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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

VQR Apology...Sort Of

After posting some questionable insider editorial comments displaying a less-than-professional attitude toward submitting writers on its blog, VQR apologized for the offense.  Having stirred up hornets everywhere, what else could the lit mag editors do? The apology starts out so well:

"VQR wishes to apologize to any writers who took offense to our recent blog entries, in which we made public anonymized snippets from internal correspondence regarding our submissions. It seems obvious—and is regrettable—that some writers got the idea that VQR delights in belittling unsolicited submissions. Nothing could be further from the truth. This publication—and, indeed, its long-standing reputation—is built on a tradition of finding fine work by new writers amid the slush pile...."

The paragraph goes on to list all the well-known literati who have graced the pages of VQR But then quickly takes a turn toward blame of the unknown writer:

"In short, the tone of our blog post did not correctly represent our commitment to our authors. This is a disservice to our submitters, our readers, and our goals. However, I do think that the comments, if not their public airing, are a fair response to many of the submissions we receive and accurately reflect the righteous indignation that we often feel as readers. Too much of what we see these days strikes us as merely competent—well-crafted but passionless in its execution or, just as often, passionate only about the minor travails of the world of its author. No editor nor writer feels more strongly about the possibility of finding the universal in the small, but we also ravenously crave great writing that takes on big issues. Gutsy, fearless, hard-nosed writing. Writing that matters. Its absence makes us ill-tempered; it makes us question our enterprise. We work hard and want to see evidence of equal effort from writers. Such discussions, however, should be undertaken more thoughtfully than we have done thus far on the blog. I hope personally to rectify that situation and soon. Some writers have demanded to know why we have grown to feel such frustration toward our submitters. It’s a question worthy of a thoughtful answer—and will likely be as controversial as anything Waldo has said. But at least the discussion will center on what we consider the shortcomings of American writing, not a few comments meant to be private expressions of disappointment and frustration."

Oh, of course, it's the writers' fault for being shitty writers.  Should have known. You can read the full apology here.


Anonymous said...

I don't think Genoways is blaming all unknown writers, since he just finished explaining that the magazine has published a number of unknown writers from the slush pile over the years. He is blaming unknown writers who are also bad writers. Surely, you don't think that ALL stories submitted to VQR (or to other magazines) are worth publishing, do you? Not everyone writes great stories, and to champion mediocre, capable stories can only do harm. (I am sure someone will comment that these magazines DO publish bad stories; I suppose this is a question of taste).

I've had stories rejected that I think should have been, as much as it stung. I don't send those stories out anymore (at least until I've revised them further) because I know they could be better.

Writer, Rejected said...

The point here is that it's a real F.U. to make fun of bad writers and then apologize while justifying yourself based on the fact that their writing is bad (in your humble opinion). It's just not cool. Besides, some bad writers later become good writers, so why make fun? Because you have the power to do so? Because you are frustrated. We are all frustrated.

Bad writing is part of the deal in this enterprise; so a little graciousness on the matter would be decent, if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, but I'm not gonna be part of VQR's "conversation."

Such politico talk and empty phrases. And then all the usual cliches: "too much of what we see these days strikes us as merely competent—well-crafted but passionless" ...

Gimme an effing break.

Anonymous said...

Editors of the past: they tell it like they see it

Editors of today: they laugh about it with themselves, send you a form rejection slip

Clearly, Ted Genoways and all editors of today's popular academic journals are afraid to make public how they really feel about a given work. They're afraid of the repercussions, as this lame "apology" shows. (He didn't really demonstrate any charity, but reading his note you see he's just covering his behind. Reading the comments beneath his note you see why, with all the noses that are clamoring to go there.)

Guys like Genoways don't want to be seen rejecting the next Mark Twain or something. So they play it safe, pumping out form rejection slips to all of us, making jokes in their offices and publishing the same dreck they've been shoveling out to us for years. Then we call attention to it and now this. "Discussion of the state of American literature"? Genoways, why don't you come here and read through the past few months of discussion. You won't find anything better. But no, you won't take part in something real. You'd rather fiddle around as Rome burns.

