus K. Dank, via an alphabetized compilation of reviews, essays and epistolary (warring) footnotes by two English professors, once close “friends” of his, and between whom no love is lost or opinion shared. The dominant of the two collaborators, William Boswell, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Dank, acknowledges at the start that we are perhaps spared through his summarization of Dank’s considerable volume of texts having to wade ourselves through their copious “Dankian” prose to get at their genius. Owen Hirt, the other contributor, is scathing in all his remarks, both personal and literary, tending toward generalized mockery of the obese and obsessive author and his juvenile oeuvre, and to avoid, as though unworthy (or unread), abstract or example.

This threading of multiple narratives,Boswell and Hirt’s reviews; biographical accounts; footnotes inserted into each other’s entries,seems a risky technique. Readers develop preferences. My personal favorites are Boswell’s reviews of Dank’s work. It’s hard to summarize a novel that is itself so synoptic, and where so much stands out that it’s arbitrary to filter. Still, let me randomly and paraphrastically remember:

Dank’s novel about a brilliant writer who, in the course of writing the most intelligent book ever, incurs brain damage by nodding too vigorously during a philosophical discussion,only an IQ point or two, but enough that he can no longer understand what he has written.

Dank’s belief that when commenting on a writer’s work you should use the “poison sandwich” approach: say something nice; say what you really think; say something nice.

Dank’s novel in which he “forgets” about time zones and even hemispheres4 and has everyone on Earth waking up at exactly the same “time” one “morning” from the same dream, and when asked about his poetic license and intent here by well-meaning Boswell, horrified, breaks into a warehouse containing 8000 waiting-to-ship copies of his book and slips a note into each directing readers to skip the opening chapter.

Dank’s ability to write faster than he can type by using abbreviations for oft-repeated phrases like “bb” for “big-breasted” 5 but that lead to transcription errors like “robig-breasteders” for “robbers” in his published (and presumably unedited) manuscripts.

Dank’s obsession with literary recognition and acclaim that compel him, even as a popular author, to enter writing contests for children, though he never wins and only once short-lists. And to join a workshop for under-discovered writers who, despite his publishing successes, accept him on the sheer ignominy of his appearance, life and prose; a workshop whose “years of constructive criticism” have reduced the only other writer of talent in it to mediocrity.

Dank’s first novel, written when he was seventeen and said to have hit his literary stride and even apex, in which a dashing Captain admiring his manly uniformed reflection in his spaceship’s window is “suddenly” zapped by a laser.

Dank’s piece about an alternate universe in which everything is exactly the same as this universe except old, instead of young, people are sexy.

Dank’s piece about an alternate universe in which everything is exactly the same as this universe except women lust after men and even the fattest, least hygienic and most uncouth slob (like him) has no problem getting picked up in bars.

Dank’s piece about an alternate universe in which everything is exactly the same as this universe except instead of a writer named Phoebus K. Dank, there’s a prolific Phillip K. Dick.

Dank’s invention of a refrigerator that, instead of employing an energy-wasting compressor, pipes cold in from outside in winter.6

Dank’s murder-mystery about a serial killer who, instead of killing people he hates, kills the person seven below them in the phonebook, and who’s caught and executed just when he would have killed himself for listing, in the phonebook’s latest issue, seven below a cousin who’d wronged him.

Dank’s book about a man whose life and experiences in the course of writing this book must exactly mirror his own, forcing him in the interest of a more interesting book to do more interesting things in his life like flashing an elderly neighbor woman and writing another book (about a plague that makes everyone always say exactly what they’re thinking) that eventually becomes his most critically acclaimed novel.

Along with Dank’s life and writing as presented in his co-biographers’ droll reviews, accounts and commentaries, appears the story of his murder. This more conventional who-done-it (or maybe why-done-it) layer at first feels incidental, even superfluous to the novel’s purpose, like the grit around which a pearl forms. It’s asserted by Boswell from the get-go that Hirt did it, that this is why he’s hiding out of country e-mailing his entries. But as the story progresses, unhappy Boswell and vainglorious Hirt, each a failed (i.e. unpublished) writer in his own right, become more integral. In Hirt’s acrimony there seems to emerge a grudging respect. Something creepy lurks in Boswell’s fandom, his moping memoir so unencumbered by romantic, or even prurient, concerns as to render him asexual, his feelings for Dank nebulous,both protective and dependant,possessive. When Hirt begins to explore their relationship in one of his own accounts, Boswell truncates the entry and (until calming down after many pages) banishes him from the project.

