Confessions of a Cranky Lit-Mag Editor Part II

by Peter Selgin

Having left 125th Street behind, the train galumphs its way over the lentil-brown waters of the Harlem River, into the warehouse and truck lot district of the Bronx. Though where I live the Bronx is beautiful, this is more like the part that inspired Ogden Nash to write, “The Bronx? No Thonx.” I can see Yankee Stadium in the distance. Next stop: Morris Heights. So far I have read (scanned? perused? gathered in the essence of?) twelve submissions. An illiterate Zorro, I have slashed a dozen X’s. Twelve works in as many minutes, sixteen to go.

And though I may sit cozy in my bouncing seat slicing my fat X’s, I’m not the enemy in this war; I’m just a medic at one of countless MASH units sprinkled along the front, exercising triage, putting what seem to me hopeless cases out of their misery, while saving bandages, blankets and beds for those in good enough shape to benefit from them.

All editors have their pet-peeves. To assume their absence would be a great mistake. I know one editor who won’t publish coming-of-age tales no matter how well-written, and another who only publishes first person stories, and a third who thinks that poems should never rhyme. And though I don’t happen to share any of these particular views, I’m not exactly peeve-free. For the record (and since this is a confession), here are some of mine:

Let’s talk about envelopes. Holiday and pastel colors may cheer certain souls, but in me they tend to call forth the sober puritan. I don’t want to be charmed by your envelope, only by what’s inside. And though it’s said that good things come in small packages, a twenty-six page story stuffed to bursting into a #10 business envelope doesn’t (for me) promise anything good, while giving new meaning to the phrase “tight-wad.”

Presentation matters. Oh, I know we editors should be above such material, superficial concerns. We’re not. At least I’m not. I prefer a neat, business-like approach, something to assure me that, though the heart of a savage beats swiftly on the poetic page, the person who slid said page into its envelope is orderly, hygienic, and deeply concerned with my comfort and well-being. Thus, she will not blind me with a story printed in a ten– or eleven-point font. Another confession: I hate ugly fonts. What do I mean by ugly? I mean a font that’s hard to read, meaning any sans-serif font or fonts designed by ex art-room Goths while dosed up on their favorite recreational drug(s). Want to play it safe? Times Roman is your pal. Otherwise, choose Garamond, Baskerville, Janson, Caslon—any of the classic text fonts or their derivatives glorified on the penultimate page of your favorite Knopf novel.

Another tip for getting your work read really quickly: print on both sides of the pages. I just love how, as you read, a backward palimpsest of the page before or after continually asserts itself through the thin scrim of the present narrative, imbuing it with a perpetual, subliminal flash– back or forward, lending fresh meaning to the word “backstory.”

Presented with a solid page or more of italicized type, this editor tends to break out in a prickly rash, and is as likely as not to use your rolled-up poem or story to scratch at his itching, sweating parts. As for capitalizing words to indicate that they are being SHOUTED, PLEASE DON’T. Ditto overusing exclamation points, which, this editor feels, should be rationed at one per 358 words. As for using them in series (!!!!!), the effect is equivalent to a child’s imitation of machinegun fire. And anyway, if your words aren’t working, screaming them won’t help.

University Heights. So far, I’ve rejected nineteen stories; of the twenty-one I’ve opened, only two have escaped the double slash of my Shaeffer. I tear open the next envelope.

You’ll notice I’ve hardly said a word about cover letters. That’s because I don’t read them, or I try not to read them until after the fact (though sometimes—as with the New Yorker author mentioned above—a publishing credit will leap into my fleeting eye). Though as a matter of courtesy I think a cover letter should always accompany a submission, for me they are simply a means of verifying certain suspicions. It’s no surprise to learn that someone whose submission is strong has racked up a dozen credits with good publications. Nor am I shocked (shocked!) to discover that someone whose work is green has yet to be published.

On the other hand there are occasional upsets, as when the same person who pens sentences like, “Never in a long time have I been so moved,” tells me in their letter that they have had three novels published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (rest assured I’ll Google them). Oh, I still reject their submission, only I do so with. . .well, less sorrow.

Then there are those exquisitely turned products by people who have never published a word, like the aforementioned sixteen-year-old who sent us a story about cooking pancakes for her little brother. Of course, we had no idea she was sixteen when we accepted her piece, but when her bio arrived bearing the news we were delighted.

Advice for cover letters: don’t include a lengthy list of your most recent self-published books. Unless you’re a war veteran, don’t call yourself a “veteran” author. And don’t spoil a perfectly good bio by telling me that you “reside” in such-and-such a place. What’s this reside business? Since when do people reside anywhere? Isn’t living good enough for them?

I said I was cranky, didn’t I?

Speaking of words I can’t stand, whenever I read the word “purchase” my eyes tear and I sneeze. Ditto the verb “to place” as in “He placed his arm around my shoulder” (no he didn’t; he put it there; place is what you do with a jewel on a velvet pillow, or what a horse does in a race). Except in the mouth of an insipid character, the word “incredible” is incredibly useless (I can do without “amazing” as well).       I wish that fewer objects were “tiny” and “dainty,” that all authors everywhere would forget forever the phrase “in the process of,” that I could live my remaining years without ever having to hear anything “chuckled” by anyone, and that the word “literally” could be struck from the dictionary, or at least from the vocabulary of writers who consider it a synonym for “figuratively.” Other than that, I have only a few thousand more opinions.

But I’m just one cranky editor. There are countless others like me, each with his pile of manuscripts and his 3:15 train to Spuyten Duyvil, or wherever, each mixing pleasure with pity, excitement with boredom, disappointment with impatience, envy with pride. And that’s leaving out a dozen other emotions that pass through us as quickly as we pass through submissions, digging for gold, finding mostly rocks and dirt.

The train pulls out of Marble Hill. Next stop: Spuyten Duyvil. I get up, put on my coat, grab the shopping bag of submissions.

Three acceptances, twenty-five rejections.

And this is only round one. Even a small publication like ours puts every piece through at least two sets of eyes before accepting it for print. And sometimes we read things two or three times before making a final decision. Given the effort involved, and the amount of very good stuff out there, it’s no wonder that to be published the work has to be better than good: it has to have whatever it takes to win over even a cranky guy like me, and make me fall in love.

And love, as well all know, is a subjective business. Yet I’m sure that every editor feels as I do, that while other opinions may be subjective, there is nothing subjective about mine. Which is why every magazine should have at least two editors. A ruthless bastard like me, and another who is sweet, considerate, open-minded, and free of all prejudices. That would be my wife and co-editor, Paulette Licitra, who also happens to be the publisher.

She reads the ones without the X.

Read Part I.

This article originally appeared in Poets & Writers magazine.