What I Learned as a Literary Journal Reader
Essay by Kevin Brown
I’ve been sending out submissions to journals for almost fifteen years now, ranging from those no one has heard of and that no longer exist to the most well-known journals in the field, with a variety of results. Not surprisingly, I’ve received a whole host of rejection letters (or postcards or small slips of paper), many of which try to provide vague comfort and wish me success in the future. Two years ago, though, I was enrolled in an MFA program, and, as part of that program, I worked as a reader on a journal. It’s a young journal trying to build a reputation that goes beyond our region, but it’s not quite there yet. Thus, its name is known by people in the area, but certainly not nationally yet.
This experience was educational, as I realized a number of mistakes writers who submit make, but I’ve also realized that many comments editors make, even the general ones in rejection letters are actually true. Thus, I thought other writers might benefit from the perspective of someone who is just beginning to see the inside of how literary journals function.
First, there are several gaffs one should avoid in sending out submissions, many of which seem rather obvious, but still happen too frequently. There were simple factual errors, such as the one person who simply used the wrong journal title in the cover letter. I know that almost all of us use a form cover letter that we adapt for particular submissions, but, if you’re going to use the name of the journal in the text of the letter, make sure it’s the correct one.
We often hear about the challenging job market and how any small error can cause one to have his or her resume pulled from the pile. The same is true when it comes to submissions. We, a small, regionally-known journal, receive over 500 submissions in a month. For the poetry side, which is what I read, that comes out to over 250 submissions, giving us between 1500 and 1800 poems for the first month of a two-month reading period. Thus, by the end of the entire reading time, we’ll have over 3500 poems, out of which we’ll select around 20 for the journal, an acceptance rate of 1/2 of 1%.
Thus, when I saw poems with the small details done incorrectly, I had one more good reason not to take that poem and writer seriously. Just as in the freshman composition papers I read a good many of, I saw numerous apostrophe errors, either sprinkled in like toppings on an ice cream cone or simply ignored, as if the writer were sending the poem in a text message. Words were misspelled or simply omitted, leaving us to have to read lines several times simply to understand the basic syntax. Given the number of submissions, we were not likely to take the time to do so.
Along the same lines, I saw submissions that were simply factually wrong when it came to the art of poetry. One person said that his or her poem was a sonnet, but the only characteristics it shared with a sonnet was that it was 14 lines long. There was no set meter or rhyme, no turn after either the octave, as in the Italian form, or the first twelve lines, as in a Shakespearean sonnet.
Another person who submitted might have known literary history and been trying to make an homage in the cover letter, as he or she quoted a famous writer talking about the work being submitted. I could only think of Walt Whitman’s use of Emerson’s letter about his collection that Whitman used without Emerson’s knowledge to try to get support for his work. Oddly enough, the use of this quote in our submitter’s letter did not have the same effect, but that could also be because the poetry did not live up to the claim.
That’s a problem a number of us readers commented on. We would look at the cover letter and biographical information and see that the writer had been published in respectable journals, sometimes journals that were quite good, in fact. However, we would then read the poetry, and it would simply not measure up to the quality we know those other journals publish. Such a disconnect led to a few thoughts. First, I wondered if it were a question of editorial taste, that perhaps those other journals had stylistic differences that caused them to like poems we would not. Second, and more bothersome, I wondered if they were sending us their weaker work, if they were intellectually slumming by submitting to our journal. I thought they might see us as a lower-tier journal (as we were, by some measures) and were sending us work that would not make the cut in other places. Needless to say, such an approach did not make me inclined to want to see their work in our journal.
One last observation I noticed is not a mistake on the author’s part, but something about poor writing, in general. Throughout the submissions, there were two extremes of poetry that I kept seeing. First, were poems that were clearly literal, almost like prose in the writing. Then, there were poems that were nothing more than a string of images with no literal level to hold them together. There was almost nothing in the middle, which is where most of the stronger poems lived. While it is possible to use either extreme well, the poetry I saw didn’t pull that off. I’m not sure if this split is due to some sort of teaching method in creative writing programs or to the fact that so many people try to write poetry without ever reading it, so we received a number of submissions from people who thought they knew what poetry is, but who were clearly wrong.
On the other hand, I learned that what editors have been saying for years is actually true in many cases. If you’ve ever received a rejection letter (usually a form) that says something about how many submissions the journal received, which then either leads to a comment about how they are unable to comment on each submission or how difficult the decision was, you might have thought, as did I early on, that this comment was simply an editorial dodge to avoid extra work or to let the rejected down easily. After having read through all of the submissions we received in a month, I can assure you it is absolutely true. There is no way that I could have given feedback on everything I read, not in a timely manner, anyway, as I like almost all editors and readers, also have another full-time job (others are often full-time students).
