Sunday, April 2, 2017

The human fallibility of literary journal editors

I'm into month five of my stint at a small-to-mid-sized literary journal. I just met the other readers a few nights ago. I realized that we informally call ourselves "readers," but the journal itself calls us "editors," so I am now, technically, permitted to refer to myself as an "editor." I demand respect now.

I realized something just yesterday as I was taking a few hours to try to help us catch up on the backlog. I have a few informal rules I've adopted without really saying I've adopted them. One is that I vote more leniently when I'm the first person to vote on a story. We generally have a "two no votes and it's out" rule. It seems to me, though, that when someone votes no in the first place, the story is more likely to get a second no and be gone. Maybe this is just because stories that get one no vote probably deserved a second, but I feel like even knowing that a story has been down-voted going in changes the perception of the editor. So I tend to up-vote more when I've gotten there first.

A more troubling tendency

In baseball, it's been known for some time now that umpires unconsciously shade their decision-making on calling balls and strikes. Among the biases: umpires are more likely to call a pitch a strike on a 3-0 count, less likely to call a strike on a batter with two strikes, and will sometimes show a "one-for-them, one-for-the-other-guys" tendency on close pitches.

Similar to the last of these biases, I've noticed that if I just upvoted a story, I am biased against upvoting the one right after it. Maybe I don't want to appear to the other editors like I'm too easy. Maybe I just think it's unlikely that lightning will strike twice in a row. Yesterday, I had two stories back-to-back and I wanted to give both an upvote. But I hesitated to do that, because it felt--on some completely bogus subjective level that I made up--to discredit me.

The moral is to take it easy on yourself when you get rejected

Umpires are slowly improving their biases with the help of highly accurate measurements of balls and strikes. (Many people, myself included, think Major League Baseball should just use the computer to call balls and strikes and take the human element out altogether.) Human literary editors may or may not be aware of their own biases. But we're humans, so we're full of them, including ones we might not be aware of. There is no computer-generated system we can use to show us where we're wrong.

Rejection is possibly the most common subject I come back to on this blog, and there's a reason. Since I found out I have a book coming out, I've had half a dozen rejections. They hurt nearly as much as they did three years ago. I don't know why it hurts, when I'm now watching the sausage get made and realize even more how imperfect decisions are. It just does.

Every writing blog or book of writing advice will tell you not to take rejection hard. It's cheap advice, but it's very hard advice to accept. "There was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently," Leonato put it in Much Ado About Nothing. Knowing something is so doesn't make it easy to accept it emotionally, especially when you've put so much work into writing something and get only an impersonal "no."

But maybe if you hear a truth enough times, you do start to internalize it, even if you don't want to. I am hereby adding by one to the number of times you've heard it, getting you that much closer to whatever that magic number is.


  1. This is why i don't do interviews. At any rate, I challenge you and your colleagues to accept submissions purely at random. Publish what comes of it. And one year later see if it's radically different in quality than you guys selected consciously. Odds are you'll find things you're happy with, and things your not, which probably will not be much different than if what comes of conscious choice.

    I was just talking today with my wife about this point, saying that people will take more care in reading something if fed first with the notion that the author is someone worth reading carefully. Otherwise, as readers, they'd be shoddy and superficial....

    Ironically, I hold the paradoxical position that art is something real and at some level objective, but that most decisions about what constitutes art are subjective. Of course, a paradox is a contradiction one can live with.

  2. That's an interesting idea, but I do think we'd be at least marginally better than randomness. There are enough objectively bad stories that come in (20%?) that a random generator would grab a few of them. But you're right that we could probably fill an entire magazine with things that we've rejected and it could be as good as what we put out.