December 30th, 2009 / 12:48 pm
Craft Notes

Thoughts on Submission (SFW)

These are some thoughts in response to Sean Lovelace’s post the other day, which asked “You do send your Very Best work Every time when submitting to a literary magazine, right?”It started out in the comment thread, but then I decided that his question deserved more of a commitment than that. Here goes.

I think this idea of “best” vs “not-best” is based on a fundamental, and mistaken notion that *every*thing one writes ought to be published. One-offs, exercises, middling poems and pieces of “flash”–well I already wrote it, the logic goes, so why not place it *some*where?

I wrote about this, a little bit, in a post that was really about problems of definition w/r/t the avant-garde, but I think the basic logic holds. People love to quote Beckett’s admonition to always “fail better” (I personally prefer Barthelme’s vision of “great glittering failures like a reason for our lives” that “try as we may, we cannot do other than fail and fail absolutely and that the task will remain always before us, like a meaning for our lives”) but I think that they are less eager to admit that part of the experience of failing is its utterness. [UPDATE: and which the correct version of the Barthelme quote makes totally clear.] If you find even some modest salvage of your effort–ie publishing in a shitty journal, but “at least getting published”–you haven’t truly failed, and therefore have failed to take the full measure of value from either your failure-as-a-learning-experience OR your getting-published-as-a-“success.”

I think that one of the great flaws in our scene is that even as we have recreated what “publishing” means, we haven’t re-thought what it means to “be published” or to “submit work,” and the result is a kind of hyper-inflation of publishing credentials. When everyone is getting “published” in 40 “journals” a month, what do these terms even mean, and what is their value qua the individual, or that individual’s body of work qua literature?

And I don’t mean to excuse myself from this critique. As I wrote in that old post, I am–or was, before my thinking changed–as guilty of this as anyone else. (And certainly, for a writer who doesn’t view this model as a problem, there would be nothing to feel “guilty” of.) But my own experience of the urge to “be everywhere” or publish as much material as widely as possible was that it often resulted in one of two things, either (1) “gaming the system” by sending out work that I knew wasn’t my best, but which I knew was good enough for the venue I was targeting (I think this is what Sean was getting at in his post) or else (2) sending out work that was still so fresh I didn’t have enough perspective on it to know whether it was something I would be proud of, or even want to have out there in the world, over the long term–longer, that is, than it takes to attach the word .doc and click submit. This was work that I felt strongly about at the time, because it was the freshest and most vivid in my own writerly-mind, and time proved me either right or wrong, but even w/r/t pieces that turned out satisfying, it must be admitted that in the instant of decision, I was absolutely firing blind.

I think this model–the online/indie-lit model–values output over either production OR consumption (because really, who is going to read all this stuff?) and I think that this is a function of digital culture–accelerated by the natural tendencies of American culture–which tends to value the fact of presence over the particulars of what’s presented. As we remake the world from the bottom up (top down? inside out? outside in? nobody really knows where we all exist relative to the idea of a “center” that itself may be little more than a fiction) it’s up to us to identify the flaws in our behaviors and assumptions, and to figure out how to overcome them. As Marilynne Robinson pointed out in a Harper’s essay I don’t have in front of me right now to cite (but am pretty sure I’ve cited on this site before), when someone quotes Pound’s injunction to “make it new,” they tend to put all the emphasis on the “new,” or, if they are being contrarian, on the fact that emphasizing “new” comes at the expense of emphasizing “make.” But nobody, it seems, ever puts the emphasis on “it”–the object of creation, the thing itself.

Save for a handful of book reviews–and, obviously, this blog, which is no small part of my writing-life–I have spent the entire past year or so of my life putting all of my creative energy into a novel. I haven’t written more than a few poems (certainly nothing that would ever be “submitted”) and not a single short story. I haven’t sent any of the novel excerpts out (which isn’t to say I won’t–only that I haven’t). Having literally nothing to send out on submission has afforded me a lot of perspective on the way that whole process works–it has forced a slowing-down, not unlike how a cold forces you to take the bed rest your healthy self needed at least as badly, but which healthy-you would not make the time to take. I feel better moving slower, with more deliberation and intent, and what work I do send out now–reviews, blog posts, whatever–tends to be stronger, to my own eye at least. I also find that I have a more developed sense of my work as really being mine, not a means to the end of getting published, but the end in itself. The result of this is that even when I have something to send out, odds are decent that I’m still not going to. In a culture that demands constant participation and production, standing-apart, or even just slowing down, puts you against the common grain, which is usually the right place to be.

All hail Saint Bartleby!

The question to an editor–whether they’ve solicited you, you’re submitting through the slush pile, or anything in between–should not be “can I be in your magazine?” The proper question is “are you interested in my work?” If the answer is yes, then wonderful, if not, then so be it, but it’s the way in which you choose to ask the question–rather than the question’s answer–that is what’s truly telling. I think.

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