4.09.2004

Implicit Contract: The Editor - Writer Relationship

As I mentioned earlier, various criticisms have been leveled at the literary establishment. Some of it I can justify, some not. But sometimes it takes a view from both sides to get the whole picture (hence, the links).

The literary "industry" is possible only through readers. The readers these days are mostly those who appreciate literary writing, most of which are writers. It stands to reason that if you want to work in and keep a certain industry alive, you'll help support it as best you can. Most literary magazines realize this and hope you are supporting some of the magazines that you can through subscriptions. Most magazines don't necessarily expect you to subscribe to their magazine in particular. (Some writers, who scoff at the industry, don't realize how tenuous all short fiction markets are. An article on how to improve your sex life will always outsell a short story. Preserving the short fiction market is preserving its place in our culture, and if we who supposedly care don't try, who will?)

Another aspect of this relationship is that some short fiction markets are particular in what they seek. If you don't at least sample an issue, you're wasting your time and money and the editor's. I used to co-edit a magazine devoted to myth as it played out in various genres (literary and otherwise), but many submissions didn't even take into account the title of the magazine. Then again, on the other side, I've purchased sample copies, read the issues, submitted what I thought relevant to their needs, and received a rejection saying to purchase a sample copy.

One way of getting writers, who may not otherwise choose to support an industry they submit to, to support is to have a contest fee with a sample copy or subscription in exchange for the fee. These awards are actually useful as it does get larger magazines and book publishers to take notice. Moreover, contest fees also allow for upstart publishers to emerge, ensuring (in theory) vitality to the writing community and ensuring that it is not just the upper class who gets to decide what is worth publishing.

The Zoo Press cancellation of contest without returning fees is legal, but I understand the frustration. It's not without precedent. W.S. Merwin didn't award the Yale Younger Poets award one year for lack of candidates. Since it's generally considered the most prestigious first book award in poetry, I understand Merwin's decision to attempt to uphold a certain standard. Perhaps Zoo Press wanted a certain standard as well, but it's difficult to know what that might be without actually having any fiction books in print. But then, out of 350 collections, you'd think that you'd have a golden opportunity to discover that rare voice to expose to the world. Maybe not. I'd love to go through those manuscript entries myself just to see what I thought. Ron Silliman thinks there are entirely too many contests out there so that an award has lost its meaning although a reader wrote in to say that, yes, there are valid contests still going quietly along their merry way, not to mention that awards do give a manuscript more editorial attention down the road.

I actually know the guy at Zoo Press, Neil Azevedo (Patrick feels I should disclose all of whom I've had a relationship with), who is a local fellow and seems a good enough guy. He attends local readings and such. I attended a workshop of his, wrote him a couple emails about the workshop which he apparently cancelled although I never heard back to be certain. He was no doubt as busy as I was at the time. He's had poems of his own in Paris Review, where he worked for a time. I liked his poem, "Myles," which I found moving, but he wasn't as fond of it--too popular at poetry readings, I guess.

The one-shot workshop did unveil an interesting anecdote, which has been useful to me since. Apparently, some magazines, despite open submission policies or invitations for you to study their publication, are not open. This, I feel, is more of a violation than contest fees, which simply try to get writers to participate in the implicit contract that maintains a cultural aspect which presumably both parties want to perpetuate. Writers waste their time reading publications that won't accept them anyway, waste their postage stamps and manila envelopes and pristine black and white pages, filling up garbage dumps to no purpose.

I'm not sure if I can find it now, but someone sent me a link to an interview with the New Yorker's fiction editor who admitted that she did not read unsolicited manuscripts without an agent. This policy may have changed since a friend, who is about as unknown as myself, received a nice rejection from them. Perhaps a useful website for writers would be one that listed such publications that appear to have actual open submission policies via such letters and unknown writers pulled from the slush.

Isn't that the exciting part of being an editor? to be one of the first to capture new writers in print and watch them develop? Maybe the magazine I worked for was too small to share the "industry" perspective, but do we want an "industry" perspective when it comes to art?

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