A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Why Only Three Readers?

I was talking with a colleague recently, a fiction editor for a well-known journal based in the eastern part of the country, and she mentioned the frustration of having to rely on first and second readers to go through submissions, before any of the stories got to her desk.

It’s a necessary situation for many journals, made so by the number of submissions, or the need to train students or interns. But as with many solutions, reading tiers leads to a new set of problems. As my friend explained, the editor’s aesthetic is never fully represented in such a system. She lamented that she may never get to see a piece that would have blown her away, because the first or second reader has a different perspective, born of different experience. I empathize with the editor, but especially with the writers. How many of us feel our work never makes it to the decision maker because it never gets past a less experienced reader?

This process is something akin to the way corporations make decisions about products and how to market them—they use teams of creatives and focus groups to develop an approach that is theoretically both exciting to recipients, yet palatable to the greatest number of people: a difficult, if not oxymoronic, task.

While I’d never say that literary journals operate like corporations, there do seem to be drawbacks to the “layers of readers” approach, particularly in the loss of potentially challenging, innovative or just plain different pieces that are passed on in those first rounds.

When Kelly and I began planning TLR many months ago, one of the first decisions we agreed on was to handle all the reading ourselves. It wasn’t because we didn’t trust the people who might be our readers, but because we believe we owe it to our submitters to have every piece reviewed by the people who make the final call on what gets published. Our nonfiction editor, Yi Shun, agrees. The three of us understand that the extra work involved in handling all the reading gives us the ability to take the chances that early readers might not. It secures our editorial vision.