T.A. Noonan, Author of “An Open Letter to Triquarterly” Speaks

July 14, 2014 § 4 Comments

Last week, Brevity observed a literary imbroglio and weighed in on both sides. But in literary nonfiction, there’s always one more point of view. T.A. Noonan, the author of the anonymous letter that touched off the debate, weighs in.


tanoonan-square.fullI’m T.A. Noonan, author of “An Open Letter to TriQuarterly.”

First of all, let me acknowledge that I wasn’t the first person to express dismay over “TriQuartergate.” By the time my letter appeared online, the conversation was well under way on Twitter and Facebook. I just wanted to add to it.

I chose anonymity because I’m a Sundress editor whose views were published on her press’s blog. I didn’t intend to speak for anyone but myself—certainly not my press. The post’s popularity, however, suggests that my letter echoed the betrayal felt by many writers.

Like Dinty W. Moore, I think I understand. And I’ll give the editors props for honesty, even if I wish they lied. In my perfect world, they would have admitted the mistake, closed general submissions, solicited work from those rejected unread, and worked their way through the backlog, reading every piece submitted. But that’s not what happened.

It’s reasonable to think that TriQuarterly will need to work hard to regain the literary community’s trust. Then again, they know all about that. Every time I read Edward Hirsch’s characterization of a web-based, student-run TriQuarterly as “vaporous,” I wince. There’s judgment there. Vaporous. Less-than. Not real. Not print. I can almost hear the commentary now: This never would have happened when it was print!

The question that haunts me isn’t “print vs. online” or “student-run vs. professional” but whether or not my imagined commentary—this never would have happened when it was print!—is true. If not, what are writers supposed to believe? We’re sustained by the notion that the selection process is fair and everyone gets a shot. Take that away, and what’s left for us?

Even more troubling, though, is if such a thing wouldn’t have happened at TriQuarterly back when it was print. What does that say about the ways that editors, authors, and readers evaluate literary journals? Do we really see online journals as vaporous?

Maybe I’m overthinking. It’s definitely unfair to ask TriQuarterly‘s editors to bear the responsibility of answering the questions I’ve posed above. (For the record, I do appreciate Adrienne Gunn’s thoughtful response.) Instead, all members of the literary community need to ask ourselves what we really value and how we demonstrate our valuation.

I keep coming back to one Facebook comment about my letter. The author critiqued my threat to not submit to TriQuarterly, wondering why I didn’t cancel my subscription and suggesting that I didn’t value TriQuarterly because I (probably) didn’t even subscribe. Let’s ignore the fact that they’ve been online and free since 2010 and explore the implications of that comment.

Is the act of financially supporting a journal more important than submitting or writing? What if one doesn’t have the means to financially support a journal? Are magazines published on shoestring budgets and/or supported exclusively by their editors less important than the ones that need subscriptions, fees, and donations to survive? What about journals whose institutions pour funds into them?

And, most importantly, what is the writer’s responsibility to the literary community vis-à-vis journals?

I can’t answer that for everyone, and neither can TriQuarterly. Instead, I’ll leave you with this observation: According to WordPress, my letter has been viewed over 4,000 times and shared almost 800 times. That’s more than anything I’ve ever published in print. That’s readership comparable to some of the biggest print journals out there.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.


T.A. Noonan doesn’t hate TriQuarterly, its editors, or its authors but meant what she said in her letter. She is also not-so-secretly rooting for TriQuarterly to change her mind.

A Defense of TriQuarterly (Sort Of)

July 11, 2014 § 6 Comments

feeIt would not be accurate to say that the internet blew up yesterday with talk of the odd TriQuarterly “we didn’t actually read your work” clarification e-mail, but the small world of internet literary magazines did begin to rumble.  This morning, TriQuarterly managing editor Adrienne Gunn came into the discussion and tried to clarify.

She wrote:

The email that was sent was a sincere attempt on the magazine’s part to rectify a bad decision. I understand why people are upset. I’m a writer and have spent years submitting to magazines and it’s a tough process. With recent staff changes we realized how far we had fallen behind in submissions, and didn’t want to prevent authors from publishing their work elsewhere.

Well, you know what? I think I understand.

