Okla Elliott: What is the process by which your journal’s staff selects a piece for publication?
Jodee Stanley: At Ninth Letter we have a fairly large editorial staff, with three faculty editors for fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, as well as several graduate students who work as readers and assistant editors. The selection process is pretty much the same for all three genres: each submission is read by at least two staff members, and anything that gets positive initial feedback from at least one of those readers gets passed on to a third reader—submissions that get positive comments from two or more staff members are brought forward to editorial meeting. The editors are responsible for making the final selections for publication, but everyone on staff has strong input in the selection process—Ninth Letter makes a real effort to represent as wide a range of aesthetics as possible, and among our own staff we have as broad a range of tastes and interest as you could imagine. We want to make sure that everyone who works for us feels they have a voice in the selection process.
There are minor differences among the three genres’ process, I guess, based on individual faculty editors’ preferences (and the editorships rotate periodically). Some of our faculty editors do rolling acceptances over the course of the reading period, while others prefer to hold submissions of interest and make final selections closer to our internal deadlines for a particular issue. But in general we try to keep our turnaround times reasonable, and if a submission is going to be held longer than usual for consideration, we try to let the authors know what’s going on. Too-long response times are a real pet peeve of mine, so I tend to crack the whip a little when I think we’re getting behind.
Okla Elliott: At MAYDAY, our process might be a bit different from some journals due to our editors being in different states. We do everything electronically to allow for instant access for all the editors (and to reduce paper waste). We also have a certain amount of autonomy among the editors in that we each solicit a certain percentage of the material for each issue, or we come up with interviews or features (such as this editors roundtable) that each of us runs for a particular issue. Since we’re just getting our legs beneath us as a journal, our process is adapting as we go, but one of our primary interests is avoiding a singular voice or taste, to keep the journal fresh and diverse while we develop in increasingly sophisticated editorial vision for the magazine.
Aaron Burch: To kind of counterpoint that, I think one of the things I/we have ended up doing with Hobart is building toward having a more singular voice/taste, though this was never the intent at the outset. I’m kind of hesitant to say that because I certainly believe that we print a pretty wide of contributors and types of stories and whatnot but, at the same time, I think that is the advantage of a journal with either one editor or a small group of like-minded people, as opposed to more of a “team.” We just aren’t trying to appeal to everyone and I think, as opposed to hoping every reader will be able to find something they like in every issue, I want the readers who follow Hobart to live almost every single piece in the issue. I’m thinking of something like The Quarterly, which so obviously narrowed in on Lish’s voice. I don’t think of Hobart as Quarterly– or Lish-like in any way, but that might be an interesting goal. Except instead of being super voice-interested, we’d be the entertaining and immature journal.
I’ve gotten at the question kind of backwards, but the basic behind the scenes is that I read most, if not all the submissions, and choose the stories I like. With at least the last couple of issues, I had a lot of help from Elizabeth Ellen, who was reading submissions and soliciting the occasional person here and there, and then I’ve always had a couple friends who I have had read stories for me as a kind of second read, just to see what they thought. I’ve just a week or two ago set up a handful of interns as readers though because the sheer volume of submissions is just too great, so we’ll see how that works moving forward. Likewise with the website, whoever are the web editors at the time (currently Jensen Whelan and Andrea Kneeland) trade off on months and during “their” month, they read all the subs and choose the stories they like.
Anne McPeak: We have a team of volunteer readers who help with the submissions. A piece will accumulate readers as it goes along — in other words, if the first reader is impressed, there will be a second reader, and then a third, and so on. The only difference among the genres is who reads — we have fiction, non-fiction, and poetry readers.
Ben George: At Ecotone the selection process is mostly the same for each genre. We have readers for stories, for essays, and for poems—and an editor for each genre. The submissions that receive favorable responses from readers are passed along to the individual genre editors, who make decisions about whether to circulate a given piece for our editorial meeting. Based on the feedback from readers and editors and on my own instincts, I make a decision on publication. I don’t believe in democracy with a literary magazine. Literature by committee tends to produce something diluted in my experience. I believe in having a singular guiding vision. So while I can be swayed by a passionate argument for a piece, I’ve learned to make decisions and live with them, knowing that some of them will be sound and others will be mistakes. But if I make a mistake in passing up a great piece, it won’t hurt the writer. A great piece will always find a home. I’m comforted by the fact that C. Michael Curtis turned down Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” for the Atlantic Monthly. And the Missouri Review once published a collection of obtuse rejection letters of great books by Knopf.
