Did an MFA student reject my story?

by JHow on October 21, 2011

in Announcements, Blog

Paper Party
Occasionally, I hear writers lament that their stories and poems are rejected by university-based journals because some kid has read it and sent it back before an actual editor could discover it. I have no idea how other journals really work, but I doubt that’s the case most places, and it’s not here at Passages North.

We’re housed at and funded by Northern Michigan University, and we’re grateful for that support. We’re also lucky to have students in and out of our office every day, students excited to be a part of the publishing process. And while our top priority is putting together the best issue we can, we also have a responsibility to those students. We – the editors – don’t have them reading submissions to do our jobs for us. Students read submissions so they can get a sense of how one particular literary journal works, how their own writing stacks up to what’s being sent out into the world, to help them develop an editing eye. We’re also teachers at heart.

Do I get a little more hopeful or excited when I see a story has gotten positive responses from my undergraduate and graduate readers? Sure. But I’ve also taken stories that these same readers gave a thumbs-down, and I’ve seen them latch onto stories I found sentimental and over-written. You bet, in some ways it’d be more efficient if I could just sit down every night and go through that day’s submissions and say yes or no to each story. But at the same time, I don’t envy those tireless editors of independent journals who have to do everything – everything – themselves. I’ve got a graduate student managing editor to run the office. For gosh sakes, we’ve got an office, even if it’s weirdly connected to the college health center, so people come in and ask for immunizations and pap smears way too often. We get to put our stories and poems and essays in print, even if that happens only once a year. We know we’re lucky.

To be direct about it: nothing gets sent back, rejected, based on a student vote. More to the point, nothing gets sent back (or accepted) based on any one person. We’ve got a whole big gang of poets and nonfiction and fiction readers on the hunt for treasures in the submissions, but our genre editors read every single submission. And then we talk to each other. (P.S. Submishmash is making this whole conversation happen so much more quickly, given we no longer have to wait for an actual manuscript to move its way around from reader to reader!)

I value all the feedback from our readers, who – even if they’re unpublished writers still – can give me honest reactions about which stories they found compelling, which they just didn’t. And besides, who am I, even as the journal’s fiction editor, to get to decide anything? Who is any editor? We’re all simply people – readers and writers – who love some things and don’t love some things. All writers can ask of us – or at least all I’d ask from a journal where I’m submitting my own work – is that an editor have the capacity to love some things. If that’s possible, then we’ll connect with somebody. Maybe you.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

fitz October 31, 2011 at 4:44 pm

MFA students are “kids?” Ouch.


Michelle Herman October 31, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Hmm–if I had more time, I’d say a lot more than the few words I’m going to post here (so maybe it’s just as well that I have only a few minutes. Or I’d go on a rant). My few words: in general, decision-making by committee, it seems to me, is the worst way to edit a magazine–it tends to result in a lowest-common-denominator sort of decision. (I think this is true for anything, actually, not just editorial decision-making. The more people putting their heads together, trying to come to a consensus about a work of art, or a big idea, the more likely it is that the wild, out-of-nowhere, you gotta love it or hate it stuff is pushed out of consideration.) Second: the MFA students I know–and teach–are some of the smartest, most competent (and yes, best editors) I’ve ever met. I’d trust them with my life (and I have always trusted them with other people’s writing. Hell, I’ve trusted them with my OWN writing, more than once). Finally (only because I’m in a hurry, as I say): participating in the work of editing a literary magazine–including decision-making, and including actually editing manuscripts and doing all the to-and-fro with other writers that this entails–is one of the most valuable aspects of an MFA education. From a pedagogical point of view–and as someone who teaches a graduate and undergraduate course in editing and publishing, edited a literary magazine for nearly 25 years, and worked as an editor before leaving NY long ago–I can’t think of too much that is BETTER for MFA students than the kind of experience that’s being dismissed here. (And I think it’s good for the writers being edited, too. The two best editors I’ve ever had–of my own work, I mean–were under 30 (“kids”) and hadn’t been at it for very long. They brought great intelligence and fresh vision to the task at hand: they looked at my writing in a way no other editors had, before or after.) Maybe one has to be middle aged before this can be figured/sorted out. But as one who can take the long view–as writer, teacher, editor, long-ago former MFA student herself–and cranky and demanding adviser to the grad students who are now editing The Journal on their own and doing a HELL of a good job (check it out; send them work! http://thejournalmag.org/about)–I can tell you this: trust me, I’m right.


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