Art Museman leaned back in his ultra-ergonomic chair, removed the neural typing link from his forehead, and admired his handiwork. He slowly scrolled through twenty-seven pages of eloquent and intense prose. In his heart, he was certain he had created a masterpiece.
Even though he was alone in his mother’s basement, he raised his arms to the heavens before waving his hands with a flourish and pushed the Automatic Grammar Correction key. The computer sputtered for a moment, jumping from page to page before large red numerals appeared to declare 1773 errors found. Art hit the Correct All button and watched as his divine work became even better.
Smiling confidently, Art reattached the neural transmitter to his temples and located the link to the submissions office of Penn and Pane Publishing. Almost instantly, the face of a pretty young woman popped onto the screen.
“Good Morning and welcome to Penn and Pane’s short story submission section. I am Miss Smith, and I will analyze your piece. Please drag your work to the icon labeled New Submission.”
Art found the icon to which Miss Smith referred. It was a large rectangle in the lower right corner of the screen. Art couldn’t help but notice that it bore striking resemblance to a guillotine.
Once the story was uploaded, Miss Smith flashed a near-perfect smile and said, “I see you are a first-time submitter, Mr. Museman. We are honored that you chose us for your story.”
“Thank you,” replied Art, “and may I add that you have been very nice and welcoming. I like your smile.”
Miss Smith smiled once again. “Please note, Mr. Museman, that the image you are seeing on the screen is not my actual appearance. We use specially designed avatars that allow our clients to see our representatives in the manner they perceive us. We find it softens the inevitable blow of abject rejection.”
“My story isn’t going to be rejected,” said Art.
“Well, don’t you have a real can-do attitude. Good for you.” Art noticed that Miss Smith’s smile wasn’t nearly as ideal as he had first thought; there was a large gap between her front teeth.
She continued, “Since you’re a first-time contributor I have a couple of questions to ask you while your story is considered. Question one, why did you choose to write a story and submit it to us? A, you wish to become rich and famous. B, you have an important message to share. C, you enjoy rejection and suffering. D, other.”
“Well, I guess I decided to write because…”
Before Art could finish his answer, he was interrupted by the sound of a gong ringing loudly.
“Oh, the computer is done going over your story already,” announced Miss Smith. “That’s usually not a good sign.” She smiled, fully displaying her crooked overbite.
“You mean a computer read my story and is going to decide if it’s good enough?”
“Of course not,” said Miss Smith. “The computer doesn’t read your story. It only analyzes it for originality. You see, about twenty-five years ago, the super-computer, Blue Watson, calculated that ninety-eight-point-three-nine percent of all stories have already been written. Plus, with all the grammar checks and style enhancers available, stories pretty much write themselves. All we are concerned with is how original and creative your piece is. We’re trying to find the last one percent of original works.”
“But my story is really good,” insisted Art.
“It may well be,” replied Miss Smith as she pulled a huge chunk of broccoli from her teeth. “However, it has probably already been written.”
“Are you accusing me of copying somebody else’s story?”
“Not at all. I’m just saying that somebody else has already written the same story or something very close to it. Now, if you’ll let me look at the analysis, I will be able to give you your answer.”
The middle-aged woman stared at the computer readout for a short time before announcing, “Yup, it’s what I guessed. The computer gives your story a one-point-three out of one hundred possible points for originality. In fact, there is a story in existence that is a ninety-six percent match for yours. I am sorry, Mr. Museman, but you need to come up with something much more original, something that hasn’t already been done. Feel free to submit another story in the future.”
Miss Smith contorted her twisted, black-stained mouth into something that barely resembled a human smile as she disappeared from the screen.
Art sighed heavily. If it’s something new they want, that’s what he was going to give them. He opened his story-writing software and started trying to think of an original idea.
* * *
“Welcome back, Mr. Museman,” said the old hag on the other side of the computer link. “Back to try again. I have to admire your tenacity. What is this, your tenth try this month?”
“Eleventh,” answered Art, “but who’s counting.”
“Well, you know the drill. Drag your piece to the submittal icon.” Miss Smith spat a wad of phlegm onto the floor near her desk. “So, you think you have something original this time?”
“I think I got it this time,” answered Art. “I ate a whole pizza before I went to bed last night and I had the strangest dream. When I woke up this morning, I wrote it down and turned it into the story…”
The loud gong interrupted Art.
“That might be the fastest so far,” said Miss Smith as she poured over the results. “I’m sorry, Mr. Museman, but that story has been done to death.”
