Q & A #5
If you have questions about writing or publishing or whatever, leave them in the comments or e-mail them to roxane at roxanegay dot com and we will find you some answers.
Most places I am interested in submitting to ask for ‘no previously published material.’ But what constitutes previously published material? I understand why editors wouldn’t want a poem or story that is already available somewhere online or in a widely circulated journal. But what if your piece just shows up in your friend’s ‘zine, which he has only made 50 copies of and gives away for free? What if he has made 500 copies? What if he is selling them? What if they are only circulated in a single city? Ultimately my question is, where is the line drawn for previously published material? When is something considered published?
If it’s been in your friend’s zine and he only published 50 copies, feel free to submit it, unless you think there’s a realistic chance that one of those 50 copies got to the editor of that magazine. There probably isn’t. The line is arbitrary.
My feeling is that if the writer is worried that a story might be previously published, then it was probably previously published. That’s a broad answer, and perhaps not very helpful, but it seems like a fair general rule. It never hurts to just ask an editor, of course–Most people know what that answer means to them.
One of the ways I think about this question is to consider it as a question of audience. Roxane and I talked about this with her story that we published in The Collagist. I happened to log into Fictionaut (during their closed beta phase) and see it up there while I was strongly considering it. In response, I asked her to take it down before I considered it further, partly because I think we share some audience with Fictionaut users–So even though it wasn’t “published,” it had still been made available to people we considered readers. And that seemed like a boring thing to print for our readers. (It was also a worry because, from what I can tell, even when it was closed it was reasonably easy to Google into Fictionaut. That may no longer be true– It’s been a long time since I checked.) Now that Fictionaut is out of beta and more open to the public, I would personally consider anything posted on the main read boards there “published,” for the purposes of my own magazine.
Of course, there are no hard and fast rules. Other editors may have different takes. You can always just be upfront with them in your cover letter. Honesty’s a good place to start.
The bigger issue, to me, is less about when something is published, but about why publish your work somewhere that doesn’t count enough for you in the first place. If you can’t be happy with publishing a story in your friend’s zine, then don’t give your friend a story. Once you have, it’s better to let him have the credit of publishing you while you go on to write a new story, rather than to keep trying to pass off that already published one as unpublished.
I think editors are generally too stingy with their allowances of previously published material. If you sent to me and said that a piece had been in a friend’s zine or on your blog, I’d still read it. But some places, I think Poetry mag says this in their guidelines, say that previously published means in print anywhere online. Most magazines don’t say anything about zines, but they probably think of zines as “published material” which is bullshit. I mean, it is published, but zines should be a safe space, as should personal blogs. So, I don’t really have an answer except that you have to find editors who think like you do.
I’d say you should ask the editors at the places to which you’d like to submit in order to see what they say; you’ll probably get a variety of answers, but that’ll help you to figure out what exactly to send to whom. Honestly, I don’t often think about this question, because when I submit, I don’t have anything that was previously published. Once something gets published, it rests until I can figure out the manuscript for a book-length thingy. I’m not actively looking to republish things for myself. When I read for NOÖ, I’m usually pretty flexible on what I think is previously published, I mean, regarding those smaller, less obvious situations. For example, Mike and I took a piece for a recent issue that had been ‘published’ in a collective blog at a writing program. I don’t remember the details, whether or not the author queried or simply sent it in explaining it had only been on this particular blog, but I do know that we both liked it and wanted to give it a little bit more life. So if you sent me a piece or wrote to ask, ‘Hey, this has only been published in my friend’s Xerox Zine, is that okay?’ or whatever, then I wouldn’t have a problem with that, especially if it runs 50 copies. If it runs 500 copies, then I’d probably decline. But, really, this is something you should ask the editors at each magazine you’d like to send to.
I am increasingly less invested (and use that phrase too much) in worrying about whether work has been previously published. Many editors overvalue the whole notion of virgin discovery which is certainly exciting but there is lots of great writing that deserves to be published widely. Writers so often receive so little for their work–it would be nice to have more opportunities to publish reprints and expose work to wider audiences. It would be great to see more magazines less concerned with whether or not a story has been published in a venue where the number of people who have read their work is likely very limited. That said, there is a lot of crossover in audience across literary magazines and in that, you don’t want to be repackaging the same content your peer magazines are publishing. It’s a gray area. I don’t think anything published on a blog has been published in the traditional sense nor do I consider work on Fictionaut published. For something to be published, there needs to be a vetting process in place. Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule for this.
Editors, be honest: For publications that don’t specify rules on this, is it ever appropriate to query, and even if it is, does it ever actually help? Or does it just irritate you? Is it better just to figure, hey, they didn’t like the story, and mark it off as rejected after six months or so?
I don’t think querying an editor about your submission is a bad thing. I think it is a useful way to maintain that bit of communication necessary to what writers and editors do. I think editors can benefit from actively welcoming queries, and I also think writers can benefit from patiently submitting their work to editors. I think a query can track down a submission; I don’t think a query will change the outcome of an editor’s evaluating the submission, but I do think it can help nudge the process a little if a good amount of time has passed. I’ve had queries go unanswered, unfortunately. If that happens, I think it’s a good thing to avoid taking personally such minor errors.
It’s certainly sometimes acceptable to query, especially if you suspect your submission was lost. But if you’re just trying to find out why you haven’t heard anything yet, then I wouldn’t suggest it. I think when you’re rushing an editor, the editor is going to take the easiest route to dealing with your work. And that route is more than likely to just reject it, especially at magazines with multiple editors and staff meetings and long roads from the slush to the acceptance letter. If you don’t like how long a publication takes to respond, don’t send your work to them again.