Steve said...

At the risk of missing the point, anybody who has ever screened manuscripts for a journal knows--KNOWS--that there is some damn funny work that gets sent in. You just wonder what the hell the people who sent it in were thinking. Seriously. It's like the American Idol wannabes. It's sad and funny.

rmellis said...

He sounds so much like Zadie Smith and the Willesden Review people who refused to give out their prize. I wonder what the truth is, here... is the gross national literary product -- not just what gets published, but what gets created -- so much worse than in previous years? Can it be? It's easier to believe that editors are just too lazy/impatient/narrow-minded, etc., to find the good stuff, and of course some of them are. But could there be a grain of truth here?

Or here's a third possibility: do we want too much? Do we feel that every single story has to make us cry, make our hair stand on end, make us writhe in literary ecstasy? Maybe our writing was never any better, but now, for some reason, we want it to be.

Anonymous said...

Steve, agreed -- some of that stuff is just insane. I've seen it. I've worked the slush. It's nuts. I think the point is that first, they have time to make all these jokes about the bad stuff but not to even send a single damn sentence to any of the work they reject -- if this is all the insane whackjob type submissions, and they have time to make jokes like this about the whackjob stuff, WTF are they doing with the good stuff, the mediocre stuff, the broken but legitimate stories, the very good but not quite A-list stuff, the stuff that's great but they just ran something similar, the stuff that's obviously great but not aesthetically or politically or philosophically right for them?

Form letters, all.

Plus they even admit that in the rare cases when they do send comments, it's not their honest thoughts -- they rewrite them to "soften the blow" instead of the honesty, even if harsh, even if witty which would help the writers. But they won't do that. They probably never read Boswell's Johnson, either. (They should. Then they could learn how real literary men carry on.)

That's f'ed up, Steve, is it not? Also, they give a list of comments on the whackjob submissions and a list of comments on the "truly mindblowing" submissions; wait, what about the whole giant in between, the massive rejections of all the regular submissions? Not the stuff that's obviously from another planet, but what about the thousands of rejected pieces? We get no comments about that. Not a word.

This whole thing shows that they do actually have the time to sum up each submission at least in a sentence, that they can in fact do that (in fact if they are honestly evaluating a submission, the mere action of evaluation means they must form an idea in their mind and be able to articulate it).

So why don't they send these comments to the actual submitters, as was formerly the common practice of journal editors? They totally faced themselves with that blog entry and I don't see how they can get out of it without admitting the patently obvious: that they're mired in elitism and laziness and a lot of other ugly things. These journals have been coasting for way too long. They're culturally irrelevant, too. They're obscure, elitist, and definitely part of the problem.

And the irony is this: if these editors would be more honest about submissions, and about what they like, and abandon all this insane cultural relativism and "we're all valid in our diverse ways but we just can't use your particular piece right now," if they would do that, and say what is right and wrong to them, what they like and don't like, make their opinions known, they'd get a lot less of the useless submissions, they wouldn't have to deal with shoveling all that massive slush, their journals would be held in more esteem, they would be helping writers, and quality would go up.

rmellis said...

BTW, WR: one of the great delights of your blog is your skill at illustrating your posts.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Genoways speaks of the shortcomings of American writing and of a need for productive discussion.
Good! And I'm sure he does not exempt VQR from the problem. That is, if there are shortcomings that need to be addressed, change should begin on the pages of his magazine.
A constant complaint at LROD is that literary fiction is dominated by one type of writing, from one type of sensibility. Allow a different type of writing to get a chance, Mr. Genoways.
A problem is that the present editors pick what they have learned to value, and so we get that "one type of sensibility." Who will recognize the worth in a different type of story?

Steve said...

Hey, I'm confident in what I send out and I'm not surprised when I get a form rejection. Stings for about a second, then I move on. Would it make me feel better, as recently was the case, when a lit mag says: "You should be happy to know you made our top 25 out of 800 submissions"? Not really.