I edit an online journal that receives about 250-300 submission per month. I am also a writer, and want to honor the honest efforts of other writers: beginning, emerging, established, and even the occasional superstar who shows up in the slushpile.

We hate to keep folks waiting, and we hope for the best every time we open a submission file, but – to be honest – there are days that I look at the queue and just cringe.

How could we be so far behind? 

How will we ever process so many essay submissions? 

Maybe we can just fold the magazine and sneak out of town.

TriQuarterly, it seems, had some staff changes, and in that change someone recognized the enormous, too-long-in-waiting backlog, and decided to say “no thanks” to the work, thinking it best if the authors sent the work elsewhere, to magazines perhaps not so far behind in reading and responding.  That strikes me as a good thing.  Not perfect, but under the circumstances, better than just holding onto the work for months and months more.

The problem is that the second e-mail, the one explaining “… due to very high volume and limited publication space, our staff was unable to review your submission. Our intent was to give you the opportunity to publish elsewhere, though I realize that our original email was not as clear as I had hoped. I apologize if this has caused any confusion.”… came after the first.  If the first e-mail had explained the situation in full, a few folks would have been miffed, but it would have been no big deal.

I personally think TriQuarterly’s editors did the right thing.  They just did it in the wrong order.

Dinty W. Moore is editor of Brevity, and has been for 18 long years.  Some days his eyeballs feel as if they’ve been punched. Full disclosure: He has published work, both print and video, in TriQuarterly.  He has also been rejected by them, and by many other fine journals.



Rejecting The Unread: Necessary Timesaver or Poor Literary Citizenship?

July 11, 2014 § 8 Comments

From Oct. 15 to July 15, TQ welcomes submissions of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, short drama, video essays and hybrid work from established as well as emerging writers. – from the TriQuarterly submission guidelines.

Managing a literary magazine is an exercise in self-denial. There are always—always—at least twice as many submissions that are perfect—perfect!—for the magazine as there are slots in which to publish them. At least five times as many are inappropriate, unqualified, unready, or just not a good fit. If an issue holds twenty pieces, there were twenty more equally good, and another two hundred to be swum through before reaching literary land.

Journals handle this onslaught in different ways. Brevity closes for the summer. The Sun takes only mailed submissions. Five Dials doesn’t take unsolicited manuscripts. The Believer asks for clips and a publication history.

Narrative charges $22 per submission, which probably weeds out some of the unprepared.

TriQuarterly—a journal known for intelligent content and high standards—did this.

The editors at TriQuarterly recently sent you a notice that your submission was not accepted for publication. I want to clarify that, due to very high volume and limited publication space, our staff was unable to review your submission. Our intent was to give you the opportunity to publish elsewhere, though I realize that our original email was not as clear as I had hoped. I apologize if this has caused any confusion.

An anonymous submitter received this “rejection” and wrote An Open Letter to Triquarterly at The Sundress Blog. She asks,

Should your letter be read as a poorly phrased euphemism for Just so you’re aware, we saw your name on your cover letter, didn’t recognize it, and decided to reject outright? If so, why even allow unsolicited submissions?

(read the whole letter)

We’ve contacted the excellent folks currently editing TriQuarterly to see if there’s a simple explanation: rogue intern, unfortunate error?

In some ways, though, it is not that surprising. In a 2012 interview with The Review Review,TQ Former Managing Editor Lydia Pudzianowski said, “In 2011 we received 4,307 submissions; in 2010 it was 3,599. We’ve already surpassed the latter number [in 2012].”

Regardless of the number of readers (TQ’s masthead lists 19 principal roles and 35 additional staff), there has to be a way to sort. If I applied for a programming job, I’d be pretty sure my resume would be fed into software that spits out anyone who doesn’t have C++ (hint: I don’t). If a literary journal announced, “We will discard any submissions with 10 or more spelling errors” I suspect many of us would cheer, either from schadenfreude, our own slush reading experiences, or the hope of a clearer field for our own proofread (of course!) work.

But transparency is key.

We only take submissions from 8PM-9PM on alternate Wednesdays.

We’ll be deleting unread anything from an author sharing my ex-boyfriend’s first name.

