November 13, 2010

Knock, knock

In a recent post on The Prague Post's blog, writer Stephan Delbos reviews the new poetry journal Full Metal Poem. He posits its solicitation-only policy as a more honest and non-elitist form of literary editing, and calls on other European journals to follow in its stead:
One hopes other editors throughout Europe will follow Full Metal Poem‘s lead in creating a journal which establishes a high literary and artistic standard without resorting to elitism.
As I am the editor of one of those European literary journals, I was being addressed--and accused of elitism.

Stephan and I have been in touch for some years, as he is part of a literary community in Prague similar to ours here in Amsterdam, and though we've never met in person I think he's doing good work and he seems like a good guy. In other words, I'd add him as a Facebook friend. So I emailed Stephan, asking him to expand his thesis, and if he wouldn't mind that I take up the subject on this here blog. He said sure. We both agreed it would be great to debate this over beers, but that building a public dialogue around the issue would probably be more valuable. Plus, I don't know when I'll be next in Prague.

Most journals solicit to some degree; some do not solicit at all; few solicit 100%.* The project of a solely-solicited journal is very different from the project of a journal which relies, at least in part, on the so-called slush pile. The solicited journal is a curatorial project--you might even say its synonym is the anthology. Setting out to spotlight a particular aesthetic, movement, or community, the solicited journal becomes a compendium of an editor's (explicit or implied) manifesto. As anthology, it can be a valuable addition to the literary landscape, acting as a magnifying glass to a particular filament of a literature. The literary journal which works with a slush pile, however, is that literary landscape's explorer--walking through it, mapping it, drawing its broad outlines or picking it out in parts. The editor of such a journal is no less driven by an aesthetic or even manifesto, but is probably also interested in the project as a learning process--uncovering new styles, voices, being challenged aesthetically.

Undoubtedly, the solicited journal--and solicitation in general--has the open-call journal to thank for doing the legwork. The solicited journal relies on the editors who do dig through the slush piles and--in many cases--kick-off the publishing careers of writers, writers who will later be stumbled upon by another editor and solicited. The open-call journals are where we start reading the work of new writers, where we follow their developments, where we grow to love them.

I'm not saying that the editor who does not solicit is a more valuable editor than the one who does--simply that they play different roles. And by no means am I arguing that the solely-solicited journal blemishes the literary landscape. On the contrary, its magnifying effect can be good for the community and its legacy. But I am taking issue with the assumption that a journal which only solicits is somehow less elitist and more honest than a journal which does not. It would simply be better to argue that the solicited journal puts its elitism out in the open so that "the rest of us" have no doubt of its motives. However, the contrary of the openly-elite solicited journal is not necessarily the masked-elitism of the open-call journal. Rather, the pivot of elitism comes down to something else entirely.

As I spoke about on the "Open for Submissions" panel at the last AWP, I firmly believe that a literary editor should have a vision for her journal. This starts with the editor herself. I suggested to the roomful of burgeoning editors that they ask themselves the age-old question: Do I play well with others? If you like working in a team, if you like your aesthetic boundaries pushed, if you like to explore, then build a press or journal with others. But if there's a specific kind of work that you set out to publish, if you're working from a manifesto or a particular aesthetic school, and more importantly if you don't want to bend to the editorial tastes of others, you're probably better off reviewing submissions alone--or soliciting.**

Simply put, a literary editor is, to my mind, a successful literary editor when she is visibly, publicly clear on what she is setting out to do and when she builds the editorial process of her publication accordingly. By success I mean what Stephan calls establishing a "high literary and artistic standard", but I also include it to mean an editor who is contributing to the continuous building of the literary community around us. If an editor can best do this by anthologizing a particular fragment of literary happenings, great. If an editor is fit for and up to the task of exploration, wonderful.

