Literary Rejections and Slush Pile Wars
There’s been a flurry of discussion in the blogosphere lately about what an editor should and should not say about submissions. LROD started with some complaints about VQR editor Ted Genoways, then Howard Junker of ZYZZYVA condemns Ted Genoways, and Ted Genoways responds, and Will Entrekin takes issue with the editor of Fence, the editor of Clarkesworld and myself.
The ethical issue in regards to cover letters might simply be about publishing private correspondence: writers submit a private text to the editor, and expect (in an unspoken contract) that it will remain private. Editors, by talking about or excerpting that text, break that contract. However, I believe that when this “private” correspondence is a mass submission to hundreds of journals, and when the letter betrays a complete lack of familiarity with the journal – calling it by the wrong name, or no name at all; misspelling the name of the editor, or writing a former editor, or no editor name at all; submitting an 85 page manuscript to a journal that publishes nothing over 20 pages – that this contract no longer retains its former strength. Also, as long as the editor offers the cover letter anonymously, they are only showing their submitters that the basic, professional courtesy of passing familiarity with the journal needs to be exercised when they submit. I don’t believe that it is abusing or disrespecting normal submitters in any way.
That would be the end of it except for those who are skittish and fearful. These are the people who are scared that their work will be ridiculed next. So when these people see the comments by the readers at VQR – “this is the worst thing I’ve ever read” – they are worried that the object of scorn is their own work. It seems rather obvious that these individuals are unpublished, because published authors are quite aware that part of the risk of publishing, or even trying to be published, is fraught with the possibility of ridicule. Look at Scott Snyder: he lands a story in VQR, quite a laudable feat, and people post on Literary Rejections on Display quite nasty things, like they couldn’t make it past the first paragraph, that the entire story lacked authenticity, and that the writing was terrible. I imagine this to be the case with every published story and book (if anyone talks about it all). Once you publish, prepare for an onslaught. There will always be someone out there telling you that your work is subliterate. There will always be someone, no matter how high your accomplishments, that will tell you that you couldn’t cobble together a fourth-grade-level sentence. If you think editors wield a heavy critical stick, try the general public. Which is not to excuse everything that an editor says: they too must exercise judgment. But offering anonymous slush pile critiques is nothing compared to what you’d actually receive in book reviews.
But to come back to what Genoways talked about, trying to reassure submitters – that none of the people mocked by the slush pile reviewers were the complainers. I’m sure he was right. I know, from my experience reading slush piles, the vast majority of pieces are merely mediocre. Mocking only comes about in regards to the 1% that is jaw-dropping terrible. If you really, really worry that you’re in that 1%, then either you have self-esteem issues or you need to work a bit longer on your craft, because you have to be in the top 1% to make it into these journals. To assume that all submissions don’t merit humor is simply to have never actually read a slush pile. However, I know that laughing in the slush pile room among fellow editors is vastly different than publishing those sentiments on the Internet. So is the problem with witnessing the mockery rather than simply knowing that it exists behind closed doors? Because it will always exist behind closed doors: no way to stop that.
If the people complaining have no fear that their manuscripts are being mocked, and they are only concerned with protecting others less talented than themselves, then that is a different topic. Then it becomes: Is an editor acting professionally by talking about their slush pile? I believe it to be an editorial choice. I have no problem with editors that talk about outlandish submitters, and I have no trouble with editors that don’t talk. I see nothing intrinsically disrespectful about complaining in an abstract, anonymous way about the quality of submissions received. Only the people with thin skins are likely to be put off. The people with thick enough skins to handle it are likely to be the better writers anyway.
But that’s cover letters. Let’s consider the manuscripts themselves. I would avoid publishing or talking about the actual text of submitted story or stories. There are many bad writers out there, and it does little good to condemn them. Even in a workshop setting, I believe it necessary to praise the author for something, even if the story on the whole needs vast improvement. But I don’t know an editor that has made slush pile manuscripts available – Ted Genoways shared the comments of his slush pile readers, which I believe are fairly typical of slush pile readings (if you’ve ever read a slush pile, you would likely say similar things). On the back cover of ZYZZYVA, Howard Junker often offers excerpts from cover letters, which are funny or naïve. But I’m not aware of editors that actually share bad manuscripts, and I hope that it stays that way.
Let me say it: I admire the vast percentage of people who submit to the Southern California Review. To anyone who doesn’t screw up our basic identity, I offer a fair and careful consideration of their manuscript. I admire people who submit for the eighth time to our journal, because even if we don’t accept that eighth one, I admire their tenacity. I love that rush from finding a brilliant manuscript. I love the whole process because I am engaged in this same process, the same postage-and-manila-envelope scheme, collecting the same stack of rejection slips. So fight on, and know that if you have even the slightest bit of respect for the literary journal, the literary journal will extend that respect right back to you.