Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Thoughts on Professional Courtesy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about courtesy. Specifically, professional courtesy. Microscopically, the relative lack of professional courtesy running rampant in independent literary organizations of late. I don’t know whether this is actually a recent development or I’m just noticing it now because I (and a number of writers near and dear to my heart) have been on the receiving end of some bozo behavior.

Maybe you can tell me if any of the following scenarios sound familiar.

Writer A queries the editors of Literary Journal X about the status of her submission, sent over a year before via an online submission manager where said submission has languished as “received.” Writer A receives no response. Over the ensuing months, writer A receives multiple marketing e-mails and calls for submissions from Literary Journal X, but still no response from the editors.

1. a.
Writer B queries the editors of Literary Journal X about the status of his submission, sent a long, long time back, via an online submission manager where said submission has languished as “received.” Writer B receives in response a form rejection e-mail sent through said online submission manager rather than an actual response from an editor.

1. b.
Writers C-ZZ wait patiently for responses regarding their submissions to Literary Journal Z. Postings to Literary Journal Z’s blog apologize for the longer-than-normal delay and assure submitters that responses will be forthcoming. Additional postings on the front page of Literary Journal Z’s submissions manager apologize for glitches. The responses finally arrive: Writer D receives 40 form rejection emails. Writer M receives 9.

2. Two of Writer Q’s poems are accepted by Literary Journal V and she is informed that they will appear in the following year’s issue, she will be paid $XX, and she will receive two contributor’s copies. The year comes and goes with no correspondence from Journal V. Writer Q finds out through the interweb that the issue of Journal V is out and politely queries the editors via e-mail regarding her copies and payment. **Crickets** A month later she receives her contributor’s copies in the mail with no check and no acknowledgement of her previous query. A month or so later, she e-mails the editors again. **More Crickets** A month or so after that, she visits Journal V’s website in an attempt to find some other means of contacting the editors and finds that the website has been revised and contact e-mail address is different. Again, she queries. **Lots of Freaking Crickets** Writer Q does some web sleuthing and finds contact information for the faculty advisor for the journal and contacts said advisor to no avail. It is only after Writer Q has e-mailed the head of the English Department at the University that hosts Journal V that she receives any word from the editors.

3. Writer P sends a submission (via e-mail, per Journal J’s guidelines) at 3:08 p.m. At 3:17 p.m., Writer P receives the following e-mail from Journal J’s editor:

Sorry Writer P--

Not this batch.


Editor J
The next day, Editor J attempts to friend Writer P on FaceBook.

As isolated, rare occurrences, these experiences might make amusing anecdotes at literary gatherings. Unfortunately, the reality is that any similar anecdote is likely to be met with, “Oh, that’s nothing. Let me tell you what the punks from Journal/Press/Website L did to me…” Around about the 10th or 20th anecdote, a pattern emerges that is anything but amusing. Of course, we can come up with any number of explanations/justifications for this kind of behavior—“Yeah, well, writers are flaky.” “Aw, they’re probably just overworked grad students. Cut them a break.” “At least they put out a quality magazine.” But where does that leave us?

I’ve worked for literary magazines. I’ve written in this space about how not be an asshole when submitting to literary magazines. As an editor, I’ve dealt with all sorts of crazy writer bullshit. I understand all too well that working on a journal is a thankless job. I also understand that it’s a choice one makes. No one can be forced into litmag slavery. So yes, I am a little perplexed when the literary magazines I support, read, purchase, submit to, etc. don’t have the decency to communicate with me. I am disappointed when the editors of a journal assume that online submission technology absolves them of the responsibility to answer queries.

And yet, writers are asked to be grateful for any attention, any chance at publication. For the most part, I am. And in the grand scheme of my life, whether I hear back from a literary journal or not has very little bearing on my overall happiness. So why complain? I don’t really have an answer to that question. Just an observation: Courtesy is easily given. I think about the times when I was responsible for corresponding with contributors and, whether it was snail mail, e-mail, phone, or face-to-face interaction, the interaction didn’t really cost me that much.

So, I don’t know, maybe we could, as a community, come up with a set of guidelines for being a good editor. Any writer who has received the gold star treatment from a journal that has its shit together certainly must have some ideas on the matter. Thoughts?


Travis Fortney said...

Not sure if Laurie shared this, but I had the same experience with that editor, right down to the "pax." Rather than passively refusing his friend request, though, I wrote him a nasty note and blocked his emails, thereby lowering the bar, justifying his rudeness, and assuring that I will never publish anything in Gargoyle.

I do have a story that relates to this, though. I know you guys read and rejected many, many more submissions to Cutbank than I did, but when I was rejecting something I always tried to write maybe one sentence on the notecard before stuffing it in the envelope, either something I liked about the story or pointing out an obvious flaw that I thought the writer could fix, probably a minute of extra work per submission. Funny thing, when we took Cutbank to AWP in New York that year, so many people who had submitted sought me out and said they appreciated the comments. Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but that story does illustrate how the whole process is maybe a bit starved for courtesy and humanity.

Anonymous said...

I have had variations of all of these happen to me. My favorite was a note that said, "Sorry we aren't taking any of your poems." But the editor had failed to tell me which journal he was writing from.

I ended up sending an email back saying "Who are you and what are you rejecting me from?" and asking for a bit more professionalism.