It’s been a month since I started offering the option for feedback for fiction and flash fiction submissions. It’s been a fascinating, if demanding, experience. About 95% of submitters have opted to receive comments, so I’ve been busier than usual reading and contemplating. But it’s been worth it because I’ve learned a great deal.
I’ve always read several pages of every story before making a choice to either read on or politely decline, but the Feedback Option has encouraged me to take a more focused look at how not only I, but also how journals in general assess submissions.
Typically, when editors and readers dive into the slush pile, they go in with a paradoxical mindset. They are hopeful that the next document they open will be a great story, essay or poem that will make it into their journal, but at the same time they are looking for any reason to reject it. Is it a cautious optimism or latent jadedness? For a journal that receives, say, a thousand submissions per reading period, there’s a utilitarian logic to that approach. There has to be an expedient way to get through the mountain of submissions.
But it also means a story may be subject to criteria that have nothing to do with craft. As Michael Griffith, the Fiction Editor at The Cincinnati Review, said in a recent interview with Fiction Southeast: “There are so many nearly arbitrary factors that can affect whether a story gets accepted: Who read it, and on what day, and in what mood, and in what light, and amid what set of domestic crises or constellation of everyday griefs and worries?” His comments echo what I’ve read from many editors at lit journals.
With all due respect, that seems rather capricious, and not as focused on the quality of the literature as most submitters would like to believe. What writer, having spent several weeks or months crafting a short story, deserves such snap judgment? After reading further into so many pieces, and finding so many potentially good ones, I’ve realized the decision to reject too quickly, too arbitrarily, hurts not only authors, but literature in general.
That’s where the Feedback Option has proven so helpful not just to our submitters, but to me as reader and editor. Writing comments, even if it’s just a few words, forces me to pay close attention to the writing, to push those arbitrary factors aside before making a decision and sharing my thoughts with the submitter. It makes me more accountable. And it’s made a positive difference in which stories I select to move onto a higher round of reading.
In fact, I’ve noticed that even most of the story fails get markedly better as they go on—many have issues with backstory and explanation in the first couple of pages, and I’ve tried to point these and similar flaws out to submitters in my critiques. If those comments help a writer publish the story, even in another journal, I feel I’ve done something in the spirit of literary citizenship.
So I am happy to continue the Feedback Option as we move forward. (It’s no extra charge, btw.) Keep those fiction and flash fiction submissions coming in, and for those of you who would like the editor’s take on your efforts, I’ll continue to do my best to provide honest, constructive feedback.