Publication is political. Of course, you knew that already. Everything’s political, right?
But many writers don’t realize just how much politics go on behind the scenes of their favorite literary journals or publishing houses.
Although you’d think that editors would have an easy task choosing the best submissions, “best” is a fuzzy term. What one editor rejects is another editor’s treasure.
Who knows why the powers-that-be choose to publish what they publish?
Often, they’re seeking to convey a certain tone, or they want to represent a certain segment of the writing spectrum. Still others know what they like and reject anything that doesn’t please them.
Several years ago, back when I thought I could make a place for myself in New Zealand, I sent several very American pieces to a local literary magazine. I’m an American. I can’t help writing as an American.
But New Zealand arts organizations don’t want American writing. They want, in the words of the Arts Council of New Zealand, “high-quality New Zealand art.”
Silly me, to think that good stories are good stories, regardless of whether they’re informed by a New Zealand sensibility or written about New Zealand themes.
So it shouldn’t have surprised me that my work would be rejected. What DID surprise me were the reasons the editor gave.
My short story was rejected based on:
“…A purely arbitrary editor’s decision based on my current feeling about stories that are bleak and depressing (as too many NZ stories tend to be).”
Eh? So do we writers now have an obligation to only write uplifting, happy stories?
And do editors have the right to reject stories because they’re “bleak and depressing”?
Don’t get me started on the importance of shadow work. But, shadow work aside, the comment concerned me.
I began to wonder what it meant when editors impose their personal taste as readers over their professional taste as consumers of quality literature.
Is there really so much good writing out there that an editor has to establish some criteria to somehow weed through it?
In my opinion, literary magazines aren’t in business to publish stories that are “happy” or “bleak” or moody in any particular way.
They’re in business to publish the BEST stories.
Stories that demonstrate talent, stories that take stylistic and formulaic risks, stories transform how we look about the world.
But in New Zealand, the national preoccupation with developing a recognizable “New Zealand art” seems to override any such intellectual concerns. More important than a story’s merit seems to be its portrayal of the country.
And, in this case, one particular editor was doing her best to make sure that New Zealand didn’t come across as so “bleak and depressing.”
The same editor had also written a letter of rejection to my flatmate, whose microfiction never ceases to amaze me. She wrote:
“I’m afraid I’m saying no to [sic] mainly because they are all too short to say anything worthwhile.”
She continued on to say, “I hope you will send us more of your work. In your own interest it would be best to avoid urban grunge, because this editor doesn’t regard it with favour.”
In case you don’t know what microfiction is, Wikipedia has an excellent definition of it. It IS possible to say something worthwhile in less than 100 words. It takes a great deal of skill—more than I have.
Such conservatism appears to be characteristic of the New Zealand literary establishment. Five months ago, I met a young man who was writing a fantasy trilogy. He told me of a group of writers that met once a month to share their writing, critique and encourage one another. I was stoked. At last, a community of writers!
I went with him to the elegant house in a country suburb where the writing group was held. The owner of the house, a tall patrician woman, ushered us into a sitting room where a fire was lit and glasses of wine glistened next to biscuit trays. A pudgy, soft-featured woman with curly brown hair was already sitting on the sofa. She was writing a romance novel.
I soon learned that the lady of the manor traced her lineage back to the first ships that arrived on New Zealand’s shores. She was involved with a publishing company that only published books of interest to New Zealand history and culture. She showed me a book written by a relative of hers, a soldier and seaman who’d told in detailed monotony of campaigns and travels.
I left the meeting that night with a sinking feeling. If writing was a pastime of the social aristocracy and valued only for its contribution to developing national culture, I was in trouble.
My previous writing group at the University of Wales in the U.K. had been composed of deviant artists: a lesbian playwright, a blind poet, and a memoirist who’d spent most his life in the Navy.
We all were interested in how words could push past conventional meaning and reinterpret events (both historical and personal) to effect change in the reader.
We knew that what we wrote could transform how people saw the world. Our goal was to use that power for good. Our stories, scripts and poems sought to push people past their comfort zones into paradigm-shattering realizations.
So, yes, much of what we wrote was dark, violent, and uncomfortable. We were trying to entertain. Hollywood could produce light-hearted comedies and formulaic scripts where all ended well. None of us were going to sign a contract to product happy endings, if such endings would not suit the purpose of the story.
I was reminded of a writing teacher that I’d had years ago, who asked me why I couldn’t write more like Rosamunde Pilcher.
She handed me a copy of The Shell Seekers, explaining that people wanted happy endings. They wanted stories that uplifted them, gave them a pleasant escape from reality, and brought them back to the real world refreshed. If I wanted a successful writing career, she advised, I should study Rosamunde Pilcher.
If there’s one thing that I can leave you with, it’s this:
Don’t ever, EVER compromise your vision so you can write like someone else.