April 5, 2010

To the Editor (Part 1)

Diatribes about the editorial processes of poetry magazines are pervasive and vitriolic. Most can agree that the current model is frustrating and inefficient. Everyone involved is getting the short end of the stick; the whole system seems to be a short stick. The most popular positions in the debate might be (irresponsibly) summarized as follows: Editors are overworked, under-compensated, saturated with dreck, and consider writers to be generally too sensitive to rejection; Writers are punch-drunk and slaving at the base of the inscrutable pyramid of publication where, presumably, Pharaohs are buried.

I am reasonably toughened to rejection. I received my first from the BBC when I was sixteen after submitting a teleplay I’d written in collaboration with a friend. The rejection we received was one sentence long: “We here at the BBC feel that you should live a little more and write about it less.” Soon after, a small science fiction publisher returned my short story with a typed note that concluded with, “Close, but no banana.” Later still, I received a rejection from Marvel Comics which included a short note telling me where I’d gone off the rails. Last year, I received a rejection from a large publishing house for a children’s book I’d written with a friend, Ian Leino, in which the editor explained in one paragraph the flaws of our submission.

These are not examples of defeat; they are examples of victory. They represent some of the most rewarding, honest, and ultimately helpful correspondence I’ve ever received from editors. And they all occurred outside the scope of literary journals, poetry presses, and contests.

Over the past eight years, I’ve submitted hundreds of poems to literary journals and magazines, and with precious few exceptions, have received anonymous, vague, formal platitudes in response. Moreover, with few exceptions, the acceptances I've received were similarly anonymous and formal. I have, as far as I can remember, never been asked to revise a poem. I don’t think that mine is a unique experience.

Again, I’m not discounting that editors are overworked, underpaid (if they’re compensated at all), and often laboring out of love. And yet, the result of this uncommunicative “industry standard” is to the detriment of editors, publications, writers, and readers. A writer’s work is improved by the honest suggestions, earnest goads, and pointed jibes they receive from editors.

Honest, engaged editors make writers better. Writers need editors.

But “submission readers” do not make writers better. I realize that the role of submission readers varies from publication to publication, that often the position is something of an editorial apprenticeship, in which some folks (generally MFA candidates) are cast against their preference. But speaking generally, a submissions reader is expected to read with an aesthetic in mind, to seek out pieces that seem to suit the editorial tastes of the publication, and to identify works that will enjoy the consensus of the masthead. Moreover, the reader’s relatively passive role means that they communicate with writers very little. Readers become champions of the editorial aesthetic and of their own readerly experience. The result is often a homogenous publication and an alienated, bewildered writer. To improve the quality of work received and selected, and to reduce the number of submissions, all "readers" should be made editors, given a pen, and told to find, cultivate, and nurture the next Auden.

Editors should remember their active role in the publication process. Editors who do not have time to engage writers, to critique and encourage them, to divert and direct them, are not editors but “selectors,” selecting works that reflect their tastes. The result of this is that editors are not representing writers to their audience, but are instead presenting their own aesthetic as the product. It’s important for editors to recognize that they have made writers more sensitive to rejection by inundating them with anonymous, form rejections. Writers scrutinize form rejections, scribbled initials, roughly cut edges for some coded sign of direction. This is because writers need direction, need feedback, and telling them that they shouldn’t expect it does not diminish the need.

If editors want to reduce their work load and improve the quality of submissions, then they must begin to communicate with writers. Brevity isn’t a sin; I’m not suggesting that every submission receive a dissertation. Platitudes, cliches, dishonest and vague assertions are editorial sins. Honest discouragement keeps writers from flooding inboxes with crap and encourages writers to research publications more thoroughly, thereby lightening the load of dreck that editors have to sift through. Honest and specific criticism challenges writers to improve upon their strengths and address their failings.

Put another way: anonymous, form rejections engage writers in a game of twenty questions where the answer is always an ambiguous no. Those aren’t submissions in the editor’s inbox; they’re hapless, undirected guesses.

1 comment:

  1. Great wisdom, Josiah. Your comments remind me of what I often read in terms of MFA programs - that homogeneity that often comes. I say this with my MFA in hand, but I do wish for more variety, more freshness in what I read. Perhaps, as you suggest, feedback with edge is the way to get edgy, fresh writing. Thanks.