Some books warrant abandonment, but not total disregard. And so some I’ve reviewed on the basis of a few chapters, others on just their covers. But that is not the case here. Boswell complains that Dank’s interest only in the book he’s writing is why his seven greatest novels are unpublished. Sometimes, as now, my involvement with the book I’m reading prohibits my withholding comment until the end. Luckily for readers of this review, right now I’m only about of the way though the book (into the T entries) and so can’t “spoil” (as I learned in Hosseini’s “Kite Runner” is a uniquely Western concept) the ending. Because I would.

Obviously I don’t mind a reviewer’s autobiographical intrusion into a review. There’s no such thing as objective criticism, no separating a book from its reader. Dank understood this better than either of his biographers. Consequently the relationship between author and reader, however speculative, too is inescapable. Hirt likens four-hundred-pound, near-invalid Dank’s attempts to market himself as a “daredevil” to Oz’s bellowing, “PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN STANDING BEHIND THE CURTAIN!”

But usually I dislike when a review drags the author extraneously into the fray. As though Wallace’s depression or Dick’s (and Dank’s) methamphetamine addiction or Findley’s sexual orientation or some romance author’s looks should make their work any less or more interesting or relevant. But, given this book’s scrutiny of the relationship between a writer’s life and his work, its thematic lens cannot but focus outward on its author. Dank’s fondness for near-parallel universes and split personalities and the book’s narration by characters divided only by Miller’s imagination, and even my solipsistic discovery of this book written by a namesake that tackles themes so dear to me as to not only plant ideas in but at times appear to lift them from my head, might make it the most relatable, therapeutic (also funniest) and daunting book I’ve ever read, and which even given Miller is the seventh most common surname in North America, is still just really, really weird is all. Like looking in the mirror and seeing someone else.


I’ve finished the book! Surprisingly for me, I’m not going to spoil the ending. Except maybe to say it’s not the sort of ending you can spoil. By which I mean I want to read it again.

Dank has yellow-highlighted in a book every single line but one that he takes exception to. In the “Meet the Author” afterword, titled “Dueling Theremins (Two Authors Disagree About Which One Imagined the Other),” Dank, from his sickbed, interviews Miller. But he must stick to the list of questions Miller has prepared for him. This little skit seems such a clever and natural integration and extension of the novel’s themes that I press harder on my yellow marker as I read. Though I hesitate where Miller answers with “Not yet.” Perhaps, as apt as it is, this is the line I’ll leave untouched, conspicuous for my omission.

And close with two quotes from the book. The first is Goethe: “Confronted by out-standing merit in another, there is no way of saving one’s ego except by love.” The second is Boswell’s: “I was never sure if he wanted my honest opinion or the sort of unconditional love that no sophisticated reader can give any writer.” Clearly, and luckily for my ego, I am not a sophisticated reader.

1 The assumption being that any quality-published paperback selling for 4.95$ must have been rescued from recycling.

2 Just because a book hasn’t sold well doesn’t mean it’s good. I bought Copeland’s “Girlfriend [Reader] in a Coma” and Gibson’s “Spook County” from these same shelves. Conversely a book’s enjoying huge commercial success doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad†though no titles spring immediately to mind.

3 It’s humbling to go from fantasizing oneself the greatest writer of the twenty-first century (and possibly the third millennium) to discovering one is at very most the distant second-best living Christopher Miller.

4 Much the way Miller “forgets” that in Scrabble the “c” is worth not one but three points. So that Boswell’s having spelled “cat” with the “t” on a triple-letter square would have at very minimum resulted in a “grand total” of not “five” but seven points, leading me to wonder if this was a deliberate nod to Dank, or if Miller will now ask readers to skip page 286.

5 Both inspiring and also somehow forgiving this CM’s latest SF, “Causal Determinism and Free Will,” about “heroic” Philosopher Jack Stone, sent to Jupiter’s orbiting supercollider to save the universe from becoming caught in an experimental time loop, but who then for the entire story, and so presumably all eternity, can’t take his eyes off Jupiter-Ring Lock-Station Engineer Lieutenant-Commander Dolleen Payette’s enormous breasts.

