Dear T.A. Noonan: I Feel Your Pain

Once again, I have waded into what I thought was a murky puddle, only to discover it was a sinkhole…

Perhaps the title of this post will explain my cluelessness.  See, I was in college when Bill Clinton uttered this famous phrase.  I remember the days when you had to start Windows through the DOS prompt.  I remember when everyone accessed their email through a hissing, tootling modem connection (which, by the way, made call-waiting a nightmare, as in: CRAP! I waited two hours for my roommate to get off the phone and five minutes after I connect, my mother calls to warn me about a recall on Chilean strawberries and I’m OFF THE FRIGGIN’ SERVER AGAIN!!!).

This was also back in the day when all of us budding writers carefully printed out our manuscripts, stuck them in a manila envelope with a cover letter, a paper clip, and a #9 SASE (after a few go-rounds, I stopped including postage to get the entire MS back), and waited months on end for 1/3 (or 1/8 or 1/16) of a piece of paper–a “rejection coupon,” my husband and I called them–that might or might not have an encouraging note scrawled on it.  Virtually no publication accepted manuscripts via email way back when.  Submittable wasn’t yet so much as a glimmer in a programmer’s eye.  And once you sent your precious words out into the world, God only knew if they would be looked at by anyone other than the mailman ever again.

During my paper submission years (which, because I have limited time and energy now that I’m old crone, I rarely prepare anymore), I’ve had countless manuscripts get no response.  For every batch of ten submissions, I’m guessing at least one or two would disappear forever.  I never found out where in the line of transmission (mail room, editorial office, etc.) my creative dispatches vanished.  Also, as I recall, my poetry had a far better response rate than the hulking masses of short story I lobbed out into the universe.  (Surprise, surprise!)  At the same time, I’ve had overzealous editors return my original MS with all kinds of angry edits and slashes on it.  I’ve had editors discuss their own work and literary interests on the note that was supposed to tell me how my work was not fit for their publications.  And, yes, at least once, I’ve had a manuscript returned unread because of a serious backlog.  I believe the message enclosed with my MS included an apology, stated when the publication would resume consideration of unsolicited manuscripts, and invited me to resubmit.  I doubt if I did, since there were too many potential markets to explore and too few hours to mess around with people who were likely to reject me anyway.

This is not to say that any of these disappearances, mishandlings, or editorial shenanigans were appropriate responses to a writer’s hard work, or that we old fogeys had things ever so much worse back in the days before the Internet ruled our lives.  This is also not to say that all editors or editorial staff members have been so careless.  Far from it.  The vast majority of publishers and editors I’ve been in touch with have acted like professionals, and many, MANY editors have written kind words on my rejection slips even when they didn’t have to, even when my work was juvenile and clunky and only showed a teensy hint of literary promise.  I look back now and value all of those personal responses even more because I know that those people, some of whom were anonymous, took precious seconds out of their lives to make my disappointment a little easier to bear.

I’ve spent some time on the other side of the fence, too.  I’ve been an editor.  I’ve worked the slush pile.  Somehow, slush piles are always monstrous.  I, too, can understand how even a relatively large editorial office might get stuck in a mire of unsolicited manuscripts and simply decide (rightly or wrongly) to send them all back.

And believe me, T.A. Noonanbelieve me, I know–no, I KNOOOOOOOOW how it feels to be another unknown writer in a pile.  Judging by your picture, I’d say I’ve been at this writing thing at least ten years longer than you, possibly more, and as of right now my two biggest literary successes have been the love note to Dinty Moore I posted yesterday  and the rant on Writer’s Envy I cranked out two months ago.  Needless to say, neither of those pieces were published under my actual name.  I can’t imagine anything I’ve written under my official writerly persona has approached as many views (or, for that matter, reads) as the stuff I spew forth as a cantankerous Internet personality.  That, as far as I can tell, is the way things work these days.  Internet readers, which is what we all are now, flock to news and opinion and controversy.  Readers who are also writers want to hear about and discuss the latest behind-the-scenes info on the publication biz.  It’s much, much harder to get readers, even those who are writers, to read creative material.  I wish this wasn’t the case, but again, that just seems to be the way things work.

I have to admit, Ms. Noonan (T.A.?), that I haven’t gotten as upset about Triquarterly‘s editorial decision as you and others have.  I completely understand the frustration and anger, but I also feel like this is the sort of thing that goes on in the literary world.  Editors and publishers have power.  We the Unknown Writers have none.  Like Chekhov’s Gun That Must Be Fired, those with power are going to use it to support their own best interests.  The one bright spot I can see in this entire debate is that you yourself and other writers are getting some traction on how crappy such editorial practices are and how unethical it is to create submission rules and then break them whenever it’s convenient.

I guess my bottom line is: Thanks, Ms. Noonan, for speaking out.  Some of us Unknown Writers are worn out, if not washed up, and have seen so many of our words sucked into the void that we don’t have the energy or the confidence to protest anymore.  Thanks for the reminder that publications need writers as well as readers–and for that matter, writers ARE readers, and deserve equal respect in both those roles.

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