No Take Backs (Or, Don’t Be an Asshat)

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


Yes No Maybe
Photo Credit: John

As writers, we’re often told that we need to learn to deal with rejection. It’s just part of the process. If you can’t deal with it, you may as well find a different vocation. I’ve even in written about it. But five years ago, when I wrote about only needing one yes, I wasn’t thinking about the possibility a writer might receive an acceptance, only to subsequently have the editor behave as if he were Nelson on The Simpsons (“haha!”) and rescind it.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened this summer. After a change in editors at The Paris Review, the new editor sent a form email to a number of poets whose work had been accepted by the previous poetry editors, informing them that he was sorry, but there was no place for their work in this new rendition of the journal (if you want to read about the incident, start here).

To say I was flabbergasted by this behavior would be an understatement. Words that ran through my mind: egomaniacal, disrespectful, unprofessional. The “unacceptances” served no one but himself. The former poetry editors, who were still a part of the journal, presumably didn’t pick dreck. Regardless of whether it was to his particular taste, it was still undoubtedly good writing. I now had a mental image of this editor as an individual who, due to a puffed up sense of his own sense of self-worth, had forgotten his colleagues were also human beings with feelings.

Shortly after The Paris Review incident, the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review committed suicide. At first this tragedy seemed to be a personal one, but subsequently, allegations of workplace bullying on the part of VQR‘s editor arose. In the wake of this incident, VQR is now—at least temporarily—closed (you can read a recap of the events here and here).

Of course, these accusations may not be true, and even if they are, I don’t think that VQR‘s editor intended for this outcome. No one commits suicide just because his supervisor is a jerk. Obviously, there were a number of intersecting factors that led to the managing editor’s decision to take his own life, and these struggles are things that his co-workers may not have known about.

What I think we need to remember is that everyone has problems, and act accordingly. We’re often so wrapped up in our own concerns that we forget to empathize with those around us. Workplace bullies aren’t evil; rather, on some level, they feel threatened, and lashing out at their co-workers makes them feel better about themselves: powerful, important, indispensable to the organization.

Rejection isn’t exclusive to writing. It’s something we face every day, in every facet of our lives: work, school, teams, relationships. Because of that, everyone knows that all rejection is not created equal. We know that the further you get into the process, the more rejection stings. You email your resume in response to a job ad and receive a PFO letter in return? Meh, whatever. You lose your job of ten years, which you love and are exceptional at, due to an “organizational restructuring”? Crushed.

I’m not saying that editors should just accept everything to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, or that bosses should overlook sloppy or deteriorating work, or that an offer shouldn’t be rescinded if it turns out one of the parties has misrepresented some pertinent information. Look, I get that TPR‘s new editor maybe didn’t love everything the previous editors selected as much as they did. (I should note that as a result of the reaction to the unacceptances, TPR backpedaled, offering the poets payment and online publication.) At Toasted Cheese, we edit as a collective, and that means that sometimes a piece I wasn’t all that fond of is chosen for publication—and sometimes a piece I loved doesn’t make the cut. But that’s okay. Because it’s not all about me.

Respect for your colleagues means trusting the decisions they make, not disparaging them for having different tastes. Respecting the writers you work with means honoring the commitments your publication has made, regardless of your personal opinion. When the other party, be it a writer or a fellow editor, acts in good faith, strive to act in good faith in return. Don’t be an asshat. Don’t exercise your power just because you can. There’s nothing wrong with having healthy self-esteem, but your esteem for yourself shouldn’t preclude compassion for your colleagues.

Acceptances are moments of celebration. Writers tell their friends, their family. They tweet and blog about it. They update their writer’s bio: “poems forthcoming in…” While they could avoid having to awkwardly explain that they’re not being published after all by always keeping their good news a secret until they actually see their work in front of them in print or pixels, that would suck much of the spontaneous joy out of life. So many things in life aren’t certain. It would be nice to believe that, at least in this one case, yes really means yes.

No take backs.

pencil

Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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