As long as it’s announced, fair game. Writer can spend their time and energy on more welcoming slush piles, or hit ‘send’ on a piece that feels right enough to jump some hurdles.

But claiming to have open submissions, claiming to welcome emerging writers and not actually doing that is at best disingenuous, and I would argue, bad literary citizenship.

Authors submit their best work—we hope—over which they have labored—we hope. Our compact is to read, at minimum, the first couple of sentences. Theatre directors say they know in the first 5 seconds of a mass audition if an actor gets a callback to the next round. As a slush reader, it’s easy—scary easy—to see right away if a piece goes into “form reject” or “read this again, more thoroughly.” (Whether your work should be judged on the opening is irrelevant. It will be. Work on the beginning).

Maybe it’s undergrads reading the slush pile. Maybe it’s the editor-in-chief on her Kindle on the subway. The reader’s biases or qualifications don’t actually matter. Writers can’t control who will be caught by our work, and a degree is no guarantee of taste. But not reading at all—and then phrasing it so terribly—breaks faith.

As a writer, we almost never find out who read our submission or how carefully. But we don’t have to write off publishing as an “in crowd.” Our literary citizenship is interacting with other writers, reading literary journals and the associated content (blogs, twitter, etc.) they produce, engaging with the community we want to be part of. We build our reputations by publication in smaller markets and working our way up. Eventually, our names won’t be unknown, and our work won’t be an unsolicited submission.

I have an essay in TriQuarterly’s slushpile. Perhaps it’s a good thing I haven’t heard back. But their misstep reminds me, being a writer is not just about sending out submissions. It’s about having faith in my work, knowing the market, and building relationships with my fellow literary citizens.



TriQuarterly’s Managing Editor, Adrienne Gunn responded via Twitter:

The email that was sent was a sincere attempt on the magazine’s part to rectify a bad decision. I understand why people are upset. I’m a writer and have spent years submitting to magazines and it’s a tough process. With recent staff changes we realized how far we had fallen behind in submissions, and didn’t want to prevent authors from publishing their work elsewhere. I would also say that I think the email indicates TQ’s commitment to treating their contributors ethically and respectfully, and we are committed to improving our review process and communication moving forward.

When asked about speculation that the editorial board’s hand had been tipped by a staff member acting alone, Ms. Gunn replied:

All I can say is that when the issue was identified, the decision was made to be transparent about it. And that we are sorry it happened and we are committed to improving processes and handling submissions with care.

TriQuarterly has also issued an apology on Twitter.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She blogs at I Do Words and tweets @GuerillaMemoir.

Going Postal with Literary Citizenship

July 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

5.4_cover_crop_2Writer: Where should I submit my work?

Workshop Leader: To the magazines you read.

Writer: Um…

There are more literary magazines than anyone’s postman can carry. Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review tells what makes his mailbox and why.

One of the things I’ve long argued that literary journals need to embrace is transparency. Too often, writers believe that magazines simply publish their friends, and editors believe that writers only want to publish in our pages and won’t read the issue. Both stances are a bit extreme, but broadly, these are fair assessments of an environment that is too frequently opaque and combative.

I had decided that writing about which literary magazines I subscribe to would be a neat post to do, and yet, I often backtrack from it. Will I offend anyone by acknowledging I don’t subscribe to his/her magazine?

Read the list (and why) here.


Walking with the Humble Essayist

July 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

humbleEssayist Steve Harvey has launched a fascinating new project this week, a site titled The Humble Essayist wherein he will feature the “Paragraph of the Week,” highlighting a paragraph from a renowned or promising writer followed by a paragraph of comment about the theme and style of the piece.

“I think of it as a concise review which gives the reader the flavor of the original, commentary on the voice, and a brief glimpse of the writer’s ideas and obsessions, all in two paragraphs, ” Harvey writes.  “I hope it will get the word out about great essays to a few more readers.”

