Dispatches | May 27, 2010

Thanks to everyone who commented or sent an email about my post last week about The Missouri Review‘s submission process and how to interpret (or not) our rejection letters.  A few writers sent me a follow up question (or two) or posted a comment about what I wrote.  You can find some of this good stuff on our Facebook page.  My hope in blogging about our process is to give everyone a better sense of what we do, acknowledge that we sometimes screw up and/or miss things, and continue to let our audience (readers, writers, bloggers, and rabble-rousers) see our process.  There are a couple of things that I wanted to follow up on based on the responses I received.

If you haven’t heard from us in six months, please contact us and ask, What’s going on?  We do our best to respond in twelve weeks, but that doesn’t always happens (some of you are now nodding vigorously).  So if you sent us something in 2009, don’t keep waiting: send us an email at question@missourireview.com and find out where your manuscript is with our staff.  You don’t want to end up like this guy did.

Another comment mentioned how literary journals will often publish people they know, and specifically, publish writers that are graduates of prestigious MFA programs. It was said in passing and didn’t strike me as a dig at us, or really anyone else, but there was something there that I wanted to address.

As for the questions surrounding the use, worth and quality of MFA programs, there has already been plenty written about what is right or wrong about MFA programs and the quality of the books published by those graduates. So, for now, let’s not add to that conversation. Instead, I’ll address what is specific to The Missouri Review. We don’t have any preference about where someone has earned his or her MFA; in fact, this doesn’t make any difference to us at all. We have never had a discussion about publishing a group of poems where the conversation turns on the remark “But she graduated from Iowa!”  It’s wholly irrelevant to us.  If you take a look at where our authors went to school, however, I’m sure there will be plenty of graduates from Iowa, Stanford, Columbia, NYU, Syracuse, and other outstanding MFA programs.

But that’s because those schools accept and educate good writers.  Those programs have also been around considerably longer (the explosion of MFA programs is mostly in the last 20 years) than all the rest. For every terrific, well-known author that comes out of Iowa, my guess is that there are five others from the same graduating class that you have never heard of.  Does the Famous MFA Program name open doors?  I’m sure it does.  Does it matter here?  No, not at all.

So, then, what about that cover letter?  What should be put in a cover letter, and does it matter?  The answer to this question varies just as much as the aesthetic of individual journals. I know editors that don’t read cover letters at all. Other editors read the cover letter first. Don’t put too much thought into this. My personal feeling is that cover letters are like suits to a job interview: it won’t get you the job, but you should wear a good suit. Include a cover letter. Nothing to say? Keep it simple: “Enclosed is my story ‘I Love Bon-Bons.’ Thanks for reading my work.”  That’ll do just fine. Really!

It will always come down to the quality of the writing, regardless of where (if anywhere) the writer earned an MFA.  Just create the best writing you can. What’s in the cover letter doesn’t matter, but what’s in your manuscript does.