The Point of a Literary Journal
Letter from the Editor, Summer 2009 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
I have just put to bed the last issue of the third volume of Our Stories, it is around 3am in the morning and my new dog (a puppy by the name of Pago) has just puked all over our couch and has been put to bed in his kennel. The puke is rancid and I am sure it is under my fingernails as I type. I know by the time I finish this essay it will be light out, the morning will dawn on the third year of Our Stories and I will dream of the mistakes in this essay and scattered across another imperfect quest for literary brilliance. The dog is whining meekly and I am wondering—why do I do this? Why do I bother? And then, finally, what is really bugging me: What’s the point of a literary journal, anyway? I’ve spent some time thinking about this, maybe too much time. Here’s what I’ve come up with, friends.
You begin a literary journal with wild ideas and a few bucks. It is not hard to put together a journal, especially online, with the low cost of websites and ease of web design—throw together a name for your journal and a get an email address and you’re ready to go. You will then need to select some stories to prove you are literary. You might begin by begging your friends to contribute to the first issue and there you have it—the journal is born. ____It is quite odd, this life of a literary journal; even though you initially had five submissions and accepted 100 percent of said submissions you can suddenly be rejecting 95 percent of these subs in the future. We’ll come back to this point as well. Writers want their work out there in the world and they should. Through attention and more hard work you will continue receiving countless submissions. What I have just explained, this short little life at this point is very easy to produce and to sustain with minimum effort and for long as there is work to be received the model continues. I once saw a literary journal that had on their submission page a toilet, their guidelines extolled below that crapper it was after all a picture of a real toilet with a real turd floating in the basin—and in italics it said before these guidelines: send us your shit. Indeed. In addition, there are many journals I have observed whose submission guidelines are–at best–disdainful, arrogant or needlessly hurtful of the very writers whose work they seek to publish. Easy to produce, easy to sustain and over time the arrogance creeps in or the realization that what it is they do they perhaps are no longer enjoying. As time passes the journal makes a name for itself. Their hits go up into the millions, submissions come from all over the world, all begging for attention and you sit up high behind your editorial desk and you reject the great masses of writers. And as your name gets bigger, you may begin to promise your pages to the best of the best, you set aside your pages for the friends of friends in MFA programs, for so-and-so who just won the Anchorage Writer Award, for whatshisface who just got a book deal with Penguin, for Johnny Appleseed who is dating someone on your staff. Soon the mass of submitters (if you play your cards right)—well you can ignore all of them—the slush pile can be used as last resort. This is the dream, right? This is the Paris Review, this is the New Yorker, they exist as records of literature that is at its finest not to discover emerging writers. If you and your editorial board are lucky and you still have some vision as to the crazy notion as to why you founded the journal and if you’re really lucky you may still have your wits about you. You are proud for what you built but at the same time you’re able to send rejections all the time—every time–without ever considering how very boring that job is. But I ask, but I demand to know, What is the point of all of this? What motivates an editor to sit behind a desk and do nothing more than reject hundreds of manuscripts never caring to utter anything as to why they were rejecting a piece of literature; to never engage, not even for a single moment to raise an eyebrow and say, “Nice try, better luck next time.” It appears to me that in the world of the literary journal success is pegged against an ever increasingly finite system of success. The better the journal, the fewer people it publishes. The better the journal, the fewer people it publishes from the slush pile. The better the journal, the better-agented writers it has printed. And so on and so forth till the end game comes when the journal is an all-inclusive back-slapping practice in which the journal becomes little more than a “Who’s Whoever” issue. All the while the journal is cut off and removed from those very writers whose dreams are pegged on achieving a small moment of success in its pages. While at the same time the editors, the work of merely dittoing greatness move finally away from their purposeful selves. Is there any other field where the customer is ignored this frequently and pervasively and blown off? ___It is therefore my belief that the process of submitting to literary journals, sending out creative works only to have them rejected over and over with nary a word from an editor is an alienating process and devoid of humanity. However, if the process of submitting to literary journals is dehumanizing, perhaps the greatest form of dehumanization (before founding Our Stories) I have ever felt has been working for literary journals. ___While working as an undergraduate and graduate student for literary journals I have observed through personal experience that the job of working for a literary journal is an exercise in futility. My job during my MFA was to read a story and confirm that it should be rejected, all to say nothing to the writer themselves and move on. Despite the fact that right down the hall from where we stuffed these cold rejection slips into envelopes (sometimes the same room) we were studying how to critique literature and give feedback to our colleagues. When you work for a MFA literary journal you are not supposed to use these same skills of communicating feedback to writers who submit to your literary journal. All you do is reject or accept. That's it. As an MFA student working at a journal, I no longer felt purposeful or that my skills mattered. I did, however, feel judgmental and ultimately an authority. I was empowered to reject others and allowed to “have an opinion” and cultivated a sick pride of being a decider in the field of literature. I consider this work at a literary journal, well, how should I put it? the word boring comes to mind, lifeless and devoid of any real intellectual connection are also useful ways to describe my feelings. It rides against what we are there to learn in the MFA program to ignore and not put our skills to use and yet, at the same time, ushers us into the hubristic world of literary one-upmanship. You may need examples as to how this is the case and I