And, no, I guess I don't see it as too f'ed up that lit mags don't offer more specific feedback. Like someone said: it could just be that they published something similar last edition. It could be the editor was sleepy. And do you really want your editorial feedback coming from a twenty-year-old undergrad?

Anonymous said...

That the acceptances and rejections are coming from twenty-year-old undergrads who have no clue about literature is part of the problem. A big part.

Writer, Rejected said...

Are we urging a Simon Cowell like approach to literature? You suck; give it up? I don't know if that would help or hurt.

But anyhoo thanks RMellis for the compliment.

Anonymous said...

"twenty-year-old undergrads who have no clue about literature"

just make your writing edgy and gritty and they'll love it

Unknown said...

Dear Anonymous,

Ted Genoways here.

We agree on one point: Rome is burning. The question is, do you want to grab a bucket or bitch at the firemen?

The thing that provokes me from my silence, however, is the obvious fact that you criticize the fiction from VQR while evidencing the fact that you haven't read a word of it.

So let me help. Here is a healthy dose of fiction, a half dozen stories, from recent issues--all of by young writers. You want to complain? Let's be specific:

When you finish reading, I hope you will explain to me how these stories represent "one type of sensibility." Of course, I guess they represent MY one sensibility, but if you think there's a sameness here, I'd very much like to hear your description of what it is--not in generalities, but in the specifics of what appears in our pages.

rmellis said...

Aw, I'm jealous. Ted never came to my party.

But that Waldo danced all night.

I'm looking forward to reading those stories...

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Genoways,

Anonymous here -- the one who mentioned your name and the next one after that.

Thank you for coming here and addressing our concerns in public here.

Here's my beef with what happened at VQR lately: If your readers (whose qualifications, credentials or experience are unknown to us) can make a quick one-sentence summation of the submissions they judge ("this was mindblowing" "best story I ever read!" "it reads like a shopping list" "uh, no."), why aren't these comments sent to the submitters? Why are the submitters given form letters, without any comment at all?

It can't be a matter of protecting the fragile ego of the writer. In fact, if you do have something critical to say about a work, no matter how biting, it'd be disingenuous not to give it. Unless, again, you don't want to end up wisecracking the next Mark Twain and then live on in infamy for having done so. But to that I say, loosen up, such things are part of the editor's job, as well. I don't want editors laughing at my work while sending me form letters -- that's not right.

But of course it's not a journals's job to provide a free critiquing service to everything shot over the transom. Your staff can't be writing critiques of submissions, no. But that's not what we're asking for, and it can't be a matter of time -- if the readers are considering a given work for the magazine, the mere act of consideration is what takes time, if even just a minute -- but at the point they've made up their mind and made their judgment, they've already got this one-liner down. Even if that one-liner is just "no thanks" or the standard "I don't think this fits the journal." But if the readers actually write these things down, why don't the submitters get the courtesy of receiving a copy? Aren't they the ones who deserve it most, the people who provide you with material to select from?

I know there are nuts in the slush. But what about the other 95%? When your reader says, "Oh, it's just too Faulkner for us," and actually types this in, how difficult would it be to email that line of text to the submitter? I bet Waldo could hook it up so that it's done automatically.

That's my beef right there -- that your readers, whoever they are, make all these clever comments but submitters, for the most part, only get form letters.

And I'm very familiar with what's in (and what used to be in) VQR. I am not a current subscriber, but I have read plenty of material in there. I'm not the anonymous who talked about "one type of sensibility," but I do have some criticism about what's covered in VQR and all such journals. But I'm going to follow all of your suggested links, read that material and then answer your question as best and honestly as I can. I promise that. I hope the others on here do as well, especially those who talk about a particular "sensibility."

Thanks again for being willing to address our concerns. You'll see that for the most part we are serious about what's going on in literature today, we're mad as hell, and we're not gonna take it any more. There's a big problem in publishing, in literature, in Western culture right now. Yes, Rome is burning. Bread and circuses are the order of the day. Idiots rule. Jackasses dominate. The good are spat upon. And everything's on fire. But I'm so glad to see you identify yourself as a fireman -- if you've got that inclination then maybe something great can come of this.

