Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What is your good name worth?

I have a friend who is an astonishingly talented poet. She writes work that has something to say, she is adventurous with syntax and form, and her work looks altogether fresh and interesting on the page.

Although she has a gorgeous first book, she is not having the success she aspires to with poetry, or at least not at the pace she would choose.

With work at a top-tier journal, she asked an interesting question: Exactly how helpful is a recognizable name for poets in the general submission pile?

The answer is complex, and it varies from journal to journal. An old, established journal isn’t likely to be excited by encountering a well-known name, but editors who have been working on journals for only a short time may feel downright thrilled.

And doesn’t it depend on the name? I can think of many writers who are coming onto the scene and getting a lot of social media buzz, but the fact is, an editor who is not very connected to social media may not even recognize such a poet. Sounds crazy, but you do run into the occasional (paper) bookworm on literary journal staffs, and some have no interest in networking, social or otherwise. That’s the kind of job they pawn off on to the intern while they interact with work, as editors have done for as long as there have been editors.

Certain names are so prominent in the field that nearly anyone would take notice. That’s not to say those prominent writers get an automatic in. Once, I was editing a themed issue of a journal for people from a specific region, and a writer I’d been hoping to include sent work. I was thrilled! This was one of the most notable names in the region, and a publication dedicated to that area would not feel complete without a representative sample of his work.

But then I read it. Instead of the guy’s usual work, which was fresh and contemporary, he had sent the worst kind of doggerel—straight and obvious rhyme, insipid subjects, unsurprising delivery. I really examined it, wondering if something important was happening and I was missing it. Was this a brilliant commentary of some sort that I wasn’t picking up on?

And that’s an example of one thing a name does for a writer. If that name is on something horrible, an editor might pause to ask, “What the hell?” That’s what I did, and for several minutes—before I wrote my “Thanks, but” letter.

Of course, a small journal that gets few submissions may be willing to let go of a few standards for the opportunity to print work by a well-known writer. That sounds like an unequivocally bad thing, to change standards for an elite writer, unless we consider why an editor might do that.

When prominent writers send to small journals, they often don’t send their best work. That’s a big danger of soliciting their submissions; on occasion, the journal ends up with a large selection of B-sides from such a writer. I like to think that big-name writers sometimes try out their risky new work with smaller journals, but that’s an optimistic take. The chances are that good work goes to prominent or paying journals, and lesser work, the stuff that has made the rounds many times, goes to lesser-known journals. I suppose they think they’re doing the small journal a favor—and the small journal often agrees.

But these same journals print work, often the best available work, by unknown writers, and the fact is that a beginning writer gains exposure and stature by appearing in an issue with a major prize winner or a beloved name. Some magazines even have the expressed mission of publishing emerging writers alongside established ones. I happen to think standards should remain high, regardless of who sends work, but although I never printed work of low quality, I can’t swear that I never bent a little.

This takes me away from my friend’s query. What does a name do for a writer?

Mind you, my friend is getting some recognition. She has a great blog that gets a lot of attention, she’s an editor for a small literary press, and she has an absolutely beautiful book. But she doesn’t consider herself to be prominent, not that the idea has much meaning in the poetry world. (Is the well-known poet the one who sells 2,000 books instead of 200?)

For me as a reader, a recognizable name serves one useful purpose. If I’m not sure about what it is I’m seeing—if I’m asking myself, “Is this good?”—I might trust a poet whose work I know in a way that I wouldn’t trust a stranger. When an editor is doing first readings of work, the desire is to cull the pile. Nothing in the life of an editor is more troublesome than the “maybe” pile, and anything that can knock a submission out of contention is a good thing. Otherwise, it goes into the small stack of possibilities—a stack that still contains fifty times more work than the editor has room for.

In my desire to reject as much as I can, I want to keep the maybe pile small. A recognizable name might keep a submission alive a little bit longer. That’s the advantage when I’m at the helm, and it’s a pretty good one. I’ll give that submission another look; it stays alive another few days.

It’s useful to remember how prominent writers became prominent. They’re good. Oh, occasionally they become prominent for other reasons—risk-taking, timely subjects, a gimmick, fame from another field—but in general, a poet whose name we know is a poet who has broken into many a journal, and whose work is very strong.

I think that’s what we want—to be good, first, and then for people to recognize that we’re good. And my friend is much more than good—the kind of good that makes it into the maybe pile, and beyond, solely on its merit.

I’m sort of excited for the future, when I can say I knew her when.

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