Friday, December 30, 2016

I've wasted my life: thoughts after a week as a reader for a literary journal

In my last post, I was curious what I might learn about the inner workings of a small literary journal, the kind I mostly submit my work to, if I were to take a role as a volunteer reader. I've now been a reader for a week and a half. Answering my main questions having to do with the timelines of these journals was actually pretty quick and easy, and reasonably unsurprising. It's everything else I'm learning that's a little bit of a shock.

The easy stuff

Timing: My main question was: if journals don't immediately dispatch the writing that comes in, how do they not just keep getting further and further behind until the amount of unread submissions becomes practically infinite? The answer, at least for our journal, is that we have submission seasons. We try to guarantee that everyone gets a response within four, preferably three, months. If we are getting close to missing that goal, the editor puts out an "all hands on deck," and we try to catch up. It's that simple. We chip away, and when it gets desperate, we chip some more. I'd guess that journals that don't use a submission season do the same thing, only with "all hands" calls more often. You fall behind, and then you put forth a Herculean effort to catch up.

Process: Ours is a mix of editorial board opinion and a strong editor. The editor is the only one who makes the final decisions, but she relies on the readers to weed through the stacks of entries to find the best stuff for us to kibitz about together. There isn't really an etched-in-stone method for grinding through the grist of the entries; readers kind of just go in, grab something, and vote. Every reader can vote up, down, or maybe on each story, but we're encouraged to keep the maybes to a minimum. "Two votes down is the kiss of death," the editor says, but there isn't really any magic number of yesses that equal an acceptance. She has a rather laissez-faire, Geoffrey-Rush-in-Shakespeare-in-Love "it'll all work out somehow" attitude to the final selections. So far, one that she's accepted was one I pulled off the slush pile. So yay, me, making a difference. 

The hard stuff

Odds of making it: We got about 600 stories in this period. We're picking ten for publication. The math isn't good for anyone, and we're not even that big a journal.

The competition: I had expected that half the stories would be obvious junk from a few sentences in. That isn't the case. The vast majority aren't bad stories. They might not all be great, but maybe 75% of them have some redeemable qualities to them, and I can see why the authors thought they could make good stories out of them. The weeding out is very difficult. Maybe one-fourth seem good enough to me the journal could print them and not be ashamed of the choice. The difference between a story that makes it and one that didn't is very small. I've been trying to be very sparing with my yes votes, but I've already said yes to about 5 out of 30 stories I've read. I'm obviously up-voting far more stories than will make the final cut. And that's with me channeling as much asshole as I've got in me. 

What separates a yes and a no vote: With so many stories to plow through, readers are more likely to take note of a story that explodes rather than one that simmers. That doesn't mean the plot needs to be an action movie. You can still write you heartfelt epistolary story about the orphaned girl in 18th century New England who voices what she cannot say in words through her needlepoint. But it better have a unique voice, and that voice needs to assert itself from the first words and not let up. Flashbacks and exposition that remove the reader from the oomph of the main narrative absolutely kill the impulse to keep reading sympathetically. I've got much more to read--get on with it. And those breaks from the main narrative each need to have their own force behind them, so it feels less like I'm landing after the initial push past inertia and more like I'm being shot from one cannon to another. 

How I'm changing as a result of journal work

I don't read every story all the way through, and I'm looking back at some of my stories and realizing other readers wouldn't, either: I swore when I started reading that I'd read every story beginning to end sympathetically, just like I'd want a reader to do for me. Here, ten days later, I voted no on a story this morning after a paragraph. And it wasn't even a terrible paragraph. I just knew it had enough flaws in it that, small as those flaws may be, the story couldn't right itself. I guess I'm becoming hardened. And I know there are readers assigned to my stories who feel the same way.

I'm rethinking my own writing in two ways:  

First, although the rush to avoid cliched first lines has led to lines so overblown with pretentiousness and falsely hyped tension that these are a cliche of their own, I am now terribly conscious of the need to grab the reader. It's on me. I can't lapse into self-consolatory ideas like "well, if the reader is too dumb and attention-deficit-burdened to need fireworks going off all the time, it's his loss." I have to take responsibility for hooking the reader. As Vonnegut once put it, readers have no reason to be kind. I voted a story down the other day pretty much once I read "it was unseasonably warm that September" in the opening line.

