Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Editors, we invite you to submit again

In an effort to see what kind of clothes the emperor is wearing today, I checked out several of the thumbnail descriptions provided by some of the nation’s top literary magazines on Duotrope.

The experience was illuminating.

Once again, literary people prove themselves to be among the least imaginative people around. Here’s an amalgamation of what I found:

INSERT NAME HERE publishes a wide variety of the best possible work by a bunch of different kinds of writers.

Don’t believe me? Here are a few descriptive statements, culled randomly (and quickly) from listings that the journals themselves provide. Mind you, I would be delighted to have my work appear in any of these journals. And lest I appear too judgmental of others, I even included my own journal—I won’t say where.

  • We provide a venue for writers of any background, at any point in their literary careers, to showcase their best writing.
  • Past contributors include winners of [top literary prizes], and many writers seeing their work in print for the first time.
  • We are equally interested in work by both new and established writers.
  • XXX seeks to identify and encourage emerging writers while also attracting the work of established writers to create a diverse and compelling magazine.
  • We are interested in prose and poetry that experiment with form, narrative, and nontraditional subject matter, as well as more traditional literary work.
  • XXX publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners alongside up-and-coming writers.
  • By publishing new fiction, poetry, and nonfiction that is both challenging and inviting, XXX encourages artistic exchange and thought-provoking innovation, while also providing publishing opportunities to writers at all stages in their careers.
  • We are a general interest literary quarterly. Our watchword is quality.
  • XXX is an international literary journal dedicated to our mission of publishing the best contemporary fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and translations.
  • XXX publishes poetry, short fiction, and essays.
  • XXX has published quality literature since [year].

Often, editors are among the first to complain that there is too much work—that writers submit indiscriminately; that simultaneous submissions flood their systems; that submitters too vastly outnumber subscribers. Editors want less slush and more of the good stuff.

As do we all, in all areas of life.

However, let’s turn the lens around for a moment and ask the fair question: Why do people who pretty much uniformly seek the best and most innovative work have so little of quality to say about their own product?

Obviously, themed journals have it a little easier. Additionally, when a journal publishes only one genre, it’s easier to be descriptive about it. A journal that publishes poetry, essays, and fiction almost has to be general in a brief description, because it’s hard to cover all of these genres in a brief paragraph.

A journal I work on as interviews editor, SmokeLong Quarterly, has a very cool mission, and this is reflected in its description:

The SLQ aesthetic remains an ever-changing, ever-elusive set of principles, but it most likely has to do with these kinds of things: * language that surprises * narratives that strive toward something other than a final punch line or twist * pieces that add up to something, oftentimes (but not necessarily always) meaning or emotional resonance * honest work that feels as if it has far more purpose than a writer wanting to write a story. We have a special place in our hearts, more often than not, for narratives we haven't seen before. For the more familiar stories—such as relationship break-ups, bar scenarios, terminal illnesses—we tend to need something original and urgent in the writer's presentation. We are all writers at SLQ, and we try to be sensitive to the nature of submitting your work—which we realize is often your very private and important selves—to strangers. We so appreciate your entrusting us with your submissions, and although author names and bios are available to us, the staff rarely, if ever, accesses this information before reading each piece. In short, we want what all readers want from you—something sincerely and uniquely yours, something that stands up to rereading and lingers in our consciousness long after.

Nowhere in here is the whole “established and new” thing, and nowhere is the notion that we print the best quality work. These ideas can be assumed as we work to describe what it is we love to see. It’s still a little general—it’s uniquely yours, it lingers. But I think this is an excellent stab at what I’d like to see a lot more of—a journal’s personality coming through in the way it talks about itself and the work it does.

I, ahem, reject the mission statements of most literary journals—so few of them measure up to the actual missions they carry out as they do the vital work of unleashing new literature on the reading public. I’d like to call for a more thoughtful approach to describing the work we do as editors, even as we constantly call for writers to up their game and to be fresh and innovative themselves.

It’s only fair.


  1. An extremely good post. I do think there are reasons for some of this vagueness, though:

    Editors don't want to miss out on good submissions by making their requirements too specific.

    Editors may not be aware of just how specific their own requirements and tastes are (or they are aware but want to project an air of openness nonetheless, hoping that something comes along and surprises them).

    They know that writers, even good ones, often lack self-confidence, and are afraid of discouraging new and uncertain writers from submitting.

    And maybe, if they keep their descriptions vague, more people will subscribe to the magazine to see what it's all about. Because, and this is a subject I'd love you to tackle, there seem to be a lot more people submitting work to literary journals than actually reading them.

    None of this is to say that vague descriptions are a good idea. But I can see a number of rationalizations for it, valid or otherwise.

    1. Those sound like pretty good explanations to me. Like you, I question whether vagueness in the service of openness is a good strategy. We tend to really like those journals that seem distinctive in some way. I like the SmokeLong mission not because it says anything terrifically fresh, but because some personality and voice shine through. A journal should have a voice.