“Literacy does not involve knowing the meanings of words, or learning grammar, or reading books.”
–Wendell Berry, Preface: The Joy of Sales Resistance
“Literacy does not involve knowing the meanings of words, or learning grammar, or reading books.”
–Wendell Berry, Preface: The Joy of Sales Resistance
“I don’t believe that a reviewer or a critic can really criticize well unless he can praise well. I always liked that about Randall Jarrell. He praised well. James Agee praises well. You’ve got to be able to like the right things to be enabled to dislike the wrong things.”
Lord Byron: “There are more poets (soi-disant) than ever there were, and proportionally less poetry.”
Similarly, there are more editors (soi-disant) than ever there were, and proportionally less editing.
It’s a shame—but not surprising—how closely literary magazines parallel the corporate world. Their dedicated staff may claim immunity, falsely subscribing to a romantic notion of purpose. But with colleges and universities willingly and eagerly adhering to market standards, triumph of the commercial…
Let’s compare. The first two responses below are from literary magazines, the third from a potential employer—a company.
Thank you for your submission to —————— . Though we appreciate your time and work, we regret to inform you that it is not a right fit for our journal. Please consider submitting to us in the future.
Thank you for sending us —————— . We appreciated the chance to read it. Unfortunately, your piece is not quite right for us. Consider submitting to us again, though!
Thanks again. Best of luck with this!
Dear Nathan E.,
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking the time recently to speak with us regarding our need for a ——————. We enjoyed speaking with you and appreciated your patience throughout our search process.
While we were very impressed with your qualifications, we were faced with a difficult decision, and I regret to inform you that we finally selected another candidate who we believe more closely matches what we are looking for in the position.
However, we will be glad to keep your resume [sic] on file should we become aware of any other appropriate positions in the near future. I would also encourage you to visit our website as new positions become available.
Thank you again for your interest and good luck in all your future endeavors!
First off, there’s simply nothing tragic about having my work excluded from a literary magazine—any literary magazine. So let’s cut out the word “unfortunately.”
I regret to inform you that we have never been, and likely never will be, on a first name basis. Don’t patronize me.
I’m not so naïve, or desperate, to believe my work has any value to these readers. Hardly encouraging, especially given the likelihood that those very same words were doled out to any number of other contributors. Why should I consider sending additional work of mine—upon receiving such a safe, sterile, uncommitted response? I’m no glutton for puerile mishandling of my work.
I don’t submit, I offer.
Edmund Wilson: “It is astonishing to observe, in America, in spite of our floods of literary journalism, to what extent the literary atmosphere is a non-conductor of criticism. What actually happens, in our literary world, is that each leader or group of leaders is allowed to intimidate his disciples, either ignoring all the other leaders or taking cognizance of their existence only by distant and contemptuous sneers.”
For “leaders” substitute entrenched writers (i.e., established writers) and so-called editors at various literary magazines who, despite their prominence, remain largely unworthy of emulation.
“In reality the duty of a writer – the revolutionary duty, if you like – is that of writing well.”
–Gabriel García Márquez
* * *
“A poet who can’t make the language sing doesn’t start.”
Ours is a shameful time of no reply (to borrow from Nick Drake). Feel free to send along your compliments, a copy of your newly published book—and enjoy no response whatsoever. Little interest in dialogue and discussion. Minimum gratitude.
What’s the return?
I find both terms unpalatable: emerging/established. Emerging best applies to some newfound disease, established evokes a colonial undertaking.
For those who have—
The established ones, warm and dry in their makeshift office, salaried, sealed off, critically acclaimed, amicably awarded…perhaps they do recognize that fundamentally we no longer have a literary scene. Instead, a literary market: cutthroat, opportunistic—where one slip will undo all they’ve been clinging to. They can’t be bothered.