Let's go,


Unknown said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response. It's helpful in understanding some of the recent uproar.

First, you're quite right; it wouldn't be difficult to pass along every reader report to the submitter. The problem is that I need utter candor from the readers, not something they fear will make it to the submitter. (That's why Waldo anonymized our excerpts in every way.) I need them to be 100% honest--even cruel. We receive roughly 7,000 stories per year for about 12 available spots. That's stiff competition, so if a reader perceives a defect, I need to know about it.

Second, we do, in fact, forward comments to submitters that I feel will be helpful to the writer. A recent example, is a poem that two separate readers said was great but fell apart at the end. One of the readers wrote, "Don't hand me a hanky and tell me to cry. Move me." Naturally, that advice is reshaped as something like, "We felt that the ending asked for emotion rather than evoking it," but I think the message is clear. And the advice is shared, because it's helpful for everyone. It explains our objection, and hopefully makes the next submission from this writer more to our tastes.

The sad reality, however, is that we don't send many such responses, because there is one simple, hard-and-fast rule of responding to writers: If you write to them, they will write back--immediately and often. We don't have the time to engage in the kind of personal correspondence we would like with the hundred or so writers we've published recently, much less the thousands we haven't. Like it or not, we have time to encourage the writers who are close to publication, and we have to minimize correspondence with writers who aren't.

Third, I'm always confused when people simultaneously complain about the long time it takes to receive a response to submissions and the lack of personal attention paid to them by editors--as if these issues weren't linked. Waldo saw a posting recently where a submitter was describing sending a single submission to 40 or 50 publications at a time. How personalized is that? It's an old circular argument. Writers simultaneously submit because they can't wait for a reply, but the long reply is lengthened by the volume of simultaneous submissions.

I'm always telling writers: choose a select few publications that you would be proud to appear in. Decide what those publications are by reading a lot and falling in love with a few. Then support those few by subscribing, giving gift subscriptions, even donating to them--whether they publish you or not. Journals shouldn't be hurdles you're trying to clear; they should be conversations you're hoping to contribute to.

That's what confuses me, too, about the frequently leveled charge that editors publish their friends. At VQR, we're constantly engineering social situations, in order to make our contributors our friends and make them friends with each other. When I was recently in New York, I hastily assembled a dinner with several contributors--ranging from a photojournalist to a poet. When the dinner discussion ranged from the shifting insurgency in Iraq (as witnessed by the photographer) to the poems of Ben Jonson (as studied by the poet), I couldn't help thinking that this was literary magazines are all about. They bring smart people into dialogue, where they can challenge each other and learn from each other. That's not a clique; it's a community.

Anonymous said...

The other thing is, if every submission to a lit mag was pristine and ready for publishing, lit mags wouldn't need readers, right?

It's a first reader's job to weed through the slushpile. Without "all that bad writing," sure, life would be a little sweeter for editors; but then, too, all those clever, clever first readers would have squat reason to pat themselves on the back for being such clever little dears.

This is like me going to the doctor because I have hemorrhoids and the doctor lets his staff post pictures of my tuckus on every telephone post in town. Someone is getting a good laugh, sure, but it's clearly a breach of trust and really not funny for the butt (haha!) of the joke.

Anyway. I guess this topic is done.

Congrats, btw, WR. Your blog has really grown since last year.

Anonymous said...


your point is totally beside the point. if you're a first reader, you're allowed to get as snarky as you want about bad writing. but you do it in private. as an editor of a "reputable" literary magazine, you don't publish your readers' snark for the world to see how much cleverer your readers are than the unwashed masses. what readers and editors talk about amongst themselves is their business. insults--no matter how funny and adorable--don't take the place of treating the work of your submitters with a modicum of professional courtesy.

the travails of editors are not the problems of writers. if editors want to discourage bad writing from being submitted, let them institute some reforms to their submission policies. since they're so clever, let them put their talents to use in coming up with some rad improvement to the system, some new concept that can actually change the face of the literary magazine "industry" in ways that benefit all of literature. instead, the VQR editors were content with putting up (as one of the comments on the VQR blog noted) "photos of their readers crapping all over the work" of writers who implicitly trusted the magazine to handle their work professionally. i hope you'll agree with me that belittling writers in public is not the way to go about reforming American literature.

bully for genoways that he decided to apologize. i hope he and his staff will be more careful in editing themselves. certainly, they need to treat all writers professionally and not make a mockery for public consumption out of anyone. it's despicable.