Here is a bit of what he has to say about the opening to Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” followed by a link to his site and the full entry:

The energetic contraries of Thoreau’s opening sentence—“hug” and “mount”—certainly deserve their exclamation point.  It punctuates an irony that runs through all of Thoreau’s work.  We can “elevate” ourselves through the child-like act of merely climbing a tree.  When we are “well pitched” into grandeur our shirt fronts end up smeared in tar.  I can picture a blackened Thoreau, the gadfly of Concord, marching up to townspeople in for jury duty with a pine blossom in hand only to learn that none of them had seen it before—which means, of course, that they have also not seen the view that Thoreau could take in from the tree’s topmost branches.  What change of perspective do we achieve when we discover “new mountains” embedded in a horizon that has until then bounded our lives?


Read Thoreau and Harvey here at The Humble Essayist.

That Summer! Flash Essay Contest

July 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

86684ad914c128476e14b7a80626f8aeOur friends at Biographile have joined with Paste to launch a nifty flash essay writing contest with the theme “That Summer!”

Paste is looking for nonfiction essays between 500 and 600 words long. To enter the contest, send Paste your summer story by July 23rd, but first read the full contest rules here.

If you are looking for inspiration, by the way, Biographile has recruited fifty celebrated authors to share their own summer tales, and they’re running them all month.

Some Highlights So Far

When Driving Was Everythingby Jojo Moyes

Suddenly One Summer: Ireland, Whiskey and the Devil’s Disguiseby Thomas Cahill

A Call Center, a Camper, and One Vampire Weddingby Alissa Nutting

Stromatolites and Crime in the Canadian Arctic, by Margaret Atwood


Lightning and the Lightning Bug: A Revision Checklist

July 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Geneva ConferenceSusan Tiberghien, author of One Year to a Writing Life, Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, responded to yesterday’s post where Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore revealed that revision brings him absolute joy, with this very useful excerpt from her craft  book, and an equally useful checklist for revision:

Susan M. Tiberghien’s Lesson on Rewriting

“The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.” This wonderful quote is from Mark Twain. In this workshop we will go after the lightning.

When asked about rewriting, Ernest Hemingway said that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Vladimir Nabokov in a self-interview wrote that spontaneous eloquence seemed like miracle and that he rewrote every word he ever published, often several times. And Mark Strand, former poet laureate, said that each poem of his sometimes goes through forty to fifty drafts before it is finished. “I like rewriting and don’t trust anything that comes spontaneously. It’s just my way.”

Checklist for Rewriting   

1) Leads and Endings

—Does first paragraph (first line) capture reader’s attention?

—Is the piece well framed? Does it begin too early, too late? End too early, too late?

—Are the lead and the ending compatible? Is there foreshadowing?

—Is there a feeling of resolution (does protagonist change / is there new meaning)?

—Closed or open-ended: Wrapped up but still alive?

A_writing_life_-2102) Description (characterization and setting) and Dialogue

—Does each setting contribute to story?

—Show! Is description vivid, intimate? Does it touch the senses?

—Are characters alive?

—Is there dialogue? Does the dialogue advance characterization and story?

—Is each character’s voice unique?


3) Action, Tension/Conflict

—Build tension through opposites in settings, characters, dialogue.

—Develop narrative tug, ‘profluence’ (Gardner).

—Is conflict important? Is the struggle worth the story?


4) Images, Similes, Metaphors, Symbols

—Which are the central (controlling) images?

—Expand language through comparisons (similes/metaphors).

—Go farther through associations (symbols).


5) Genre, Whose Story, Point of View, Style, Rhythm, Voice

—Does the shape fit the story? Is it the right genre (for both story and author)?

—Whose story is it?

—In what point-of-view?

—Is the style appropriate to the subject (poetic, didactic, humorous…)?

—Read it aloud for rhythm (scanning, word sounds, repetition)

—Is author’s voice full-bodied and consistent?


6) Theme and Meaning

—What is the subject (theme)?

—Is there clutter? Are the writer’s ideas clear?

—Is there a moment of new awareness (“epiphany”, Joyce)?

—Why is story important?


7) Editing (when the writing is revised)

—title (does it fit, does it grab attention?)

—length (too short? too long? strengthen, prune)

—sentences and paragraphs (varied, monotonous)

—verbs (active? passive? avoid verbs of being)

—unnecessary words (adverbs, adjectives, clichés, pet words, dialogue tags)

—visual effect (placement of paragraphs, space, dialogue)

—faulty rhythm

—proofread for consistency, punctuation, spelling


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