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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Your Ideas Are Distasteful

My friend, a writer, was recently telling me about the time his query letter was sent back with the three middle paragraphs circled and the word "Yuck!!!" written in the margin.  If he weren't a good friend I might be tempted to think this couldn't be true.  Who would be so callous? Sadly, he won't allow me to name the agent of rejection in this instance. I suppose it doesn't matter, could be any of them.


John Bruce said...

Seems like this one could go either way. I get lots of spam from zines saying their latest story of the week is up, click on over, and sometimes I do -- with the result that I sometimes wish the editor had done that with the story, rather than post it.

There's a yuck factor in the current lit biz, whether from writers or editors.

Anonymous said...

It's not surprising, of course.

One thing I've learned is that placing someone in a position to *accept* or *reject* automatically inspires in them a certain delusion of grandeur.

Myself, I much prefer a cordially worded form letter. I am often surprised when editors or agents take the time to explain to me WHY they didn't like what I sent them. It amuses me greatly, this assumption on their part that I have any interest whatever in their opinion of my work.

Perhaps it sounds a bit cold, but I have very little respect for the "gatekeepers". I see them as inconvenient yet undeniable facts of life, to be used by me to achieve what I want. But I certainly don't care to listen to their half-baked, ill-considered notions about what makes "good" or "bad" art, or what I am doing "wrong."

Editors and agents: I get it. You have some of daddy's money. You went into publishing because it seemed neat, in a kind of old-fashioned way and you really ADORE Anne Rice. Fine. You labor under the delusion that you know more about "what sells" than I do, and that you are being KIND by sharing your wisdom. Please save us both the time and effort and just tell me yes or no. Keep your opinions to yourself.

E. said...


I call bullshit on your cynicism! A yes or no is, by definition and practice, an opinion rendered by a gatekeeper, and you wouldn't be submitting if you didn't hope for a positive reaction to your work.

I can see feeling pissy about and dismissive of detailed rejections, but what about acceptances?

You want us to believe that if an editor accepts your story, you have no regard for their high opinion of your work? You'd dismiss a compliment from an editor about some aspect of your story you yourself worked hard at perfecting... because said editor is a gatekeeper and you've chosen to hold gatekeepers in collective contempt?

What about readers of the publication? Are they allowed to admire the work the editor has selected for them without garnering your contempt? They are, after all, buying into the editor's literary taste when they buy the journal.

Why would you submit anything, ever? Since every publication is edited, you must not respect any of them. Why not just self-publish, or post to a blog or personal Web site? Why publish at all?

Your argument is full of holes.


Anonymous said...

I'm the person you once referred to as "mean," E. But look how you come at a person who expresses an opinion. It's dismissed as "bullshit." Is that mean? It sure isn't respectful.
You always pop up when anybody criticizes the literary status quo.
Gimme, generally speaking, doesn't respect today's editors. Neither do I. Their comments are contrived excuses to reject, nothing more.
It's revealing to take a look at what they publish -- often junk. But junk written by people who have the credentials to get through the gate.
And who "buys" the journal? Almost nobody. Literary journals can't survive on sales.
You're on the right track, E, in attending a MFA program.
I've long ago retired from the foolish fray. It's all vanity anyway.

E. said...

Well, Anonymous, my tone above has been misunderstood by you, just as I apparently misunderstood your tone and characterized it as mean. It's the cynicism I called BS on, and the (mean-spirited, I think) characterization of all literary editors, not the opinions. I'm questioning how someone can have those opinions and still submit, that's all. If it came across as disrespectful (as I think Gimme's swipe at editors did, and your swipe at my MFA student status did, by the way -- ugh, can you let that go for a freakin' minute?), I apologize deeply.

I have no interest in sustaining the literary status quo; I agree that some journals publish junk. Some, however, publish good work in my opinion. It's these journals I submit to; I'd think Gimme would be submitting to the ones s/he admires, but according to Gimme's argument, there are none. And yet apparently, Gimme still submits.

My interest is in coherent arguments. It's one thing to complain bitterly if the complaint is logical. It's another to make a negative argument that's full of holes.

Let's talk mean: Gimme is impugning the opinions and abilities of all editors based on the assumption that they all, somehow, are living off of "daddy's money" and admiring Ann Rice... ? Yet Gimme submits to journals in the hopes that his/her story will be given *individual* attention from these same people s/he dismisses as a single rube entity moving as one.

