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Monday, November 17, 2008

Talk Softly and Carry A Big Degree (Or Don't)

An interesting note came in via the cybermailbox recently:

Hey W,R:  I just was reading an interview with the editor of a new online/print pub called Sotto Voce. Apparently the editorial selection process is totally blind; all identifying information about the writer -- name, previous pubs, education -- is stripped from the ms during the review process, and only after a piece has been selected for publication do the editors find out who wrote it.

A quote that left me feeling kind of smug, considering the incessant speculation on your blog and elsewhere that an MFA credential magically opens publishing doors:

"Ironically, I received an e-mail from a disgruntled contributor (he was rejected for the first issue) who said that "[Sotto Voce] only recognize[s] three letters of the alphabet. MFA." I set him straight, but I had to laugh at his misconception. Any skewing of our contributor pool in favor of those who have formal education in writing or art demonstrates one thing: that formal education will make you a better writer, poet, or artist. Of course, there are the few-and-far-between natural geniuses but, in general, those who devote their time and energy towards learning their craft will be better at it."

Here's the interview:
And here's the new zine:

A caveat: I haven't read any of the fiction in Sotto Voce, and I see that the blog interviewer is a contributor in the first issue; relations between editor and contributor might be cozier than the editor admits. But since there is no such thing as the imaginary cookie-cutter "MFA style" some of your posters are paranoid enough to perceive (it is impossible), I believe the editor when she says she goes for accomplished art.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested. You know I love Literary Rejections On Display and have great respect for you and the grace with which you conduct yourself, particularly with the meanies who show up periodically.

This note does bring up an interesting question, though. Are editors with MFA's more likely to publish the kind of writing they learned and learned to value in graduate school? Perhaps some lit eds will come around and set us straight on the question. 


Anonymous said...

dingdong doesnt realize that of course they will print the same kind of stuff, the mla junk.

birds of a freakin feather, you hear?

listen dingdong you are operating in a different world you are after different things and you read different, you see different, you are incompatible and at odds with us. mlas and litjournals go hand in hand, of course. we always admitted that, the world knows that. we have no interest in you. wont dont want you.

non-mla writers are out there in the world, working ... yes writing for a living. you think they will seal stamps and pay postage to send in a 2k-word well-written meaningful great story to sotto for twenty friggin bucks?

oh, sorry, that dollar amount would be prorated.

how lame

how ass-bitingly lame

how totally, world-crusingly, go-away-forever just lame.

when it comes to literature, great, writing, dingdong dont know how to read.

Anonymous said...

dingdong? mla? comment moderation seems to a little weirdsy todaysy.

anyways, good question at the end. I think there definitely is some kind of style mfa grads aquire (having been in TWO programs myself i can safely extrapolate (ha!)) and even though it's slight, a good editor can pick up on it and show favortism accordingly. I would describe the style as well written but boring realism.

John Bruce said...

I'm not sure what this discussion amounts to. I've been rejected by Sotto Voce, but nominated for a Pushcart anyhow. Another editor rejected one of my pieces claiming I overused the word "he" (no kidding). Just keep doing the work of writing, if one zine doesn't like your stuff, there are hundreds of markets out there.

Anonymous said...

People keep saying that the mfa style is realism, but I feel like a lot of the stuff I see in literary magazines (Ploughshares comes to mind) is more George Saunders or Jonathan Safran Foer and less Alice Munro. A friend of mine who writes in a Borges-esque style gets the best personal rejection letters I've ever seen. Granted, she's an awesome writer.

Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

"but, in general, those who devote their time and energy towards learning their craft will be better at it"

I love the assumption that the way to "learn your craft" is to take classes, and that those outside of the university world are somehow not as serious about "devoting their time and energy."

Perfectly illustrates the insular obliviousness that characterizes the publishing world today.

Unknown said...


I'm the gal who conducted the interview with Sotto Voce's editor. So I thought I'd answer some of the comments.

Re:coziness. Well, if you want to call it "cozy" that, due to my working with the zine and having pubbed in the first issue, Emily promised me an exclusive on her first interview, then, yes, we are cozy. Of course, that also puts me in a position to know if the interviewee was being completely straight, and she was.

