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“I can’t enumerate all the ways in which this is horrible.”


PUBLISHED: April 29, 2008

Our readers aren’t selected for their timidity; they can be brutal in their assessments of submissions. When they decline a work, they’re able to put it into a category that describes why they’re recommending that it be declined. In addition to the already-described “Inappropriate for VQR” category, there are others, including “Bad” and “Terrible.” Since I often get a laugh out of reading through some of the notes that our beleaguered readers provide for these particularly unfortunate submissions, it seems worthwhile to share them. Here are some of my favorites:

Comments removed. See this post for details

Of course, our readers have written thousands of reviews that are in-depth, reasoned, considerate, and polite. But they aren’t funny, so you won’t read them here.

05/02 Update: Read our followup, a combination mea culpa and collection of glowing reviews by readers.

05/05 Update: Ted Genoways, our editor, offers his thoughts and an apology.

* Identifying details have been changed to protect the innocent. Except for Faulkner. He can handle it.

20 Comments

Rob Ehle's picture
Rob Ehle · 12 years ago
At least these didn’t go to the submitters. (Did they? Oh, please no. Even terrible writers deserve mercy. Especially terrible writers … as long as they are never published. Not that much mercy.) A legendary editor in chief at my university press once began a letter to a particularly persistent and annoying author, “Dear _____, News of your continued good health gave us all quite a shock.”
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
At least these didn’t go to the submitters. (Did they? Oh, please no. Even terrible writers deserve mercy. Especially terrible writers … as long as they are never published. Not that much mercy.)
Oh, no, certainly not. Readers’ comments do routinely find their way into the comments sent to authors, they’re presented in a considerably kinder light. :) “This essay is the kind that gives philosophy a bad name” turns into “perhaps you’d have better luck placing this with a publication within your field.” And “Planet of the Apes fan-fiction! Have we no standards?” might become “we encourage you to read a few issues of VQR to get a better sense for the sort of work that we publish.” The goal here, after all, is to a) find good work for VQR and b) to help these writers find a market for their work, whether it’s ultimately VQR or some other place right now. Even the best writers produce lousy work sometimes, and even lousy writers can create something brilliant, even if just once.
A legendary editor in chief at my university press once began a letter to a particularly persistent and annoying author, “Dear _____, News of your continued good health gave us all quite a shock.”
I hope somebody, somewhere, has a collection of the best snarky comments produced by editors, literary agents, readers, etc. That could make for some pretty good reading.
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Jilly's picture
what’s the matter with prose poems?
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
what’s the matter with prose poems?
VQR has no opposition to prose poems (our editor being a noted Whitman scholar). Apparently, one of our readers just doesn’t like ‘em.
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Jennifer Rice Epstein's picture
Jennifer Rice E... · 12 years ago
As a writer, it feels pretty bad to think about all of the ways a work might be disparaged or joked about within the offices of VQR, and even worse to think that such comments might be made public for the amusement of your online readers. I understand that a candid assessment of each submission is key when running a magazine as respected and competitive as yours. Quality is a hallmark of VQR; this is why it is the first stop for many writers’ finest stories and poems. There is an understanding that you will have neither the room nor the inclination to publish most of what you receive. But it’s rather humiliating, within two weeks of having a story rejected, to visit your blog and glimpse what readers may have said about my own best efforts. If the quality of submissions will continue to be discussed on your site, I do hope future posts will be more constructive than this.
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Wistar Watts Murray's picture
I understand your complaint, but where is your sense of schadenfreude? Negative reviews are sometimes the most amusing to read, and the VQR was careful not to implicate specific authors. Besides, even Faulkner had bad days - we can all benefit from occasionally making fun of ourselves and our worst writing efforts. As a recipient of many diplomatically-worded rejection letters from lit journals, it’s refreshing to read the VQR’s frank reactions to ill-fated submissions. Writers must grow thick skins if they want to survive in this mean business. And readers should call writers on terrible writing. If writers are determined, they’ll keep honing their craft until no one can enumerate a single way in which their work is horrible. Maybe I authored that “barf-o” poem, but I’m grateful the critical reading was limited to the VQR staff, and didn’t extend to all Review subscribers. The way I look at it, the VQR staff probably saved us from a greater, public embarrassment by mocking our work at the office. If they really had it in for writers, they’d devote one issue a year to terrible submissions. In that case, no names would be changed to protect the innocent authors. And the issue would probably sell out. Let’s count our blessings.
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Lee's picture
Lee · 12 years ago
Having read this post the other day, I’ve been sitting on something that struck me immediately, but that Wistar’s comment has inspired me to say. I’m sorry, Waldo, but this post was hugely disappointing. I’m not at all sure what the point is of airing these personal and, despite anonymity, embarrassing notes. In this case, it’s only schadenfreude because we, the knowing ones, can mock the unknown mercilessly. Nobody read this and then thanked a publication for previous rejections. In “Bad Submissions: The X Factor” and “Solving for X” there was open acknowledgment that VQR receives misfired submissions, but the posts themselves shed a lot of light on the process of sorting out what that might mean. If, going by the data of “Solving for X” you can call out 4.6% of submissions as just plain wrong for VQR, then we’re to assume that those submissions could be identified pretty easily (by, say, a simple “not for us”). That leaves the remaining 95.4%, a perfectly astounding number of supposedly worthy submissions. From here, one can go back to the posts on titles and “Vital Cliches” for even more statistics about why those pieces may have been rejected. These posts represent the kinds of very interesting, analytical data that reflects the attitude and content of the journal itself. These comments, on the other hand, show a gleeful mercilessness and implicitly congratulates the reader who can deliver the hammer with the most snark. As a subscriber to VQR and a daily reader of this blog, I am sorely disappointed to see a post that delivers an easy punchline with such a low blow.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
