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 and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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