Two points may clear up any skepticism. I applied as a reviewer for SV after my first two submissions were accepted. (The second will appear in the winter issue.) I do not have an MFA. The closest I have come to any formal writing program is being accepted to the Kenyon Review workshop this summer. These two stories were written before that (and the second was roundly criticized by my workshop leader who teaches in an MFA program). According to Emily, the second story received the highest number of positive votes by SV reviewers of any submission to that point.

As a reviewer, I can attest that we know absolutely nothing about submitters. I like that because I can encourage friends to submit, knowing that I will never be put in an awkward situation. I am also familiar with the work of several of the current SV reviewers having published them when I worked at The Rose & Thorn, and I can tell you that those several, at least, do not write in what is often considered the "MFA" style. So I doubt they would favor it in making their choices. Besides, as Emily notes, the sheer number of reviewers who vote on each piece make it virtually impossible for one style to prevail.

I agree that far too many journals, especially print, have, for too long, favored a certain bland style that emphasizes form over substance. I also strongly believe that online journals are bringing about a change so that even the print journals are starting to look at a different, more dynamic style. At the same time, online publishing has lacked the cache of print. I feel pubs like SV are bridging that gap, making it better for all of us who have pubbed online in the past.

Finally, I invite you all to make your comments on the post so they can be brought to light.

Anonymous said...

I'm Emily Thorp, the editor of Sotto Voce, the literary pub referred to in the original post. To answer some of the previous questions and points:

The original post asked, "Are editors with MFA's more likely to publish the kind of writing they learned and learned to value in graduate school?"

I'm not sure whether they do or not--I do not have an MFA. Over half of our one hundred twenty reviewers do not have an MFA, and many do not have any formal literary education at all. What, then, qualifies them to be reviewers? They are readers. They know what they want to read or, at least, they recognize what they want to read. They are, in effect, a subsect of the audience of Sotto Voce and, therefore, intrinsically reflect the tastes and aesthetic of our readers. If our reviewers like a piece, our readers will like a piece, because our reviewers are our readers.

Of our 9 editors (4 poetry, 4 fiction, 1 managing; click here to read their bios), only one is an MFA candidate, and none have an MFA.

I'm not saying that an MFA is a bad thing. Of course it's not. Studying for your MFA means that you are making a conscious effort to improve your writing, and that you are devoting time and energy to your craft.

And no, yadda, neither am I saying that someone who does not go the formal education route cannot make the same conscious effort and devote the same time and energy. That's just silly. I know plenty of writers who work devotedly on their craft 24/7 and who would never darken the doors of a university.

All I'm saying is this: at Sotto Voce (I can't speak for any other publication, nor do I care how other publications work), an MFA credential in no way "magically opens publishing doors." It opens no doors at all. We care about the work, not the credentials. No one involved in the selection process knows the C.V. of the writer or artist until all decisions have already been made.

As I said in the interview with Nannette: "No reader’s mind is going to be changed about a piece by the writer’s credentials at the end of the piece or the publication. If readers don’t like a piece, they’re still going to dislike it after seeing that the author or artist has been published in a dozen other prestigious publications; conversely, they’re not going to decide they no longer like a piece if they get to the bio section and find out that it’s the author’s or artist’s first time being published.
"To that end, submissions are stripped of all identifying information before they are processed; for the duration of the selection period, not a single one of our reviewers or editors (including me!) has any information about who has submitted the work. None of that information is released until we’ve selected a piece for publication; then, our database manager releases (to us) the name and contact information of the author or artist, and we continue with the publication process."

While there may be some nebulous "MFA-style" that MFA students somehow conform to, I haven't seen any indication of it nor would I favor it if I did. As Nannette so accurately put it, "...the sheer number of reviewers who vote on each piece make it virtually impossible for one style to prevail." This was, in fact, the primary intent of setting up the Sotto Voce reviewing and selection process as we did.

I know, however, that some people will never believe that Sotto Voce is not controlled by an MFA-holding Council of Editors--and to them, I say: come join us! (Click here to be a reviewer.) Be a reviewer, and recommend for publication the type of anti-MFA work (whatever that is) that you would like to read in a literary publication.

E. said...

W,R asks, "Are editors with MFA's more likely to publish the kind of writing they learned and learned to value in graduate school?"

I'm in graduate school. I am not learning to value one kind of writing over another, or to write in or mimic a particular style.

The opposite is true. A large part of my formal education (and the great joy of it) is that I am reading and considering (and appreciating) work I never would have read otherwise. I am pushed well beyond my favorites; my tastes are expanding, not contracting.

