Confessions of a Cranky Lit-Mag Editor Part I

by Peter Selgin

Disclaimer: What follows is not offered as prescription; it is not meant to be objective, or reliable; it may not even be entirely sane. It claims only the authority of its prejudices. In other words, the author is a crank.

But I am a crank of a special order. I am the cranky co-editor of a literary journal, and my cranky judgments may determine whether something you write gets published. Or not.

I write this on the 3:15 local as it rolls out of Grand Central Terminal, bound for Harlem, the Bronx, and various other points north along the Hudson River—which, when they had it, the Algonquin Indians called The Muhheakunnuk, or “The River that Cannot Make Up Its Mind,” because its conflicting tides make it flow both ways.

On the baize seat beside me: a pile of submissions for Alimentum, a new literary journal devoted to writing about food, freshly yanked from P.O. Box 776, New York, New York: twenty-eight poems, stories and essays in white and golden envelopes, and that’s less than a week’s worth. By the time the train arrives at my stop (Spuyten Duyvil, which, depending who you ask, is Old Dutch for either “Spouting Devil,” “Spitting Devil” or “In Spite of the Devil”), I’ll have rejected all but three or four.

For unlike the Hamlet-like Muhheakunnuk, when it comes to rendering verdicts on submissions, I have no trouble making up my mind. No competing tides conflict this cranky editor’s soul. On the contrary, I am gratefully swept forward by the gravitational broom of an impeccable style, perfectly willing to be sucked into a poet’s imagery by the undertow of his or her perfectly-pitched voice, ready and willing to be bowled over by the breaking wave of a sublime sentence.

Then again, the same words that sweep me forward and into and under, may also set me drifting off into a bay of boredom: a droopy sentence, a shaky simile, an artificial sentiment, or worse, a flaming cliché—any one of these is enough to set my concentration adrift, until I find myself no longer immersed in the story, essay or poem, but skimming its brackish, scummy surface.

What’s gone wrong? In a word: style. The writer may or may not have something worth saying; I don’t know; I can’t tell; I can’t read the thing. Which brings me to my first confession: I am a style-snob. If a submission isn’t well-written—if the language isn’t such that I might conceivably want to read it through a second time for the sheer pleasure of re-encountering the same words in the same order, then, as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t worth reading once.

Let me give you an example. It happens that in the first (golden) envelope, which I have just opened, there is a story, and that story opens (more or less, since, however cranky, I am neither mean nor unscrupulous enough to quote the author’s exact words) with: “He stood at the open doorway wearing his pajamas, frosty air nipping at his toes.” As I read that opening, a similar chill passes through me, and I brace myself for the next frigid gust. Why? Notwithstanding that “open doorway,” the sentence is more or less grammatical; its meaning is clear. An innocent sentence. Which may be why it leaves me cold: it’s too innocent; it draws no blood or heat and has no weight or thrust. Unlike “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” or “None of them knew the color of the sky,” it augurs nothing: a tip with no iceberg. Furthermore, thanks to its rudimentary positioning in the sentence (buried in its soft center), that “wearing his pajamas,” which might have carried some weight, feels inconsequential, while the frost “nipping at his toes” downloads an unintended sound-file of Nat King Cole’s warbled vibrato.

Were this not the author’s first sentence, and hence presumably his best foot forward, I wouldn’t be so hard on it. But it is, and with my expectations for his second-best foot reduced accordingly I read on with a frosty heart. When, less than three pages later, that organ has iced over completely, I tuck the story along with its cover letter and SASE back whence it came, get out my calligraphic Shaeffer fountain pen, and carve a large, unambiguous X onto the envelope.

Sounds cruel, you say. Sadistic, even. Try to understand. Despite being a brand new journal, already Alimentum is averaging over three hundred submissions a month. That’s seventy-five a week, or ten a day: two hours’ work, potentially. That’s on top of all the other unpaid responsibilities that come with running a literary magazine: filling out orders, doing mailings, planning events and promotions—let alone the time needed to design, assemble, and proofread an issue, and handle the thousand-and-one other details that rear their prickly heads in the middle of our insomnia. And that’s on top of whatever else we do to make a living. All of which is to say that, like our brethren at the big publishing houses, we editors at little magazines are a harried lot; we can’t afford to read every syllable of the submissions we get: or else we do so to the detriment of some other part of the process—like fine-tuning those stories that we do accept.

