Dispatches | February 21, 2007

Every so often an author who feels slighted by rejection notices from the world of literary magazines, convinced that editors have conspired to keep his or her work out of print, concocts a hoax to expose their stupidity. Or their narrow-mindedness. Or some perceived good-ol’-boy network. According to a recent report on the Internet, one such hoax is making the rounds, although I haven’t personally seen the particulars. In this case, apparently, a short story by a famous dead author is thinly disguised and sent out under a pseudonym. When literary magazines reject the manuscript, appending encouraging or disheartening notes, the perpetrator-with apparent glee-holds them up as proof of just how ignorant literary editors really are.

One can respond to such hoaxes in embarrassment or in anger. The best response, I believe, is with transparency, a look into the manuscript selection process. In doing so, writers submitting work to us can see that though we are not perfect, we work diligently and in good faith to publish the best work available, no matter who the author is, or what her credentials are. There is no conspiracy.

Here’s a behind the scenes look at The Missouri Review:

During the year, we receive about 12,000 manuscripts. As the manuscripts come in, they are separated by genre and bundled into groups of ten. Each reader takes two bundles a week, and our interns are often, but not always, the first line of readers. This semester, we have sixteen undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in our Internship in Publishing course, along with other gifted graduate students who have taken the course and continue to work for TMR as poetry editor, senior advisors or editorial assistants.  Each of these readers had to take a reading test and demonstrate solid judgment about a number of manuscript submissions before being allowed “in the door” of the magazine.

Every Tuesday afternoon we meet as a staff, getting updates on the current issue and reports on various projects. Then we get to one of the most important parts of the meeting: the discussion of manuscripts under consideration. Following the full staff meeting, we break into genre groups, prose and poetry. (After the genre meetings, students enrolled in the publishing course meet.) During the genre meetings, interns, advisors and editors pitch the pieces they think deserve further consideration. From two bundles of ten manuscripts, one might expect to pitch about four. These manuscripts, in subsequent meetings, may be passed for a second, and sometimes a third reading, ultimately ending up on our editor’s desk for a final decision.

To fill an issue, we need about ten short stories, essays, and poetry features-from an average of 3,000 manuscripts per quarter. It doesn’t take a calculator to figure that the percentage of accepted manuscripts is low. Very low.

This means that many fine manuscripts are rejected. On several occasions, I’ve seen stories and essays we’ve rejected appear in other literary magazines. Does that mean we were wrong-headed about those manuscripts? Not necessarily. It could be that the style was too experimental for our tastes. Or it centered on a subject that for one reason or another didn’t interest an editor. Or maybe it was too similar to a piece we just published. Perhaps the manuscript had a slight weakness in, say, character development that another editor felt was more than compensated for by the strength of language. Or maybe the writing, though promising, seemed dated, something from the ’30s perhaps. In any case, we stress to our readers that if they enjoy a manuscript they should write a note to the author. We want to encourage writers, not make them quit before they even get their careers started. Consequently, we continue to discover and publish many first-time authors.           

I hope this brief overview brings some clarity to the process — and some encouragement as well. We’ve always been open about our manuscript selection process, and hearing about this literary hoax prompts me to remind authors about that process. So that’s a benefit. However, there is a demoralizing aspect to this hoax. I know how much time and effort the staffs of literary magazines put into finding and publishing top-notch writing-often for little or no monetary reward, simply for their love of literature. That dedicated magazine staffs would be the butt of such a hoax seems mean-spirited, or at best, undeserved.