Secondly, although I've said before I'm not a big fan of "flash fiction," it does occur to me that one of the best ways to avoid lulls in the narrative of a story is to keep it short--really, really short. I have to admit that as a reader, when I see 2,200 words instead of a story that pushes our 5,000 word limit and then some, I am a little happier about getting into it. I'm a little more likely to read to the end. Ten pages into a 20-page story, if I'm still not loving it, I'm not going to, and it's not worth another 10 pages just to see if I'm wrong. But five pages into a ten-page story, I'm nearly done. Let's just see where this is going. Plus, a shorter story naturally just has fewer breaks, less exposition. The longer a story is, the more you probably have to refine it to make sure there are no dead patches.

Partly, I feel better about myself seeing all the solid writing out there: Like any writer who gets a lot of rejections, which is almost all writers, I face self-doubt. Am I completely off base with my own self-analysis? I know it's natural to think you're better than you really are, but am I that much worse than I think I am? Turns out, I'm probably not. There are just a lot of good writers and not a lot of space in which to publish them. The stories I write are on par with most of what I read; there's just a lot of stories at that level being written. So when I got two rejections this week from two of the top-tier journals, I didn't feel the inevitable 48 hours of despair I usually feel. 

On the other hand, maybe I am wasting my life: Maybe I'm being vain, but I think it's natural to want to do something where if you died, the world would have a hard time replacing you. To "make a difference," in the tired vernacular. It's hard to think that's what I'm doing. I know, I know--writers write because they can't help it, because they feel compelled to write. And I do feel that compulsion. But I am always faced with the thought that this compulsion is a temptation to be resisted rather than a gift to be indulged. The existence of so many good writers is at least evidence that I'm not making logical life choices from a supply and demand perspective. Even success in this industry means shoving into a glutted market and demanding room for one more. 

There's nothing wrong, of course, with sticking to something you love, come what may.  But if I'm going to put my eggs in that basket, I hope I am doing it, as Anis Shivani said, out of "some belief...that makes one sleepless and distraught," not because I think getting stories published now and again is a nice sop to my vanity.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The curious schedules of literary journals

I recently answered the call of a local literary journal for readers. They claim they had about 6000 submissions for 2016. If I count their output correctly, out of those 6000, they accepted 80. One of the benefits they promised for those taking up the call to help read was getting to see what the submission process looks like from the other side.

I sure hope so. I'm not criticizing literary journals here. In fact, I hereby repent some of what now seems to me harsh language I used about some journals early on in my blog. I wasn't so much trying to vent against journals as I was hoping to voice the thoughts that occur to me in the often discouraging process of submissions. My hope was that others feeling the same frustrations might at least know they weren't alone. It wouldn't have been the first blog to do this, of course, but I still felt it might be useful. I know I found Literary Rejections on Display oddly encouraging when I was struggling to get my first acceptance.

So this isn't meant as a rebuke, but more as a question I'm anxious to get an answer to. Almost all journals take between 3 and 6 months to respond to submissions. Some take much longer; I currently have a story in with one journal that has been in the queue for 13 months. (I have a feeling that they have coded me somehow as a writer they will probably never accept, and are hanging onto the submission as long as they can because it will prevent me from submitting again and clogging up their inbox.)

Nathaniel Tower, the editor of the sadly-soon-to-end Bartleby Snopes, has insisted that the length of time your story sits with editors means nothing in terms of how close you were to being accepted. If it took a week or a year, that's just how long it happened to take for the journal to get to your work. (Nathaniel has written some really useful and entertaining blog posts about behind the scenes stuff at lit journals. I actually can't find the post where he said not to read into how long it takes to get a response, but trust me, he said it somewhere.)

The question

Here's what I don't understand: if journals have a long queue, how does it not just get ever longer and longer? Some journals have seasons. They take submissions until a fixed date, and then they stop taking them. That makes sense. They get behind, and then they catch up. It's like a doctor's office; they get further and further behind as the season goes on, but just like a doctor's office eventually closes up and finishes with all the patients in the waiting room who didn't die waiting, the journal will catch up during the off-season.

But some journals--many, in fact, don't have an off-season. It's like a doctor's office that never closes, so the patients, one would have to imagine, just get more and more backed up.

If your model isn't in one day out the next, how do you not just get further and further behind until you choke in submissions?

At least a few journals do seem to run a pretty quick turnaround. Bartleby Snopes responded to me in a week with an acceptance. So did Potomac Review. (Bartleby Snopes made it a policy to always try to reply within a week.) A literary agent the other day responded to my query letter on my novel with a "no" the same day I sent it. That's the only business model I can see working. Anything other than clearing the inbox every day seems like a formula for capsizing in submissions.

