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.