What AGNI Wants
by Leslie Greffenius
As almost anyone who has submitted stories or poetry to literary magazines will tell you, recurrent rejection is a shocking, humbling, and inevitable reality. Probably the most important key to success, writers suggest, lies in cultivating a schizophrenic mentality. You need to write passionately then convince yourself that you don’t much care about the masterpieces of your imagination. To publish, you need again and again to send your little babies out into the cold world protected only by the envelopes that contain them.
Both writing well and submitting dispassionately take practice, but for me, and maybe most writers, the latter seems more daunting. This is at least partly because of the inscrutability of the selections process. Once I submit a story or a poem, who reads it? Who makes the decision of whether or not to publish it and on what basis? The process no doubt varies from journal to journal, but understanding what happens behind the scenes, at least at one magazine, I theorized, could turn what is normally a fraught submissions experience into one that is -- well, a little less fraught.
Bill Pierce, Senior Editor of Agni Magazine kindly consented to answer my questions about the selections process there. In addition to Sven Birkerts (Editor and first in command at Agni) and himself, Bill told me, Agni maintains a masthead of several genre editors. Sven is generally the first to look over fiction or poetry that comes in. Of the pieces submitted, roughly 1/3 can be eliminated right away because the writing simply isn’t strong enough for publication. In all, Sven sends less than ¼ of submitted fiction, poetry or essays on to the genre editors. If a piece does make it through that first gate, one or two others will look it over; they in turn tell Sven which ones they believe should appear in the journal.
An important question then is how Agni chooses its genre editors and how they, in turn, select the pieces they recommend. Sven and Bill try to find genre editors whose own tastes fit well with the general slant of the magazine but who will, nevertheless, pass on what they themselves like rather than what they believe the editor will like; that way idiosyncratic voices will get a fairer hearing. Some genre editors are former interns, but others apply for the job without having had any previous contact with Agni.
Final decisions on what goes into the journal belong to the Editor, Sven Birkerts. He decides what to publish, not by consensus, but through what Bill calls “convincibility.” When another reader feels very strongly drawn to a piece of fiction that Sven initially wants to pass over, s/he can usually get Sven to read it again from some new point of view. And a lukewarm reaction from another editor will often temper Sven’s early enthusiasms. Before any acceptance, Bill said, “Sven and I have a spirited discussion—sometimes a debate—to test and compare our reactions.” Having one editor make all final decisions, though, helps, Bill said, to ensure that each issue of Agni delivers what readers expect from the magazine.
So what, exactly, do readers of Agni expect from the journal? From both print and online journals, Bill said, Agni readers expect writing that 1) reflects masterful use of language and 2) could only have been written by one person. I asked him to clarify what he meant by the latter and he illustrated with an example. Saul Bellow’s “Leaving the Yellow House” is a character piece that gets at the voice and feel of a character, but doesn’t provide a view of Bellow’s sensibility. That is, not everyone could have written it, but it’s also not a work that only one person could have written. Herzog, on the other hand, also by Bellow, reflects something deeply personal and only he could have authored it.
This description of the selection process surprised me. It seems to imply that the editors of Agni – and by extension the editors of other literary magazines – actually reject work that the editors admire. Bill confirmed this. “Every year,” he said, “Agni rejects a number of very polished and skilled pieces that will inevitably be snapped up by others. That’s because, as a magazine, we work from and try to expand a particular corner of literature. A realistic story that takes its inspiration from Carver or Hemingway may be chiseled and gorgeous but if its power lies in an impersonal quality or in the straight, unfiltered evocation of a scene, it’s not likely to be right for us. Agni is interested only in writing that emerges from a particular sensibility or way of looking at the world.” Then he added, “I’m sure that sometimes we miss a submission that does this honestly and well, but we try hard not to!”
Do the editors of Agni, I asked, ever choose to publish writing that possesses a unique voice but still needs major editing? Bill told me they do. “Of course we like polish,” he said, “but if the writing conveys something singular then we’re willing to edit it -- in consultation with the writer of course -- to make it more purely itself. We cut things, in some cases making changes in every sentence in order to reach what we and the writer consider the essence of the piece.”
Publishing in literary journals is, for many writers, a desirable first step towards establishing professional legitimacy. That’s why literary journals are deluged with submissions. It’s difficult for an individual to stand out from the crowd, but if you want to get noticed and not simply waste paper and postage, it seems wise to read at least some portion of the journals to which you plan to send your writing. That way, you’ll get a sense of whether your subjects and style fit in with what’s printed there.
It’s frustrating to live in a world in which getting your work read by anyone other than family and friends requires not one but two fairly incompatible skill sets. To write anything worth reading you need passion, a grasp of craft, along with persistence and perfectionism. To publish, you need a businesslike mentality – and, sadly, persistence too. But the realization that magazines are run by individuals with unique quirks and preferences provides some encouragement; and after all, if Joyce Carol Oates can go writing and attempting publication after serial rejection, so can the rest of us.