In addition to traditional realism, the menu here includes everything from SF, fantasy, and magical realism to modernism, postmodernism, lyrical realism, and so-called experimental work; we're reading it all, and incorporating what we like -- not what is dictated -- as we develop our own unique styles.

One girl's working on a graphic novel for her thesis.

Of course we discuss what's been published recently, because we're reading it. But there is *absolutely no* discussion of what's "publishable" in the current literary marketplace, nor any suggestion that we should somehow aim at anything other than honing our individual voices.

In my MFA program at least, eclecticism is encouraged and expected.

Unknown said...

Hi all,

This is a lively discussion, but I do encourage you to come over and some of your thoughts on my blog. Whether praise or criticism, it would be nice to have the posts where we can easily read and reply.

Writer, Rejected said...

It's sometimes hard to entice the mice to another blog but feel free to link to this post. Thanks for coming over and leaving your interesting comments--it's much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

"No one involved in the selection process knows the C.V. of the writer or artist until all decisions have already been made."

So you're saying that if Stephen King or Bret Easton Ellis or Jonathan Franzen or Alice Munro sends you one of their castoffs, their b-sides, or even something new and hot, that if they don't pass muster with the first reader who gets it, it's rejected with a form letter?

Something big is wrong with this equation. You don't read cover letters? You don't have aspirations to become a big-media player in the online-media world, increase circulation, sell more ads, make more money? You're not in it for the money at all? You're just about the "fine writing" that you unjudgmentally judge?

This idea that editors must pick "blindly" only on the "quality" ... isn't this a little blind? Isn't it the MFA-attitude in action?

Yes, the MFA journals (from Poetry Magazine to Ploughshares), the ones that publish between 99.1-100% MFAers (usually all professors, actually, looking to build deals & reputations, so I call them "tenure tabloids"), these worthless deplorable "journals" (Ambrose Bierce's synonym for something that isn't read or even seen outside the English department) have to read non-blindly because they need to know who to tap. Unless they're so good at picking out the style, the form, the tropes, and they know which taboos to avoid, so the pickings are fun and easy.

Okay, but professional magazines have no reason to put blinders on. I've never heard of this. GQ never did this back in the day, Harper's doesn't do it, and I know that Michael Curtis at The Atlantic does not do this. Quite the opposite, actually. It would spell doom for any real magazine operation out there. To look blindly at submissions? Come on. That would be suicide. It's the academic mindset at work. I tell you that if so-and-so big name writer or celeb had a submission, and printing it would sell copies, the editor would do it. So why not look at who is submitting and read their letters? (Not just for getting the stars, of course. Every editor loves to find a talented unknown, or a professional freelance mid-lister who is always good for copy.)

That's the thing right there, the nut of it: editors at pro magazines (and web sites) have different needs than editors of academic journals or the hobby, fly-by-night, and semi-pro sites. They might all like certain things, but their needs are different absolutely.

You want to make money, unknown writer, work for Nick Denton. Or Conde Nast. You'll get half the benefits and pay as the last generation, a quarter of what freelancers did in the 1970s, but you'll still have a job. You want to make money with fiction? Forget it. That's basically the point of all this: it's an MFA game now, it's been thrown back to the tenure tabloids for the boring college teachers to dick around with, and the world treats it that way. When was the last time you heard of anyone reading frickin' Ploughshares? Or Poetry Magazine? These things are irrelevant. It's a dirty secret because to bring this up, you'll get academia riled up. Job security and all. You get rid of all the MFA programs in this country and the "literary press" would dry up overnight. I'd be happy.

F*** the journals. F*** academia, the MFA retards and their "work". And F*** the indie punx, too ... no one reads them no one cares, they don't pay beyond a token (often prorated), and they still suck.

Anonymous said...

Retards? Anon, I'm afraid that under the new academic word police regime, your views will never be heard.

Writer, Rejected said...

Seriously, watch the name calling. As you know, it's illegal on this blog. If I didn't feel so conflicted about being forced to moderate the damn comments I probably would have iced your petulance. But then again I like petulance, just not insulting names. I think we're all more intelligent than that.

Anonymous said...

