Sunday, November 2, 2008

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps . . .

The past couple of weeks I’ve had an interesting experience with my Permafrost reading group. For Permafrost, we divide into reading groups of three people and each person says “Yes” or “No” (and, very sparingly, “Maybe”) to each submission. In order for a submission to get accepted, it generally needs a “Yes” from every single person in the group.

This time, as usual, there were some submissions that everybody said “No” to, without even having to put too much thought into it. And there were some that one person liked but the others didn’t. There was one submission that I read first, and I was completely engaged with the voice of the first person narrator. Yet at the same time, I had some reservations about giving the piece an absolute “Yes.” My major problem with the story had to do with its inclusion of a significant American disaster, one that everybody across the board feels emotional about, to draw some reaction from the reader, rather than the writer doing the work to get this reaction through his own writing abilities (something I have no doubt this writer could pull off with ease).

I gave the piece a “Maybe,” and passed it on to the next reader, and told her about some of my thoughts about the piece. I really wanted, I told her, to say yes to it, but I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. So maybe she could put it over the edge and give it an adamant yes, and I would change my mind.

She loved the story and felt that the disaster element was warranted, but she didn’t feel like she could give it an absolute “Yes,” either, on account of some confusion over the frame structure the writer used. I had been okay with the frame part of the story, but once she brought it up, it suddenly did seem unclear how this bit fit in with the rest of the story.

So she gave it a “Maybe,” too, and passed it on to our final reader, explaining to him some of her reservations about the piece first.

He read the story with all of our thoughts about it in the back of his mind, and he was, it sounds like, just okay with the story, though he was very engaged with the voice, as well. He gave it a “Maybe,” but more because we had both given it a “Maybe” already than because he actually liked it that much. I asked him if he would have just said “No” had we not both already expressed to him how much we liked the piece, and he said for sure he would have just given it a “No.”

Now we have the dilemma: what do we do with this piece? We all liked the narration, and were engaged with it enough to justify not saying “No,” though some of us less than others. I suggested we simply reject it, that maybe we had too many problems with it to want it in the journal. But one of the other readers really wanted to find a way to accept it. But we couldn’t, we all agreed, accept it in its current form, not with all of our issues with it.

Should we ask the writer to revise it and tell him we’ll accept it if he makes certain changes? Should we essentially reject it but tell him why and then let him know if he revises it we’d be happy to consider it again? Should we reject it, but with a personal note letting him know how much we really liked it, and encourage him, please, to submit to us again?

And what of the fact that we each had very different feelings about what wasn’t working about the piece? We all agreed on what we liked, but what I didn’t like the others were fine with. What the second reader didn’t like, I would never have even noticed. And what the third reader didn’t like, in his eyes, was deep rooted enough to reject the story altogether had we not both already made it clear to him that we really really really wanted to accept it.

Chew on that for a week . . . To be continued.

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