Editors Do not Hate You, But They Have Every Reason To
I’ve always been puzzled by the antipathy a lot of writers have toward editors. I have a biased perspective on this, of course, because for nineteen years I was the principal editor of Ploughshares. I left the journal in 2007 to teach full-time, and, I have to say, it’s a relief not to be the target of such enmity.
I noticed this most recently at an AWP Conference in Chicago. Whereas before, I had always dreaded attending the conference, this time I actually enjoyed myself. Why? Because for the first time I was merely another writer/teacher, just like everyone else. I was no longer an editor, and, at such conferences, editors can count on being addressed in one of two uncomfortable ways—with sycophancy (“Oh, I love Your Magazine!”) or utter disdain (“Oh, Your Magazine. You just rejected a story of mine”). The latter, incidentally, is not a smart method of introduction, not a good way to make friends and influence editors. For some reason, this needs to be pointed out.
What most writers don’t realize or believe is that, on the whole, editors are on their side. Indeed, quite a few editors are writers themselves. But of course it’s natural—when your work keeps getting rejected, work that you are absolutely sure is polished and scintillating and brilliant, work that, if only were it plucked from the slush pile, would set the literary world afire, heralding a new apotheosis in the short story form—for writers to be leery of editors, to think of them as snobs and megalomaniacs, to view them as lazy, curmudgeonly gatekeepers, too myopic and dumb and out of touch to recognize good writing when they encounter it, too cowardly to take a chance on new authors, relying instead on mediocre, moribund, nepotistic standbys.
Time and time again when I was at Ploughshares, I would insist that those assumptions could not be further from the truth. Nothing makes an editor’s day more than finding a great story by a complete unknown. It’s the ultimate recompense for what can be a job of thankless, soul-sapping drudgery, doing all the noisome tasks to keep a magazine going, namely trying to find the money to print the damn thing. There is no better reward than to publish a new writer and maybe see him or her get a Pushcart or an O. Henry or a Best American selection and then have agents and book editors vying to sign the writer up. It’s a validation of the entire endeavor. It makes editors believe again that what they do matters. It doesn’t happen a lot, that sort of success, but it happens often enough to keep the faith during the down times, which are recurrent, dark, and deep.
For while editors toil ceaselessly in the—yes—service of writers, what they get mainly in return are complaints. Complaints that they’re taking too long to respond, that they’ve rejected what’s obviously [see the aforementioned], that they’re [see the aforementioned], that their magazine is full of [see the aforementioned] that no one gives a fuck about, much less reads, that said irrelevant magazine (and hopefully editor) will soon meet an unceremonious death.
I am not exaggerating. As an editor, I received precisely those types of missives. I received abusive phone calls and emails wishing me ill will (attributed) and letters with death threats and packages of dog shit and envelopes filled with tiny pieces of sharp shredded metal (unattributed). Without question, there were many more communiqués of the opposite ilk—I still get notes from authors telling me how much the publication of a piece meant to them, and each one validates all those years I worked as an editor, each one confirms it was all worth it, that what I did mattered to people—but the small irritating expressions of contempt, said or unsaid, along with the truly nasty stuff (though not as pervasive as I’m making them out to be), tended to stick in my head.
Were they deserved? Certainly not to that extent, but I admit that I could sometimes be an asshole. Overworked and burdened, I could be brusque and dismissive. I also know that I occasionally rejected things I shouldn’t have, mostly out of haste, and I regret those lapses, both in judgment and behavior, to this day.
But it was never for a lack of effort or respect for writers. I cared fervently about the process, about trying to make it fair and professional. Pride and integrity were what drove me. I was not interested in gaining power or attention, nor was I hoping to promote my own writing career by being an editor. (In fact, if anything, my job hurt me in that respect. I know this because of my own subconscious reaction whenever I received a submission from a fellow editor, which was, Oh, no, another editor who wants to be a writer, this has got to be bad.)
I will concede that there are some real asshole editors out there—rude, negligent, incompetent, narrow-minded, stupid narcissists who wouldn't know a good story or poem if it slapped them on the face—but they're a minority, I believe. I think most editors are dedicated, tireless, honorable people, and they’re woefully underappreciated. The vast majority of them, you see, are publishing their magazines as labors of love. The vast majority are volunteers. Not only don’t they get paid, they often dip into their own pockets to fund their publications. They have entirely separate full-time jobs. They have families. They fill out grant applications and read manuscripts and typeset issues and haggle with vendors and stick labels onto renewal letters in what little spare time they have. They forfeit their own ambitions as writers to accomplish this. They do it all for you.
What makes them dispirited is the us-versus-them mentality that has developed between writers and editors, linked to accusations that they aren’t open to new writers or that the system is somehow rigged. Granted, it gets difficult for editors not to become cynical. You would, too, if you saw some of the crap that comes in over the transom—submissions from rank amateurs and inmates and crazies and attorneys that are excruciatingly, laughably awful, not anywhere near the standards of the recipient journal, simultaneously submitted, of course, the writers never having taken a cursory look at a single issue of the magazines they’re encumbering, much less subscribed or bought a copy. So when editors find anything with a modicum of craft or originality, they are grateful—yes, grateful.
However, they can’t publish everything, and not every piece is appropriate for a given magazine, regardless of its merits. And something else—a hard truth: a submission might be good, but not good enough. This is what writers have problems swallowing. After getting a rejection, instead of taking another look at the story or poem and perhaps revising it or spending a little more time thinking about the most suitable venue for it, it’s much easier to rail against these editors and magazines and believe [see all of the aforementioned]. I know this, because, as a writer myself, despite my past experience as an editor, I do exactly the same thing.
Be kind to your poor, beleaguered editors. Buy a copy of their journals once in a while, or even, God forbid, subscribe to one. If enough of us don’t, literary journals—as a collective enterprise—won’t be around for much longer. If you get rejected, just move on. There are, at least for now, plenty of magazines out there. Don’t harass the editors, in person or in correspondence. They’re doing the best they can. They’re actually on your side. Really.
Don Lee is the author of two novels, Wrack and Ruin and Country of Origin, as well as a story collection, Yellow. He currently teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Western Michigan University.