“There are great poets who rage in the margins, like William Blake, and poets unknown in their own lifetime, like Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Alexander Pope’s was a public genius, like Ben Jonson’s or Lord Byron’s or Oscar Wilde’s. These figures were news, as no living writer of authentic eminence is today, though we have geniuses of publicity, which is not quite what I mean by a “public genius” (Bloom).
I’m done competing.
Aspiring writer? I have my suspicions, especially when those words come from an adult.
Enough. Writing is the most difficult work I know.
Ben Jonson: “For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries: to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style.”
Rilke, easily quoted, but the question must be honestly, ruthlessly assessed: “There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”
I know, along with Flannery O’Connor, “that few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a ‘killing.’ They are interested in being a writer, not in writing.”
Whitman, also easily quoted: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.” But I question how seriously he’s taken.
Tess Gallagher: “When you start reading in a certain way, that’s already the beginning of your writing. You’re learning what you admire and you’re learning to love other writers. The love of other writers is an important first step. To be a voracious, loving reader.”
We aren’t suffering a shortage of writers—but a dearth of expert readers. Aspire to be stellar in your reading, unmatched in your discretion. Everyone’s a writer, only when the writing’s left behind.
* * *
There’s easy money to be made, playing it safe, writing for personal gain, conducting feel-good workshops, hosting family-friendly readings. This, from Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists, which clearly extends to the arts and higher education:
“One well-publicized finding is that although the developed Western nations have become better off in a financial and material sense, they are not any happier than they were decades ago. In fact, in The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to Be Happy (2010), Michael Foley argues that modern life has made things worse, ‘deepening our cravings and at the same time heightening our delusions of importance as individuals. Not only are we rabid in our unsustainable demands for gourmet living, eternal youth, fame and a hundred varieties of sex, we have been encouraged—by a post-1970s ‘rights’ culture that has created a zero-tolerance sensitivity to any perceived inequality, slight or grievance—into believing that to want something is to deserve it.’ Moreover, ‘the things we have are devalued by the things we want next’—another consequence of capitalism.”
First, a necessary timeline and some relevant details. On 7/22/13 I submitted a short essay to Red Branch Journal.
Here’s their take on response time: Due to the number of submissions received, please know a response may take several weeks, but respond we will.
It’s possible, of course, that the editors of Red Branch Journal have some obscure idea or oddly private notion of what several means. I indicated, as I always do, that my essay was also currently under consideration at other literary magazines. Not that they’re opposed to simultaneous submissions. At least, nothing in their guidelines prohibits such.
On 8/1/13 I got this absurd request:
Thank you for your submission to Red Branch. We look forward to reading your work—please note that it may be several weeks before you hear from us, as reading each submission takes some time. In the meantime, please inform us immediately if you are seeking publication of your work elsewhere or if it has already been accepted.
I replied minutes later that yes indeed my essay was under consideration elsewhere.
Several months go by.
On 11/12/13 I inquired about the status of my essay, although I was fairly certain they didn’t want it.
I got a reply on 11/18/13:
Thank you for the note, and sorry for the delay in response. We’re wrapping up the last of our submissions, and will have a decision to you as soon as we can. Thanks again for checking in. We’ll let you know shortly.
Ok. Enough nonsense. Pretty obvious to me that my work wasn’t being seriously considered. So on 12/12/13 I withdrew my essay.
On 1/21/14 I got a canned rejection:
We apologize for the length of time it has taken for us to respond. Due to the volume of submissions we received, giving each piece the care it deserves and in turn replying to all queries took much longer than expected. While we are grateful for your submission to Red Branch, we will not be including it in our forthcoming winter issue. Nonetheless, we wish you the best of luck with your writing and hope you consider our pages for any future work.
Sorry for the inconvenience. This cheap, effortless response shows profound disrespect—galling disdain—for words, for the potency and perils of composition. What many of these editors (dreadfully inaccurate title) fail to realize is that yes, contributors also include those whose work is turned down (for whatever reason). There are simple, effective ways to limit the number of submissions received other than by exhibiting outright indifference and petty condescension toward authors whose offering doesn’t make the cut. I’m willing to make things a little easier for the staff at Red Branch Journal. They don’t have to worry about ever reading anything more from me, that’s definite.
