Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Editors can face ethical quandary when submitting

An editor friend recently expressed a familiar feeling, and it occurred to me that non-editors might find her dilemma interesting.

She noted that she was ready to send out work again, but she felt nervous. Some of the editors she intended to target were writers she had published, and some were people she had rejected. Would the former group think she expected preferential treatment? Would the latter give her a fair shake?

I offered my friend a cautionary tale. During my dozen years at the helm of Mid-American Review, I sent out very few submissions, and I think I set my writing career back about, oh, twelve years.

I had scored some excellent publications before my editorship—Poetry, Crab Orchard Review, North American Review, and lots more. I was off to a decent start. Smarter poets parlay that kind of publication success into a book, and then they turn around and parley a book into a job, maybe tenure. But I cut myself off at the knees, only to restart and score my first full-length collection at the somewhat gold-toned age of forty-seven.

My personal regrets aside, there were actually many benefits to not submitting while I was an editor. The average submitter may be surprised by how badly some editors behave. Some directly offer a quid-pro-quo arrangement—if you publish my story, I’ll publish your poem. Honest to God, it happens.

Some approach the mutual backscratching tacitly. I know of many cases where an acceptance at a journal is followed up immediately with a query about submitted work. And an acceptance that follows right on the heels of the other editor’s acceptance can feel nebulously slimy (if such a texture exists). I’ve also received rejections immediately upon rejecting another editor. The message is clear, and it’s almost certainly not a coincidence.

Being an editor often does lead to friendships with other editors. We have listservs and social media groups, and we all seem to know each other. (And yes, we talk when submitters misbehave—names and everything.) Knowing another editor on a listserv is not a friendship, though. Even a Facebook “friendship” is not a friendship, in the classical sense of the term; it’s just a corporate term that says nothing about the affection between the parties. But sometimes you grab a drink with that person you know from Facebook, and a true-blue camaraderie can result. I believe it’s wrong to send work to a good buddy. There are enough magazines out there that we can avoid these conflicts of interest.

Good journals don’t print writers from their mastheads, unless it’s in the form of a review or an interview. And good journals don’t feature only the friends of the editors. When a journal is the real deal, it keeps solicitations to a minimum and approaches general submissions in good faith, with the intention of finding the bulk of the journal’s work therein.

My friend is right to be cautious, and she still may want to avoid those journals where she has had even professional contact with the person who accepts or rejects submissions. Duotrope has listings for 5,745 markets (today’s figure), and I discover new mags that I like almost every day. It’s possible to look further in choosing a market.

My advice to my friend was to avoid the mistakes I made—and dishonoring my art was indeed a grave error. Maybe some potential reader needed one of my poems. I’ve been changed in huge and humbling ways by poems I’ve read, but for twelve years, I didn’t let my poems do their work in the world. It’s entirely possible that a poem of mine could have changed someone’s thinking, helped someone to connect, or clarified and lightened a concern. It’s not snobbish to suggest this is a possibility. Poetry is the highest form of my expression; I have nothing better to offer.

I told my friend to honor the art. No piece of writing is complete until it finds an audience. The act of submitting provides a certain very real audience—an editor, maybe a staff. But it is also the only realistic route to reaching an audience and having an impact.

Short-changing our art does us very little good. Respecting and standing behind our work, even when there is a chance of tomfoolery, is the best thing we can do as editors. Doing so can help us to take the work of submitters much more seriously—and to see editing, like writing, as a high calling.

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