By Sean Bishop
September 11th, 2012
It’s September, which means most American literary journals have lurched back to life after a customary three-month summer bender, and many writers—especially those still tied to an academic calendar—are gearing up for the submissions cycle, too. If you listen carefully at the right hours of night, you can hear the strategic whisperings of young writers dragging poem-filled folders across their MacBook screens, as if hunched over that map of the realm on Game of Thrones, pushing little pewter knights into an imagined fray.
Over the next three to five weeks, having assembled their poems and planned their attacks, most youngish, MFA-pedigreed poets between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-five will submit to anywhere from twenty to eighty literary journals, and many of them will repeat this process in January or February, after the first wave of rejections and acceptances comes back.
These poets aren’t familiar with most of the magazines to which they submit, at least not in any regular-reader sort of way. It’s likely they’ve perused some online content and laid eyes on an issue once or twice, but otherwise they’re guessing and gambling: trying to choose which of their pre-arranged packets to send to which journals, based on their imagination of each journal’s aesthetics and prestige, or based on the imaginations of their immediate peers.
For the younger generation of poets, this is just the nature of po-biz; it’s the way submissions work; it’s what they were born into. A buckshot or cluster-bomb strategy is increasingly necessary for unheard-of poets to get published and noticed in the first place. Yet the more poets adopt the strategy, the more necessary that strategy becomes, and the more it spreads into manuscript and chapbook submissions, as well as the submission practices of essayists and fiction writers: everyone submitting everything they’ve got to every even-vaguely-respectable publisher, all the time.
Maybe it’s the teenaged Marxist inside me rearing his bright Red-Skull-like head, but I have to believe that fundamental changes to the means of production, such as those we’ve seen in the culture of poetry-submissions over the past five-to-ten years, usually translate to revolutionary change in the culture of the producers. Or to put it less nerdily: poetry is going to evolve to survive in a market flooded with white noise. Like any revolution (or to mix my metaphors even further than I have already, like any evolution), some of the changes will be beneficial to poets and editors alike, but just as many will be regrettable. Either way, it’s worth looking into the origins of these changes (albeit unscientifically and anecdotally) and to speculate on what it might mean for the future of poetry.
A Reductive & Geezerly Overview of “The Good Old Days” and Why the Culture of Poetry Submissions Has Changed
By this point in the essay I probably already sound like some kind of naysaying, doom-spewing curmudgeon. So I want to get it out there right now: I’m not. I promise I’m not. I’m actually a part of that younger generation of buckshot submitters. I’m twenty-nine; I strategize; I have a six-tiered list of 160+ journals, organized according to my often-cursory judgment of each’s relative quality and prestige. And when I speak with my peers and students about publishing, I encourage them to strategize in this way, too, and to submit to 30+ journals at once. So bear that in mind while I proceed to imagine an exaggerated, golden yesteryear of poetry submissions I was never actually privy to.
Fifteen years ago there were no online submissions, fewer literary magazines, fewer MFA programs churning out fewer aspiring poets, and most magazines expressly forbade simultaneous submissions. This made for a totally different submissions culture than the one we have right now.
For starters, poets who wanted to make a living in poetry, one way or another, didn’t need to feel quite so competitive. There were fewer of us to compete with, and new MFA programs were popping up all over the country, opening up some new jobs. Granted, it has never been easy to make a living in poetry, but I feel confident in claiming it was easier, at least, fifteen years ago. Since it was much more possible than it is today to secure a junior faculty position with just an MFA (sometimes even in the absence of a book deal), many poets didn’t need to be quite so businesslike about making a name for themselves, getting noticed, or amassing a more impressive list of magazine publications. They could focus more on writing and polishing their poems.
Second on the list of why things have changed: there were fewer literary magazines fifteen years ago. This one is simple enough. We couldn’t have a culture in which the norm is to submit to twenty-to-eighty journals at once back when there weren’t twenty-to-eighty journals the average poet liked or was aware of. The rise of desktop publishing software and digital printing—and now, online publishing—has made it a hell of a lot easier and cheaper to create a new literary journal, and so the marketplace has exploded. Just as importantly, Internet entities like NewPages and Duotrope make it easier for poets to be aware of the breadth of what’s out there; no one is restricted to the magazines they see at the bookstore. The marketplace can accommodate more journals than it could before.