While it is a huge thrill to discover and champion a new writer (and I’m very excited about a riveting forthcoming story called “Laidlaw,” by Christopher Feliciano Arnold), like most magazines Ecotone also must do a fair bit of solicitation to fill its pages. Besides inviting submissions from fiction writers, essayists, and poets whose work we admire, we also have specific departments that need filling. For example, we’re now including a department called “Reclamation,” an effort to reprint masterpiece stories that, for whatever reason, did not get their due in the mainstream. We invited Antonya Nelson to make the inaugural selection, and she chose Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net” and wrote an introduction for it. We also want to have in-depth essays on significant writers of our day in a department called “Field Study.” So we invited Rivka Galchen to do a lengthy piece for us on Jonathan Lethem, who has an important new novel, Chronic City, out this fall. We needed a specific sort of person to interview science writer and National Geographic environment editor Robert Kunzig; science journalist Josie Glausiusz did that for us. And for the first time we’re also including a department called “The Strip,” which will feature graphic fiction or nonfiction. Eisner nominee Jamie Tanner is kicking the series off for us. These are all items that we wouldn’t be able to publish if we hadn’t solicited them. As readers become more familiar with Ecotone and with our wide-ranging mission—to bring the sciences and humanities together, to break out of the pen of the purely literary and wander freely among the disciplines, to publish a vibrant rather than docile literature of place—it may be that we’ll receive wonderful unsolicited submissions in these departments, and that would make our jobs easier.
Jacob Knabb: This question and particularly this discussion cuts right to the core of one of the ways that ACM has evolved recently. Traditionally, ACM was more of a journal along the lines of what Ben describes. The editors made the ultimate choices and this led to some amazing work. It also led to some amazing crap. It made ACM an idiosyncratic journal and was a part of the magazine’s charm. We have shifted of late towards more of a group effort. We do this while trying to maintain the weirdness that is our legacy as ACM editors. We do not want a journal by committee at all and the mere thought of it makes me a little ill. But we have a really cool staff and I have been able to put my personal stamp on the aesthetic of this journal and find a lot of like-minded folks to work with me. It’s a real gift for this to have occurred and as a result I am more than happy let each of the readers weigh in on the keeper material. At present, no piece is run off of the desires of a single editor – even me. There must be a consensus or at least a general desire on the part of our editors and readers to publish a piece before it goes into the magazine.
Our process goes like this: Slush arrives and is disseminated at the weekly meeting. The primary initial goal is to trim the weakest work and pass along any story with even a modicum of potential. At the end of the meeting, the ‘keepers’ from that night are collected and we talk about them. The reader who found each one will have penned comments on the mailing envelope stating why it was a good piece and that’s that. After we have collected a healthy number of these ‘keepers,’ we will devote a night to eliminating all but the strongest pieces. This happens two or three times during the process of putting together each issue. At the very end, all of the pieces that have made the grade are spread out and we haggle over which ones fit best. Any piece that makes it past the first cut will be rejected, but we are certain to include comments on the rejection slip to encourage the writer and to let that writer know briefly what we liked about the piece and to encourage the writer to resubmit. We also work with writers who we see talent in and who we think are capable of revising a piece to make it amazing. Every time I have worked with a fiction writer, I have been told that I am the first to do so. I honestly think that hardly anyone does this these days. That’s a shame. Often the best work comes from working with a writer. A good but flawed story can become great. I find this particularly rewarding as an editor. I wish more folks felt the same.
We do solicit specific work from specific writers, but not as much as we did when I first began reading for ACM in ’02. At that point not as much from the slush made it into the magazine and a lot of what did make the grade was solicited (maybe a 60/40 split). This had led us to rethink and to change our ways. Now 70-80% of what we publish comes from the slush. We send out word if we are working with a specific theme and we tell ask lots of writers to send work. I am fond of scouting for writers at readings and very often I will approach a writer I am impressed with and ask that writer to submit. But we make no promises and reject a lot of work that comes from solicitations. As long as that is clear from the beginning, I’ve never had any problems as a result.
As a quick aside, Barry Silesky, the longtime Poetry Editor and the man who ran ACM for the better part of two decades went through a period where he published very sexual poetry. It was what he was interested in and some of the poems can make even a crusty fuck like myself blush a bit. It was his choosing to do so and it was pretty cool. However, as a result of this, we still to this day receive really gnarly sex poems form folks who are of the opinion that this is the sort of poetry ACM is into. We get stuff about diaper fetishes, clown sex, sex with walleyes, and what have you. Occasionally a run of these gems will emerge in the slush and it always seems to happen on a night when a new reader has joined the fold. You can imagine the raw beauty of these moments. As a matter of course, we make it a point to read the best stuff aloud and to savor the flavor. Most often, we reject it. This did lead to one of my biggest regrets as an editor. I rejected a story about a girl who wears her senile grandfather’s adult diapers, becomes obsessed with urine, and ends up holding her pee for 3 days before giving him a golden shower. It goes even further than that, but I will spare the sensitive eyes of your readers. However, if the writer of that piece, by some odd chance, comes across this please please pop contact me immediately! I would love a second chance to run that story as it was kind of amazing.