Misadventures in the Republic of Letters

Confessions of a literary magazine editor

Being an editor at a literary magazine has some similarities to being a judge on American Idol: You have to wade through a lot of bad candidates in order to find the real stars. Imagine William Hung as a story, then take away his charming naïve confidence. This is what I read day-in and day-out for hours at a time. It’s made me somewhat sympathetic to Paula Abdul’s intense (albeit rumored) prescription drug habit. Terrible writing, like a fat-soluble vitamin, can stay with you. And being an editor often means you take in far more than the recommended daily allowance.

Not that all bad writing is painful. There is the B-movie, Attack of the Giant Flies-style of so-bad-it’s-fun writing. These submissions are frequently written in ALL CAPS, and some have been specially formatted so the text makes a shape on the page (such as a Christmas tree). Many journals now only accept submissions online, and while this saves trees and is far more convenient, I sometimes find myself nostalgic for the insane postal mail I’ve received though the years.

Many of my favorite submissions have been from correctional facilities: pen and ink drawings of burning buildings; three-word stories such as “Why, God, why?”; stories that answer the question, “What if prisons were co-ed?” I’ve received pages with bites taken out of them, as well as stories about road rage that have 20 staples driven into the pages’ upper left-hand corner. One of my editor friends once received a sandwich in the mail. It was marked as a submission and came with a cover letter.

Other submissions are more disturbing than laugh-inducing. Stories written from the point of view of an aichmophilic circus clown who is ready to “get even” with the world. Stories that use metaphor to relate sexual climax with a cyst bursting.

Occasionally submissions are elaborately rendered, heartbreakingly thin tales outlining the author’s personal fantasy: Kurt Cobain isn’t dead at all; he faked his own death. After the narrator stumbles upon him at a Midwestern Dave & Buster’s, he begins sharing the gospel with Kurt and convinces him to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Afterward, the two start a Christian hard-core band that rockets to stardom. But first Kurt has facial reconstruction surgery so he won’t be recognized by the public and so his old heroin friends won’t come after him with their tempting goods. What I could gather from the story’s post-op physical description suggested doctors had reconstructed Kurt into someone resembling a poor man’s John Tesh.

But at the end of the storm, a rainbow: There’s also some amazing writing out there. I know it’s more common to associate incontinence with being very scared, very drunk or very old, but let me tell you—I’ve read stories so good that when I found them I nearly crapped my pants. There’s no better feeling than to come across a great story and see it get published. Particularly when it’s from a new or emerging writer who hasn’t yet been in the public eye. It produces an ego-inflating feeling that you saved something. Think of the slush pile as one of the many pits in Dante’s Inferno—inside sit hundreds of teeming bodies, all of which are screaming forth to be rescued. How great it is to discover a worthy soul and pull it out of limbo. Equally neat is when you see developing writers’ submissions year after year, and you watch them get better at their craft until you’re writing them acceptance letters.

Getting to say “yes” is definitely more fun than saying “no” (unless it’s a story describing the 2015 rise of the New Aryan Nation). It’s hard accepting that the rejection e-mail I just sent might ruin someone’s day. I’m a writer myself, and I’m constantly on the other side of the table: I know how it feels to be dismissed. Back when I got my first rejection letter, I cried and continued crying as I drove myself to McDonald’s and ordered two Big Mac sandwiches. It was useless; the sesame-seed buns had the aftertaste of failure.

So when I reject, it is with tough love and good wishes—and an eye toward my mission. I have to find the gleaming needles in the haystack and get them to our readers to enjoy.

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