Saturday, June 4, 2011

Why I prefer rejection from academic journals to rejection from literary journals

I entered but didn't win (or even place) in NPR's third round of Three Minute Fiction contest, for which a contestant sends in an up-to-600 word fiction piece based on a prompt. The entries are first given a green light by students in the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Those pieces are then sent up the ladder to the guest judge, who presumably selects the winner as well as the honorable mentions and runners-up. At least, I think that's how it works. Despite the official rules on the website, the whole process is pretty vague.

At any rate, no big deal. I've had my writing rejected before, from both academic journals and literary journals. And NPR's contests usually have thousands of entries, so it's kind of a crap shoot. Most of my time now is spent submitting to academic journals, but my recent experience got me thinking about my "other life" submitting to literary journals.

Here's why I prefer rejection from academic journals: you get a reason. Even if you don't agree with the decision or you believe the reviewers' and editor's reasoning is flawed, at least you get feedback.

It would take too much space to recount the reasons given to me for rejections on submissions to academic journals. But I can cite by memory, verbatim, some of the handwritten feedback from literary journals--and handwritten comments are prized, as it's most often a form letter one receives. Here are some of those comments: "Good stuff, wasn't right for this issue. Please send more." "I like this, just didn't have room for this issue." "This one almost made it in."

You may be reading this thinking, "What? That tells me nothing" (particularly if you submit regularly to academic journals). Or, if you're familiar with literary journals, "Yeah, that sounds about right." Either way, you get the point.

First, let's consider an idea that that's probably common sense to many who submit to academic journals. If an editor did really like something, he could accept that piece for a future issue, right? Well, not in the realm of literary journals. If an editor is awash in submissions, accepting everything she liked would mean filling two years' worth of issues in three months--assuming there were actually that may worthy submissions.

There are many, many outlets for creative writers nowadays, from small press print journals to online journals. This is due in large part to the many, many MFA programs that now exist. Low-residency programs, established "old school" programs, new programs, etc.; all these graduates have to publish somewhere, right? So, they and their colleagues sometimes start journals to make this happen. I've argued this point before, though I'm certainly not the first to make this observation.

So, yes, editors are no doubt sifting though piles of submissions, thousands of e-mail attachments, and probably have little time to make substantive comments, provided they're adept at making such comments and have actually been trained to "read" as opposed to just write--let's not forget that the MFA is essentially a terminal degree in craft, not theory or pedagogy (although many argue that to write well you must be able to read well). So, aspiring poets and fiction writers who may count on editors' comments to help them better develop a piece of writing will likely never receive such feedback. Unless they enroll in an MFA program, which perpetuates the cycle of which I write above.

Which brings me to my second point. What exactly constitutes a "worthy" submission? That seems to be, in many cases, as vague as the editor's notes to me I've summarized above. Considering the number of submissions most journals receive, I'm sure it's nearly impossible to provide substantive feedback to those who submit.

"Why not ask reviewers to be on an editorial board?" you may ask. Academic journals do this. I serve on the editorial board of Text and Performance Quarterly. I've had the pleasure of reading, reviewing, and commenting on many submissions and have learned a lot from the process (hopefully the authors have as well). Some literary journals have editorial boards that resemble academic journals. I was an Editorial Assistant for Sulfur when pursuing my M.A. in English Language and Literature. The editor, Clayton Eshleman, assembled an editorial board and consulted them when he wanted another take on a submission or received something he thought fell outside his realm of expertise.

However, most literary journals don't use an editorial board (or, at least, don't use several reviewers for one genre), and certainly not to the extent that academic journals do. The ones affiliated with universities sometimes have graduate students sift through reviews early in the submission stage as does NPR's Three Minute Fiction contest. While they may have good intentions, these reviewers may not have the expertise nor experience to effectively comment, judge, or evaluate submissions.

While I hesitate to call this process "unethical," the lack of many safeguards that are in place for academic journals can sometimes lead to nepotism in the literary world. Many literary contests have now instituted what is colloquially known as "the Jorie Graham" rule, which stipulates that contest judges must be identified in contest guidelines. A scandal some years back involved the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet anonymously judging a contest and awarding the prize to her romantic partner (and now husband and colleague at Harvard).

This hasn't stopped other scandals from happening. A more recent scandal involves the editor of a poetry series who allegedly paid to have his own book included (not vetted, not reviewed? one wonders) in the same series.

Now, I admit it's a leap in reasoning to argue that the current state of literary submissions and publishing contributes to the alleged scandals mentioned above. I'm not saying one causes the other, rather that both are qualities of the literary publishing world that, to my mind, make the academic publishing world preferable.

We academics are no doubt familiar with the old adage that no one reads our stuff. I think we should be glad that at least reviewers have read it before it makes it print.

Just read Anis Shivani's interesting piece on why poetry book contests should be abolished. A worthwhile read if you're interested in the above topic.

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