Behind the Scenes
Publication is Not Necessarily a Privilege but it Certainly Is Not a Right
There is a lot of advice out in the world about what it takes to be a good writer but two rarely discussed qualities are maturity and patience.
In my twenties, I was convinced of my genius as a writer and when my work wasn’t being accepted by literary magazines, I was quite certain editors didn’t understand my writing or my project and I subsequently assured myself that the literary world was full of pretension, and held no promise for me. I was severely misunderstood.
I do not know how much of that attitude I have abandoned but I would like to think I’ve matured.
As an editor, figuring out how to respond to submissions is a difficult thing. Some writers want a personal response while others would prefer a form rejection. Some writers would like to know what didn’t work for us while others are only interested in feedback if it is positive. There is no pleasing everyone. I try to send personal feedback when I can, just to give writers a bit of a leg up the next time they are so inclined as to send their work our way. Most of the time this feedback is well-received but there are instances where a writer rejects our rejection with a strongly worded missive and makes it clear that the only opinion that interests them is one accompanied by an acceptance. Providing personal feedback often leads to interesting exchanges but I must admit I quite enjoy my correspondences with writers, however heated they might get.
Last night, I had one such encounter with a writer with whom I’ve corresponded a few times. He’s a good writer but for various reasons the work he has submitted has not heretofore been right for PANK primarily because it’s more firmly grounded in humor than we are generally looking for. During our exchange, this writer, let’s call him Tom (certainly not his real name), lobbied several arguments made by all “misunderstood” writers.
1. Publishing is all about being an insider or an editor who will publish their editor friends. (I don’t dispute that this is true at times but it certainly is not wholly representative of publishing.)
2. The publishing community is not interested in original work or writing that demonstrates personality.
3. He will never be published.
4. He doesn’t understand a lot of writing that is published, writing that is simply not as good as his.
Tom began the most recent installment of our ongoing conversation by referencing a story recently published in PANK . He did not understand what made that story “good.” His statements about the story in question troubled me.
You’re a good writer and you will be published but the petulant attitude where you feel the need to shit on someone else’s work to make yourself feel better is not cool. I’m a writer too and there’s lots of writing out there in the world that baffles me but I don’t begrudge that writing’s right to exist. It’s not about comparing yourself to other writers. It is about comparing yourself TO YOURSELF. To compare what you write to what Random PANK Writer writes is like comparing oranges and electronics. PANK accepts a fraction of all submissions. In a given month we can receive 500 submissions and we will only accept 10-15 of those. Those are the odds you are facing at PANK. At big magazines, the odds are even more challenging. Your job as a writer is to be one of those 10-15 stories that will grab us in the gut and make us say hot damn that was brilliant. I’ve enjoyed the writing you’ve sent and I look forward to future submissions but I think what you’re missing is how to set aside your arrogance and stop feeling like publication is something to which you are entitled. Like I said, you are talented but man, your attitude kind of sucks. Your work isn’t finding a home so you’re looking outward instead of inward. That’s too bad.
I have never understood the inclination to demean someone else’s work to make oneself feel better. I’ve had my smaller moments where I’ve been frustrated by a rejection and in turn have directed my frustration toward the writing in that publication but I know there’s no purpose to that sort of attitude. There are so many great literary magazines out there and in that there’s room for all kinds of writing. Tom’s argument that the story he criticized wasn’t as good as the stories he had submitted and in that, there was something wrong with the entire publication process, is based on the flawed premise that one has anything to do with the other. He then told me he sent the PANK story and his story to an acquaintance and the acquaintance vastly preferred his story. He wrote, facetiously, that he was ahead, 1-0, as if writing is a competition, a contact sport. Perhaps it is. Alas.
In another message, Tom also discussed how he would never be published and certainly not by PANK. I cannot see into the future so I have know way of knowing these things to be true. I believe Tom’s writing is good enough to find a home–it’s merely a question of Tom researching magazines a bit more thoroughly to have a better sense of where to send his work. Tom’s e-mail was, coincidentally, followed by a note from another writer who has been rejected a few times. This writer simply stated, “I give up.”
In publishing talent is important but so are persistence, patience and perseverance. It took me six long, humbling years to crack a literary market when I started submitting my work. In the interim, I wrote and published genre fiction in a community that was, at the time, more receptive to my style. I read and probably became a better writer and definitely became less delusional about my genius. I tried (only somewhat successfully) to learn patience and to be mature enough to recognize that if my work wasn’t succeeding in the literary world, the problem could not be entirely “their” fault, that perhaps there were elements of my craft I could improve. (Sometimes, though, it really is THEIR FAULT.)
When a writer tells me they give up, or when they fatalistically declare they will never be published, I begin to understand how little people know about how publishing often works. One of the reasons I started the Q & A feature was to pull back that editorial curtain. The weird mystery within which the publication process is often veiled does writers far more harm than good. That said, while I cannot claim to have all the answers I do know that if you’re not willing to persist in the face of rejection, the writing life is probably not the best option for you.
My exchange with Tom and the e-mail from the writer who decided to just “give up” really got me to thinking about entitlement. Growing up, my father (like many fathers, I’m sure) was fond of reminding my brothers and I that life isn’t fair when we were pouting about one trivial thing or another. I often want to dispense that advice to writers who feel like publication is inevitable, that publication is their right by the grace of their talent. I’m afraid such is not the case.