Next: fifteen years back there was a pervasive and violent allergy to simultaneous submissions, among editors. This allergy still exists, here and there; a few reputable journals (I won’t name them) still use almost-violent language to express their hatred for simultaneous submissions. For the most part, of course, this has passed, but one can see how and why it used to be possible and desirable: if poets mostly just submitted to the journals they liked and read with some regularity, then they could afford (and might even want) to send a batch of poems exclusively to a single magazine. In the pre-internet days, this was a necessity: one hiccup in the assembly of an issue could stall its publication for weeks, because the journals relied on the postal service. But this has changed. Even a few of the last, “top-tier” journal holdouts—Poetry being the most recent and notable—have now embraced simultaneous submissions.
And finally, there’s the big game-changer: online submissions. This one’s all about the Benjamins (or mostly about the Benjamins, and a little about response time). Even a poverty-stricken twenty-something can submit to eighty journals at once when he or she doesn’t have to pay the printing and postage for that submission, or put in the envelope-licking time and endure the requisite oral papercuts. Submissions and rejections can now be almost instantaneous, and if it’s free to submit to eighty journals then why the hell not, right? Right.
What’s Good About the Change
The chicken or the egg? It’s hard to distinguish between the benefits of the changes that created this culture of mass-submissions, versus the benefits of mass-submitting itself; they’re so intrinsically tied together. And, ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter much, either way.
The benefits of online submissions are so obvious that they hardly deserve comment: cheaper, faster, easier to track, and more environmentally conscious … enough said. And the ability to submit simultaneously is also a boon, at least to emerging writers and emerging journals; young poets no longer have to guess at their own worth or skill, then choose a journal and cross their fingers. They can simply throw their work into the void and see what sticks. Similarly, newer journals now get a shot at finding and publishing better work, because they don’t necessarily have to wait for poems to trickle down to them after being rejected by the New Yorkers and the Poetrys. This development, alongside the explosion of the literary marketplace, has created a culture of literary diversity and opportunity for which we should all be grateful.
Even young poets’ superficial knowledge of the journals to which they submit is, for the most part, a good thing. Fifteen years ago, poets might have possessed a more in-depth understanding of a smaller number of journals, but it was also more difficult, back then, to possess a sweeping, wide-lens understanding of the marketplace; it was easier to be literarily myopic. With the help of social networking, NewPages, and Duotrope, younger poets possess a more wide-reaching understanding of what’s out there, even if that understanding sometimes lacks detail.
What’s Bad About the Change
Okay, so maybe I am a doom-spewing curmudgeon, or at least a chronic worrier, because I think about the potential negative effects of this shift a lot more than I think about the positives. Some of the fears outlined below might be exaggerated or not-entirely-warranted, but as both an editor and a writer, I’ve at least seen glimmers of five big downsides to the mass-submissions culture in poetry.
1. Feedback Distortion. There are far too many poets trying to make a name for themselves, to get their work read and loved, and this is likely one of the reasons for the factory-like system of mass-submitting adopted by many younger poets. There’s just too much damn noise, and one way many younger poets combat that noise is to make an ample amount of it themselves, to yell over the din. But ultimately, this only adds to the problem; the supper conversation gets louder and louder until nobody can hear anybody else. How this problem will resolve itself remains to be seen. More than likely, submissions culture will embrace the “cloud” technology every IT nerd can’t stop talking about these days; poets will simply upload their work to a central database (which essentially already exists, or could exist, via a service like Submittable), and then “check off” the journals to which they’d be willing to give each poem, should that magazine express interest. This would ease the burden on writers, but would increase labor and competition among editors, or at least make the pre-existing competition among editors more immediate and visible.