Anonymous said...

First, lobstery apologies for the double post.

To anonymous @ 1:34 pm, above:

This bears repeating:

"And the irony is this: if these editors would be more honest about submissions, and about what they like, and abandon all this insane cultural relativism and "we're all valid in our diverse ways but we just can't use your particular piece right now," if they would do that, and say what is right and wrong to them, what they like and don't like, make their opinions known, they'd get a lot less of the useless submissions, they wouldn't have to deal with shoveling all that massive slush, their journals would be held in more esteem, they would be helping writers, and quality would go up."

I absolutely agree with you that this would be a beginning, at least, toward nixing a lot of useless submissions. I appreciated reading this and sympathize with most of your post. You sum up the situation very lucidly, I think.

Steve said...

hey potato,

I guess I think writers had better have a thick skin. If VQR pissing on us is going to make us fold up our tent and go home, then we deserve what we get. It's the old motto: if the shoe fits, wear it.

Obviously, what VQR did was in poor taste. But so is sending utter shite and expecting it to be published.

And hey, is it VQR's job to reform American literature or is it the writer's job?

Anonymous said...

hey steve,

no, i was not suggesting that it is VQR's job to reform American literature, but that its energies would be better put toward constructive changes.

editors and writers have a stake in raising the bar in Am Lit.

i don't know any thin-skinned writers nor any writers that expect their utter shite to be published. i know a lot who work really hard and hope their work eventually finds a home. not a hint of entitlement about that.

also, i don't see anyone saying they're folding up their tents and going home. not sure where you got this impression or how you see it informing this issue.

Steve said...

i guess i was just noticing quite a bit of crying about the VQR comments. didn't think the comments, as stupid as they were, merited such outrage.

when you say that you don't think belittling writers will help restore american lit, aren't you making the argument that it needs restored or that it's the lit mag's job to do so?

and just because you don't know anyone who sends in shite and expects it to be published--does that mean it doesn't happen? it happens all the time. again, just like those awful american idol auditions.

as far as the folding up of tents and going home: i'm just saying that if we writers are such babies that we can't handle VQR's unfortunate moment, how are we to handle the real issues that writers must face? (which aren't publication and money making and literary fame but are the trials of the mass injustice of the american experiment...)

Anonymous said...

Genoways writes: "That's what confuses me, too, about the frequently leveled charge that editors publish their friends."

Is he also confused as to how some might question the ethics of an editor publishing books by not only his best friend and but also himself? (See his collection forthcoming from the VQR Poetry Series at UGA Press.) He shopped this book around everywhere before finally just publishing it himself.

Anonymous said...

Mr Genoways said "... we don't have the time to engage in conversation....". You don't have to... writers write back primarily to thank you for your comment; a back & forth isn't necessarily expected. But don't you realize the difference you can make by even a single-sentence feedback. After all, as your form insist--you've given the piece "careful consideration...".

Anonymous said...

About multiple submissions...
I keep track of my submissions. On average it takes about 4 months to get a reply from a magazine, sometimes a year or more, sometimes I never hear back.
If I were to wait to hear back before resubmitting to another magazine, it would take 17 years to send out those 50 submissions. Or 34 years to submit to 100 magazines.
So now in 2011 a lot of magazines would be like getting a lot of groovy psychedelic writing from the sixties, man.
Don't know how I feel about comments. Sometimes I feel like the reader understood the story, sometimes I feel he/she has not clue what it's really about.
And yes, I do read literary mags, many for free at the library since I can't afford them all. I would feel better if at least the writing were uniformly good, but often my reaction is, this is the type of dreck they publish? And this isn't 'sour grapes' -- I've felt tthat some of the magaziones that HAVE published my work also publish dreck.