Back in the 1930s, magazines like the Yale Review or VQR saw maybe 500 submissions in a year; today, we receive more like 15,000. This is due partly to a shift in our culture from a society that believed in hierarchy to one that believes in a level playing field. This is good—to a point. The reality is that not everyone can be a doctor, not everyone can be a professional athlete, and not everyone can be a writer. You may be a precious snowflake, but if you can’t express your individuality in sterling prose, I don’t want to read about it.
–Ted Genoways in Mother Jones
I know I shouldn’t pen a post at 3am after spending the last 4 hours reading submissions, but (as much as I like VQR) this month-old quote made me throw up in my mouth just now. It’s the continuation of a viral meme that’s been spun ad nauseam for the last two decades, and I think can be traced directly to Dana Gioia and his ubiquitous essay “Can Poetry Matter?” In a 1991 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Gioia was just the first to break out of what must have been an academic quarantine, bemoaning the sheer volume of creative writing students produced by the university programs in public, rather than behind the closed doors of faculty parties.
If you read about poetry, instead of just reading the poetry, then you’ve heard this paranoia already: Oh no, there are 200 graduate writing programs. Oh no, that means there are 20,000 certified poets graduating every decade. How will the publishing structure manage, how will I ever keep up, how will anyone ever notice me at the top of such a redundant, self-aggrandizing pile of custom-molded electric meat? Genoways is talking about literary fiction in the quote above, but all viruses evolve — Hepatitis is up to G.
Rattle has actually published one such mutation, an essay on the supersaturation of poetry book contests by David Alpaugh in e.5 (download the PDF), and I liked that because it was well-written and provocative, and seemed to break new ground for the epidemic. I also appreciated how kind he was to those who run the system he was criticizing — articulating very clearly their good intentions.
So obviously I don’t mind folks writing about the overwhelming volume of literary writers at work today — I like a good debate, and there’s nothing to debate if no one takes a strong position. But I think their complaints stem entirely from a localized elitist paranoia, and a broader illusion of grandeur. And nothing I’ve read demonstrates that better than the Genoways quote above.
When he compares the volume of submissions 80 years ago to that of today, what he’s saying is that those 500 submissions were somehow better than that 15,000 he sees now — better on average, certainly, but also in the final published product: Fiction can’t be dying if it was never alive in the first place. How is the product of 500 submissions better than the product of 30 times as many? Well, those 500 submissions came from real writers, of course, not the wannabes that try to peddle their inferior wares today! They were coming from Huxley, Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Mann…
This might seem to make sense — but we have no perspective when it comes to literary history. When considered objectively, the study of literature is akin to idol worship — we focus on the greatest works of the “great writers,” as if their careers weren’t also full of flops. Unless they die too young for the full biopic to play itself out, they have periods of illumination and innovation, only to flounder for years trying to recapture that magic. I won’t name names, because that would be mean, but the examples are countless. If you’re reading an Ernest Hemingway novel, it does not necessarily follow that you’re reading a great novel — or even good novel. (Okay, so I named one name.)
The idol fallacy appears over and over again in editing a poetry magazine. I can’t tell you the big names of some the poets I’ve rejected, but it happens over and over again. Big names can give you great poetry, but they can also give you pretty lousy poetry. Knowing this, and seeing it happen time and again, the idea of 500 submissions from “real” writers outperforming 15,000 unknowns isn’t really plausible. Unless you’re paying too much attention to what’s in a name.
What’s more, this “golden age” theory also assumes that the previous system did a good job at finding the best work — simply because we have a set of work that we call the best. How do we know that the esteemed editors of Faber & Faber didn’t pass up a better poet to publish Phillip Larkin? Maybe there was a better Phillip Larkin out there that went unnoticed — if there was, we’d never know about it. So much of historical publishing has been clique and kin and strange coincidence. If Plath or Sexton hadn’t attended Lowell’s workshop, can we be sure we’d know the names Sexton and Plath? Would “Howl” have been as successful without the forward from William Carlos Williams, who had met the young Ginsberg when he was a boy? Maybe. But it’s also possible that there’s another poem on a shelf somewhere that could have been “Howl”, had the poet been more memorable in person.