2. Overburdened Editors. Editors are already struggling to keep their heads above the flood of submissions this new culture has brought. Many journals have shortened their reading periods in an attempt to ameliorate the problem, but it’s only a partial solution; poets want to get published, and even if magazines limit their reading periods to a single month, soon enough they’ll begin to receive a year’s worth of submissions in that month. Faced with an overwhelming number of submissions, many editors scramble for faster ways of filtering out good work. They begin to select for an issue by scanning their submissions queues for names they recognize, thereby under-privileging emerging poets. At the same time, editors begin to read faster and subject each submission to fewer editorial reviews. When time becomes such an issue, subtlety of phrasing and feeling can go unnoticed in a poem, and “difficult” poetry can be brushed off as arbitrary nonsense; editors have less and less time to give each submission the benefit of the doubt. A “cloud”-based submissions system would only exacerbate this problem.
3. Peacocking Poets. When editors don’t have time for in-depth readings of the poems submitted to them, they are more likely to pay attention to or take notice of superficialities, and therefore to publish more poems that wear their cleverness on their sleeves. In a poetic climate that puts so much stress on publishing, at least some poets are likely to adapt by becoming brasher and flashier in their writing, devoting more time to clever projects or poetic series that might stick in an editor’s mind. To be fair, most editors are keenly aware of this danger, and fight against it by whatever means they can … but when it comes right down to it, even the best intentions can’t make less of too much work. Editors have no choice but to read faster, and therefore less attentively. Poems that make a point of showcasing their own cleverness are not bad per se—they have an important and longstanding place in literature stretching to Catullus and beyond—but I do worry that they might become the majority, at the expense of poets who are pushing the genre in subtler or more complicated and insightful ways.
4. Lazy Revision and Limited Self-Censorship. Fifteen or twenty years ago, submitting one poem to one journal meant making it unavailable to everyone else for at least a month, and often much longer. Submitting, in the first place, constituted a commitment. So poets were more likely to make sure a poem was as good as it could be, as representative of the poet, and as appropriate for and compatible with that magazine as possible before sending it out. Because editors weren’t wading through thousands of submissions at any given time, back then, it paid for a poet to make sure he or she submitted the best work possible. It was likely that editor would remember you, whether you sent good poems or bad, so you’d better send good ones. This culture has changed entirely. Young, relatively unknown poets know that if a poem isn’t up to snuff, an editor will simply brush it off and move on to the next submission. They’ll forget about it. Self-censoring doesn’t really pay off, anymore, and detailed revision isn’t as necessary as it used to be. What’s more important is having as many halfway decent poems at as many magazines as possible, and the better poems will stick while the lesser poems will be forgotten. This doesn’t necessarily mean shittier poems will be published, but it does imply that the mass-submissions culture might make poets less self-critical and less questioning of the kinds of poets they want to be. And less self-awareness is almost always a bad thing.
5. Over-Production. This is the last negative effect I’ll mention. For the same reason that a mass-submissions culture does not sufficiently value self-censorship, revision, and introspection on the part of a poet, it also encourages over-production. Mass submission rewards those who send the largest number of poems to the largest number of journals, so the most successful poets (in terms of publishing success) are those who crank out the most work. Individuals who publish the most books effectively own a larger portion of the white noise and are therefore more likely to achieve notoriety or at least a secure job in the poetry world. We all know poets like this already, who seem to churn out a new book every year and a half, whose names everybody knows, and whom most people respect but few people truly love. One gets the impression that if one squeezed together the best poems from their last three collections, one would have a single, very notable collection.
In a culture of mass-submissions, I’m afraid this trend will only become more common. That’s just the nature of the beast. Mass-submission culture is tied to some truly wonderful developments that have increased the publishing opportunities for poets, and the diversity of poetic work available. But it will come at a cost. Submitting a poem is no longer like shooting a single, silver bullet you cast by hand, in a cathedral’s furnace, while the wolves howled outside. Instead, it’s more like launching a hundred ill-formed pellets from a double-barrel gun, knowing one or two of them will hit the mark.
Sean Bishop (@SB_Bishop) teaches in the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin. He is the founding editor of Better: Culture & Lit and the former managing editor of Gulf Coast. His poems have appeared in AQR, Best New Poets, Boston Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Salt Hill, and elsewhere.