Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In Defense (And In Critique) of Ploughshares

There's a tempest in a teapot (not even really: just a tiny debate) about literary journals that take 8 months plus to respond to submissions.  Are they hard-working, overburdened editors or lazy schlubs with a snooty attitude?

Here are the two sides of the debate:

Anonymous (pro): I know someone who used to work at Ploughshares. The journal gets over 8-9 thousand submissions during a given reading period. A lot of the readers are volunteers who are also graduate students that have their own crap to deal with. The reason it probably took so long was because (obviously) it takes a long time to read that many stories, most averaging 20-25 pages long, especially when you have a small staff to begin with.
Personally, I think it's self-important to expect anything other than a form reply. You're just a writer, there are nine thousand more of you sending work. Seriously. Also, what does a form rejection matter versus a handwritten one anyway? A rejection is a rejection is a rejection. Deal with it. Move on.  If you want a faster response time, apply to a smaller journal, one that not every writer is submitting to with no regard for the journal aesthetic. Or don't submit at all. I've worked for two journals so far and most of the stuff that came in really shouldn't have been sent in the first place.

Elizabeth (con): Yeah, I've worked at journals, too. I work at one now. I think the attitude that I'm "just a writer" is crap. Without writers, journals would have no reason to exist. There are plenty of journals that get hundreds of submissions per month and manage their workload in a timely manner. (And as I said above, there are those equally as egregious as Ploughshares.) Glimmer Train runs on a staff of two, and manages to stick pretty close to its projected response of 60 days. Missouri Review, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Ninth Letter, Cincinnati Review, AGNI -- all staffed by graduate students, all credible if not exceptional journals, all garnering enormous numbers of submissions, all with average response times under 90 days.

Ploughshares is an exceptional journal, otherwise I wouldn't fool with it. But it's always been slow going (I don't think the editorial turnover has much to do with it).

Which side of the question are you on?


Mario said...

No news is good news. The longer a journal has your submission, the more likely it is that they will take it. "No" is easy and fast. "Yes" takes a little more thought. When I was a slush reader at a small magazine, most of the submissions were easy rejections, done within a few minutes. The acceptances took a lot more time.

As soon as I submit a manuscript, I forget about it. I don't care if a journal takes years to get back to me (some have) I just write the next piece. And the next and the next. The more manuscripts you have on submission, the less you care about response times.

Anonymous said...

Blackbird is the worst. Their response time is over a year. Ridiculous.

Steve said...

You ever seen maple trees with their little helicopter seed pods? They just keep sending that shit out, year after year. Down it floats. Then I roll over the saplings with my lawn mower. I pull them from my garden. Then the nervy bastards...they start growing in the gunk of my gutters. Anywhere they can take root, they take root.The trees job is just to keep sending them out.

Lily said...

It does seem wrong to me that anybody can take almost a year to get back to a writer, given that they have asked you to send the story they then sit on for what seems like a lifetime. (I am using "asked" loosely, but when a journal opens itself up to submissions, it is requesting them, not suffering them.) It seems obvious that a journal owes some minimal courtesies to the people who send it the material the journal needs in order to exist.

Among those courtesies is a reasonable and clear policy about response times. I think it's unprofessional to keep writers waiting for longer than three or four months. If you can't respond by this time, you probably should shorten your reading period, so you get fewer submissions or work a little harder. Yes, I know, that sounds harsh -- but in my job we get a backlog sometimes and we WORK HARDER to get it down -- it's just a fact of life: people can indeed work harder and get more done for a time if they want to and need to. But they are most likely to behave this way if there is a strongly held, institutional belief that it's not okay to have a backlog.

Journals like ZYZZYVA, Michigan Quarterly Review, Threepenny Review, Agni, Subtropics respond within a reasonable period of time. It can be done. If I was an editor of a journal that took forever and didn't think that was right, I'd call up Howard Junker and ask him some questions -- I'm sure he'd be happy to tell you how he does it. (In fact, he does -- there's some great stuff on the ZYZZYVA website about how he goes through submissions.)