Our days of protest are far from over.
What steps to stanch the hemorrhaging?
A fine irony, the assigned reading of Czeslaw Milosz’s “Ars Poetica?” in the writing program I attended, a program insisting that a fresh poem be delivered with about the same regularity as a bowel movement. Final stanza:
What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
Serious poetry—writing that requires reading—unlikely comes after a day spent at the amusement park. Definitely not ten minutes before class or workshop. Writing programs may advertise, as one of their ostensible aims, improvement. But the programs are tethered, symbiotically, to publication—and the little magazines with their attendant staff display faint or zero interest in improving a poem. (Count how many rejections contain the least bit of advice.) “Our editorial decisions have more to do with our own tastes and preferences than the quality of your submission….” One vote for sweet, one vote for salty. Loudest wins.
A distressing sign of our times…ignorance and inability (i.e., gross incompetence) presented so casually. It’s nothing to boast about—lacking adequate means to determine the quality of a poem, story, essay, song, painting, photograph, film.
“Mediocre people support mediocre people, and they support mediocre objects.”
“Poems that demand—and reward—rereading are rare, almost extinct.”
First up: George Orwell
“Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless,’ while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’”
We could easily substitute poem for book. (Poems via literary magazines.) The cause? Inadequate reading is certainly one factor. (I’m referring to self-serving historical perspective that contentedly champs on its own shortcomings.) Student readers, default editors, resemble deaf persons, unable to read lips, talking out loud to other deaf persons. It’s as though, even if one takes a course on poetry, gaining exposure to the mechanics and devices, the attributes of celebrated writing remain non-transferable: isolated from whatever writing the student produces.
Look where students look. Why, for example, would the Paterson Literary Review publish a poem beginning
After my grandparents moved into my
parents’ dining room in Omaha;
after they wound up in South Dakota
one evening after getting the oil
changed in their car;
after the police came and tried to reason
and ask questions about their whereabouts;
we packed their belongings again
and moved them into an assisted living home.
(Jim Reese, “His Secret Stash”) which is the farthest thing from poetry? It’d be more enlightening masturbating with a jagged beer bottle. How could this outshine all other submissions? What’s the catch? Quid pro quo. Trace the career. I recently received a rejection in which the editor had the audacity to claim that pedigree (his word) mattered not a bit in the selection process. Only a matter of taste (his taste). Yet almost every poet he publishes has a solid pedigree: one or more full-length collections, multiple awards and nominations, prestigious appointments (laureateship). Coincidence? Why bother accepting unsolicited submissions?
Business never personal. That rejection contained numerous typos. It goes beyond indifference, edging closer and closer to outright contempt. Reminds me of junk mail where the font is purposefully designed to resemble personal handwriting—so caring. Again, my point is that if someone truly enjoyed my work—couldn’t they at the very least take a minute or two to write a comment, speak directly to my work (even if that’s in addition to the form rejection)? Or this one, arriving recently: “Unfortunately this particular piece was not the right fit for —————, but we were very impressed by your writing. We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.” Good for them. It’s no loss to me. Writing is the most difficult work I know. Selection for a magazine…I suppose that entails some degree of difficulty, when no standards apply.
What motive? Let’s skip heroics. We have a rampant poetic bloom smothering, choking, suffocating. Consider this: a dinky, non-ranking “national” literary magazine (published by a small college, featuring its own students along with outsiders) received 2,000+ submissions for its 2013 issue. Amazing. Or this: the form rejection in which a literary magazine refers to itself as a market.
Next up: Flannery O’Connor
“I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well.…They are interested in being a writer, not in writing. They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what.”
Why submit? Out of boredom.