Paper Trails & Deadlines


Fall is here now. It is my favorite season but it is potentially my busiest. But busy, I’ve decided, is very good for me … not busy me tends to get a little nutty with my seemingly neverending neurotic thoughts. I have a review due by Saturday, yes, but what keeps me very busy are literary contests. September is a type of holiday for writers trying to attain a reputation, prize money, or even just a proverbial nod by literary magazine editors that your writer’s cramps &/or carpal tunnel are worth it … that your writing is being looked at and appreciated on some level (like by editors whether they loathe it or love it, the note is still nice if they are gracious enough to forego the form letter).

I think most writers (myself included) appreciate the hand-written acceptance and rejection notes. Sometimes they are at least somewhat encouraging like: Please send to us again! Or, Good work but it is not fitting for this issue, and so forth. And of course there is: Not in my lifetime … or … Good luck, crazy! Thankfully I have only had a couple borderline-belligerent rejection notes, but sadly most are form letters asking me to buy a 3 year subscription in the same envelope where my rejection lay.

I worked as an Assistant Editor on a few different literary journals and I became quite obsessed with the hand-written rejection (I was only allowed to deal with rejections in my meager capacity; I was the bearer of bad news). When someone’s work didn’t even make it through the Readers, it was of course not moving on to the Editors. On one of these literary journals I worked on in college I had the tedious job of logging in submissions with the occasional correspondence. When I came across work that maybe wasn’t quite good enough for publication, but was still good and would only get better with some work — I would write a little note of encouragement to go into that ominous envelope every writer waits for … and there it is … the envelope with your own handwriting on it making its way back to you (SASE) … does it bring good news or bad?

I always wonder what the writer thought about my notes which such things as, Very good. These poems just need to be realized more, but you are really on to something. I very much enjoyed your work. Good luck! Send to us again! … and the like. I would especially wonder what they would have thought if they knew these notes were coming from an undergraduate in a tiny room in the basement of a sparsely used university building at all hours.

I was not … I repeat … was not the bearer of this bad news … I think it was before my time on the journal. On our corkboard laden with random things like condom wrappers for shock value (many of the grad students seemed to really need to compensate), a noosed Elvis doll, and one thing that hung among them was this otherwise unremarkable piece of stationary. It was a little faded and something about it seemed interesting to me as I sat a mere 3 feet away (that would be the other side of the office). When I looked closer it was a note from Joyce Carol Oates basically bitching (in a most beautiful, lyrical, and literary way) that we had rejected her work. I was stupefied. Why would we do something so dumb? I thought what could be a better way to help a small and fairly new college literary journal (on a budget I might add) than to publish Joyce Carol Oates? And … it didn’t sound like we had even solicited her for work judging by her note!

But now, as I am older, hopefully wiser, and a little crazier and more than a little mortified by what I see as my constant failures as a writer trying to get her name out there … I respect those guys. If her story sucked (and of course I don’t know this and cannot imagine a J.C.O. story sucking) and they didn’t want to publish it … who cares WHO it is, right? It is admirable if they indeed went with their philosophy and aesthetic and didn’t budge at the mention of a literary star.

So with my living room looking like a corporate paper trail gone to the wolves right now and with this memory again fresh to me in these first months of feverish submissions, I will try again this year.

 My goal: 6 pubs in lit. mags. and to win one contest. We shall see, right Joyce?



Published in: on September 11, 2007 at 11:35 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Hmmm… I can’t totally agree that it is honorable to reject big name writers if their work isn’t up to par or whatever. There is so much to consider… a big name in a little literary magazine can really help. It gives the journal credibility, prestige, and probably just as important, money. That money could be from extra subscriptions or even grants and donations. That money would help the journal continue on and publish work by new and interesting authors. But as much as though reasons, doesn’t a famous writer deserve respect? Not for just “being” them, but for how much they’ve been through and accomplished as a writer.

    I know there are a good deal of readers/editors who say that you should read work without regard of who wrote it. But I think that is a mistake.

  2. Often there are “blind readings” at a journal or press. It is always blind if it is a contest for publication and a prize (usually money)… at least if it is an ethical journal. But many journals have been known to hire judges who have somehow rigged it so friends and former students win. This is pretty rare thankfully though! But it happens.

    Money is ALWAYS good since small presses and journals always seem to need it badly despite grants, donations, subscriptions. And sometimes grant money is dicey … it’s there one year and gone (or less) the next. I admire the integrity of journals — QAE being one in this case. But as an artist or a press or journal, one typically does his or her best to retain artistic integrity … I think. Thanks, Jack Jack!

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