Many of the HTML GIANT contributors seem to have strong theoretical backgrounds. Is a theoretical background necessary to become a good writer? Which theorists would you recommend for someone wanting to develop their theoretical knowledge?
Of course it’s not necessary. The way this question is phrased makes it sound “HTML GIANT contributor” = “good writer” or vice versa. Obviously HTML Giant are a super super small subset of writers in general. And to be honest I’m even exactly sure what a “theoretical background” is. If it’s what I think it is–an education involving lots of reading/analysis of literary theory and Barthes and Foucault and Deleuze and shit like that–then I truly, honestly think that a person is more likely to be an interesting writer if he or she has not had a theoretical background. I would encourage any aspiring writer to read the complete works of Stephen King over the complete Foucault any day.
No it is not. Nothing is required except a lot of reading. Theory is fun if you like to nerd out everyone once in a while. Roland Barthes is awesome.
Nobody needs theory. That’s what’s fun about it. You don’t need theory to be a good writer, but sometimes theory—if you have the time and luxury to mess with it, like balloon herding or installing a VCR in a squash—is a fun way to unmoor values you didn’t even know you had. And sometimes theory gives you a lot of cool language that can activate you in interesting ways. It’s probably a good idea to never take theory out for tacos. I like Levinas, Buber, Baudrillard, and Barthes.
I don’t think I have a strong theoretical background. I took a survey course on literary theory in college, and read basic theory for some other upper-level English courses. At the time I was very excited to be studying that stuff because it encouraged in me new ways of reading, and I also worked it into my writing in a really naive and enthusiastic sort of way. I remember being fascinated by Structuralism and postStructuralism, but I don’t think I could tell you much about all that anymore. That is the extent of my critical training. Likewise, I have a basic understanding of rhetoric/composition theory that has been useful for my teaching, but that’s about it. I don’t think either of these backgrounds influences my writing, I mean explicitly, though I do think that somehow there is an indirect shaping there. This is all to say that I don’t think you need to know literary theory in order to write well.
First thing first, we ought to abandon the notion of “good writer.” No such thing exists. There are writers who produce material with greater or lesser popular appeal, there are writers who produce material with greater or lesser reliance on convention (familiarity) or experimentation (unfamiliarity), there are writers whose material is situated within a particular tradition and can therefore be compared to other writers within that tradition, there are writers who foreground propaganda or social issues over Art, there are writers who value communication over personal expression and vice versa. None of those categories intersect “The Good.” This is a ubiquitous mistake made by folks who forget that philosophy directs our attention to three discrete categories of inquiry: The True, The Good, and The Beautiful. Art aligns with the last of those three: The Beautiful. Properly speaking, Art does not belong in a discussion of either The True or The Good. Those categories are for things other than Art. So, if you concede that literature is art, then you should also concede to leaving literature out of the realm of The True and The Good.
So, now that we’ve extinguished the notion of becoming a “good writer,” we can talk about the necessity or non-necessity of honing a theoretical mind. Obviously, the answer depends on the individual desire of the writer: some writers are more interested in telling stories, while other writers (myself included) are more interested in experimenting with language construction. To the storytellers, theory may seem superfluous or even encumbering; but for what I am interested in producing, theory is mad beneficial. Neither of us is right or wrong, good or bad, only different.
For those who might be interested in wetting their feet, here are five suggestions off the top of my head (because I could seriously spend the rest of my day scrutinizing the merits of various selections – the field is so vast, the possibilities seemingly endless):
Deleuze & Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus
Jacques Derrida – Of Grammatology
Antonin Artaud – The Theatre and Its Double
Jean Baudrillard – Simulacra and Simulation
Roland Barthes – S/Z
Nota Bene: the key to reading theory, especially at first, is not to bother with “understanding” what is being presented, but rather to “soak in it.” Let the words and thoughts flow over and around and through you. Comprehension is the least important aspect of reading theory. The most important aspect of reading theory is simply your engagement with it. Do not approach theory with an attitude that you’re going to “figure it out.” Instead, approach theory with an attitude that you’re going to “be inspired to think about things you hadn’t thought about before or else think about things you had thought about before in ways you hadn’t thought of them before.” That’s the trick.
Reading a lot is essential to becoming a good writer. But I don’t believe all good writers can pull theory out of their hats on a dime–most just know where to find it should the need arise. Some of these HTML kids are real brainiacs :)
What does it mean to be a language writer/poet?
In the unloaded sense, it means you write aesthetically pleasing sentences. In the loaded sense, it means you don’t know/never learned how to tell a story and so you try to cloak your weakness by affecting disdain for what you are unable to achieve.
It means you read too much theory.
Probably a lot of things, but historically this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_poets. If you’re too busy to click the link, here is a coat of primer: a group of poets that later turned into a style of poetry, emerging in the late 60s and early 70s, heavily West Coast based, usually spelling it L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, who sought/seek in their work to emphasize the materiality of language (is that a box? no, that’s the word box! is that a speech? no that’s someone writing the word speech over and over again!) and often—as emphasized by the exclamation marks of the parenthetical clause you probably just got done reading—the politics of all linguistic acts.
It means lots of things, really. For me, it means emphasis on the reader’s role in bringing his/her own meaning to the sometimes disparate and seemingly unmanageable assemblage of words and white space on the page, taking the presence of the lyric “I” out of the equation. Privileging sound over meaning, or purposely at the expense of explicit meaning. Word games. Prose poetry is sometimes put into the language category, but I’m not sure why other than the fact that prose poetry eschews categorization in some way, but even that’s becoming an antiquated notion as prose poetry has become its own genre. Like most movements, I think language poetry was originally envisioned as a means of political dissent against the status quo. Use language against the establishment–the Surrealists were pretty explicit about that, too–to change the way we think.