Confession # 2: I don’t read every word of every submission. For that matter I don’t always read every sentence, or every paragraph, or even more than the first page. Why should I, if that first page isn’t any good? Even if the work does redeem itself three pages later, why accept a broken-winged bird when heaven knows there are plenty of soaring masterpieces out there

Hence, as the saying goes, weak work gets read “very quickly.” Someone I know once described an editor’s job in two words: rejecting things. Any writer who’s been out there and has a filing cabinet stuffed with rejection slips to prove it can vouch for the accuracy of that description. The reason is simple enough: there are a lot of good writers out there, and many more not-so-good ones. And too little space even for the best of the best.

Still, I’m continually amazed by how many superb stories, essays and poems—works by unknown writers, but also by established ones—somehow manage to evade publication until, by dumb luck or God’s good grace, they end up in our submission pile. To most of us writers, getting published feels like a little miracle. To the editor of a small literary journal the miracle consists of being the one among hundreds who gets to say “yes” to something good.

But to get to that “yes” first we have to tunnel our way through a mountain of “no’s.” And so I make an end-run through the pile on the seat, branding envelopes with my swift executioner’s X. And here’s my third confession: it doesn’t break my heart. In fact, rejecting things is sort of fun. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t wring my hands and snicker like a Grand Guignol villain at the prospect of sending some fellow scribbler’s efforts to their self-addressed stamped doom; I’m not that heartless. Every so often I even feel a dint of pity for the ink-stained wretches who’ve wasted their time and mine with work that is by no means ready for prime time, work that is amateurish, or pretentious, or (often the case) both. Why—I ask myself, shaking my head, re-stuffing the envelope, slashing another X—do they bother?

And though I admit to being a sucker for style, it hasn’t stopped me from spotting a diamond or two in the rough. However old they may be biologically, professionally some authors are very young, and entitled to some callowness. We’ve published stories by people who had never before seen their words in print (at least one of whom turned out to be sixteen). We’ve signed on works that arrived single-spaced with typos scratched out and handwritten cover letters on flowery stationary (and with no SASE).

But these authors had something to say, and their writing was, if not polished or even all that competent, fearlessly sincere. Yet professional callowness is hardly an excuse for the writer in the next envelope, who, after letting it be known in her cover letter that she’s had three stories in The New Yorker, blunders into her essay with, “Growing up, there were two types of food in my family.” That may be so—that is, the two types of food may indeed have been growing up. But to me it reads like either very sloppy editing or the syntactical equivalent of tone-deafness. In any case I’m deeply discouraged, and find my eyes already starting to bump and skim over the next sentence like the wheels of a 747 during takeoff. Several clunkers later, I am no longer reading for story so much as for the next glaring error. If nothing bad happens for a whole page or two, this writer may yet win me back to her good graces. But no: I stumble upon more blunders and, my concentration having lifted up, up and away into the dreamy atmosphere of the 3:15 Hudson Line Local, I bail.

Back into the envelope goes Madame X, and I pick up the next contender. It may be an essay, a poem, a story, it makes no difference. Language is language, and it never ceases to impress me how very often the poets are as guilty of using it as sloppily as their humble prose-writing cousins. When I read a poem (like this one I’ve just pried from its paper cocoon), and find myself mentally cutting every other word, vacuuming rhetorical sawdust, pulling out cotton batting, putty, steel wool and other types of filler, whatever the poet may have to say, that’s it for the poem. In a prose work I can live with some flab, that extra word or phrase meant to lend conversational flow to a narrative. And even with poetry sometimes the voice has to loosen its belt. But while a story or essay can survive a less-than-unimpeachable style, a poem made of flabby language doesn’t live up to its name, not for me. And so X marks the spot.

Next: a forty-five page story, with prologue. At that length, the prose had better be as good as Proust’s. It’s not. X.

Next: a third-person account of a gourmet bike trip in France that turns into a love story. All is well until I read, “Everything was magic: their touch, their kisses, their words. His green eyes shined twin beams of light and there was magic in the air between them.” Clichés are like those little crosses you see at the side of highways, marking a place where a genuine feeling or insight has met its end. Martin Amis calls all good writing as a war against cliché. You could say the same for good editing. X.

Yes, it’s a war, all right, with twenty-thousand paper Napoleons going mano a mano for the same few hallowed inches of paper, and for every Austerlitz a hundred Waterloos.

Read Part II.

This article originally appeared in Poets & Writers magazine.