will point no farther than the following example at VQR in May of 2008. It should not be surprising that the editors at the Virginia Quarterly Review (a serious big shot in the literary world) took to their blog to air their feelings of the very writers that they were reviewing. Staff members made fun of the submissions they had received in their public forum. After some complained the editor in chief issued a sort of non-apology apology over the incident. The editor’s statement stands as a testament not of the offense of those submitters who were made fun of but more so of the aggrieved readers on staff. Can you blame though, in the end, can you really blame them? ___When you work at a literary journal you are always looking for mistakes, to get rid of the manuscript as quickly as possible. One is interested only in how much time each submission will take from the job of getting through the slush pile. For those with problems in the first sentence: a misplaced comma, a paragraph that goes nowhere, an ugly turn of the phrase—that, my friends, is enough to earn a rejection letter. If readers at journals are even interested in the slush pile (as many literary journals at MFA programs have promised out their space as well) they are interested in perfection and perfection only. And perfection never really exists. In sum, the work of one who works at a literary journal can be an alienating process that leaves the staff member as much lacking in purpose as the writer whose work is under review. This process by which submissions are culled at literary journals, by its very nature undermines the very creative process we—at least I believe—should be trying to foster. We are collectively failing the arts by not considering the effect that running a literary journal has on the population that reads and submits to this journal and what it does to the staff (the educated crème-de-la-crème) that reads work, volunteering their time and whose only interest is rejecting stories with only an accountant’s zest. No wonder literature is in decline, we’re being jerks to the very people who are writing and reading literature. I have always believed that the purpose of literary journals was to be read by the masses, by a literate and interested public. However, sadly, this too is not the case. We need not go over the decline of distribution, the elision of fiction from the Atlantic Monthly and the long but steadily decline for avenues to make a side living off of fiction. If you take a gander at the attached you can see—in real numbers—just who is reading our short short stories. Any web journal editor who keeps track of site analytics will tell you that it’s lucky if 100 people “hit” the page where a story is published. From the analytics of Our Stories you can see that Jo Page’s story, “AAA” received 120 hits over the course of two weeks—and that’s great—it is. When you dig deeper we see the amount of time the average web surfer spent on that page: about one minute. For a story that is over 5000 words in length, that means either all our readers are speed readers or the public just isn’t staying online long enough to read the entire story. The people coming to Our Stories are not reading the stories that we are publishing, they are cruising by, happy to click but too distracted to pay attention to the prose to reach the end of the story. Here’s my conclusion—because I can’t very well force people to read Jo Page’s story (although I wish I could and ask you to do so because it is one of the finest pieces of fiction we have ever published) I have had to come to grips with something, and I think other journals should too: the small literary journal online does not exist for the purpose of expanding the literary artistic world—we just don’t. Nope. We (and I very much consider Our Stories part of this group) exist for the writers, and only the writers and it is the writers themselves that we must strive to please. This is the point of a literary journal: We exist for those who are submitting to the journal, and no one else. Everything else is bonus, folks. We exist so writers know that they are needed, that they are to be encouraged and have a place in this world. We exist to support and prop up the writers themselves who submit to Our Stories, we exist to give encouragement (to those accepted and rejected) and to provide a very cool billboard for todays talented writers to park their work. We exist so that a wide populace of unemployed, underemployed--very talented--highly educated reviewers of literature, schooled in the art of providing feedback to someone can practice their skills of reading and reviewing. Maybe we even exist—just maybe—we exist so that these talented staff members can do something as crazy as earn a paycheck to put their skills to use? That’s why we exist, that’s why what we do at Our Stories matters as it is a humanizing system. This is why I do it—this is why at 3AM with dog puke under my fingernails I’m thrilled to be part of this and will be for many years to come. Here’s where I’m going with this, I believe Our Stories has the right idea, and I so fully believe we have the right idea that I’m going to suggest something crazy: steal our idea. Become a journal out there that gives feedback as well. Stop doing the same thing that everyone else is doing. Show writers you damn well care. You literary journals published at MFA programs, you should be putting into practice the purposeful thoughts of your staff members. You hungry, hard working MFA programs that have staff members earning an MFA, make yourselves known as the staff that gives feedback. You small-time journals who are online (like Our Stories) should be hiring more staff, all of your work is handled online—hire more staff and give feedback. I know its different, I know it’ll be a big difference but you exist for the writers who are submitting to you and no one else. If you can't give these new staff members a paycheck you'll be giving them something very important: experience. You big bad journals that have already made names for yourselves, show some compassion—open up your submission process and tell submitters whether they actually have a chance of getting past the first round. Many of your business models appears to be a panzi scheme where you take money for contests and general publishing under the idea that you have a chance at winning, when in fact the whole system is rigged. And all of us should not just pad your budgets with contest entries or submission fees when all you’re going to do is stop reading after the first page. Give something--anything--to those who submit. Don’t just work for the one to five percent that you’re going to publish, but work for the ninety five percent of the public who you’re not going to publish and when you have to answer why, just say, "it's the human thing to do." That’s what the point should be—that’s what I’d like to see, because otherwise wha's the point of a damn literary journal?