I think Sotto Voice is doing something interesting and terrific with these blind submissions and I signed up to be a reviewer because I was curious about this kind of system. I submit a lot, but have never worked for a literary journal, so I'm interested to see what people are writing and sending around. My lack of mfa didn't seem to bother them -- they started sending me submissions to look at last night. The stories are pretty short (no more than 4000 words) and I've really, really enjoyed reading and reviewing the first few. Anyway, who cares if they make money? They want to put out decent stories to a wide audience and even if they're deluded and nobody ever reads them, it's not like they're hurting anyone by giving it a try. My guess is that they'll do fine -- and they certainly have an impressive way of distributing the stories to readers and collecting comments.

Anonymous said...

To the anon who mentioned "indie punx": I was about to write you off as another anony nut, but I'm glad you brought up the indie/punk-ish journals. Those suck major ass, and I mean hard. I have nothing against their existence--they are basically cliques and nobody buys them anyway--but how do they persist? They just pop up, fold overnight, everywhere, all the time.

I think reading them acutally makes you dumber. Seriously, after reading one of their so-called poems or flash pieces, I need to read something in Pshares or Poetry to recover.

Anonymous said...

I wonder, have any of you who rant so violently here actually read anything on Sotto Voice? I'm really enjoying the fiction selections so far. There might be something to this blind selection.

Anonymous said...

To answer anonymous's questions:

[Quote from anonymous: Something big is wrong with this equation. You don't read cover letters? You don't have aspirations to become a big-media player in the online-media world, increase circulation, sell more ads, make more money? You're not in it for the money at all? You're just about the "fine writing" that you unjudgmentally judge?]

The answers: No. No; no; no; no. Nope. Yes.

I don't read cover letters because, as I said before, I don't think the author's credentials are relevant. I don't have aspirations to become a "big-media player in the online-media world." Why would I?

Sure, I'd like to increase circulation, but not by pandering; I'd rather increase circulation by attracting interested readers.

Sell more ads? That implies I've sold any ads. Sorry to deflate your theory, but Sotto Voce is privately funded. Translation: the money to pay contributors comes from my checking account.

You've got it right: I'm not in it for the money at all. I am in the fortunate situation of earning enough money that I can use some of what I don't need to fund this effort. I consider it money well-spent, I enjoy the process and the result, and I love being able to provide this market for writers, both experienced and novice.

Eventually I would like to sell ads, but only so I can increase the per-piece payment rate for authors. I've doubled them for the second issue, but my goal is to be able to pay at least $100 per piece per issue.

Our print versions, when they come out, will be sold at cost.

And, to answer your other question, if Stephen King or Bret Easton Ellis or Jonathan Franzen or Alice Munro sent me one of their castoffs, their b-sides, or even something new and hot, if it didn't pass muster with the first reader who gets it--no, of course it wouldn't be rejected with a form letter. That's not how our system works. If, after 20+ reviewers have read it, and it didn't pass muster with them, then it would get rejected with a form letter.

I understand your skepticism, but Sotto Voce truly does not fit into any of the stereotypes you mention. We are not an "MFA journal"; neither I nor most of our editors/reviewers have an MFA; we're not interested in "building deals or reputations"; and we're not associated with any educational institution. We're also not, although both contributors and editors are paid, a "professional" magazine, in that we do not, and will never make a profit; in fact, the only way revenue will ever be used (if we ever decide to go the revenue route) will be to increase payments to contributors--I would never use it even to defray the costs of running, printing, or hosting the publication. I committed to covering those costs when I started the pub.

So... we are in a unique position in that "putting on blinders" spells neither doom nor suicide for us. We don't need the money; we don't need the circulation. If we publish something by Stephen King, it will be because our reviewing and editing staff read it and loved it; if we publish something by Joe Unknown, it will be because our reviewing and editing staff read it and loved it.

Anonymous said...

In the interest of hopefully settling Sotto Voices stance on MFAs, I offer a little anecdotal evidence. I recently a submitted story for publication. The submission form never asked for a cover letter. It asked only for a name and an email address. The journal has no idea that I'm in an MFA program. I had no opportunity to tell them. Right off the bat, this tells me that this is a journal dedicated to fair treatment.

I also noticed that many of the stories in the current issue came from non-mfa authors. Several hold advanced degrees in literature, but an equal number make no mention of an advanced degree of any kind.

This leads me to believe the people at Sotto Voice are looking for good writing above all else. I hope the journal does well. i think it might be one of the online journals that might help save the short story.