What I’m curious about, Jennifer/Lee, is your existing assumptions about readers at publications. (If I may assume that you’ve never read a slush pile.) In your mind, is it a noble and joyous pursuit in which submissions are treated reverently, no matter how objectively awful some of them may be? Or is it a given to you that some submissions are just really, really bad, and readers are going to want to vent about how awful they are, but much like the manufacturing of sausage, it’s a process that you’d rather turn a blind eye to? It’s the nature of your objection that I’m looking to determine. Is it the fact that readers are sometimes annoyed at having to read terrible writing, or is it our transparency – our acknowledgement of that fact – that’s upsetting to you? And – further to your comment, Jennifer – rest assured that these sorts of submissions are coming from the sort of people who do not read VQR’s blog. They do not read VQR. I suspect many don’t even know what VQR is, despite having submitted to us, so utterly inappropriate and bizarrely bad these submissions are. We’re on track to receive 10,400 submissions this year. It’s a fact that some of them are going to be beastly. I’d love to post excerpts of a few here, which I imagine would make things pretty clear, but that would be totally inappropriate.
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Brendan Wolfe's picture
With all due respect, Waldo & Wistar, I feel like you guys miss the point. Nobody’s arguing that you get a crapload of crappy submissions. So what? Everybody does. The point – and I think it’s a reasonable one – is that it serves no one to publicly mock the people who submit to your publication. (Mock them privately all you want. Whatever keeps you sane.) It’s not a question of whether they are identified in some way or whether they even read the blog. It’s a question of respect. And it just makes you look bad. You’re receiving national magazine awards even as I write this – you should be above that kind of stuff.
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Wistar's picture
This is why I should avoid blog comment fights. Eventually someone out-argues me and then I feel sheepish. I guess I thought that the entertainment value of the post compensated for its amount of disrespect. I like reading criticism, but I also understand that maybe the harsher, more heart-breaking stuff is better said behind closed doors. Remember that we’re talking about an office environment [one day I will visit this office] where reviewers are trying to outdo each other and make each other laugh with their comments. I read the post as a study in amusing, pithy criticism and not much more.
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Elizabeth McCullough's picture
I linked to this post on my site, and the feedback I got from some of my friends was that knowing the readers were making these kinds of comments made them feel very uncomfortable. There’s just so much anxiety about the submission process, and while I agree with Wistar about growing a thick skin, not everybody is equally thickened. I think Lee argues well – a certain kind of objective information is helpful to the VQR reader and potential contributor. I’m all for more transparency in this process, but there’s such a thing as too much (of the wrong kind of) information.
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Michael Gushue's picture
And what am I to do with this pile of Beauty and the Beast fan fiction I was going to submit? I ask you, what?
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Rob Ehle's picture
Rob Ehle · 12 years ago
There is absolutely no reason VQR should be ashamed of posting readers’ reactions to bad writing. I don’t even think it would be wrong to post some of the really bad writing, frankly, and laughing or groaning our fool heads off. The New Yorker has been posting odd malapropisms from newspapers around the country for decades, we’ve all been laughing at them, and I’ve heard no one complaining about it “not being nice.” Good heavens, take a look at the Darwin Awards, given annually to the stupidest mode of dying. There is definitely call in this world for mockery. I do think the powerful should take more heat than us lesser morons, but keeping the submitters’ identities anonymous absolutely made up for that. If a reader’s first thought on reading this blog is, “What are they saying about my own submission,” that reader needs to find something better to do with their time, frankly, and stop reading things always with a view to what it means about their chances in the literary marketplace. Read because you damn well like to read. If you’re only reading a magazine to scope out the field, you need to quit reading and go into business. What if a person gets a novel published someday and, heaven forfend, s/he gets a cutting review? We’re not talking about a seven-year-old doing their first tap dance in front of the school. Okay, Rob. Take a breath. Go walk around awhile.
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Mike's picture
Mike · 12 years ago
I can appreciate how funny this is – and, having read for a journal before, how terrible submissions can be. But that aside, the implicit level of self-ascribed superiority in this entry is a little tough to swallow, as is the intellectual bullyness of it. Further, by quoting several pieces you create the possibility of at least one author coming across their own work as critiqued in this terrible, terrible way. I know there’s a lot of bad writing in the world, but it is never a bad thing that people are writing, and submitting, and caring about literary journals. In an era where journals are folding and fiction/poetry seems increasingly unvalued (not sure if that’s a word), it seems also unneccessary to essentially crap on the people who do still care about it. Oh – and then take pictures of yourselves crapping on the people who do still care about it. And then blog about the pictures you took of yourselves crapping on people so you can point out how awesome you look while crapping.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
