You Must Submit

sub⋅mit

1. to give over or yield to the power or authority of another (often used reflexively).
2. to subject to some kind of treatment or influence.
3. to present for the approval, consideration, or decision of another or others: to submit a plan; to submit an application.
4. to state or urge with deference; suggest or propose (usually fol. by a clause): I submit that full proof should be required.

From the moment I was introduced to the literary industry — which was only about six years ago, actually — I’ve been disappointed with the terminology we use to describe it.  Are writers really “submitters,” waiting patiently for “acceptance” or “rejection”?  I don’t know about you, but I’m not a submissive, and I don’t see publication as a way to feel accepted.

Many editors, myself included, do linguistic back-flips to try to avoid this terminology.  “Thank you for letting us consider your work.”  “Unfortunately we’ve decided to return your work.” And so on — anything to avoid submission and rejection.

Of course, those words are technically accurate.  Accept comes through Old French from the Latin acceptare, “to take willingly,” a modification of the root capare, “to take.” Reject comes from the Latin rejectus, “to throw back,” a combination of re- (“back”) and jacere (“to throw”).  When we accept a poem, we really are “taking it willingly,” and when we reject a poem, to say we’re “throwing it back” would be a little unkind, but true.  (Maybe we could say “handing it back,” to be gentler.)

Submit is a little more problematic.  The original meaning in English, circa 1374, was “to place (oneself) under the control of another.”  The root is the Latin mittere (“let go, send”), with the prefix sub- (“under”), and it really had all of the degrading connotations that we think of today: “to yield, lower, let down, put under, reduce.”  It wasn’t until 1560 that it started being used for our purpose, “to refer to another for consideration.” (All of these etymologies come from etymonline.com.)

Of course, there are still five centuries of linguistic history between us and the Elizabethians, so maybe we should just accept it?

I don’t think so.  Even if acceptance, rejection, and submission are literally true, there are still all those connotations behind them — and as poets, aren’t we supposed to be even more aware than most of the emotional impact of certain words?

Acceptance is tied both to the psychological need for approval, and a spiritual/religious state of mind.  We’re supposed to accept God’s will, accept those things we can’t change, and so on.  To ask someone for acceptance has powerful implications on both levels — some psychologists have argued that acceptance is the primary goal of the social mind.  Rejection is the opposite side of the same coin, and so just as powerful a term.

When it comes to submission, I can’t help thinking of BDSM lifestyles, and the implication that editors are sadistic and somehow enjoy punishing writers, “stripping” them of their acceptance.  As with all these words, it works as a metaphor — who hasn’t felt masochistic while being rejected by The New Yorker over and over again, and always coming back for more?

But to use it as more than just a metaphor, to make it the sum total of this process we’re all involved in, is harsh and misleading.  If we’re slaves to anything, as Sapir and Whorf tell us, it’s to the words we use.  The word submission tangles the editorial process up in a hierarchy of dominance.  Acceptance and rejection make our decisions seem more significant than they actually are.

Magazines are just looking for poems they’ll want to publish, and it’s no more authoritative or deeply important than that.   So I think it’s time to improve the terminology we use to describe this thing we do.  Any suggestions?

8 thoughts on “You Must Submit

  1. First, let me say this is one of your best posts to date. I feel it’s up to the poet to come up with more life-affirming terms to face the harsh world of publication. I don’t “submit” my poems, I “offer” them. They become “offerings,” another religious term. By “offering” something I’m allowing for the opportunity that someone will choose to turn it down. Yet, I am not rejected, nor do I feel rejected. Thanks again, for a great point.

  2. Thanks, Angie!

    Alex, I love it it. “Unfortunately we’ve decided not to publish any of these offerings, but we’d be happy to consider others in the future.” That works! I think I’m going to start using it.

  3. Why don’t you just acknowledge that work has been received, and then only contact the writer if you decide to publish their work? I do not carefully read rejection slips that I receive, and even letters dressed-up to look like something more than that really aren’t. Since your journal and many others (wisely) do not have a policy against simultaneous submissions, it is not necessary for the writer to hear back from you unless their work has been accepted. A lot of journals never seem to get back to writers anyway, or take a very long time to do so. (see doutrope’s for stats)

  4. I’ve thought about that model, Cafais, and we might have to go to it some day. It definitely would be less work, and in some respects more convenient for writers, too.

    But as long as there’s time, I really prefer being able to interact with people — even though the majority of letters are just form, it’s important to be able to write notes sometimes, or encourage the people who come close.

    We rely more on submissions than most magazine, because we don’t solicit, so we need to keep the submission process as interactive and friendly as possible.

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