There is an inherent paradox in Gimme's position -- at best it is a priori -- but if s/he clings to it, I believe it's reasonable to expect Gimme to eschew all literary journals (or anywhere else fiction appears; s/he doesn't make a distinction). I think it's reasonable to question why a writer is trying to get published in these places when the writer has no respect for them or the opinions of the people who run them.

See? Not mean, just looking for a little generosity of spirit in what I perceive as a rigid, some may say insulting, argument.

Yup, you're right: I am right on track in my MFA program. I love it. It is a luxury I've worked hard to afford. I am lucky lucky lucky.

Nice to spar with you.

Anonymous said...

"Why would you submit anything, ever? Since every publication is edited, you must not respect any of them."

I'd think the answer to that would be fairly obvious. I submit because I want to be read, and because when submitting to agents and publishers, it looks good to have some kind of publishing track record.

If I only submitted to publications I "respected", I wouldn't submit at all. I'm not saying there are NO publications that I enjoy reading, but I could probably count them on one hand. I don't think I'm particularly unique in this, either.

"There is an inherent paradox in Gimme's position"

You are correct: it is a paradox. In order to get where I want to be, I am forced to submit, and be evaluated by those I do not respect. This, however, is REALITY. I can live with it. I'm a writer. I'm comfortable with paradox. Sorry it bugs you so.

"I believe it's reasonable to expect Gimme to eschew all literary journals "

You believe it's reasonable only to submit to places that accord with my own taste?:) Come on now, that's just silly. I would be severely limiting myself for no reason.

As far as my "daddy's money"/Anne Rice comment, I can only assume you don't know many people in publishing. Publishing is (and mostly always has been) run by people who have a little family money and some pretense to taste. In recent years the Max Perkins types have been replaced by people whose taste is far more commercial and less "literary". There are exceptions of course, but I don't think I'm making some kind of terribly unwarrented generalization here.

I see no reason to treat these people as anything other than what they are: a fact of life to be dealt with.

And yes: being accepted is of course more fun than being rejected. Duh.

Anonymous said...

As for the derailed commenting...**Yuck**

Anonymous said...

I've been working my way through the O. Henry Prize anthologies, starting in the 1920's. I have to say all this talk about literature being better in the past seems a little ridiculous, from what I've read in those old anthologies. I'm now a firm believer that today's writers are as good as those from any previous time in 20th Century America.

Anonymous said...

Says Gimme: "I submit because I want to be read, and because when submitting to agents and publishers, it looks good to have some kind of publishing track record."

So what about agents and publishers? Are they free from your revulsion? Your argument, as E so succinctly put it, is "full of holes".

Even your anonymous comment handle "gimme" speaks volumes.

To be honest, I don't understand why you even bother writing if everyone else involved in the process is so beneath you. How sad that must be -- and lonely.

Good luck. With that attitude, you'll need it.

Another writer

Anonymous said...

Nope (which rhymes with Dope) speaks volumes too.
How sad that you couldn't see that.
(I'm critiquing the lame sarcastic patronizing of the "poor John" kind, w/r. The comment above is full of cliches.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation, Anonymous. It's a shame you couldn't get that across with just tone.

You are right, however, about the cliches. I guess I was trying to keep from being too negative about Gimme. In truth, while reading his/her responses, I felt personally attacked. I became infuriated with how entitled s/he seems to act. Not only entitled, however, but narrow-minded and aggressively ungenerous. And it's not just Gimme -- there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of them out there. I'm not dumb enough to think I can change your mind, but for any of you who are reading and on the fence: what's confounding to me is why people like Gimme would want to associate themselves with people they despise and have 'no respect for' while also proudly denouncing all writing that's not theirs and all editors and publishers. Seriously? Come on. Either do the research to find the people and mags you respect and associate with them, or else find something that's not writing to get into. There are so many shit-talkers out there and, yet, instead of doing anything about it, they just complain about the system, without even taking any time to understand it. There are countless editors and magazines out there, ranging from indie publishers, to small presses, to online journals, who felt unhappy with writing and they took the initiative to do something about it. And it doesn't always take 'deep pockets'. Wordpress and blogspot are both free. And if you're only writing for the money, or the 'fame' then, well, have at it. It would make even more sense, then, for you to find people you like and want to be associated with.