6 This isn’t funny, just weird. Because that’s my invention (along with heated wiper-blades). I’ve been going on about it for years, and could probably call a dozen witnesses to corroborate.

Born in Switzerland, raised in Chicago, mostly Canadian now. ÂRestaurateur, software developer. Loves writing all genres,sci-fi to literary, horror to erotica. E.g.:ÂÂGanymede Dreams (a.k.a. Ganymede’s Song) ;ÂTake Our kids to Work DayA Hawk Circling the WindAdam and Eve Reading (almost) Quietly in the Bathroom

Another Perspective on How to Write a Rejection Slip

written by David Steffen

Two weeks ago we posted the article How to Write a Rejection Slip by Christopher Miller, which sparked quite a bit of interesting discussions here, on Facebook, and on blog sites that linked to us. Some agreed, some didn’t, and a good time was had by all talking about what we really like or don’t like to see in a rejection slip.

As a counterpoint to Christopher’s list, I thought I’d post a list of my own. My list is quite different from Christopher’s, though there is some overlap. If anyone reading this has a different list, feel free to post it in the comments, or if you have a list on your blog to post a link to the list.

1. Write personal rejections, if possible.

Of the 289 rejections I’ve received to date, less than a third have been personalized. I always appreciate a personal response. It’s just nice to know sometimes that somebody actually bothered to read my story, and didn’t reject it out of hand because of my lack of Name Fame. Some markets seem to publish only the relatively famous, even when those stories are quite low quality (in my opinion) so it’s hard not to surmise that some of them just disregard newcomers completely.

Even if you don’t have time to write a personal rejection for every submission, there are ways to make your form letters more informative. For example:

-Use a tiered form letter system, which has different wording for different levels of success. Fantasy & Science Fiction uses this to great success. “Didn’t grab my interest” means that the slush reader didn’t finish reading it–you may want to work on the beginning to make it more compelling. “Didn’t quite work for me” means that they finished reading, but in the end it just wasn’t good enough for them. “Not right for F&SF” means that they acknowledge that it’s a good story, but it just doesn’t fit their magazine’s style.

-Create a form letter with checkboxes listing reasons why the story was rejected. Dreams of Decadence has a really nice rejection slip of this type. My last rejection from them had two boxes checked: “Plot is weak or nonexistent” and “Please try us again with something else.” In addition, there was a handwritten addition which said “Loved the concept, but moves too slowly.” Since it had a personal note, it’s not really a form rejection anymore, but even without the note, the content of this form letter would have been one of the nicer ones I’ve received. It gave me a specific reason why they didn’t buy it. Not only does this help me consider whether to revise the story, but it helps me focus my future submissions to their magazine. Apparently they prefer a story that develops more quickly than that, and I will now keep that in mind.

2. If possible, give constructive feedback or sincere compliments.

Constructive feedback is always useful. I may not revise a story based on such feedback, but it’s important for me to know why people didn’t like it. Feedback is the most useful if it points to something specific. Examples are:
-The beginning was too slow.
-The protagonist made an important decision that seemed out of character.
-The ending didn’t make sense.

With or without constructive feedback, if you have a sincere compliment about the story do not hesitate to share it with the writer. I’ve had about a 2% acceptance rate for my submissions in the last year, and it tells me that this is higher than average for users who submitted to the same markets as me. It’s not unusual to have hundreds of rejections per acceptance, particularly for those who have yet to establish Name Fame. My first acceptance occurred after 125 uninterrupted rejections. This can take a real toll on the self esteem, making one wonder if you’ll ever make that sale. If even a few of these rejections are complimentary in some specific way, it can really help balance out unending flow of bad news. As an example, that Dreams of Decadence rejection I mentioned in #1 was really quite easy to take. “Loved the concept” says I’m doing something right, and that really means something

3. Don’t be an ass (but don’t lie either)

This should go without saying, but abusive wording gains you nothing. I’ve rarely had this complaint about any editor, but it’s still worth listing. Keep in mind that, even if you didn’t like this story, this writer might send you another story that you do like in the future. This could be a future collaborator. But if you act like an asshole, then they may stop submitting to you. They may encourage other writers not to submit to you, because you’re a jerk. And all because you didn’t take a moment to construct a civil email.