In fact, I will readily admit that the numbers caused me to look for reasons not to read submissions, as I was simply deluged with poems to read. If someone did not follow the guidelines and submitted a document type that our submissions manager was unable to read, I was thrilled. When I saw a short story that had been submitted in the wrong category, making one less submission for me to read, I almost cackled with glee. When I saw a submissions I could not open that had been submitted from another journal editor, someone who should have known better, I shook my head, though with a smile on my face, as I would not have to read whatever wonderful writing he or she had submitted.
However, even out of the submissions I was able to read, the numbers above should show that giving feedback would be almost impossible. With 3500 poems in a month, I would have to read and respond to 100 poems a day, which is untenable. Even if we divided the load among the readers and editors, we would still be left with close to 100 a week, a burden any full-time worker or student would be hard pressed to manage.
Also, the truth is that readers and editors disagree, another comment that I once believed was simply editorial hedging to avoid a harsh rejection. In our meeting to discuss the pieces we received in the first month, I fought hard for one poet, but I was the only one fighting. It could be that it was at the end of a long meeting, but no one else had recommended it for discussion, either. Even when we all liked a poet’s work, we disagreed on which poem we should accept, ending up with a compromise where we took three of them, one that I liked, one that most of the other readers liked, and one that the editor liked. Sometimes, however, the compromise is to go with someone else’s work altogether, leaving the writer who submitted clearly quality work without an acceptance.
The disagreement between readers and editors reminds me of a basic fact about creating works of art: art is a mystery much more than it is a craft. Many writers came close, almost making me want to accept their work, only to fall short for some reason, often one I could not name. If I were giving them feedback in a workshop, I’m sure I could have said something about why the poem(s) didn’t work, but there were times were I knew any response would have missed the point. In the end, something about the poem just didn’t work for me or for the other readers. For all of our talk about teaching writing and the craft of writing, in the end, how art comes into existence is (and should be) a mystery to us all.
Last, here is what I learned that directly affects me, though I’m not quite sure what to do with this information at this point. First, I noticed that there was a significant amount of bad poetry, so bad, in fact, that I wondered whether the person who submitted had even read contemporary poetry. I can recognize bad poetry because I spent years writing it, but, what is worse is that I spent years sending it out to journals. Thus, I feel sorry for the extra work I inflicted on readers and editors for all of those years. It was clear I did not know the level of my work, nor did I know the quality of the journal I was submitting to.
What is worse, though, is that I still wonder if I do the same thing. I’m much more aware of the quality of journals throughout the field, and I believe I have a better idea of the quality of my work, given both my reading of it and the level of publications I have achieved. However, I can’t get rid of that nagging feeling that somewhere, some reader is shaking his or her head as I did, wondering what this guy is doing submitting something this bad to his or her journal. As if poets don’t have enough insecurities, I’ve now added one more to my list.
Similarly, I saw people submitting who have published in the same places I have, yet I thought their work was not as strong as mine. Of course, part of that is the flip side of the insecurity writers have, as most of us believe our work is stronger than other writers, except when we feel that we’re not as good as anyone else, of course. Part of it, too, could be the concern I mentioned about writers sending inferior work to our journal, thinking our standards are not as high as more established publications.
Again, I wonder if this is what other readers and editors think about my work when they read it and see where I have published. They, too, might wonder how I was able to get my work accepted in that level of journal when my work clearly does not measure up to it. I could simply omit the bio, as some writers do, but the defensive part of me doesn’t want to let that go; it wants to state quite clearly that I am that level of writer, even if I might not have hit it in this particular poem.
Of course, that’s what I ultimately have to remember about my work and the work I read in submissions. We all have poems that are better than others, and we have some poems that just don’t work. Reading submissions for the past few months has made me much more conscious of that distinction and how I behave with that knowledge. Thus, I spend more time trying to make sure my writing is a good fit for the journal I’m submitting it to, as I don’t want to waste the readers’ or editors’ time. Also, I am much more aware of the quality of work I am submitting, as I try to make sure it is honestly my best. Granted, I still aim too high at times, as we all need to dream about that acceptance in a name-brand journal, but, most of the time, I have become much more realistic. If I spend more time reading individual submissions, I hope that everyone else does, too.
Kevin Brown is a Professor at Lee University. He has one book of poetry, Exit Lines (Plain View Press, 2009) and two chapbooks: Abecedarium (Finishing Line Press, 2011) and Holy Days: Poems (winner of Split Oak Press Chapbook Contest, 2011). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again (Wipf and Stock, 2012), and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels (Kennesaw State University Press, 2012). He received his MFA from Murray State University.