Publishing a story in a literary journal has long been a rite of passage for new writers.
Many authors who are now household names cut their teeth by constantly submitting their work to journals and magazines, honing their craft and taking their licks with each rejection, waiting for that elusive “yes.”
They’d scour each rejection slip for some scrap of insight as to why their story missed the mark. And many would keep those rejection slips, using them as bitter reminders to fuel their determination with an added dose of “I’ll show those bastards.”
Although times have changed, and a growing majority of these journals are now published online rather than in print, the literary journal continues to serve as a proving ground for writers. And even with the growing abundance of online journals, I don’t think anybody would tell you that it’s easy to get a piece of your writing published in one of them. It’s not. It’s hard.
And I submit that it should be.
I’m reminded of Tom Hanks’ character Jimmy Dugan, from the movie A League of Their Own. The same guy who taught us that “there’s no crying in baseball” also offered this gem:
It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
I agree with Jimmy. And I’m getting worried – here’s why.
The times they are a changin’
It’s not an exaggeration to say we are witnessing a revolution in the publishing industry. E-book technology is advancing at a tremendous rate, “indie” publishing is a growing trend, and Big Publishing is trying not to become an endangered species. It’s a big, exciting mess, and I’m watching it all with great interest – and a growing sadness.
Why sadness? Because I’m seeing a by-product of this revolution that I think is unfortunate. More and more new writers are turning their sights away from conventional publishing, and choosing instead to self-publish their work. I hasten to clarify that I’m not saying self-publishing is bad or wrong. There are writers for whom it is clearly the most advantageous choice, and I’m glad they have that option. And frankly it’s an option I may pursue myself one day.
But here’s where I perceive the problem to be: there are many inexperienced writers who are simply using self-publishing as a way to skip the hassle of trying to gain anybody else’s editorial approval. So gleeful are they in having eluded the “evil gatekeepers” that they think it’s perfectly fine to self-publish anything they write, brimming with confidence that every word they type is literary gold.
And because they’ve taken the self-publishing route, there’s nobody to tell them otherwise.
As I said before, I’m not opposed to self-publishing. I’m opposed to shortcuts. And I’m starting to see inexperienced writers choose self-publishing as an alternative to learning to write well, fueled by impatience and dreams of becoming the next Amanda Hocking or John Locke.
As a result, they’re not learning that sometimes a piece of writing just doesn’t work, and needs to be overhauled or even scrapped. They’re not learning that their last piece might have been extremely close to being ready, but just needed a bit of polish here and there. In their hunger for instant gratification, these writers are missing out on so much learning, which to me is a key benefit of the editorial process.
And that makes me sad.
The Big Man weighs in
The late, great Clarence Clemons – my former boss, saxophonist extraordinaire, and part-time philosopher – made an interesting observation. He felt that many people were adrift in their lives these days because they no longer had any rites of passage. By contrast, many older and more primitive civilizations maintained strict rituals that their young had to go through, often involving hardships in the form of physical challenges, journeys, or quests. Only after completing these difficult rituals would they be considered adults.
Clarence believed that in our eagerness to make modern life as easy and convenient as possible, we had eliminated the very challenges that once helped define us. When I consider the attitude of entitlement so pervasive in people these days, I think the Big Man may have been on to something. And that’s what concerns me about the current surge of self-publishing. By eliminating all the challenge, we’re taking away part of what helps define and forge good writers.
This is where the literary journal still plays an important role. I believe one of the most noble functions of the literary journal is to help groom new writers, by offering them a platform through which to validate their work.
So while the world of publishing evolves and transforms, I hope that aspiring writers will still continue to seek publication in literary journals as an initial step in their writing careers, rather than hopping immediately onto the self-publishing bandwagon. I firmly believe that they will grow so much more as writers by first learning to meet and satisfy a set of editorial challenges before seeing their work published.
Yes, it’s a hard way to learn.
But that’s okay. It’s supposed to be hard.
The hard is what makes it great.
Photo courtesy flickr’s dvidshub