I’m not saying you have to lie. Don’t say “We enjoyed your story” or anything of that variety, unless you mean it.

The closest I’ve come to this complaint is a rejection which said, in its entirety, “Sorry, no.” To me, this was too curt, and in this case I would’ve preferred a stock form letter which used complete sentences and the usual meaningless phrasing.

4. Even if it’s a form letter, at least personalize a couple things.

The first rejection I ever received was a grainy photocopy of an undated standard form letter, “Dear Author”, “Signed, the Editors”. Okay, I know that editorial staff are busy, but that seems a little extreme. I’ve even received some email rejections which don’t even refer to the story name, but just say “Regarding your recent submission.” This email form letter could be populated automatically with a minimum of effort, so this annoys me every time I see it.

First, it should absolutely always have the name of the editor/slushreader who rejected it. Your typical magazine is not going to change editors that often, so it’s a minimal effort to just put their name in the form letter. Omission of this goes beyond mere laziness–it makes me think that the editor is afraid that he will be associated with his own rejections. What are you afraid of? As an editor, you have to make editorial choices, and if you want to be successful you have to stand by those choices. If you’re too scared to put your own name on the rejection, it gives the impression that you’d rather stay anonymous, and makes me wonder if this person has the intestinal fortitude required to be a competent editor. If it was rejected by a slush reader, I really think that the slush readers name should be on it, not the editor. Some magazines put the editors name on it even if it was a slushreader doing the reading, but I prefer to be able to tell if I made it to the real editor or not, and this misleading signature obscures this information from me.

In addition to the rejecter’s name, it’s really nice if it can have the following:
-Name of Author
-Name of Story

This really doesn’t take much effort, and in the case of email rejections, most of it can be completely automated, so there’s really no excuse. If the editorial staff can’t be bothered to refer to me or my story by name, it gives the impression that they’re just apathetic about the writers sending in their life’s work.

5. The longer the wait, the more annoying a form letter is.

I recently received a form rejection for a short story after nine months of waiting–that is the pinnacle of lameness. It’s bad enough that the amount of time was equivalent to the gestation period of a human fetus, they couldn’t even bother taking five minutes to write something about the story. On the other hand, I usually get form rejections from Clarkesworld, but they’ve also never taken longer than three days to send me a rejection, so I have no complaints about receiving a form rejection from them.

As a rule of thumb, I’d say that any market that takes more than 3 months to respond should be sending 100% personal responses.

6. Don’t say “Keep writing!”

Never. Just don’t do it. It will always come off as condescending. We appreciate the attempted encouragement, but it comes off as condescending every time. Whenever I read this, I picture a parent picking up their kid after his peewee team loses the big game. “Chin up, sport. You did your best and that’s all that counts. I know what will cheer you up! Consolation cake!” For those who would stop writing because of a single rejection, well, two words isn’t going to change their course. For those who wouldn’t stop writing because of that, it gets really annoying to read this over and over.

7. Don’t write an all-purpose form letter that says “we enjoyed it”

I love to see this sentiment expressed in a personal rejection. In a form letter it is CLEARLY insincere because it’s a friggin’ form letter!

8. Needlessly obtuse sentence structure

These people are supposed to be editors, right? So I’d like to think that they can put words in some kind of coherent and parsable order. Adding more words doesn’t help unless the words add meaning. Things like: “We regret to have to inform you that we are declining acceptance at this time.”
-The regret is clearly insincere, because it’s a form letter that they send to everyone.
-According to their wording, they don’t regret rejecting you. They don’t regret informing you of your rejection. But they DO regret the fact that they feel obligated to inform you of your rejection.
-“Declining acceptance”? Who the hell wrote that? That rings of Captain Barbossa’s “I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request” except this is apparently NOT trying to be funny.

9. Do NOT spam those who submit to you

Pedestal Magazine, this means you. Whenever I submit a story through Pedestal’s submissions form, about a minute later I get an email welcoming me to their mailing list, and thanking me for signing up for it. There’s no way to uncheck a box that will opt out of this form letter when you submit. And thereafter I get periodic emails from John Amen (who I don’t really care about) telling me of his upcoming book signings (in states I’ve never visited) and telling me about upcoming books (that I will not be buying). Luckily, I can just add this to my “spam” list–the story rejection comes from a different address than the spam. But even so, not spamming your submitters should be common sense.