As soon as we start to revere the writer over the writing, literature becomes a cult of personality. We crown these gods and pretend there could be no other. And I think that’s the real problem with literary publishing. That’s the reason why so many literary journals are so unreadable — when the poet laureate sends a poem, it’s hard not to publish that poem. I love Kay Ryan so I’ll pick on her — when was the last time she’s had her work rejected? Who says No to Billy Collins? And the same applies, to an increasingly lesser extent, to every award and publishing credit ever listed. “Well she was nominated for the Pulitzer, maybe I’m missing something…”
Think of literature, not as a ladder or a mountain, but as a dome — the higher you climb, the easier the climb becomes.
But that’s not even what upsets me about Genoways’ quote. That’s just a truth that few acknowledge. The second half is what has me tasting chickpea — “not everyone can be a doctor…”
There’s so much wrong with that part of the quote that I’m hesitant to even address it all. There’s the obvious arrogance that comes with being on a board that certifies — you’re a doctor if he says you’re a doctor, if your prose is “sterling” enough that he wants to read it. It might be possible to weasel out of that implication, but Genoways is a literary editor, speaking about literary editing. He’s the one that has to put up with 15,000 quacks and snake oil salesmen. He’s the decider.
But beyond the tone, Genoways is just wrong in principle. Not everyone can be a doctor, sure, but anyone can learn CPR and then maybe — not likely, but maybe — use it to save a life. Not everyone can be a professional athlete, but anyone can be an amateur and have an enriching experience on the field.
In another essay that just came out, “The New Math of Poetry,” David Alpaugh uses the analogy of a golfer:
[T]here’s a difference between writing and publishing. Golf, after all, has an agreed-upon scoring system that lets every player know his or her standing, stroke by stroke, game by game. Mediocre amateurs cannot deceive themselves (or be assured by pros) that they are contenders. None of the golfers who end up on the green with Tiger Woods…
It’s true that no amateur golfer will ever be able to compete with Tiger Woods. But some amateur, somewhere in the country, hit a hole-in-one yesterday. And Tiger Woods (if he played a round) probably didn’t. If my goal is to find as many holes-in-one as I can, I very well might be better off looking at 15,000 amateur rounds of golf, rather than 500 pro rounds. The only question is how much better the pros are — but no matter what that ratio is, there’s always a critical mass of amateur golfers that, taken together, will hit more perfect shots than those 500 pros.
As a literary editor, it’s my job to find as many great poems as I can. And the definition of a great poem is really simple: Poems that have the power to effect the lives of some of the people who read them. Every poem we publish doesn’t have to be memorable and moving for everyone — but it has to be memorable or moving for someone, some kind of person who represents a subset of our readership. The easy part is finding poems that move me — the hard part is imagining how a poem that I don’t care for might move someone else.
Every year we choose a winner for the Rattle Poetry Prize, and every year we get feedback — about 5 people love it for every person who hates it, but no poem pleases everyone. We chose a lyric poem last year, and some wrote in to complain that it was too imagistic and detached. We chose a narrative poem this year, and some people wrote in to complain that it wasn’t lyrical enough. Seeing outside of the boundaries of personal taste is the challenge for an editor — but the task is just to create as many positive experiences as possible.
And the best way to do that is to read as many poems as possible and ignore the names at the top. Because the names really don’t matter much, beyond name-recognition. A poetry magazine is not a tabloid. Their covers aren’t sprawled across the checkout stands of America. No one buys a poetry magazine because of names on the back cover. What really matters is brand loyalty — readers don’t come to us for any individual poet, they come to us for the collective body of poets that form an issue of Rattle. They come because, when our editors say, “You might like this,” more often than not they do.
Or they don’t. And then they don’t read us. And that’s fine — it just means I need to be doing a better job thinking outside of my own personal aesthetic.
This is my main point: Anyone who complains that too many people are writing today — whether it’s poetry or fiction or blogs — just isn’t doing their job. Their job as an editor, or their job as a reader. Because the more people who are writing, the more quality work gets produced. You just have to find it. Reading through 15,000 submissions might be a pain in the ass, but it’s your job. If you run a magazine, that’s what you owe your subscribers — that’s the service you’re providing.
And if you’re a reader of literature, then it’s your job to find writers you like, and editors you tend to agree with. Because they’re out there. Out there in a greater abundance than any time in history. And that’s always a good thing, no matter how far the hand-wringing contagion spreads.