It happens that modes of thinking completely alien to art-making—‘business’ and ‘professionalism’—are gaining ever-increasing purchase in literary magazines. While it may be true that certain artists have pushed past the binds of commission to produce great work—one thinks of Raphael; Velásquez; to a lesser degree, Tennyson, whose work suffered miserably under the onus of Victoria’s Laureateship—art is most vital when aloof to material goods and popular repute. That many educational programs in creative writing are now indistinguishable from salesmanship seminars (with their ‘mixers’ and ‘networking events’ and vacuous self-involvement) speaks most damningly to the dodgy influence of everything pro in writing.
Without implying that publication is but a necessary evil (it’s much more, of course), or that making money from one’s art is necessarily wrong (it’s not), the contemporary writer will do well to ask herself before sending her work abroad—before even writing—What do I value in the creative act? What do I hope to gain in submission?
Consider a writer’s duty.
What do you consider your duty as an artist? To whom or what must you answer in those restless moments before you slip into sleep? By what will you judge your successes? If you worry I imply the artist has an ethical obligation qua his artistry, I do. Even a casual letter-writer or the child penning her first three-sentence ‘story’ considers the gesture he makes into empty space, the presumed recipient or reader. If you demand careful construction from your own poems, only submit to those journals that match your high attention (not, notably, that simply match your ‘style,’ since there’s careful construction to be found in sonnet, concrete poem, and lyric essay alike). Submitting to a magazine for its perceived ‘status’ is a fool’s game. When a journal suggests that you read its past content before submitting, it does you a service, at least in theory.
If you believe you have only a duty to yourself as an artist, ask yourself why you seek publication at all, since publication is a social act. A bedside journal will do for ruminations you plan to complete privately.
Consider a journal’s implicit values as carefully as its explicit ones.
A magazine can drop any adjectives it likes about its contents—Queer, Experimental, Feminist, Edgy, etc. But if the best it can do in queerness is to feature stories about men having sex with men, it hasn’t challenged itself enough; if its understanding of ‘edgy’ is to select poems with expletives, the same. You ought to demand a lot from an editor before passing on your writing, which, ideally, will be pulled from your guts through your neck to mark the page. Let me be clear on this: there is far more desire for moving writing by editors than there is moving writing on offer.
Be exceedingly wary of magazines that expect you to pay for general submissions. Often you’ll see such fees explained as incidental, since you’d ‘pay about the same for postage.’ But this is tricky reasoning: to pay the postman $2 for the service of moving your manuscript across an ocean is not the same as paying $2 for the privilege of having your short story read by an editor—the latter tilts the scales of service too much in one direction. Statements that fees assure better submissions are callous and self-serving; an admission that fees will help a magazine stay alive may be a bit more honest, but still feel, to me, misplaced. If you have a few dollars to contribute to a glossy you admire, please do, but do so under the heading of charity, not fees (if this seems like semantics, suit yourself)—you contribute to its more important living, its content, with your invested creative work.
Reconsider the connection between success and publication.
It’s not 1-1, though many publishers would have you believe so. If you’ve never published your work, or receive many rejections (as I do), it need not be an indication of poor quality. It is an opportunity to edit. It is an opportunity to read again, then create again. It is perhaps an indicator of a poor editor or a tired reader. It is an opportunity to analyze the depth of your commitment and deepen your viewpoint.
The success of Emily Dickinson—so often thought of when counting the triumphs of writers largely unpublished during their life—is not, not, not the fact that she enjoys great acclaim and dissemination today, but that she dauntlessly composed transfiguring poetry when the publishers, those ‘in-the-know,’ refused her. She composed it as the body composes blood.
Conversely, if you’ve published many short stories, essays, or poems, humble yourself with the knowledge that there is an old man somewhere with a clutch of unpublished stories (whether not accepted for publication or careless of publication) that crush the sensibility of your work to atoms. Being published by a big house proves nothing; it is only das ding, the essay itself, the poem itself, that recommends. Barter your ten books for a moment of dire reckoning written on a napkin.
Believe in high art.
Period. Believe that the spirit of art exists independent of all our pretty institutions built for its reifying (or for its tearing down). Believe that art is diametrically opposed to what Clement Greenberg called ‘motionless Alexandrianism,’ to academic location or pinning-to-the-wall, or to fame, which is incidental and often independent of real substantial content. Publish in the hopes of drawing your veins across space, planting them in some substrate: the heart of another, maybe; the soil. There is our zenith. Let’s go.
This essay first appeared in The Review Review.