How to Write a Rejection Slip

written by Christopher Miller

With publishing’s gatekeepers now comprising the bulk of short fictions’ readership, I think it reasonable to say that for every story read at least one rejection slip is also read. The rare instances in which writers’ stories are not rejected and to some degree published and possibly read by others are offset by writers’ publishing their rejection slips on public blogs and forums and disseminating them in emails. Similarly, publishers’ returning the same rejection slip to many writers is offset by writers submitting the same story to many publishers. So even ignoring that rejection slips, unlike the stories that inspired them, are almost always read in their entirety, taken to heart and remembered, it all more than cancels out. Ergo rejection slips are the most widely and attentively read short literary genre.

And while there’s a humongous amount of material available on how to write good short stories and also a lot of information on reading (i.e. coping with) rejection slips,which may be summarized as 1) consider that you might be a shitty writer who will improve, 2) consider that the rejecter is an imbecile and/or pandering to an imbecilic demographic, and 3) don’t include return postage on your SASE, or, in the case of email submissions, flag the “sent to” address as spam,nowhere (in my full minute of research) did I find anything on writing good rejection slips. So, as always and without further ado, here are my rules:

1. Never write “keep writing” in a rejection slip. This is particularly irksome as the slip’s closing sentiment and even more so when followed by an exclamation mark. Your reader is already disappointed and doesn’t need the implication that your passing on the piece might constitute a reason to stop writing. In other words, this generic and ingenuous “chin up” just makes readers want to punch you in the face. It is beyond your rejection slip’s scope to provide personal or career counseling.

2. Never critique work you are rejecting. It just makes you look stupid, even when you’re right, which usually you are not. It is beyond your rejection slip’s scope to teach creative writing.

3. Never say a piece is “not right” for you. This rule may be excepted if you actually really did like the submission but have had all your creative joie de vivre and artistic license crushed out of you by having to cater to the dreary formula upon which your publication is based and you can convey this in some credible way. Similarly, unless you can say who, do not point out that someone else might like it. The reader would not have sent you the piece if they didn’t like it. The same rules of concision that apply to all writing apply to rejection slips. Be specific. Avoid stating the obvious.

4. Never chirp how you “enjoyed the read.” You have just injured your reader. “I dozed off while reading your submission and chipped a tooth on my coffee mug” might be more uplifting.

5. Never metaphorically equate a piece’s acceptance with its finding “a home.” The story you are rejecting is not some derelict bumming spare change, eating out of dumpsters and sleeping on benches and grates. Particularly offensive and almost as bad as “Keep writing!” is “Good luck finding a home for it!” Really you should avoid bestowing any sort of hope, wish or prayer for success on your reader. What you need to keep in mind is that, no matter how you sugarcoat them, rejection slips hurt. And so, if only briefly, your reader is your enemy, and doesn’t want your gloating condescension.

6. Avoid saying you hope the author will submit more of their work in the future, even if you really do. This is a toughie, I know. But if you really like the piece that much, then ask if you can hold onto it in the hopes a slot opens up. Or send a follow-up invitation. Most times, if you solicit work from an author, he will comply. But consider that your reader is reading in a temporarily bummed out state. His best efforts have just been found wanting. Even ephemeral depression twists all emotions into negative forms. So, instead of interested, you just sound greedy. And instead of uplifted, your reader just feels used, like you’ve walked up to his promotional free-sample display in the supermarket where he works weekends on commission, and, after gobbling down all his carefully prepared little sausages, crackers, cheeses, dips or whatever, exclaimed how delicious they were, burped and asked when more will be available.

7. Conversely, do not be afraid to write things like, “We would appreciate if you didn’t submit any more of your work to us,” or “We only barely read the first paragraph,” or “We receive thousands of submissions each month and yours was second worst!” Honesty is always the best policy. Writers can smell bullshit like weed at a concert. A miss is as good as a mile.

Born in Switzerland, raised in Chicago, mostly Canadian now. ÂRestaurateur, software developer. Loves writing all genres,sci-fi to literary, horror to erotica. E.g.:ÂÂGanymede Dreams (a.k.a. Ganymede’s Song) ;ÂTake Our kids to Work DayA Hawk Circling the WindAdam and Eve Reading (almost) Quietly in the Bathroom