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Literary Publishing: Inefficient or Inhumane?
October 17, 2008 - 3:21pm


I know: I’m the one who chose to write, and to complain about the problems inherent in one’s own choices is tiresome. Hemingway says it more colorfully in his memoirs, A Moveable Feast, when he upbraids himself for getting discouraged (and hungry, supposedly) as an apprentice writer in the early days in Paris. “Outside on the rue de l’Odeon I was disgusted with myself for having complained about things. I was doing what I did of my own free will…. You God damn complainer. You dirty phony saint and martyr,” he says.

Hem also had a theory that you should never discuss your casualties, and I think that’s generally good advice. Complaining in print about the literary establishment—lit mags, agents, publishers—only highlights that you’ve worn the wrong blazer to the club luncheon, and members will see that you’re the type who will try to eat their radishes with your oyster fork. You’ll sound disgruntled, jealous, or disrespectful. You’ll sound, funny enough, as if you deserve not to be invited back.

Let’s be clear: I love writing, but "the business of writing" is beyond tedious. Even the term bothers me. Crazy Larry, an actor friend, and I call it “poking the hole” instead. I know, it sounds bad, but picture poking a stick into a hole in a big hollow tree. You don’t know what’ll be in there—bees, bear, or honey—but it needs to be done if you want to eat. I use the word “eat” metaphorically, since precious little money ever resulted from "the business" for most writers I’ve met or read about.

Researching publications; printing and photocopying stories, essays and poems; stuffing and addressing envelopes; writing and printing cover letters; and getting it all stamped, in the mail, and logged is a pain. And it’s not just that the process is tedious, expensive, and may generate only rejection slips. It’s that all that busywork fills me with the death-loneliness, as Hem calls it, of recognizing another wasted day in my life.

Yet this year that clerical work yielded good results, in part because I did more of it, in a more organized way, than ever before, including hiring some help. I’ve had a novel, a story chapbook and seven other pieces accepted, and I’m still privileged to have two online platforms where, due to open-minded editors, I can be as ambitious as my energy and skills permit. I think this would qualify as a good year for anybody. That’s why I hope the following will be taken in the spirit of scientific observation, not as sour grapes.

I’ve had too many recent adventures in the business to relate here. For instance, the story of my encounter with a small but prolific regional press. They’d sold a book in their list to PBS for a documentary adaptation that got national attention, so I was happy when I came home one day and found a contract for my novel in the mailbox. But as I read the boilerplate I discovered they wanted me to pay them to publish my book, and it wasn't just that they turned out to be a subsidy press, but that they intended to make a neat $12,000 profit before a single book was sold. (A second seemingly reputable publisher that also accepted the novel and also revealed itself to be a subsidy/author house, wanted only four grand in pre-publication profit.)

Or the agent who called meetings but didn’t remember why after I’d driven several hours to make them. Or the young Ivy Leaguer at the fine New York agency who was keen on literary memoirs but seemed never to have heard of famous ones such as Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Or publishers who insist collections (both fiction and nonfiction) cannot be sold regardless of the prose and demand that manuscripts have what they call a “throughline.” (I had to ask what that was.) I told an established writer some of this and he said, Forget it, it’s the end times for our culture anyway. He sent me a photo of ancient Confucian stelae that evidently translated as, Many literary gatekeepers are lower than snail dung. Maybe it was filthier than that.

But my biggest gripe at the moment is with certain literary journals. For reasons that most of us have nothing to do with, literary journals have become the gatekeepers for all sorts of professional literary advancement, but that’s an odd thing, especially since readerships are often suffocatingly tiny and homogeneous, and in many cases the primary readers are overworked young grad students, some of whom love Ayn Rand more than anything (or worse, subsist on episodes of Amazing Race). After reading through a journal's entire slush pile, what begins to stand out for anyone is the formalistically or topically different, so good work can go unnoticed while sterile but sensational work gets accepted. (If one were looking for a corollary to the “workshop story” effect in American literature, this might be it.) Cronyism does indeed exist in this world, and authorial brand names are sometimes automatically, lazily favored. I cannot wait to become one.

On top of all this, as if in acknowledgment of their power, many journals are slow, slow, slow to respond to the writers they rely on, yet they demand no simultaneous submissions (you shouldn’t send that piece anywhere else until you hear back from them).

I’m told I should feel good that I almost exclusively get the “good” rejection notices from journals these days, the ones that pass on what I sent them but ask to see other work. Yesterday I got one from one of the best-known lit mags in the country. I didn’t even remember submitting to them and checked the date of my cover letter. It was sent April 13th. The rejection slip was from the editor herself (considered a blessing) and read:

"Although we have decided against using this manuscript, we were interested in it and would be glad to see more of your work after the editor returns from leave on Sept. 1, 2009." [my emphasis]

So they had the piece six months, rejected it, and encouraged me to try again in a year. I don’t know what to even say about this. Is it inhumanity? Inefficiency? A sign that the journal is having a terminal crisis? The editor of Ninth Letter, a very influential young literary journal with the great good taste to include a piece by me in its next issue, told me they get a lot of submissions—a lot—but generally respond within eight weeks.

When a writer living in Paris in the ‘20s sent something out to a journal in the States, I suppose he understood he’d need to wait for months, even a year, for word. After all, it had to steam across the Atlantic—both ways— on a packet, find its editor by way of Model T and bad roads, wait to be read, decided upon, sent down the pneumatic tubes to the assistant editor and from there to the mail clerk, and so on. But why do journals pretend it’s still early-Twentieth Century business as usual? We have instantaneous e-mail and electronic submission capability; many journals are online or have online versions or presences, all of which bypass old-fashioned typesetting, printing, and binding requirements. There’s software that can log and track. And most of the biggest lit mags are snuggled in the warm bosoms of universities, so there’s a large pool of students likely willing to do grunt work for intern credit.

Teachers at those universities could never get away with telling a student, Do your work this semester, and when we have it all in hand we’ll get back to you with your grade. Not gonna say when. Don’t take any other classes until you hear from us. Grades will be pass/fail. If you fail, you’ll need to start everything over. Most will fail. And if you must know, you won’t hear from us for at least six months. Often longer. Sometimes not at all.

Personally I’d prefer an e-mail rejection that said only, “Kiss our literary butts,” if it was sent promptly, rather than have to deal with the current system. But deal I do, because I like what they serve in the clubhouse, and when I get in in, I sit with a grin and say, What a good boy am I.


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