I can understand if the timing of a journal is periodic--quarterly, say--that a journal might hang onto a piece until near the end of the cutoff for that edition. My thinking is that a journal would, on the first day of the selection period for the next journal, pick the top X number of selections, with X being the number it plans to publish. As new ones come in, they are either judged better than what they already have, in which case they bump those off, or they fail to be as good as what they already have on the board. If it doesn't top what they've already got, it's one day in, one day out. When anything falls off the board, it gets sent back to the writer with a no.

I assume--and this is very much an uninformed assumption on my part--that front-line readers are able to weed out the obvious misses without a lot of oversight from senior editors. Their job is to triage what they get--some to the waste basket, some on to senior editors to look at more closely. So there might be a few days of delay between the initial triage and the final decision.

But no matter how you slice it, if a journal has more coming in on a daily basis than it makes decisions on, the queue is just going to get longer and longer. So this is what I'm anxious to see: how does a model work where the goal isn't in-today, out-today?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Blogging on the edge of Ragnarok

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life". Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never come. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumable they have their reward. Men are different.They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss, the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

-C.S. Lewis, "Learning in Wartime"

Over a year ago, I wrote what I intended to be my final post. Since then, Cleveland won a major sports title, the Cubs won the World Series, and there was an election in November you've maybe heard about. All of these things make modernity's obsession with post-apocalyptic scenarios seem less like fantasies and more like documentaries. Or maybe reality shows, since that seems to be what we've come down to at this late hour of the world.

The late disturbance has confirmed what a friend of mine keeps insisting is the case: I can't stop writing. I can't stop writing stories, and I can't stop writing cultural critiques from the perspective of someone producing cultural artifacts that are largely unconsumed. So I might as well embrace it and put what I'm writing out here in public for the few who might read it to see.

So how bad is it?

This isn't a political blog. Most of what I know about American history revolves around the 20 years before and the ten years after the Civil War, so I don't have an especially informed perspective. This is a blog about culture. But this past election had a lot to do with culture. Social liberals--a group I very much include myself in, with a few qualifications--changed politics over several decades by changing the culture. This election could be viewed as an attempt to reverse the process and change the culture through politics. So what does the election tell me about the culture?

The bright side: Social liberals hate to confess this, but there were sicknesses in the culture that we helped create. And as much as this election was an extreme political solution, a nuclear bomb to kill those infected so the disease ceased to spread, those sicknesses did need to go. These include things like:

  • Liberals use a definition of racism that is different from the vernacular use. In common use, a racist is someone who believes people are inferior based on racial characteristics, knows he thinks this, and is fine with that. Liberals use a more academic definition, one that appeared in the movie Dear White People

That's all well and good. We need to define terms accurately. But liberals then often play a dirty little game where we accuse conservatives of being racist in contexts where it is natural to assume the more common definition applies. This is disingenuous, and it causes anger in people who truly believe--not altogether without evidence--that policies that have been intended to help the racially disadvantaged don't do what they are advertised to do. I disagree, ultimately, but it's not an obvious case. Reasonable people can disagree. So I'm hopeful that we liberals will now be more circumspect in our accusations.
  • Liberals, thinking we have already won the cultural war forever, aren't actually terribly good at the basic arguments for the society we want. It's similar to how many scientists aren't good at arguing for evolution. It's just a given. Nobody even learns how to argue for it anymore, because it's absurd to think you have to. But conservatives, meanwhile, have become very good at the basic arguments for the things they believe in. I hope we liberals will up our "evangelical" game.  
  • We ignore arguments that ought to have a vigorous answer. "Won't an influx of people who have different views about, say, the roles of women or the morality of homosexuality change the culture to where we no longer possess the very tolerance that allows us to take these people in?" is a tough question that we have not answered adequately. It's impolite for liberals to even discuss the question. This is an inheritance from the Romantics, the recent ancestors of liberals, where we were made to believe that people are basically good (according to our own definition of good), and that if you merely put them in the right social setting, they will act accordingly. But conservatives have always have a good point that people sure don't act good. In fact, liberals believe in strong government action precisely because people don't do the right thing often. Obviously, since I have volunteered working with refugee populations, including Muslims, I think taking in strangers is ultimately good. But how anyone could take it for granted, I don't know. It's undeniable that hyper heterogeneous America has social problems that hyper homogeneous South Korea does not have. So I'm glad we at least can have a debate now. 
The bad: As much as I've tried to convince myself and others to be positive, there's plenty of bad. Culturally, this election signifies two shifts to extremes I find depressing.
  1. First is the repudiation of expertise. The polls were all wrong, everyone said Trump would lose, and he won. So what do experts know? And Trump won doing everything everyone said he shouldn't do. So what do experts know? Carry this a little bit further: Who cares about what China experts say about Taiwan? What do experts know? Who cares what scientists say about climate change? What do experts know? Aeon Skoble argues in his chapter on Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons and Philosophy that America "has always had a love-hate relationship with the notion of the intellectual." Our basic democratic ideals make us skeptical of the proposition that one man's opinion might matter more than another, yet we still long to hear from experts. Skoble describes something that probably sounds familiar: "Populist commentators and politicians frequently exploit this resentment of expertise while relying on it as it suits them, for example when a candidate attacks his opponent for being an "Ivy League elitist" while in fact being a product of (or relying on advisers from) a similar educational background." But we are now seeing a President who seems to not need experts at all. He is consciously picking people to lead agencies who have disdain for them. The head of the Department of Energy may soon go from a Ph.D. from MIT to a man who once forgot the name of the department. He ignores his own intelligence community, questions whether they even know what they are talking about. So the pendulum seems to have swung pretty far. So to what end have people like me labored to improve our minds?
  2.  Secondly, and relatedly, is the notion that because nothing is free of bias, all things are equally biased. NPR is no better than One can't even begin to argue a position, because anything that contradicts what someone else believes is automatically just biased. This spills over into art. There is no standard of good and bad. Everything is relative. (For this, as well, we liberals shoulder a lot of blame, and are now, perhaps being hoisted on our own petard.) 
Why to keep writing...or keep doing anything, really

