This post is the second in our Bearings Online series on editors and editing. For this series, we asked editors to reflect on the particular joys and challenges of working with writers, and we are publishing their responses every Thursday in September. To read other essays in this series, please click here.
In 2015, Image, the literary journal where I am managing editor, was dragged into the twentieth century and started accepting unsolicited submissions online. We had held off partly because we were worried that the numbers would balloon—and the amount of work we receive did immediately triple.
Though we’ve had to budget more reading time, all in all, the change has been a good thing. Having more submissions lets us be even choosier, of course, and there’s more international work now. (We still accept paper submissions, but they’ve slowed to a trickle.)
Spending more time reading submissions got me reflecting on the nature of that work. When I was a young writer sending work around, the selection process at literary magazines was mysterious, and though there is already plenty of wonderful advice for writers out there, I’ll share here what reading submissions is like for me personally.
In 2015, when I wasn’t editing, doing layout, wrangling the schedule and contracts, bossing and consoling writers, trying to squeeze blood out of the turnip that is our marketing budget, or doing odd jobs, I was the first reader for prose. That meant that each quarter after I sent an issue to the printer, I began the process of culling a few hundred fiction and nonfiction submissions from the previous three months down to the two stories and three essays that go into a typical issue.
That may sound glamorous, but for me it’s mostly about wrestling with certain doubts and fears.
This is what it’s like: here is a mountain of prose. Some is in envelopes; most is online. Some of it is bad. A tiny fraction, much less than you would think, is so bad as to be entertaining. A lot of it, by far the majority, is not bad, is fine, competent, even accomplished, addressing important subjects, but it is boring.
For me, this is the hardest part of the job. The really beginner stuff, all right, fine: this writer is in college, or prison, or recently retired and always wanted to write and has just started. These are writers who have a long way to go, and they probably know it, and it’s not hard to imagine that some of them will eventually get there. They’re at the steep part of the learning curve.
But the stuff in the middle is heartbreaking. It makes you doubt yourself as a reader, for one: am I bored because this is indeed boring, or because I have a short attention span from too much social media?
In this middle category are many writers who are pretty good but seem unlikely to get much better, because it’s so hard to put a finger on what’s wrong. There are images, anecdotes, scenes, conflict, weighty themes, genuine humor; the prose rolls along without hiccups—but I keep thinking I’d rather be elsewhere.
How many submissions have I read today? How many more can I get through in the next hour? Is it too soon for coffee? Has Kim Kierkegaardashian tweeted anything recently?
Something genuinely, clearly bad or daffy is refreshing, a palate cleanser.
Choosing work to recommend, for me, is about trying to mediate between two fears: First, that my attention span, my sensitivity to what is good, has become so distorted by the mountain of adequate writing that when something really brilliant comes along I’ll be too brain-dead to spark to it and will reject it without noticing.
Apparently I rejected Jamie Quatro once, without even a nice note, and I have no memory of this.
The second fear is of smoke and mirrors. Have social media and reading online in general so conditioned me to expect flash and dazzle that I fall for them even when they’re empty? This comes up less often, because I am easily bored and nearly immune to being dazzled, which is almost an asset in this job.
Lots of writing wears its edginess on its sleeve—murder! pop culture! extremely bad parenting! nonstandard spelling and punctuation!—and it always gets my attention right away, naturally, before it lets me down, which then returns me to my first fear: Am I let down because I am brain-dead because of the mountain? Or is this, in fact, brilliant stuff?
Here is the fear inside both fears: it’s easy to keep choosing the same story over and over. Am I really open to voices that are new? In theory I would not mind if Image published more experimental fiction. But in practice I see so little experimental fiction that I think is really good.
What saves me are the two pieces in a hundred where the self-doubt falls away and I forget to think of myself as an editor at all. After a page, the critical voice shuts off and it’s just enjoyment. I hope that’s an experience readers have with Image: not the haystack, just the needles.
I almost always know within a page whether I’m going to fall in love, and it’s no mystery. It’s really just the sentences. Strong sentences, in whatever key, have got music. The subject matter is almost irrelevant, at least at first. There’s a confidence and a grace in really fine prose that just blazes out unmistakably.
I think some writers, even experienced ones, underestimate how important sentences are—both how much time it takes to get them into shape, and how worthwhile that is.
Once I decide I like a piece, I’m willing to look pretty carefully for a reason it might fit in our publication, which focuses on art and writing that engage with religious faith. An example: a recent issue of Image included a story by Melanie Rae Thon about a mystical connection between a young woman who is killed in a car accident and the boy who receives her transplanted heart. The form is slightly experimental, with lots of white space on the pages—a rarity for us—and the point of view slides gradually from the girl to the boy, with several impressionistic stages in between.
The writing is beautiful; it’s also a little disorienting. There’s nothing explicitly religious here—no priest at the hospital bedside, no prayers, no vision of heaven. In my opinion, the story succeeds at a level that does not include religious meaning. An atheist friend says it’s her third favorite thing we’ve published.
But I also think Christians will read Thon’s story in a particular light, a light that adds meaning, because of the way we see ourselves as all suffering with Christ and being united through his suffering and death, and the way Paul describes the Church as one body with many parts. I don’t know what Thon intended, but I think the story gains a layer by being published in a journal whose readers will recognize those echoes.
Image offers something unusual and, to me, important, in that we publish stories like Thon’s in a venue where a subtle but very real spiritual resonance can be heard.
Because I’m also the copy- and line-editor, I see these pieces again a few months down the road when it’s time for them to go into print. I’m reading very differently now: Should Cool Whip be capitalized? Do we need to know the chair is in the right-hand corner or will “corner” do? Does this particular sentence deserve to be an exception to my general dislike of beginning with “There is”?
And while I’m more or less picking nits at this stage, this is often the moment when I experience a piece’s real depth. On the first read, I’m racing to get through the pile. The second time, I’m going slowly.
This is even better than I remembered, is very often the feeling. That the stories and essays I’ve helped choose improve on careful rereading makes me feel proud—and a bit relieved.
Recently, I emailed a writer who told me he was excited because this was his first-ever published story. He also told me that he has written thirty stories. Think of it. How many hours of staring at a screen does that represent? It’s a near-paralyzing way of thinking about the haystack of manuscripts.
By necessity, my part of the publication process is a caricature of brutal efficiency. I’m trying to spend as little time with each manuscript as possible.
I don’t like my ingrained habit of fast reading and snap judgments. I don’t think it’s good for me as a writer or a human being. I fear it makes me shallow. But a lot of tasks are competing for my time, so ruthless speed is part of the bargain of keeping the journal alive, and in a slightly perverse way I’m proud of that, too.
For the writers, it’s the opposite. Native talent cuts down on the amount of time it takes to make a sentence shine—but not all that much.
The person who can redeem all of this—the crass speed of the editor, the mind-numbing inefficiency of the writer—is, of course, the reader. And making time to read for pleasure can be its own struggle. I’m always grateful when I’m reminded that people manage to do that—though probably not grateful enough.
An earlier version of this essay appeared on Good Letters, the Image blog, in 2016.