Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence



"Thirty Cents A Copy"

There are lies we writers have to tell ourselves to keep on going. The beauty about these lies is that they are not complete lies. They are like the television evangelist with a viewership of five million people who gets a "word of knowledge" that there is someone out there, a man, even, who has a headache. Not any ordinary headache, but one that's been bothering him for days. Of course there is such a man, and that man is sitting there flabbergasted that here he is, in rural Idaho, alone, having not spoken to anyone but God for three days while nursing this monumental headache, and this televangelist in North Carolina, has spoken a word of faith, so specific it is astounding. Well, is it a lie? The Idaho man falls to his knees, prays the prayer of healing, his faith bolstered by this miracle, and he is healed. Well, for the sick man the "word of knowledge" is miraculous, authentic. Is it the same for the evangelist? The cynic would say, well, that was easy enough. What are the chances that someone of his five million viewers will have a headache right now? The chances are so great that a doubtful person cannot be fairly called a cynic. Thing is, this kind of thing is only a kind of deception. Thing is, this kind of deception is sometimes necessary and might even work. Thing is, this kind of deception can be dangerous, too.

So here's a good and useful lie:

When a poem or a story is rejected, it's because:

The editor has just had a horrible fight with his wife and is in a terrible mood, and so when he sees your brilliant poem, he, purely out of spite, anger and hurt, roundly rejects your brilliant work. Give him a day, a night of make up sex, and you will be published hands down. But today, everybody is going to be rejected because editors are human beings first and professionals second, and when they are broken hearted, they lose all critical judgement, so much so that they start to imagine that they will get some satisfaction from sending an impersonal note to a complete stranger saying, I don't think this is for us. Of course, they will spend the time reading the story, all of it, after which, seething with anger at their wives, they will reject the piece. To think that so many wives and husbands around the country are really creating serious havoc with the canon may seem absurd, but not so, not so at all.

The premise of this idea is that our work is really good. So if our work is rejected, it is not the fault of the work at all, but the fault of the editor’s spouse. Of course, if the work is accepted it is because the marriages of editors are intact.

Here is the thing. It could happen. It could. Maybe out there somewhere, in a small university town in Idaho, a disgruntled wife arrives at her job as an editor, having been pissed off at her idiot husband, is cutting a bloody swath through piles of poems, essays and stories--brilliant ones, all of them--and rejecting them violently, angrily, viciously, and, of course, unfairly. Maybe it is happening now as we speak, but can we really say that this is the norm?

Look, it works for us. It keeps us going. We send the work out again knowing that somewhere marital bliss will ensure the preservation of our genius. Remarkably, even when the recurrence of this phenomenon begins to alarm us at the horrendous state of marriages among editors of literary journals and presses, for some strange reason, we never come to question it.

The truth is nowhere close to this. Most work is rejected for trickier reasons. Some decisions are subjective--and by that, I mean they are specific to the discourse, experience, exposure and literary tastes of the readers and editors. Some are caused by carelessness and laziness on the part of the readers and editors. Distracted reading (the spouse?), unfocused reading, uninformed reading, too quick conclusions, etc. Some reasons have to do with the need to protect ignorance: I don't know about it so by saying it is not good, I don't have to know about it, and so on. Some decisions are plain old bad judgment. All editors would admit that there is always one that we think we missed. But the vast majority of the decisions are not complicated. Most are clear cut because most writers don't think enough about where we are sending our work. And, quite frankly, there’s always less work that reveals a fresh and accomplished writing voice than there is work that does.

I will never discourage the lies--especially when they are more myths than lies. They have their uses. If it makes us continue writing to be convinced that we are too experimental for most editors, or our work is far too deep for most editors, or that our ideas are far too radical and dangerous for editors, or that our work scares the editors to death, that is good. However, I would suggest that we simply keep these myths to ourselves. That we let them do their secret work for us.

Kwame Dawes