Sunday, May 4, 2008

On Rejection, Part 2

The comments section of the last post was getting a bit unwieldy, and as I was in the 12th paragraph of a new comment I thought we should maybe just start a fresh post.

The conversation about VQR's publication of their nasty editorial comments has raised some interesting questions. The one that interests me the most, as it is the main reason I brought it up in the first place, is whether writers ought to be able to take this kind of criticism. A commenter named James suggested that writers have an easy job, as jobs go, and should basically quit whining.

He's right, of course. However, this isn't about hurt feelings, mine or anyone's. You know what would be great? If the VQR actually put those comments into their rejection slips. I long for the days when editors were honest and told writers things like, "Quit writing, forever." But no. Instead they claim to have too many submissions to make individual comments (obviously not true, since the VQR even had time to publish theirs) and just send everyone some xeroxed bunk about being sorry, blah blah.

Why do they do this? Because they're chicken. They're afraid if they send out honest comments they'll come back to bite them in the ass. That Planet of the Apes guy? He's actually a professor of comp lit and he'll stop by their booth at AWP. And maybe his wife is on the board of the foundation that funds them. Or maybe they're going to diss the next Stephen King, who'll joyfully read aloud the rejection slip on Charlie Rose in 2011.

The problem with what VQR did, as I see it, is much more subtle than just being mean to writers. Whatever -- there's not a writer in the land who hasn't been called a pussy, elitist, no-talent waste of paper. If we couldn't take it, we'd have quit and gotten jobs in publishing.

The problem is that they displayed, on the blog of their magazine, a complete lack of respect for the process that butters their bread. Clearly, they find the slush pile laughable. But if there was no slush pile, everything in the mag would be by their friends and by the already-anointed (which is largely the case anyway). I think the health of the literary establishment depends on the slush pile -- on the openness of editors and other gatekeepers to finding greatness from the vast and varied masses. It's not easy; sometimes it feels impossible. But in order to have a great literature that kind of openness is vital.

And another thing that bugged me. Waldo Jaquith*, of the VQR website, said it isn't readers of the magazine or of the website they were mocking, it's all those other people who don't even know what you're supposed submit to a lit mag (apparently, stuff just like everything else they've published). So they only want work from people in the know, who send appropriate work. Again: this is death to good literature.

* I previously stated that Jaquith was an editor -- he's not! Sorry, WJ.

40 comments:

Alicia said...

You get a sense of people publishing people they know. Take a look at Five Chapters and published on that sight are more names in the NYC publishing circle than outsiders. The high-profile magazines seem to have a tier of writing with solicited fiction at the top, agented stories in the middle and slush stories on the lowest level so low they feel free to mock it online in front of thousands of internet surfers.

Recently, I went to a publishing panel where editors from various literary magazines spoke about their process. I was appalled at the sense of elitism one editor displayed. His magazine, The Paris Review, does not accept simultaneous submissions and he said he would not work again with an author who he discovered had submitted to another magazine though previously he admitted that he doesn't feel an urgency to read stories sent to him and leaves them waiting until he has time to read as though aspiring writers should commit exclusively to his magazine while he offers no commitment to these writers.

Writer Reading said...

I agree with Alicia. When I was a lowly young editorial assistant at a major book publishing house in Manhattan, there was a whole culture of daily expensive and lengthy lunches including drinks on the part of my designer-garbed editor. While I was there, it was assumed that nothing would come of the slush pile, that I was reading, like all those young simians over at Virginia Quarterly. Certainly no one from the slush pile was going to take her out. The company paid for her to take out the famous authors. The same small group of agents again and again paid for her lunches. It was a lavish life. There was no motivation to go out of her way to find new writers. Too much actual work without all the hobnobbing. I'm sure literary journals don't have all the lavish lunches, though. Still, there's party invitations.

rmellis said...

Being cliquish and insidery really doesn't make for a good magazine, though it's probably easy for a good magazine to go that route after a while. You think you know what a Thum Tak Literary Review story is, you know where you can find it, why don't you just call them up and ask for it rather than wade though the baskets of slush?

Writer Reading said...

I think a lot of these book publishers and literary magazines that don't even consider their slush should just be honest and save us all the trouble and publicly admit they don't accept unsolicited manuscripts. It's like for them, the slush pile is backup for a rainy day that never comes. It would be really nice to know who is actually considering our manuscripts and who is using them as coasters under their martinis. If you're no slush, be a man, so to speak and admit it on your submission guidelines and don't be such wimps.

jrlennon said...

