My perm, 1985
Writers at all levels often ask the same question about their older publications. Why can’t they publish the work again?
It’s a reasonable question, and it’s doubtful that the larger literary world would ever know if work a writer published in a tiny campus publication or on a now-defunct small web journal is republished in another venue—almost certainly a small venue itself.
But published work is published work—and I think it’s much healthier to move on than to try to wrong a second life out of a piece of writing. I’ll explain this momentarily.
It’s the rare journal that publishes reprints, although I’m sure a lot of magazines unwittingly do so when writers take a may-as-well attitude about the matter. It can be extremely difficult to take an honest route toward second publication—unless that is via a method everyone approves of, which is through the publication of a writer’s collected works.
If that hypothetical campus publication I mentioned had a print run of fifty copies, of which thirty were picked up for free from a table in the English Department and twenty are slated to sit on a shelf for a dozen years and then be recycled by an unsentimental assistant professor on a cleaning tear, then surely no harm can be done by sending them to a print journal, right? After all, the typical print journal has a press run of a few hundred, selections of which may be featured on a seldom-visited website. Overlapping audiences could not be less likely.
There is a very common way that published work disappears, too, and becomes, for all effects, unpublished. Sometimes on social media, I see writers complaining that the online journal that accepted their work just disappeared one day. Maybe the editors were dilettantes who only had a year or two of effort and commitment to offer. Maybe someone forgot to pay for web hosting. The writers probably presumed that their work would always be there, and in their disappointment with finding the work has disappeared, their thoughts turn to finding a new home for it.
I understand the disappointment when a good poem, story, or essay doesn’t get maximum reach. Disappearing web publications feel especially sad, since there remains no artifact that the work was ever published at all.
I do hate it when writers lament publishing in small venues, like a local zine or a printed campus litmag. After all, publishing in a venue like that is a nod toward community—a way to participate and bond with other writers who share a ZIP code or an alma mater. I have participated in a lot of local ventures like this, always with my best available work, and I have never regretted “wasting” good work on a small audience. Instead, I’ve been proud of each publication, and each trip to a mic at a release party. Publishing a poem is nice. Publishing a poem and getting some free cheese and cocktail sausages in the company of like-minded people? That’s even better.
There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to get a larger audience for a piece of writing, provided a submitter is honest. A cover letter can just admit that the work was in a local zine with a print run of twenty. The average editor won’t bat an eye at considering the work—but as an editor myself, I have to admit: I would.
The joy of publishing writers’ work is in the unveiling of it. As an editor, I have always loved the pure glee of introducing new writers to the world, or of pulling back the curtain on bold new work that no one has ever seen before. This is the big payoff—the reward of being involved in publishing.
I’ll admit up front that I’ve made practically no money in my life from editing literary journals. Oh, occasionally I was able to take home the cheese and sausage from a public event if I perfectly timed the pulling of plasticware from my tote bag in the moments after the crowd left and before the catering staff came to clear the platters. And I love cheese. But as payment goes, that’s not really sufficient for the effort.
What is sufficient is the feeling I get from helping to propel the ship of American letters. And republishing some old poem, essay, or story? Well, that’s a poor propeller—and choosing to reprint work from among a submission pool of hundreds upon hundreds of unpublished pieces is an activity that holds little appeal to me. The unveiling is the thing. The re-unveiling? That’s kind of meh.
I repeat myself a lot in this blog I think, but that’s because I repeat myself frequently in my thinking about what it means to be a writer and publisher. And I know I’ve mentioned this before, and recently—but writers should focus on writing. If I won’t print your essay from when you were a junior in college (and I won’t), I hope that compels you to write something brand new.
An acquaintance of mine is always trotting out the same essay. She is a wonderful writer, and she has sent this short-form essay to dozens of outlets. No one has snatched it up, and so she keeps revising it, and keeps asking people like me to read the latest version and weigh in.
I’m tired of that essay. My friend is too talented to stop at just one, and I feel a little vexed to see it again and again. What’s more, it’s probably over-revised—I believe it’s possible to polish the spark away. I’m hardly the first to note that there is an energy to rawness—like in the beginning of “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd, when it’s possible to hear David Gilmour’s finger rub across the string to produce an involuntary enharmonic tone, and to hear another person, I’m not sure who, cough once in the background. I know it’s possible to attain a cleaner version, but I listen for the rub and the cough. They’re my favorite parts.
Work a piece too hard and we lose the edge. I believe this. But I also believe that if we work a piece too hard and too long, we’re ignoring all of the work that waits to be written. And that’s the real tragedy of doting on our past publications.