There are voices, stories, and styles I am drawn to as both reader and editor, yet rarely come across in the pages of literary magazines or stacks of submissions. These are also the voices, stories, and styles that I feel belong in my classroom, no matter whether I am teaching creative writing or composition, literature or gender studies. I also have difficulty publishing these kinds of pieces as a writer, my overtly female reflections and forms collectively passed over, while linear, more traditional pieces have greater success. I join many readers and writers in wondering why these narratives are ignored in favor of others, what causes the disconnect, and how many voices are overshadowed or silenced.
For the past few years I have been fortunate enough to work with VIDA, a group whose mission—among many other things—is to manually tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews. (Learn more directly from VIDA about their ambituous project.) VIDA brings together a diverse group of people to examine race and ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, and ability in literary publishing, and the results reveal what is often unnoticed or ignored. Holding editors, journals, and publishers accountable opens up an important dialogue about silence and representation, something useful for both seasoned and student readers and writers.
Keep up with VIDA's current data and check out VIDA's exclusives for additional content from scholars, writers, and editors. We're always looking to include more voices in the conversation, so be sure to contact me me if you’re interested in pitching a piece.
Working the VIDA table at AWP 2017
I sat down with Joey De Jesus from Apogee, Steven Church from The Normal School, and Jen Palmares Meadows from Split Lip Magazine to discuss how VIDA's mission influences our editing practices, including everything from open submissions and solicitation, to themed issues and tokenization. Check out an excerpt below and be sure to read the full conversation.
Sarah Fawn: I’d like to turn our attention to the ways magazines locate the pieces they publish, either from writers sending their work in or editors reaching out to particular writers. If we rely on “the slush pile” for the majority of our submissions, how can we enact larger social and political goals? How does this fit in with the practicality of reading hundreds and sometimes thousands of submissions? What are your thoughts on soliciting certain writers, voices, and perspectives as a way to increase representation in literary magazines? And if you use soliciting in this way, can you say more about your goals and practices, or even the challenges you’ve faced while doing so?
Joey: Low-key yikes to the term “slush pile”; it’s a phrase that Muriel Leung and I have agreed to not use in reference to the work we encounter through Apogee Journal. We just find it so disrespectful. The poets who’ve chosen to share their work with Apogee do so to contribute to our mission. Slush is the sudden splash of nasty icy pigeon crap water stepped in on a miserable day in late January. We don’t use the word “slush” to characterize the efforts of our community members.
These questions raise a conversation about rhetoric that we’ve been having behind the scenes at Apogee over the past few months, certainly one that I’d love to have with you all. I believe the toxic rhetoric with which we talk about the work of writers is the normalized consequence of elitism and the white-male dominance that pervades literary history. The “emerging” writer, “your submission—,” click “Submit,” “Submit now/here”—capitulation. capitalization. capitalism. slush. This rhetoric sucks. I reject acceptance.
“Submission” is spectered by dominance; the writer’s prostration before the literary institution, journal and/or gatekeeper embeds itself in the word. What is a literary journal if not for its contributors, community and readership? The writer shouldn’t have to “submit” to us. Who are we if not an attempt at providing a service for our own community and marginalized communities throughout? We celebrate the intellectual tenacity of those who choose to share work with us and are grateful for their continued commitment to our collective mission, which is bigger than us all.
Regarding solicitation: I don’t solicit writers to ensure our issues reflect a range of identities because we’ve worked to make clear to our readership and the literary community at-large that our commitment is toward spotlighting voices marginalized by mainstream, academic, alt- (etc…) literary scenes—the writers who share work with us reflect a range of identities. When I solicit work from a writer it is because I want to curate and celebrate the writer’s work. The writer’s identity does not cross my mind unless it is the subject of her work. I would say a quarter of the poetry is solicited for Apogee’s issue 7, and less than a quarter of issue 8 will feature solicited poems.
Solicitation can be weaponized and wielded for evil. Tokenization, that murk, when an editor includes an “othered” writer for the sake of staving off criticism… or regards a writer of the margin to be some sort of paragon of their alien people. It’s mad annoying when an editor turns to the same handful of writers as every other journal to satisfy their anxiety about quotas. It’s like, we’re trying to shift the epicenter beneath the institutions that surround poetry the craft, not showcase the same elite, tokenized cohorts. This is a consequence of literary merit… You know, like editors who are wise and woke don’t turn to the same individuals who’ve been vetted by prestigious institutions. The ones who do, however, ask the tokens to do contests, who in turn prime the next cohort for tokenization, thereby perpetuating the falsehood.*sips*
Sarah Fawn: I have to agree with Joey on the importance of interrogating the rhetoric of editing along with our practices. More than once I’ve seen writers wince at the phrase “slush pile” while listening to editors talk about their practices during conference panels, and it seems other established editing terms contribute to this concept of gatekeeping.
Joey: Within my lifetime this rhetoric will have been dismantled, and in the future, will be popularly recognized as a device of the old masters.