When friends say they are having a hard time getting motivated to do anything because there doesn't seem to be a point, I try to encourage them, sometimes quoting the C.S. Lewis passage in the epigraph. And as bad as this is, it isn't start-of-World-War-II-in-England bad. But in all honesty, I wonder what the point is of many things I once took for granted.

Since this whole blog is frequently a meditation on the question of "what's the point of writing when I don't know if I'll ever even be read?" I can't deny that I always faced this question long before a Falangist takeover of the White House.  But a crisis, or at least what I feel is likely to push us very close to crisis, adds to this the question, "What's the point of writing literary stories and writing about literature when the world is hanging in the balance?"

I've had a somewhat encouraging 2016 as a writer. Two stories were published, one winning "story of the month." I won honorable mention in a contest. But I'm still probably never going to have any kind of major cultural impact as a writer. I have to know this with every word I write.

But this isn't any different than the human condition is for almost everyone. All our best efforts, sooner or later, mostly lead to nothing. In the end, humanity will probably ruin itself with its own greed and stupidity. But we keep fighting the good fight until the end, because humanity is roughly equal parts noble and beautiful to his greedy and stupid parts. I was going to lead into a meditation on Norse stoicism in the face of certain doom, but I remembered that Tolkein often corrected the notion of Germanic fatalism as simply "we are all going to die, but we must die on the side of good, anyway." His version was richer. It wasn't faith, the sure belief that things will turn out alright in the end. It was more a grim hope. Things will probably end badly, but you never know until the end, so you might as well keep trying to make it turn out alright until there really is no hope.

Right now, that hope seems like a fool's hope. Writing stories seems like a waste of time. But if we've learned anything from recent history, it's that culture and politics move together. Writers write. We concern ourselves with truth. Politics work themselves out as a necessary corollary.

That doesn't mean we avoid the political. Anis Shivani has written that "a consistent characteristic of contemporary American poetry is the flattening of history in the individual's private agony." I left graduate school because I saw no essential evangelical message in the profession of literature, nothing it had to say to those who were not professional literature theorists. Just as the pendulum has swung in American politics, it now needs to swing in literature. Our characters, our poetic narrators, need to come out of themselves. They need to end the tyranny of pulling the world into their own narrow interior and private lives, to open their own private lives to the public space. This isn't political didacticism. It's just realizing that there is a world outside of art that art must speak to. If we fail to make that appeal, art suffers, just as a political ideology that failed to appeal to the world outside itself just suffered.

Artists aren't that different from the disappointed liberals I spoke of above who've lost the ability to argue their basic tenets because they didn't think they had to. Writers have forgotten to write stories that readers outside the academy love, because they forgot they had to. It was a given that literature had value. Well, it's not a given anymore. Writers have lost the ability to evangelize, a word I've now used three times in this post. It just means "to tell good news." The news doesn't even really have to be all that good. You can say the world is falling apart as long as someone else can hear thoughts they haven' t been able to express and feel less alone in knowing it's falling apart. But to bring others into your imaginative world, you first have to recognize that they even exist.