No offense to The Paris Review--which has published me and which I generally like and respect--but I think any litmag no-simultaneous-submissions rule should be completely ignored. I never paid attention to them, anyway. If you get in trouble, so be it...but life is too short, and writing takes too long, to wait six months for your exclusive rejection.

I want to defend Five Chapters, though. Dave Daley, the guy who started it, is a highly creative freelance editor who has done all kinds of interesting projects in the past, for various newspapers and magazines. Writers like him because, historically, he has asked us to do weird stuff--write a story in 20 minutes, write serially with another writers, etc.--and everyone loves a fun challenge. AFAIK, he started Five Chapters by emailing every writer he ever published for his previous projects and asking them for stories. I don't know about his other contributors, but I gave him my story for free.

So Alicia's right, it IS--or at least was, at the outset--a pretty cliquey webmag. But I am not going to argue that it's wrong to start a magazine and then only publish your cronies. Go ahead and do that if you want. I DO think, however, that if you do it for too long, readers will get really bored, as Alicia did with 5C.

But Alicia, I think you ought to be emailing this opinion (politely worded) to Dave, instead of posting it here--much in the way VQR should, as Rhian suggested, send their honest opinions directly to contributors instead of sneaking them anonymously onto their blog.

rmellis said...

I'll go a step further than John and say that actually, no magazine should rely on its friends and the kindly famous for its content. Lots of mags do get started that way, because no one submits to a brand new magazine.

But if you don't make yourself open to the possibility of the new, the eccentric, even the handwritten, you're doing your readers a disservice.

cary said...

on vqr being cliquish: they recently rejected an ann beattie story.

rmellis said...

I have no idea if the VQR's policies are cliquish, or if rejecting Ann Beattie is proof they is or they isn't. Last time I read the mag, I thought it was better than average.

I'm talking about their blog post in specific, and attitudes of lots of mags in general.

Monketah said...

I think that Howard Junker, the editor of Zyzzyva, has a good attitude. He accepts work from many unpublished writers.

"Anyway, for an editor, it all comes down to two things: taste and judgment. Taste is what you like; judgment is about the politics of quality. I publish a lot of stuff based on judgment, not my personal taste. I take into consideration what I’ve done in the past and what the current issue still needs [emphasis added]. I assume a journalist’s responsibility to cover the scene.

"Political correctness has been a minor nuisance the past few years. I’m an integrationist. I’m interested in difference, but not in identity politics. I’m interested in what’s on the page, not in a writer’s background."

rmellis said...

I respect Junker. He gives good rejection, too. I have one from him, though I don't know why because I never lived on the west coast...

Monketah said...

Allow me to clarify: Junker publishes many writers who have never published before. He seems proud of this, and rightly so, listing these authors under a First Time in Print heading in each issue's table of contents.

Rhian, I suspect you had an aunt in Pasadena submit the manuscript for you.

Alicia said...

I was wrong for not mentioning in my previous comment that I like Five Chapters and asked to be placed on the mailing list and, of course, submitted a story. After awhile, I began to observe that the author names were very familiar. It was the trend that bothered me more than the actual writing.

You're right, I should(and will) send a polite note. Sometimes as a young unpublished writer, it's easy to slip into an us-against-them mode but it's not fair to the reality of the situation. I guess as Rhian said once you begin to get published and establish relationships on the other side then you become more clear minded about the publishing process.

rmellis said...

Incidentally: props to Waldo Jaquith for his totally great name.

Waldo Jaquith said...

I don't have time for a complete response now, but there's one really, really huge error in your blog entry. I am not, repeat not, the editor of VQR. As I've tried to make enormously clear. I'm the internet guy. I write blog entries and, mostly, write software for VQR. Really, please, fix that. Call me the "internet guy," the "web developer," whatever. But not the editor.

rmellis said...

Sorry Waldo, I'll correct that.

bookfraud said...

sheesh, i take the weekend off from blogworld and this breaks out.

i don't know what i could possibly offer in addition to what's been said except reading those notes makes me wonder what motivates people to even bother. if a story is inappropriate or sucks, going into detail about its badness -- and showing one's superior taste (and, by extension, writing skills) -- is usually just an exercise in ego. at least it is for me.

rmellis said...

I'm thinking maybe I should have taken the weekend off, too!

Anonymous said...

alicia, your comment on the Paris Review struck a chord with me. I sent them my best story because I like the authors they publish. I've been waiting for their reply ... FOR TEN MONTHS!