Further, by quoting several pieces you create the possibility of at least one author coming across their own work as critiqued in this terrible, terrible way.
As I wrote in the blog entry: “Identifying details have been changed to protect the innocent.” Nobody could recognize their own works here.
I know there’s a lot of bad writing in the world, but it is never a bad thing that people are writing, and submitting, and caring about literary journals.
This is a good point.
the implicit level of self-ascribed superiority in this entry is a little tough to swallow
So, if I understand you, you believe that there’s no such thing as bad writing – that no work is superior to other work, and nobody can claim that to be true? I just want to make sure we’re on the same page here. It’s really startling, the contrast between folks who hold opposite views here. That so many people can look at something so simple and come to two wholly separate conclusions is a pretty interesting phenomenon.
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Brendan Wolfe's picture
I’m not sure what’s so interesting about people disagreeing. People disagree about simple, straightforward stuff all the time. That’s the EASIEST stuff to disagree about! To Rob’s point, there is a big difference between the New Yorker printing – and implicitly mocking – bad turns of phrase from newspapers and VQR explicitly mocking its contributors. For one, newspaper writing is public. It is the product of professionals who are then judged by that product. And the New Yorker has no relationship with those papers and does not owe them anything or depend upon them for anything. It certainly doesn’t exist because of them. The writing of contributors, on the other hand, is not public and the judgment you render ought (I think) to be confidential. This is out of respect for contributors, who take the time to send you their writing, and this is out of respect for VQR as an institution. You depend on contributors for your livelihood. Why do you think it’s cool to publicly mock them? Or perhaps you think it’s only okay to mock the ones who really, really suck. I think it’s bad form. Mock one, you mock them all. And you make yourselves look really petty. (That you then printed positive comments completely misses the point, by the way. Of course readers say awful things about awful writing and great things about great writing. That goes without saying. That’s their job. But it doesn’t “even the scales” and somehow make right the fact that you ridiculed your contributors on your blog.) Another point, Waldo: Mike was not saying (if I read him correctly) that there is no bad writing. To the contrary, he was saying that it serves no purpose for VQR to publicly mock the bad writing it receives and rejects. By doing so, it is mocking the very impulse to write and submit. I suppose I come off as a little earnest and humorless here. But I’ve been an editor for a long time, and I take seriously the responsibility that editors have to their writers, even to the ones they don’t print. This blog post was hardly a cardinal sin, but Waldo, you don’t seem willing to acknowledge that anything might possibly be amiss here. That’s what I find so interesting.
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mike's picture
mike · 12 years ago
I was absolutely not saying there is no difference between good and bad writing – as I said, I read for a journal for a few years, and of COURSE I understand the cruel humor that comes out of facing enormous slush piles, reasonably arrogant query letters, and the exhaustion that follows the need to read…and read…and read all those stories. And I did find myself in the unhealthy position of really resenting the stories, and the writers, when I would read something that just plain wasn’t “good”. One of the reasons I stopped was it felt weird to me to resent the thing I was (in the best version of the world, anyway) hoping to celebrate. Especially when I myself was receiving rejection after rejection of my own work. But what feels unfair to me is the want to advertise the coolness of your editorial staff through their cruel putdowns – in a way, it’s an implicit gesture saying, “We’re so good that even our PUTDOWNS are worth more than what these poor bastards write.” I mean: you publish (in one form or another) the witty barbs….so in your eyes, those barbs – in their cruelty, in their hyperbole – have a kind of merit that these writers do not. And maybe the one-liners are better written than the stories you read – it is still a strange practice to celebrate the work of your editorial staff triumphing over, say, literary mediocrity. Anyway, I don’t want to belabor this any more than I already have. It just seems unnecessarily mean spirited and self-aggrandizing for no purpose beyond a celebration of self.
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Alyson's picture
Alyson · 12 years ago
Now I’m annoyed that I can’t read all of them. People are much too sensitive. This reminds me of the early episodes on each season of American Idol when some poor fool who CANNOT sing gets upset with Simon because Simon tells him HE CAN’T SING. Someone’s gotta do it. Imagine if he didn’t. Imagine - an entire world of that Hung guy. Horrible singers EVERYWHERE, even better, horrible singers who THINK THAT THEY’RE GOOD. Argh. I vote to send the snarky replies to the authors.
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Elisa's picture
Mike: “I know there’s a lot of bad writing in the world, but it is never a bad thing that people are writing, and submitting, and caring about literary journals. In an era where journals are folding and fiction/poetry seems increasingly unvalued (not sure if that’s a word), it seems also unneccessary to essentially crap on the people who do still care about it.” I’m not sure I agree that this is a good point. Journals are not folding because of a lack of submissions. Not remotely. It’s because of a lack of subscribers or other source of funding. I too read for a literary journal (Ploughshares) and we get many submissions from writers who clearly know nothing about the journal other than that it exists. There are far better ways to support journals than submitting to them.
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