Last week I got yet another rejection from a literary journal. As always, I felt sad, frustrated and disappointed. To some degree, I thought, Ni modo! I have so many rejections I could wallpaper my bedroom. Whereas I know rejection is par for the course, it still hurts like a motherfuck.
I believe our emotions can be categorized under two primary emotions: fear and peace. Love, joy, contentment, bliss and all those pleasant emotions fall within the spectrum of peace. Sadness, frustration, disappointment, even anger, fall within the spectrum of fear. Fear is the unshakable emotion I feel every day when I get dressed to go to work. Of course, on the day-to-day, the feeling of fear is a whisper. What if this really is my life? she asks. What if I never become the writer I want to become? When I get a rejection, the fear is bold and persistent. I stopped crying over rejections about six rejections ago, but the internal fear-speak still remains. This is it, she asserts. I’m going to die in this pathetic state of existence (Note to reader: She’s a bit histrionic, but she does have a point.). I keep ripping out the pulpy flesh from my heart and my brain and pummeling it into words only to be told that my work is strong or it received high ranking but I’ve been added to… a waitlist or We just couldn’t find a place for your story at this time.
Since I can only control what I can control, I plot out how I’m going to revise the work. What do I need to add or take away? Do I need to scrap the piece all together? I read different literary journals and try to find my fit, which is no easy task. I have never fit in anywhere; perhaps my writing is no exception. But beyond my being weird, different, difficult to categorize, there are two major obstacles to my finding a fit.
First, I do not have any prior publications. Even if I submit a piece that is well-suited for a journal, well-written, well-structured, compelling, and poignant, being unpublished is a glaring strike against me. I’m too high-risk. It makes perfect sense when you think about the system of publication or the system of any profession for that matter. Why hire a teacher, lawyer, janitor who’s never held a job in the field when there’s an over-abundance of experienced professionals from which to choose? Why not publish the person who’s been published in three or 23 different literary journals when he/she probably has a tighter story and will likely be publishing a book before the unpublished writer will. Then, when the experienced writer’s book comes out, the journal will likely be mentioned on the copyright page or in the acknowledgements, which will potentially bring more readers to the journal. There’s also the fact that some major journals and magazine have several writers on contract (e.g., The New Yorker). So newbie writers may be competing with award-winning and/or famous writers as well as established writers who may not be well-known to mainstream readers but have a solid publication history in the literary world. What fool would choose the unpublished writer over these writers even if the unpublished writer’s story/essay is good?
Second, the themes I choose don’t make people feel warm and fuzzy inside. My work is graphic and raw and sometimes makes people uncomfortable. In grad school, one of my professors told me that I sometimes overwhelmed the reader. You have to give them room to recover from the pain, she said. I always try to balance out my work when I write about abandonment, child neglect, abuse, betrayal, and loss, but perhaps I’m not doing it well enough. Perhaps I’m too macabre and intense. Men can be macabre and intense; women are supposed to be cute and likable. I’m cute, but I’m not necessarily likable. It’s so hard to tone down a story about a black boy who lives in the projects and experiences violence on a regular basis. His fucking reality is violent. Reading about his life is supposed to hurt! But even when I write about a black woman trying to strengthen her connection with God, this still doesn’t fit either. The essay I’m referencing is too secular for the spiritual journals and too religious for the literary journals.
Then there’s the general obstacle that all unpublished writers of color face: most literary journals are white (i.e., comprised primarily of white editors, interns and readers), so it’s no surprise that most of the writers these journals publish are also white. White literary journals will never consider me a good fit until 1) I start writing about white people primarily or 2) I get published, and they jump on the bandwagon because I wrote good work that’s already been published.
To some degree it’s human nature to seek out what and who one knows. The people who staff and read literary journals want to see themselves in the work they read. People who have publishing power want to help their students, friends and the friends/students of their friends. Sure they want good work, but there is such a thing as a cultural literary aesthetic. This pattern of publishing what is familiar and who you know is not unique to white journals. Black journals, a total of five that exist in the U.S., do the same thing (Note: The numbers are even sparser for Asian/Asian-American, Latino, Native-American literary journals and journals that center around the work of other marginalized populations).
It’s nice to believe that race has nothing to do with publication, but that’s simply not true. Even so, of the few black journals that exist, one must deal again with the matter of theme. Some black intelligentsia abhor stories about poor, slang-talking blacks (i.e., stories that fall into the sub-genre of urban/hip-hop fiction); some black editors/staffers detest stories about bourgie blacks (i.e., They want to show the experience of everyday blacks who are not privileged). So even though these journals exist for black literary work, one must still figure out his/her fit within the racially-specific literary journals.