Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Line Between Acceptance and Rejection

In my first year of grad school, I was still, myself, unpublished, and I made up my mind to be a very harsh reader for our literary journal, Permafrost. If I couldn’t get published, then, in my eyes, nobody who wasn’t writing stuff that was way better than mine deserved to be published, either. But being harsh wasn’t, as it turned out, as easy as I had thought it would be. For one thing, it’s hard, damn near impossible, to read the work of a fellow writer, whose hopes you hold in your hands and who you have the ability to either make happy or to crush like a bug between your fingers, and not be fair and even-minded the way you hope the editors reading your work will be, too. And on top of that, I quickly realized that there’s a difference between the sort of writing that objectively any reasonable (and reasonably literate) person would say is bad, and the sort of writing that is completely subjective to the mood, taste and biases of the individual who is, at that moment, reading it.

Don’t get me wrong, in any packet of submissions (our packets usually consisted of ten to twenty pieces), there was almost always at least one piece that was just genuinely bad, poor grammar, poorly constructed sentences, difficult to decipher meaning, totally unoriginal premise and plot. Those ones were the easy ones. You could usually stop reading by the end of page one (if not earlier), say no, and move on to the next piece.

But those ones were certainly the exceptions. It was way more common to read through a story, trying hard to find some reason to give up on it, and not really find any that didn’t seem too picky. Even if the writer got on your nerves in their cover letter, and even if they had some typos or misspelled words, it was still the case that most of the stories would be totally publishable if they just had some basic editorial assistance or maybe if the writer would just revise it one more time.

It’s a shock, because if you read much of what editors, agents and publishers have to say, many of them claim that the vast majority of work they see is downright terrible. They’d have you believe that there are tons and tons of deluded writers out there who have no idea just how bad they are and they keep on submitting and submitting in spite of a mounting number of form letter rejections. The problem with this line of thought is that, if that’s the case, anybody who is actually any good should never get rejected, right? If almost everything these editors see is terrible, that means the few pieces that are any good at all that make their way onto the slushpile would be gushed over and, it goes without saying, they would be accepted.

In other words, if you’ve ever received a rejection at all (and every writer who actually sends stuff out receives rejections), this idea that the majority of the work out there is bad would also mean that your work is bad, too. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have gotten rejected.

Bullshit. If the work that gets submitted to Permafrost is as good as I say (and it is!), and if Permafrost is such a nothing journal (and, sadly, it is), either we just got really lucky and have a huge number of abnormally talented authors submitting to us, or the majority of work that gets submitted to the majority of journals is very, very good. Which means you can be very, very good, and still get rejected.

What really gets my bacon sizzling (and I’m not a very angry person, just in general, so it really means something when I say this) is that even some our fellow new writers, who are themselves getting rejected left and right, seem to, without really realizing it, subscribe to those same attitudes. I’ll tell you in a later entry about the Permafrost slushpile party that I went to that just about made me want to give up because of how unjust the publishing world is, but for now, I’ll just say that many, many, many people seem to believe (and I can say this because, as you well know, I was once one of them) that there are a few truly gifted writers in the world and everyone else is an embarrassment to the written word. These people believe that they, themselves, fall into the select group, the chosen ones. It’s like a religion. But all you have to do is work on a single issue of a literary journal, and an MFA run one is as good as any, and you’ll see how fuzzy the line actually is between what gets accepted and what doesn’t.

The truth is what makes something publishable is just one great big gray area, and the smartest thing you can do as a writer is to realize that the competition is fierce and to make it, you’re going to have to be better than good and you’re going to have to keep getting better and better with each new submission. And above all else, you’re going to have to keep trying because sooner or later (assuming you’re not one of the few lousy ones and we may as well assume that you're not) some editor is going to pluck you from the slushpile, be in just the right mood, and say yes.

1 comment:

A. E. Santi said...

I love the concept of MFA/MFyou. I think this is a fantastic idea and we're going to be supporting you through our journal.

Very very good writers certainly get rejected and it's tough stuff. Sometimes an editor had a bad day, sometimes you get too much great stuff, and sometimes you just published a "my car got stolen" story the issue before that was done worse but you want to give the "my little pony" story a shot instead.

At Our Stories we have try to reach the emerging writers. There is an entire pool of writers who are good enough to publish but they goofed something up, they have no ability to get feedback and probably just keep getting rejected making the same mistakes over and over again. So we say maybe, work through drafts with them, do workshops and do a live blog in revisions.

At Our Stories we give feedback to everyone who submits to us. Everyone. We think we're changing the game out there and I think you and your husband would dig us. I could get into our philosophy as to why we do this and how it came about but there's enough stuff about it on our website and on other blogs.

Best of luck with the journal and I'll post a link to you guys on our site.

Welcome to the community,

Alexis Enrico Santi

PS -- Permafrost is a great journal--one of the best. Feel good about it, the back issues are just part of the deal.