Steven: Hi, Steven here again . . . Certainly navigating piles of submissions is a challenge regardless of the social or political mission of a magazine. I guess we’ve tried to see the challenge as one in expanding our consciousness, awareness, and appreciation for a diversity of styles, forms, and subjects. For me the magazine is as much a teaching tool as it is anything else, and I take the educational component of the class seriously. The challenge, then, is for all of us to be better readers and fans of writing, to look at our (admittedly quite large) slush pile as a place of opportunity, a resource that allows the student readers to shape the identity of the magazine. Thus a challenge to solicit a writer also becomes a challenge to read more first, to appreciate the work itself, and to reach out and make a personal connection. In the fall semester, I required all the students working on the magazine to find a writer to solicit, and many of them sought out writers I’ve never heard of before, bringing new and exciting voices to the magazine. But some seemed to fall back on the “famous” or canonical writers of color, many of them the students’ literary heroes. And while I think writing to one of your heroes is good practice, and I would be super happy to get a chance to consider work by many of these writers, I guess I feel like are many many other writers of color and women out there who aren’t established or famous and who deserve a chance. The challenge has been getting students to subscribe to literary magazines, to read online, and to actively seek out these new and diverse voices. We also do, in the class, a regular “study” of other literary magazines in an effort to find some of these voices as well as to see how other magazines like Huizache or Guernica are approaching these issues. We try to learn from our peers and stay adaptable and responsive; and the magazine will, I hope, continue to be reflective of our very diverse student body here at Fresno State as well as of the larger literary community.
Sarah Fawn: I think of the work I do as creating larger conversations between the nonfiction voices in a single issue, over the course of a year, in connection with the conversations started long before I assumed my position and those that will continue long after I leave. This means that I am careful to select not only work that makes me react—cry, laugh, clench my fists in anger, want to find more from the writer or about the topic—but also work that is fresh. I do not want to publish the same voices time and again. I do not want to publish reiterations of other great essays. I do not want to rehash tired conversations. I want to excite and incite our readers. I want the work to give them pause and keep them up at night. This is where it becomes important to consider not just the merit of the work, but where it comes from.
There does seem to be a tendency to turn to the same voices time and again, and this is something journals need to recognize—the importance of, as Steven describes, being “adaptable and responsive.” And Joey mentions the tokenization that occurs when magazines turn to particular voices to fill in gaps or prevent criticism. I see this time and again from magazines publishing work from writers with illnesses and disabilities, writers with unique and urgent stories, yet whose work seems to be included because it follows certain narratives that are comfortable and accessible to able-bodied readers, narratives that do not threaten their positions. This is why the masthead and mission statement are so vital, why reading the submissions queue carefully and reaching out to writers to let them know you value their work and would like to see more of it become essential to the editorial process.
Jen: Jen, again. I like what Steve said. Editors and readers should push themselves to “see the challenge as one in expanding our consciousness, awareness, and appreciation for a diversity of styles, forms, and subjects.” So, when excellent writing from a differing voice appears in the queue (perhaps it’s weird, unexpected, maybe the writer uses language unexpectedly, maybe English is not their primary language, maybe at first, I didn’t get it, maybe it tilted me upside down and shook me out) I am hopefully primed to sift the gold from the pyrite, ready to recognize its merit, its necessity, its excellence.
Soliciting work can be a great way to increase representation. We’re a small press, and we’re always working to get submissions. Because we’re small, we can’t rely on the submission queue alone to find work—it’s just not varied enough. I’m not sure what it’s like for some of the larger publications. When I solicit a writer, it’s because I think they’re talented and want to help showcase their work. Solicitation is particularly important if it gives space to a perspective that has been overlooked or silenced. But solicitation is not the end all solution to inclusion in our publications, particularly if editors often belong to a homogenous group: white, college educated, middle/upper-class. Solicitation by a select group can be incestuous and exclusionary, gathering the same kinds of stories, the same writers, the same schools of thought, etc. Sorry, it is impossible for a single group (or a homogenous masthead) to be the authority (or hold a monopoly) on quality and talent. That’s why it’s important to 1) approach the slush with an open and inclusive intent and 2) diversify your masthead. I encourage marginalized writers to get on a masthead if you can. Time and energy is a lot to ask, I know, particularly when it is likely unpaid, but it puts you in a position (if you can attain such a position, not all doors are open to us) to demand inclusivity and intersectionality from the inside out. Bring your own experiences and your own network of writers to the party. Solicit work. Mentor writers. And if you already work with a journal, take a look at your masthead. Is your staff homogenous? Why? How might that affect the choices you make as a staff and what you publish? Are your editors and readers schooled in critical thinking, feminist studies, queer studies, post colonialism, multiculturalism? Are they open to experimentation, to writing from unexpected perspectives, writing that celebrates differing values and opinions? If your staff does include marginalized voices, are you listening?
As for the term ‘slush pile,’ I’ve always thought it apt. As someone sending her own writing out, I know slush is exactly what it feels like, trying to claw your way up out of obscurity into something. A ‘submission pool’ is too gentle, a ‘submission cache’ is too grand. It can be a messy process, and someone’s always left in the cold. Perhaps, submission queue is best. While I haven’t put much thought into the language of literary gatekeeping, I’m glad people, editors, in particular, are talking about it.