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.


  1. Jake:

    I've always said you should be a critic! I remember in a comp lit seminar I took years ago (the Gothic Novel, if it matters), one of the topics was the notion that critics were supplanting authors. Maybe so. It reminds me a bit of Tom Wolf's Painted Word where he joked that the art required narrative, and so the critic became almost more important than the art itself. So it may be with the literary mode.

    I wonder as I read this, not whether or not people are good writers, but whether or not they are competent technicians, schooled at the workshops. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. The romantic notion of the artist as vates (=prophet) may be false: for long enough prior to that, artists were simply tradesmen. Maybe technical prowess is enough, and you are reading the evidence of writing as trade rather than art. The art might be rare. I don't know, but I remember H. L. Mencken's comments on the rarity of truly good writing. He wrote that he had offered to publish the work of any unknown whose efforts were truly meritorious, and despite all the submissions (some tied up in ribbons and twine) he could very almost none that were anything but dreadful. Yet, if more of those dreadful writers had managed to attend a workshop, perhaps they would have been technically competent and no more. Tradesmen for a dying trade, but not truly great. Turns out, with training, being decent is probably downright common. Lots of C and B writers out there.

    And as a final thought about the relationship between writer and audience: you and I have discussed before. But I can't help but think of ancient writers, who definitely were conscious of audience reception, yet also were supremely self-confident. A Callimachus who simply declared that he was traveling an unbeaten path; a Catullus who might claim to make someone famous by virtue of the quality of his poetry. These guys used their own self-sense as a guiding light rather than a kind of deference to audience. I think that's a pretty decent course to take, although, I suppose, a Dickens or a Trollope are good enough counterexamples.

    1. In grad school, there were several contentious readings by the creative writing students (who all were in the same lit classes with the straight lit grad students) where some literary critic or theorist in the audience would insist that his work was more fundamental and would last longer than that of the creative writer. This seems like an absurd notion, of course--what is the critic to write about, if not what the artist produces? But they often stuck to that belief pretty tenaciously.

      I feel while I read through the submissions, and also as I read any journal or anthology, that I'm reading a lot of B+ or A- work. It isn't just technically sound. It's the product of a thoughtful mind. But those thoughtful minds seem often very timid about saying anything that can be interpreted as a theme having to do with how people ought to act in the real world. It's all just a self-reflexive hand-wringing about what's to be done with all the bad things in the world.

      Your comparison of the self-confident vs the commercially-minded writer makes me think of Lope de Vega, who once supposedly said "if anyone says I wrote for fame, undeceive him and say that I wrote for money." Honestly, even more than vanity, I think the allure of writing is the wild dream that I could somehow manage to support myself and be able to quit my job. Melville was the one, I think, who pointed out that there really isn't any dignity in work, much as everyone tries to pretend there is. There's dignity in leisure.