Stephan is equating an openness about editorial taste (i.e. pure solicitation) with aesthetic success, but I think that's faulty math. For one, are any of us at any point deluded into thinking that literary journals are not a matter of taste? If anything, the ripe literary conversation of the blogosphere has uncovered this once-yes-elite system to its bare bones. And I can't think of a single journal that actually tries to hide that it has a particular leaning--what would be the point? Journals, rather, seem to be polarizing for the sake of survival. Secondly, one could easily argue that the solicited journal is the most elitist form of literary editing, blockading the "rest" or "other"
off from whatever a particular editor judges is good and worthy. Thirdly, the historical foundation of purely solicited journals is one that decidedly excludes women and "minority" poetries, resulting in a narrow anthologization of an aesthetic and thus ultimately limiting its "success". These (exclusions) are hard habits to break. Until recently (and still to an alarming degree), the literary journal was the sole purview of a (white) man who published his (male) friends and male writers he liked. This model is thankfully being broken down, and today groups like VIDA are keeping a watchful eye on the "numbers". The elitist male foundations of the literary canon are being rebuilt in a dialogue that has room for--in fact is founded on--diverse editorial taste and a community's openness about where those tastes diverge, intersect, and convene.

Elitism is in the motives. The editor who uses her publishing project to derisively barricade off some work from others versus the editor who opens doors (within and without) to the range of greatness. Editors of solicited and open-call journals can be either of these or somewhere in between, and our literary community certainly sees it all. In his recent Conflict of Interest series on Luna Park, Greg Weiss writes,

…the literary poetry market is no different than any other open market—actors with congruent or complementary interests form alliances. Copperman notes that “America’s finest venues…ignore the slushpile in favor of contacts.” While I agree, it strikes me that this will always be the case. In the same manner, the importance of aesthetic and prestige gatekeepers to print journals continues unabated in electronic journals. Gatekeepers can have the positive effect of creating a distinctive style, or the negative effect of inculcating a type of groupthink.

An editor has a choice. She can choose to stand watch at some iron gate that she fabricates or joins, or she can admit that for every writer and every editor, there is a small little gate. It is the editor's motive and the editorial process which forms around it which either guard the gate, break it down, or force it open.

Ultimately, the future of literary journals is not (I hope) that all of us editors rally around plots in the landscape and stake our claims. What a gross turf war that would be. Versal--and many other lit journals to boot--has proven that you can successfully publish both Marilyn Hacker and Selah Saterstrom--in other words, that editorial taste does not have to be (seen as) static or singular, and that you don't have to have a manifesto to build a valuable and beautiful collection of writing.

To be honest, I'm much more concerned by the literary journal which hides behind "open" calls by having white lists of writers it will actually consider--and has interns reject the rest--than by the literary journals like Full Metal Poem which demarcate a particular aesthetic through pure solicitation, or by those journals which, by virtue of our world's current inundation, remain open for submissions but cannot publish even the majority of what it receives, even if it wanted to. If we're going to worry about elitism in the literary publishing world, I would look to the white-list journal first before I knock on the doors of Europe's few and underfunded, projects-of-love literary journals and tell them they've "resorted to elitism" because their doors are open.

And on that note, I'll let Harriet Monroe show us out.

* First off, I could be wrong about this; I'm basing my "calculations" off of experiential evidence. Second, I'm not talking about editors publishing their friends. That's something else entirely. By "solicit" I'm referring to the practice of editors contacting writers they admire and would like to publish. Sometimes, sure, those writers are people we're friends with, but by and large they are writers we have never met and have read at the far distance of the page. I see the journals which rise out of a group of friends/like-minded writers to rather be the projects of a community--very often rallying around a manifesto--and for me that's a very different type of journal, and one that I don't address here.

** These are, of course, not the only approaches to the editorial process. You could, say, have a computer pick submissions at random, or, as a recent magazine has done, just lift stuff off the internet.


  1. This may be the easy way out, but it seems to me that this argument of solicited vs. slushpile, like most dichotomies, is best answered with "both." Many editors I know mix these two methods as a means of balancing their content.

  2. Hi Jason - thanks for your input. You're right that a mixture is a good solution for a lot of journals. That's what we do at Versal.

    That said, I don't think my post here is an argument pitting solicited journals and slushpile journals against each other, but rather a response to the notion that one is more or less "elitist" than the other, based on Stephan Delbos's review of a solicitation-only journal. In the end, I think we're all gatekeepers to some degree, even if to our own tastes--we just have to decide as editors how we're going to play that out.