“What, how can that be?” shouted Art. “It has talking strawberries with upside-down mouths that turn children into screwdrivers!”
“I’m afraid it’s just not original enough. The story is still only rated twelve-point-nine out of a hundred. Feel free to submit another story in the future.”
* * *
The creature on the other side of Art’s computer screen looked like something pulled from the seventh level of hell. Red blistering skin oozed pale-green pus. A jagged, fang-filled mouth sat below dark, beady eyes. Two long twisted horns protruded from the top of its head.
“The computer should have your reject… result shortly,” said Miss Smith. “I admire your ability to take failure and bounce right back up, Mr. Museman. Tell you what, why don’t you tell me a few of your ideas while we wait. I can tell you if they have even the slightest chance of being original.”
“Okay,” nodded Art, “if there’s a chance it’ll help. The story I submitted just now is a weird one. It’s about a boy who finds a golden ticket to get to take a tour of a candy factory. The owner of the factory is this weird guy and the workers are little purple men and…”
“I’m afraid that’s already been done. Do you have any other ideas?”
Art sighed heavily. “Well, I’ve been toying with the thought of writing a story about a sponge that lives in a pineapple at the bottom of the sea. I know it sounds completely absurd but…”
The demon spawn shook its head, “Seen it. It was quite popular in its time. Anything else?”
“I toyed with the idea of just randomly generating four words and using them to create a story. One time I got turtles, teenagers, mutants, and ninjas. That could be turned into a unique story.”
Before Miss Smith could shoot down that concept, the blasted gong rang.
“Feel free to submit another story in the future.”
* * *
“I’m certain I’ve succeeded this time,” said Art. “It has to be completely original.”
The gigantic pile of muck, slime, and decay on the other side of the monitor didn’t show any reaction. “Oh, really? What did you try now, Mr. Museman?”
“I blindfolded myself and just pounded on the keyboard for a couple of hours. That’s the story I submitted, a bunch of random gibberish.”
The gong sounded and Miss Smith surveyed the results.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Museman, but it’s been done. A monkey turned in a very similar story quite a few years ago. Feel free to submit another story in the future.”
* * *
Art Museman fought through the layers of malaise, self-loathing, and depression, somehow finding the will to drag his most recent work onto the submission icon. He sat quietly, not even daring to gaze upon whatever monstrosity occupied the screen. To her credit, Miss Smith knew enough not to attempt to take part in small talk. Art Museman was completely broken.
Minutes passed in silence. Suddenly, a heavenly chime resonated, like the sound of an elevator reaching its destination.
“Oh my God,” cried Miss Smith. “You’ve done it; you’ve written a truly original story.”
Art raised his eyes and gazed on the beautiful image of a young woman smiling at him. “Really?”
“Yes, the computer gives it one hundred originality points. No one has submitted a work like this before. I can send you a contract for publication immediately.” She clicked a few buttons and a contract began spewing out of Art’s printer. “I am so happy for you. Can I ask what you wrote about?”
Art shrugged, “To be honest, I’d given up. I sent a blank page. There wasn’t a single word on it.” Slowly life returned to Art’s face. A smile started to take form. His eyes, once dead and lifeless, found the means to shine. “But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I have finally succeeded. After all those failures, I have finally achieved my goal. I am going to be a professional author. Nobody thought I could do it. They all said I was wasting my time, but I showed them. I can’t wait to wave my payment check in front of the doubters.” He let out a maniacal laugh and shook his fists toward the sky.
Eventually, he regained his composure and looked meekly at Miss Smith, who had watched the entire outburst.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I got a little carried away. So, anyhow how much do you pay for a story?”
It was Miss Smith’s turn to give a meek shrug. “Well, you see, we pay by the word.”
James Rumpel is a retired high school math teacher who has enjoyed spending some of his additional free time trying to put some of the many strange ideas circling his brain into words. He lives in Wisconsin with his wonderful wife, Mary. They enjoy camping, playing board games, and testing the limits of how much teasing they can handle.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Penn and Pane”:
Stories about writers, especially those trying to get their work published, come across our desk from time to time. We liked the thrust of this writer’s frustration and perseverance all the way to the story’s ironically amusing ending.
Author James Rumpel’s futuristic vision of the decision-making process and rejection criteria is a scary prospect that we hope will never come to pass. But even today, we have to wonder whether a real human is behind some of those rejection letters.