Something is wrong. This isn't right. Why am I waiting for almost a year from them? What are they doing with my story? Nothing, probably. It's all insiders. They want to keep it that way.

Anonymous said...

Oh and one more thought. The Paris Review wants to showcase "rebels" and the great voices of literature, they've always strived to be the vanguard. But if they keep over-the-transom submissions on hold for a year, well how cutting edge and out-on-a-limb-for-literature is that?

Anonymous said...

Another interesting observation. VQR causes a huge uproar in the blogosphere concerning their editorial practices, and the internet guy is their only staff member to comment. Presumably Ted Genoways is too good to come out and talk.

max said...

"Clearly, they find the slush pile laughable. But if there was no slush pile, everything in the mag would be by their friends and by the already-anointed (which is largely the case anyway). I think the health of the literary establishment depends on the slush pile -- on the openness of editors and other gatekeepers to finding greatness from the vast and varied masses. It's not easy; sometimes it feels impossible. But in order to have a great literature that kind of openness is vital."
Your words, Rhian, and they could be mine.
I guess where I veer into the sphere of JR's displeasure is my position that what is published is often mediocre or bad.
Ishiguro's strange masterpiece, The Unconsoled, might not have seen the light of day if he was one of The Unannointed. At least contemplate that frightening possibility.

rmellis said...

Max, I think we basically agree on what literature ought to be; maybe we have differing levels of hopelessness. And of course we disagree about MFAs.

puc said...

No, Waldo's not an editor (or he wouldn't be spending his time on this), but, as VQR's blogger, he has been responsive, engaging, perhaps somewhat disingenuous, getting some free publicity (bad or good - same effect) for himself and VQR, and, in the end, providing a free lesson for wannabe writers.

rmellis said...

Well, we very much appreciate Waldo's responses -- even if we still think that was dumb blog post...

Waldo Jaquith said...

VQR causes a huge uproar in the blogosphere concerning their editorial practices, and the internet guy is their only staff member to comment. Presumably Ted Genoways is too good to come out and talk.

Actually, Ted Genoways has been up in NYC for the National Magazine Awards. He just got back in town this morning. And, in fact, he'll have something up on our blog soon (hopefully by late this afternoon), so I'll skip the response that I'd planned to this blog entry, since Ted's smarter than me. That's why he's the editor.

No, Waldo's not an editor (or he wouldn't be spending his time on this), but, as VQR's blogger, he has been responsive, engaging, perhaps somewhat disingenuous, getting some free publicity (bad or good - same effect) for himself and VQR, and, in the end, providing a free lesson for wannabe writers.

Believe me, this is not the sort of publicity that either VQR or I want. (I can't imagine why I would want publicity. What do I have to sell? At least VQR sells magazines.) As you can imagine, I've been in rather an awkward position, with our editor gone. Obviously, I'm happy to engage in discussion with folks who think that my blog entry was a mistake. But given that I cluelessly wrote a blog entry that's really pissed off a few people, my perspective is clearly the wrong one to be responding to folks. So if I'm come off as disingenuous, it's because I'm interacting with a community that I know nothing about on a topic that I apparently know only enough about to be dangerous, so I'm feeling a bit cautious.

Again, I'm appreciative to y'all for hosting this discussion, and maintaining it in a way that's allowed such useful conversation. It's raised some larger and interesting considerations here at VQR, such as why people submit work that's so clearly inappropriate for us, how we're failing to communicate that to would-be contributors, and what that says about our role in the literary world and how we're doing as stewards of the 83-year-old VQR. As I said, Ted is working on some comments on that very topic, which I hope will be of some interest to you folks. I'll try and remember to post a comment here when they're up.

rmellis said...

I haven't found any of your comments to be disingenuous, WJ. Thanks for taking the time to come over here and hash things out!

jrlennon said...

Waldo, though we have overargued our point, I think you're overthinking yours. Personally, I think you ought to let the editorial process be closed. Magazine editors publish what they like. Period. If that means their friends, so be it. If it means Narnia fanfic, so be that, too. People will hate an editor no matter what he does, so he might as well do what he likes.

I do think you've learned a valuable lesson about literary blogging, though ;-)

And Max, I've never disagreed that much of what is published, is bad.

Waldo Jaquith said...

Waldo, though we have overargued our point, I think you're overthinking yours.

