Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Good news for the irredeemable: There is no naughty list

Let me just say this up front: Editors do not share a blacklist.

I’ve heard writers worry about this when they’ve made a particularly egregious misstep. Poor record-keeping can result in publishing the same piece in more than one outlet. We can forget to include a journal in a book’s acknowledgements. We can include a quote from another writer in our work and forget to include attribution. These are serious mistakes, and nothing to be proud of.

But the thinking among a lot of submitters is that editors share names of people who commit infractions, and this really isn’t the case. The fact is that the mistakes I mentioned are very common ones, and they are easily attributable to error instead of malice. Editors are in the practice of overlooking these issues. Most don’t even maintain their own blacklist, much less a common one.

Oh, sure, there are those submitters make missteps, and we remember them. I can think of one person who writes in three genres and always has a half-dozen active submissions at any one time. And I can think of another who used to stuff up to twenty dog-eared poems into an envelope—some of those duplicates, or the exact same copy, of poems sent before.

If editors had their druthers, submissions would be targeted with some care, and writers wouldn’t flood them with multiple submissions at one time. But that’s merely vexatious; it’s not sinful. 

Some of the things writers do are kind of charming, even if they undermine the work. One writer I can think of would always send a picture of herself astride an exotic animal (I’m being deliberately vague, since maybe I’m talking about you), and another who would take this a step further and include a signed, glossy eight-by-ten photograph with his work. Like most editors, I read the stuff, but it’s not propitious to elicit an eyeroll before the first “Roses are red.”

The secret lives of editors are not significantly different than the public lives of editors. I’m guessing most work harder than a lot of submitters realize, but the work itself is pretty transparent, thanks to Duotrope, Rejection Wiki, and social media. This is as it should be.

But editors do talk, especially when submitters behave badly. And our favorite topic is the angry rejectee.

On occasion, writers respond angrily, or even threateningly, to rejections. Over the years, I’ve read plenty of correspondence that asks me what the view is like with my head up my own ass, or why in the world I consider myself qualified to judge a poet’s brilliant response to a dead Turkish mystic, or what I have against [insert literary style or school here], or why I foolishly passed up work that [insert name of minor journal] just accepted.

I get it. I’m dumb. <shrugs>

Editors like to laugh about this stuff, but very often we do so without naming the writer. It’s hard to keep track of several thousand names, and not worth it anyway. To be honest, very few writers do anything new, on the page or with their behavior. I’m more frequently surprised by the work than by correspondence, even the most vile sort. It may feel like people are always coming up with new ways to be terrible to one another, but the categories tend to be predictable, and the ways the specifics vary aren’t significant. Whether insult, undermine, or guilt, the source of offense is seldom a source of surprise.

Exciting work is a source of surprise, and that’s the thing we’re hungry for. Even in a literary journal full of excellent writing, it’s only the rarest piece that actually offers something brand new. Believe me, we talk about these writers.

The closest a writer can come to landing on a blacklist is through true harassment, such as threats, unwelcome sexual advances, misogyny, or racism. There’s not a literal list—we’re not updating Google Docs with the names of jerks—but if a writer dares to threaten an editor, online or in person, word gets out—and not just among editors. Bullying is not afforded secrecy in the literary field. Those who would try to harm others through their power or influence can face a dire and deserved reward.

The writing world is a small one. This, though, is not the reason that submitters and editors alike ought to conduct themselves with courtesy and respect—attitudes that should extend both ways. The fact is that our small world is also, frequently, a mean one. And sometimes kindness is the only true surprise.

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