How Not to Behave

It’s late July, halfway through the summer quarter, and the word of the week is “actually.” As in: “The Neon Bible‘s actually kind of interesting,” and “this book is actually pretty good.” Rack up another point for youth readership. I hope next week’s foray into Never Let Me Go is as fruitful. In rereading the book for class prep, I realized there was a good deal more sex in it than I remembered. I hope we’re able to deal with it with more élan than we dealt with the word “bosom” (in context, it meant heart or soul) today.

Goofy as my kids’ behavior can be, the title of today’s post isn’t anything to do with classroom behavior. Instead, “How Not to Behave” brings me back to the publishing world. It was an interesting week in the literary magazine world at large, and there was some interesting and, I would say, “bad” behavior we could stand to learn from.

On Sunday, my writing partner Tanya and I were having a cup of coffee and going over a new chapter of her manuscript when both our phones buzzed with a new email message. It was from a fellow Los Angeles Review editor, who had forwarded to us several angry rants from a submitter. The editor had sent this individual a form rejection (which is less an indicator of our interest/lack thereof than it is of our very limited time). This submitter, who had sent material that was not a good fit for us in any way, then replied with multiple, abusive emails making bizarre racial and ethnic references, suggesting that we were brutalizing him with our form letter, and speaking obliquely about the destruction of our and other nations.

On the one hand, the declarations this submitter made were so non sequitur that they were kind of amusing, and we made a few jokes among ourselves to diffuse the creepiness of the messages. But the idea that a routine rejection could so fully unhinge someone? That’s scary. And why would you want to scare your potential editors? We’re here to publish people’s work, and just because one piece didn’t do it for us doesn’t mean a follow-up piece wouldn’t be a good fit. But when submitters take out their strange and terrible frustrations on editors, they’d better believe they’ve just significantly lowered their chances of seeing work in print. Submitters: play nice. (Most of you do already).

But on the flipside, there’s been some bad behavior on the editorial side of the lit mag world this week, too. In what The Paris Review likely thought would be a quiet move, its new poetry editor took a gander at the backlog of the journal’s accepted work, found a discrepancy between his and the previous editor’s tastes, and then sent un-acceptance letters to a number of poets who’d been told their work would appear in forthcoming issues.  That’s right. An un-acceptance. A fake-out, if you will. They accepted, and then they rejected with a form note saying “we have not found a place for your (poem/s).” Wow.

Now I’m not usually one to criticize how other literary journals do their work–goodness knows we at LAR are not perfect, and I’ve personally made some embarrassing editorial flubs that still make me blush. But to send someone a form un-acceptance letter? That’s just not okay. To me, it seems that this problem was created by an editor who was more interested in his own aesthetic than in his readers or his writers. Without readers and writers (and the two go together quite a bit in this field), editors are worthless. Who cares what kind of taste we have or don’t have if we’re driving away our audience and our producers by treating them dismissively? Editors: let’s remember that our writers make our journals worth reading. Without writers, our publications are nothing but stacks of blank paper. Editors: play nice. (And yes, most of you do already, too. Let’s just not take a page from The Paris Review’s playbook. )

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6 Replies to “How Not to Behave”

  1. Hi Kelly, was intrigued though not surprised about that submitter’s behavior. We’re living in the age of the borderline personality: “If you give me what I want, you’re very very good. If you don’t give me what I want, you’re very very bad.” Increasingly, people seem incapable of modulated reactions to life events–whether favorable or frustrating. It shows up everywhere, in politics, marital relations, workforce communication, driving behavior… The mystery is why so much bad behavior? Toxins in the environment? Upbringing by self-absorbed boomer parents? You make an excellent point about how counterproductive such behavior is, but only the emotionally intelligent among us realize that we need to leave our tirades about life’s injustices on the cutting room floor 🙂

  2. Kathy, luckily, most everyone who communicates with LAR is quite civilized, whether they have positive feedback or criticism, so the off-the-wall responses are far enough apart to still be surprising. In talking to other industry folks, I’ve heard stories of icky submitter behavior that are enough to make the skin crawl (death threats, offers of carnal pleasures in exchange for acceptances, etc). I think there’s likely a number of people who are genuinely disturbed and could use some mental health intervention. But then there people who are just, as you say, unable to cope.

    I have no idea what creates angst of the type this guy unleashed on us, but I have a suspicion that it serves as a release valve for someone under pressure, whether pressure from himself or from others. The relative anonymity (or, at least, the lack of face-to-face communication) gives people false bravado, I think…

  3. What a great essay — a very even-handed, fair-minded post. It’s a good reminder for those of us who get the big NO on a regular basis (I got 2 big ones this week). My former teacher and long-time friend Tod Goldberg once told my students “You will always get many more rejections than acceptances — this is just how it works.” While I disagree with some macho writers who insist that you should get to enjoy rejection (I envision the posturing Howard Moon from the MIGHTY BOOSH saying “I eat rejections for BREAKFAST”), I think Tod is right that those letters of rejection (form-letters, or in one of my cases, “actually” a very complimentary and friendly note) are going to be the norm. And in a way, it’s not PERSONAL. So getting personal with the folks trying to keep the literature happening really is beside the point, and does nothing to advance one’s personal goals.

  4. Stephanie, I think it’s true that once you realize rejection will be the norm (and that rejection means you’re doing something right–sending your work out!), things do look a lot more handleable. And in the cases in which we “actually” get those notes, rejection can almost be as good as an acceptance. A poet I very much admire once took the time to tell me that, even though he wouldn’t be taking them, he thought my poems lively and well-crafted. That really meant the world to me, and the note lived on my corkboard for quite a while. 🙂

  5. I’ve voided contracts before when serious issues arise with the writer that make a good working relationship impossible. But what that editor is doing is just plain wrong.

  6. Gordon, what just slays me about this whole unacceptance business is the way much of the writing community is taking it: with a “well, that’s just how the litmag world is” and a shrug. As if that made it okay!

    Yes, it’s definitely one thing when a writer makes a relationship unworkable. But it’s something else indeed when a journal just doesn’t feel like publishing his or her work.

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