If you don't want to do that, be clear that yours is a journal that can take up to a year to respond. Having notified people in advance what that response time is, a journal then leaves it up to writers to decide if they want to participate in that magazine's effort. I think LROD is correct, by the way -- if you don't like the response time, you shouldn't submit.

When journals DON'T do this -- when they say their response time is three months and they keep your stories for six months or a year without a word, well, that's not professional. If they're going to delay, then they should do what one journal recently did, which is send me a postcard (after four months) saying that a story I'd submitted was being considered for the next issue, and they'd be back to me soon.

I know, I know, that takes time -- but it's just so SMART and sound, that it seems worth the time. If, as I suspect, many subscriptions come from writers, a journal would be wise to acknowledge that a happy submitter is going to become a committed subscriber. I don't expect them to take my story -- but I do want to be treated decently. So why not make submitters happy by having a clear policy about response times, one you can stick to, and do something when you really must delay your response?

I'd also say that I absolutely agree with Mario -- submit, move on, write more stories and send THOSE out. I think this process is a lot less frustrating when you submit to every journal you like. I like a lot of them, and I submit widely. Most of them have reasonable response times, and behave with courtesy and friendliness to their submitters. They do this because they're writers too. In return, I try to keep up my part of the bargain, which is to subscribe to as many journals as I can afford, follow their guidelines scrupulously, and send them the best stories I can possibly write.

If nothing else, you get a lot of mail this way.

Anonymous said...

I think what you're highlighting, Lily, is the complete irrelevance of literary journals.

At your work you work harder when there is a backlog...well, I'm assuming that's because somewhere along the line someone is getting paid. Or at least that the work matters.

Lit journals are so damn near vanity presses they can afford to leave writers hanging for months at a time.

Lily said...

Anon, I’m an optimist. I think literary journals matter. They promote, disseminate, and discover voices and viewpoints that might not otherwise be heard. Sure, many more people read US Magazine than ZYZZYVA, but that’s always been the case with fiction and not an argument against the entire enterprise.

As for vanity presses, well, I’m guessing they’re right on top of submissions, to more quickly separate hopeful and foolish writers from their cash. But I do think I see what you mean – which is, how is it possible that there are 7,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 decent story writers in America? I mean, who ARE these people? Probably a lot of them should take more time perfecting their work or find other outlets for their urge to create. But who’s going to give them that news? I’m not. I’m too busy sending out my stories.

You know, I don’t think people behave well because they get paid to behave well. If that was true, then wouldn’t corporations behave better? I work for the judicial system, and in my corner of it anyway, we care about our backlong because there’s a strong institutional value placed on being timely. The people who do what I do could make a lot more money working somewhere else. But we don’t. Partly, it’s because this is a humane workplace, but it’s also true that a lot of us LIKE being part of what’s essentially a non-profit business. (In fact, here in California, if they don’t get the budget worked out pretty soon, we might be working for a lot less than we make now.) I think literary journals are kind of similar in that they are involved in work they think does matter – some journals just care more than others about this issue. I think they all should. You think the whole thing’s irrelevant. Which is fine – when I feel like that, I withdraw my support for something I don’t believe in. I think that’s a good option, and one that should be exercised more often.

Anonymous said...

What institutional value is placed on timely rejection letters from literary journals? I imagine the steady inflow of stories seems like a renewable resource to the editors...ah, we'll never run out. The facelessness of the whole enterprise lends itself to long waits for us writers.

Now, as far as the behavior of corporations goes...they do behave well when it's in their interest to do so (i.e. when they are making money for their shareholders.) I'm not suggesting, however, as others here have done ad nausea, that lit mags needs to start paying writers. Not at all. But maybe a year isn't a long wait if what we are participating in is something that does matter, something that is worth waiting for. The writer as cultural philanthropist.

(Of course, this model certainly favors a certain social class...as do literary journals.)

Anonymous said...

If an editor gets back to someone right away the submitter feels that his or her work hasn't been given a good read; if an editor holds onto a piece to discuss it with staff or meditate about it, then the decision isn't quick enough. C'est la vie.