I Read the Submissions Queue for a Literary Journal
Over the last four years I have evaluated more than one thousand short stories.
Gaining the recommendation of a frontline reader can be tricky. Yes, there is the truly boffo story that any reader will recognize as sterling, even if they read it after drinking a bad batch of kombucha or while solo parenting twin toddlers (actual circumstances under which submissions have been evaluated, though not by me), but such submissions are unicorns—rare if not mythical. Then there is the large tranche of stories that most readers, under most circumstances, will decline. At the journal I read for, that leaves very roughly a quarter or so of all submissions that might reasonably find support among frontline readers, or just as reasonably not find such support.
So what is a frontline reader looking for? A story they would like to see in the journal, a story that will impress (or at least not annoy) the editor, one that is not only “good” but also a good fit with the journal. As has often been pointed out, journals really do want to find great stories. I root for every submission to be amazing. Or, if not amazing, I root for it to be clearly wrong for the journal, because figuring out what to do with “in-between” submissions can be murder.
The question of what makes for an amazing story is one taken up by no small number of articles, books, podcasts, workshops, conferences, MFA programs, etc. Here, I will highlight only one aspect of craft, one that I believe usually looms large when a frontline reader evaluates a submission. In every story there is, immediately and always, a voice. It’s the easiest thing to pick up on—a paragraph will usually suffice—but the hardest to define. My attempt: Voice is the way in which word choice and syntax suggest to the reader something about the writer, something about the origin of the prose. Idiosyncrasies in the writing—by which I mean unexpected or nonstandard choices of words and syntax—give us the sense that the prose is coming from the consciousness of a single particular individual, much like we can recognize individuals we know by the distinct sound of their voice. If those idiosyncrasies are pleasing to us—meaning that, for example, an unexpected word choice still makes sense, maybe even better sense than the usual phrasing—then we like the voice and imagine it coming from the sort of individual we enjoy listening to, a storyteller. If the nonstandard choices around words and syntax strike us as awkward or misguided, then we find the voice unsuccessful.
In every story there is, immediately and always, a voice.
Often there are no idiosyncrasies to speak of, at least in my experience reading submissions. The word choice and syntax are as expected. Descriptions, actions, and ideas are rendered using wording that, over time, has become standard: glances are shot, groans are stifled, whiffs are caught. At the extreme, it’s cliché, but what I’m talking about here is broader—it’s a reliance on the language that comes prepackaged with things. Such a voice is generic, like those of automated phone systems or smart speakers, suggesting to us that the prose comes from no particular individual (though of course it does). It doesn’t feel like the writer is describing, say, the ocean directly, but instead has reached for the words and phrases they have most often seen used to describe the ocean.
I have focused on voice because, in the context of reading submissions, and I suspect in any kind of reading, it is what hits first. When someone says they knew a story had promise from the first page, first paragraph, first sentence—dollars to donuts it’s the voice they’re picking up on. The key quality of the voice, I believe, is simply that it be individual, in one of an infinite number of ways, rather than generic. The language need not be overtly stylized or draw particular attention to itself—Joan Didion’s prose has an individual voice as much as Toni Morrison’s, Jamel Brinkley’s as much as Ocean Vuong’s.
Regarding well-known writers: They too sometimes receive form rejections. I don’t mean to overstate this, as writers of a certain stature are usually ushered past the standard submission process. But even the sort of writer who teaches at prestigious writing conferences will, sometimes, receive a plain old standard form rejection. This fact should help all of us set aside any shame that we might, wrongly but naturally, associate with rejection.
Having a story rejected from a journal says little about its “quality.” As a writer, it is tempting to dissect rejections and examine their entrails for portents, but, as my metaphor suggests, I doubt such efforts yield much reliable information. Most journals have at least two flavors of form rejections, the less bitter usually being some version of “this piece was not quite right for us, but please try us again,” the more bitter omitting the “try us again” bit. And you should be cheered by the “try us again” version, and consider doing so. But I’d caution that, as variable as different frontline readers can be about which submissions they recommend, the variation in which form rejection they send is even greater. It’s math, really: grading something on a two-point scale is bound to be more repeatable than evaluating it on a six-point scale. In other words, a submission I read and rejected on a gloomy Tuesday would probably also have been rejected if I had instead read it on a sunny Saturday. I have less confidence that the sort of rejection, whether “standard” or “encouraging,” would be the same.
A personal rejection from an editor, referencing specifics about your submission, is a horse of a different color. Following up with further submissions to that journal is highly encouraged. But I would not assign any special weight to specific feedback on a story that comes from a journal that isn’t looking to publish it. Frontline readers for journals are not guaranteed to have any particular background, are reading in circumstances and moods unknowable to you, and are usually reading to answer one and only one question: Should I recommend this piece for further consideration to be published in this journal at this time? Even editors are also necessarily focused on the question of “publish in our journal now, or no?” That’s a very specific kind of reading that, in my view, is rather different from reading a story to try and suss out ways in which it might be improved. Useful suggestions can certainly still come from it, but so can harmful ones. I would suggest applying the same level of critical scrutiny to journal feedback as you would to that from other sources.
Finally, it’s worth examining who is in a position to be a frontline reader, and who is not. The current literary ecosystem depends on people volunteering for that role. Literary journals would love to pay frontline readers, but they have no money. As a result, an important gatekeeping role is largely restricted to those who can afford to work several hours per week without pay. Frontline readers have veto power over most submissions at most literary journals, so if only people who have a certain level of financial means and/or institutional support can take on that role without considerable sacrifice, that sets up a systematic bias that almost surely impacts what gets published. Short of a magical infusion of journal funding, this problem will have to be tackled on a case-by-case basis. In my case, I am stepping down as a frontline reader for the journal I have been reading for (The Massachusetts Review), but I have arranged a modest donation to enable them to expand and continue their efforts to compensate readers. My hope is that providing stipends for frontline readers will enable people to participate in the literary process who may not otherwise have been able to, and that they will see things in submissions that I did not—maybe in one of yours.
David DeGusta is a writer and translator from the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in Boulevard and The Saturday Evening Post, among other places. He has recently finished translating a novel from Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. Currently an MFA student in fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he can be found at www.davidwrites.net and on Twitter @davidwrites1.