Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Human Side of Submissions

Cheryl Klein had a fabulous blog entry on Monday, touching on the difficulty some editors have with the rejection process. The entry is largely composed of a couple of paragraphs of an essay by Brian Doyle.

It's a beautiful essay, and having spent several years in the world of publishing--having worked in a publishing house and from my positions on the editorial staff of The Fieldstone Review, along with a couple of other publications--I can totally empathize with him. My favorite lines:

"So very often I find myself admiring grace and effort and craftsmanship, honesty and skill, piercing and penetrating work, even as I turn to my computer to type a rejection note.... So very many people working so very hard to connect, and here I am, slamming doors day after day."

However, as a writer who's eagerly waiting with fear and trembling, many tenterhooks involved and all that, to hear back on a novel query, I also can empathize really well with the fourth commenter to the blog post, who said:

"It's not always that a writer, especially a new one, is trying to get one up on a potential editor by sending work that is irrelevant to him/her. Sometimes, a raw inspiration to write does not come with a guide to the literary world or a guide to those guides."

It seems to me that both sides could use a bit of appreciation of the difficulties the other faces, and remember, after all, that it's humans on the other side of the desk. The editors really are looking for good work, but they're also needing to make money to stay afloat, and sometimes they have bad days.

And the writers, well, sometimes they have taken a huge amount of work just to get to this point, not to mention a huge risk and psychological oomph, just to get to where they're willing to send their stuff (I'm particularly thinking of you here, Ril--you go, girl).

There are times when both are idiots, for sure. But I'd like to think that there are--or at least can be, or should be--moments of humanity and recognition of the Other's perspective within the whole thing. I must believe so, because my writing censors work very hard to make me cynical about the whole process.


Rodger Jacobs said...

The late Robert Giroux went to his grave (that appointment occured last week)regretting that he rejected Kerouac's "On the Road".

Today, more than ever, it's so damn hard knowing what's going to fly in the marketplace. As a book critic and book columnist for Pop Matters I've read some remarkable works of contemporary Lit Fic that end up remaindered in a heartbeat while the latest piece of crap to fly out of Michael Connelly's hard drive zooms to the top of the best seller lists.

Further, th so-called "democratization of the arts" (George Lucas gets credit for that term)provided by the internet -- hundreds of online writers forums and writers workshops, etc. -- has given way too many untalented wanna-be scribes a boost of confidence they perhaps don't really need, flooding the editor's desks with more poorly-written prose than any other time in publishing history.

Deborah Leiter said...

Rodger: Hm, your comments remind me for some reason of the phenomenon of the artist/writer "unknown until after their death." Do you think this phenomenon is possible in today's contemporary culture?

Rodger Jacobs said...

That's a tough question, Deborah. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 believing himself a failure and it did take a couple of decades before his stock rose both commercially and academically; the same can be said for Nathanael West, who, in a cruel twist of fate, died the day after Fitzgerald succumbed to a fatal heart attack in Hollywood. Fitzgerald, however, did enjoy commercial sucess for a spell while alive, West not so much. It took academia about 20 years to catch up to what West was doing.

I think I have to throw the question back at you ... will academia continue to determine who is relevant post-mortem? I think they should, though Charles Bukowski would vehemently disagree with me.

Deborah Leiter said...

I'm a little concerned, what with the
postmodern academic interest in getting rid of the canon, that they will stop choosing people for their merits after they die. I think they'll continue digging up people's work, but they seem to be doing it now more to uncover what happened to the popular or average person, not so much because they think the writing was good.

That said, there are others who are concerned with bringing unknown figures back into the light, and some of these are quite interesting figures. Plus, who knows what will happen in academia in the future.

This attempt to foresee what researchers will be interested in is certainly something we've been talking about in my archival theory class--it's the job of the archivist, but there's no chance they'll be able to predict perfectly.

Rodger Jacobs said...

Speaking strictly of late 20th century American writers, I think Kerouac is way overdue for an academic re-examination -- and not in a good way -- as well as that great populist Biblical plagiarizer, John Steinbeck. Conversely, over the last couple of years, two still-living literary lions, Joan Didion and John Updike, both penned novels ("Year of Magical Thinking" and "Terrorist", respectively) that should result in a positive re-examination of each authors body of work.

I think I can safely wager that future academia will not warm up to either Truman Capote or Norman Mailer. It's a toss-up with Fitzgerald and Hemingway ... the former is always falling in and out of favor with lit profs, and the latter, well, a great composer of short stories but I don't believe his novels will withstand the test of time as the 21st century moves forward.