Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Little More On the Business of Writing (with just a little touch of Franco rant)

I wanted to say a few more words about "New Yorker Rejects Itself."

Shortly after The Review Review's story on the New Yorker rejecting one of its own previously published stories, Slate published this rebuttal, in which David Haglund argues that big journals have no time to respond to plagiarism with anything more than a form rejection. Thus, he suggests the journals recognized the piece from the start. Unfortunately, he offers no evidence to support this assertion.

My own experience (one year of working as a graduate assistant at the Georgia Review) contradicts Haglund's argument. The editors were as time crunched as any, yet they treated plagiarism with the utmost seriousness. They would definitely have contacted the author of a plagiarized submission had they recognized it--and would have told that author never to darken their door again. And I'm not just guessing that this is the case. While working there, I found a story that had lifted a line from a story I knew. I brought it to the associate editor's attention and watched the result first hand. What's interesting is that the Haglund does not seem to have asked the editors at the New Yorker what policies they have and follow regarding plagiarism. He only speculates.

Though Haglund's defense is based on speculation, I do think the New Yorker's rejection of a New Yorker story is defensible on different, more modest grounds. Every journal has its own style and space limitations. Just because a piece suited the taste of one editor at one magazine, no law states it must naturally suit all other editors' tastes as well. One New Yorker slush reader may have loved the story in the past and passed it up the chain. Another didn't. Or they did but this time, the story was up against unusually stiff competition and didn't make the cut. That hurts, but I understand that those decisions are part of the business.

What's less defensible and also sadly true is this: literary fiction magazines must sell copies to stay in business. Why else would Esquire publish this bit of dross by James Franco? Or Ploughshares for that matter? Why else would Graywolf accept his collection? Franco may not be a talented writer, but his name will sell copies. I won't launch into my full Franco rant, but this is where I get conflicted because, generally, yes, I feel optimistic about the business. I feel that if we strive and try long enough, we can make it. I wasn't simply blowing smoke when I wrote last week's post. But Franco still stares me in the face, contradicting that faith.

Here's what I don't know: will Franco sell enough copies to allow Graywolf to take a chance on an unknown writer? Will his name work like a carbon offset? Will Graywolf purge itself of the pollution of his poetry by taking on more projects from the kind of writers it has long been respected for--namely, the little known literary talent? Did Esquire and Ploughshares bring other writers, more talented but less known, into public awareness because they were in the same issue as his piece?

And I'm asking sincerely, because I do want to stay optimistic. And also because it fits with my experience with editors so far--including the many who've rejected me--which is that they care passionately about words and art and have suffered many years of low paychecks and long days to give that art a forum. I know that optimism tends to be read as naivete or, worse, stupidity, but the questions we face as writers are too easily written off with cynicism. It's equally simple-minded to be passively jaded or actively angry because of one instance of rejection. There is no one kind of editor or journal or publisher--and thank God for that. Every day, people sit down to their work at small presses and magazines and attend to their business with the same passion with which I sit down to my own work.  
The truth is, I have no idea what goes on in the New Yorker's editorial office. I hope and suspect they still are driven by passion, but I don't know firsthand, and it's fruitless to speculate. And you know what? At the end of the day, fretting over what they do or don't publish only distracts me from my own part of the writing business, the humble business of sitting my bottom in a chair, placing my hands on the keyboard, and writing.

No comments:

Post a Comment