Ultimately, what I feel when thinking about all this negativity is frustration and, yes, sadness. And I mean that sincerely. (I think one can be sad and angry at the same time.) I read Gimme's responses and I think: 'How sad, this person's misguided and aggressive view of the world.' Who knows, maybe s/he will find success in writing. But I've seen enough just from here to believe otherwise.

This was a venting session. I apologize. W/R: keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

"To be honest, I don't understand why you even bother writing if everyone else involved in the process is so beneath you."

Um, there is this OTHER entity involved in the process. Perhaps you've forgotten about them. We call them "the readers". Believe it or not, I don't write for the agents and the publishers. Crazy, eh? I actually write to be READ. I USE the agents and publishers to achieve that. I thought I explained that above. THAT is why I bother. Clear enough?

I'm not sure what "argument" exactly you think I'm making with this. Perhaps you admire and respect the folks who run magazines and publishing houses and agencies. Good for you! Perhaps you're one of them, which would explain why my comments seem to have riled you up so.

As I said, I think the gatekeepers are mostly morons. I deal with them, sure. But RESPECT them? Rarely.

But hey, (to quote David Rabe) good taste has no doubt deprived me of a great many things.


Anonymous said...

It makes me sad to hear gimme's comments. Full disclosure--I've worked editorially, and as a writer. I didn't get a high off of rejecting submissions. I got a high off of the possibility of maybe finding something in the unsolicited manuscripts that might have been otherwise missed. I found it very, very hard to reject people, because I assumed most would be disappointed, as I would be. To partially soften that, I would encourage wherever I could, and give as thoughtful, detailed feedback as I could. No, I didn't expect writers to assume that I was the be-all end-all judge of what was Good. But I was in a position to speak for what that publication was looking for, what was Good For Us. Of all the magazines the writer had had the possibility of submitting to, presumably there was some reason why s/he had chosen ours, I thought. I was wildly underpaid (not in possession of any money from Daddy), and I made time to spend extra hours on these submissions, often taking them home with me. Many writers expressed appreciation for my comments. I assume if they had been uninterested in them, they would have simply disregarded them, as any writer disregards unuseful advice (but vaguely appreciated the attention, or at least not felt insulted by it). But some advice is useful. And maybe, maybe, maybe mine was to some writers. So my intention was not to patronize anyone, but simply to offer submitters the same kind of time and care they had taken in submitting. To show their work was read and taken seriously. And in hope that there was some fraction of a chance something I had to say might help, and in confidence that it certainly wouldn't hurt. I've had a lot of advice in my time, some excellent and some ridiculous. You take what you can use and you overlook the rest--but I can't see ever disdaining the fact that someone took time to offer you advice. I'll take kindness and good intentions wherever I can find them...

Anonymous said...

"Many writers expressed appreciation for my comments. I assume if they had been uninterested in them, they would have simply disregarded them,"

That doesn't surprise me at all. Writers are generally desperately insecure and will grovel for even a crumb of negative attention. Anyway, the rest of us who are not seeking "advice" from total strangers will, indeed, disregard such comments.

"I can't see ever disdaining the fact that someone took time to offer you advice."

Here's the thing, my friend: when I submit to you, I'm not interested in your advice - well-intentioned though it may be. I'm submitting a completed piece of work to see if you're interested in publishing it. That's it! I'm solely interested in whether or not my stuff is, as you said, Good For You. If not, fine! No hard feelings! But I'm not looking to you for any more than that. And as arrogant as this stance may seem to you, I believe that the true arrogance lies in your assumption that I AM looking for more than that, that I am in need of your advice. I'm not, thanks.

Anyway, it sounds like you were one of the good guys. Maybe you aren't aware of what a rarity you are, in which case I can understand why my comments made you sad.

And again: I acknowledge that I'm most likely in the minority here. Most writers not only appear receptive to advice, they are actually willing to rewrite stories to suit editors (or even allow the editors to do the rewriting). Raymond Carver famously led Gordon Lish mangle his early stories into unrecognizable embarrassments, so desperate was he to be published (of course when he got a little more self-confidence he told Lish to take a hike).

Sadly, there are a lot of editors out there dreaming of "playing Lish", and a lot of writers who are so desperate to be published they forget Bob Dylan's sage "advice" on this matter:

Know your song well BEFORE you start singing.