I overthink everything. I'm a) a programmer b) a Democrat and c) a lifelong Red Sox fan. There's no changing me now. :)

Our editor has gotten his response up, as promised. I'd summarize it, but I suspect I'd only mangle that. Give it a read. I'm not naive enough to think that anybody will be e-mailing us pictures of puppies and rainbows at this point, but short of a pint of my own blood, I'm not really sure what else can be offered at this point.

Anonymous said...

Waldo: you said you're a Democrat. Are Mr. Genoways and all the VQR readers also Democrats? I can't help but notice that most of the writers and artists in the latest issue are Democrats. Are there any Republicans or Independents on board? Is there a political bias in what VQR selects for publication? Does VQR consciously try to include diverse political coverage across the entire political spectrum -- and if it doesn't, will it consider doing so in the future?

Thanks for your reply.

rmellis said...

I think Mark Helprin is the only Republican literary fiction writer.

There's no need to make every single institution in the country perfectly politically balanced.

max said...

OK, we agree on two things.
One is that bad stuff (and I hope we're both talking about the genre of literary fiction) gets published. Can good/excellent work go unappreciated? Why is it rejected?
Two: there needs to be more openness by editors and other gatekeepers. In what sense are things closed now? Who will be allowed in if the gates were opened?
There's a clamor coming from LROD: all is not well in the present-day literary world. I just wish that this clamor would result in some concrete changes. Something.

Anonymous said...

"There's no need to make every single institution in the country perfectly politically balanced."

Does this apply to institutions where Democrats are not in the giant minority?

Does this also apply to religion, race, ethnicity, sex, and all other traits that compose the individual?

rmellis said...

Politics is different, for any number of reasons.

Yeah, if I found out the VQR was all Republican, so what??

There's probably a reason most writers are Democrats, though, and that might make an interesting post someday... so thanks...

jrlennon said...

Oh my God! Yes, more Republicans in literature, that's what we need.

Literature is inherently liberal. It assumes that all people, regardless of class, race, or socioeconomic status, are of value.

Republicans hate art. That's what it comes down to. There are a few oddballs who don't, but, generally speaking, conservatives find contemporary art of any kind frightening. Anything black people, homosexuals, and women are good at, in fact--Republicans hate that shit.

Ted said...

Rhian wrote: "Aw, I'm jealous. Ted never came to my party. But that Waldo danced all night."

Consider your party crashed, Rhian. There's not much chance you'll get me on the dance floor, but you can count on me to empty your liquor cabinet. If people actually read our fiction, then the drinks are on me.

By the way, I feel a duty to defend Philip Gourevitch from Paris Review. He's come in for abuse here for saying that he leaves stories aside "until he has time to read," as if that were somehow a bad thing. I'd prefer that my editors read my work when they have time, not when they're otherwise consumed.

And Gourevitch has been occupied by writing a book with Errol Morris about Abu Ghraib, interviewing everyone he could who was inside the prison during those horrible nights. And, in case anyone has forgotten, his first book was a reported account of the Rwandan Genocide that won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Polk Award for Foreign Reporting.

Say what you like about editors as a lot, but when Philip Gourevitch says he's busy working on something important, he is. If he's investigating genocide or bringing to light instances of torture, my latest poem can wait.

Elizabeth said...

Just to clarify, The Paris Review does accept simultaneous submissions. From its submissions guidelines at parisreview.org:

"Simultaneous submissions are also acceptable as long as we are notified immediately if the manuscript is accepted for publication elsewhere."

Maybe they've updated the policy since Alicia attended the panel.

According to Duotrope, the average response time for The Paris Review is 70 days. Perhaps if they've kept a piece for ten months, they're actually considering it for publication. Booyah!

rmellis said...

Elizabeth: I'm glad to see that the PR does accept simultaneous submissions.

It's great to see you, Ted. Have a mojito! You don't really need to defend Philip Gourevitch to us -- I'm a huge fan of his writing, and though I don't know what kind of editor he is, I'm inclined to give him a pass. After making my views known, of course.

Anyway, Ted, I really do appreciate the attention you guys pay to the blogosphere. Cheers!

jrlennon said...

Agreed, Philip is a superb writer, and in my limited experience with him, a good editor, too. Glad they're accepting simultaneous submissions--I think it's a fair policy, and writer-friendly.

Welcome to the party, Ted, and thanks!

Friday said...

I think anything I had to say about this topic has already been said, other than this: thanks for posting these entries. I would have felt very, very out of the loop if I hadn't read about The VQR Incident, as I'm now going to call it. I'm not sure I would have heard about it otherwise.

Also, it's funny that you guys provided this great source of news just a few weeks after your post about blogs as, well, sources of news.

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