Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why publish? A response to Mike Meginnis

Last week, Mike Meginnis of Uncanny Valley blogged about a recent happening that I missed while traveling: Fugue Magazine published an issue with footnotes inserted into all the writers' pieces. The footnotes were not written by the authors, but by Michael Martone, and the writers weren't asked for approval or otherwise informed this would be happening. It was presumably meant to be taken as a playful surprise; instead, at least some of the authors were pretty pissed. Mike links to a post by Sean Lovelace on HTML Giant covering the same topic, as well as a letter to the editors of Fugue by Lia Purpura, expressing her disappointment/dismay/outrage/etc.

Mike Meginnis is a writer and video game nerd with unconventional, unpopular opinions and I rarely disagree with him, when I know what he's talking about. But I find myself disagreeing with Mike's take on this issue, or at least quibbling with it. First, let me say that I have an irrational bias against Fugue because they once rejected a batch of poems so fast it was hard to believe they hadn't sent the rejection before the poems actually arrived.

Here are some of Mike's points, and my responses:

"As an editor, I expect a lot of deference when it comes to deciding how to package and present my authors' work. For instance, if I think a certain font is best for a story, and I make the story that font, I will think it is pretty stupid for the author to say, 'Dude, I am pissed about that font. Put it back in Times New Roman.' If I want a certain piece to have different margins than the others, I want to be able to do that."

This is an unusually strawmanny argument from Meginnis. There's a distinct difference between changing the font or layout of a piece and inserting new content into it (or removing content without asking, or changing the order of the content). I also think you get more leniency here with prose than poetry. I recently had an experience with an editor who wanted to right-justify half the poems in an issue. The font is usually not an element of the poem, but the margins are, and you can't just change them to mix it up visually. It would be the equivalent of an editor changing all the paragraph breaks in a story, not for semantic reasons but to better fit the layout of the page. Adding footnotes strikes me as one of the most disruptive ways you could alter a piece of prose while keeping the original text intact, up there with inserting subheads.

"It is widely accepted that editors can and will change our writing in a number of rather important ways."

True, but usually editors have the courtesy to run changes by the authors prior to publishing.

"I wouldn't publish with someone if I didn't want them to change my writing, to make it better. If it were already perfect in its little Word document, I would leave it there. I publish a piece because it is not perfect, because it needs to be improved, because I think the process of publication will improve it ... Ultimately whether Fugue was right or wrong isn't that important to me. The principle here is this: If you don't want your work changed, why do you publish with other people? If you need total control, why not self-publish?"

This is an interesting and very literal interpretation of the concept of an "editor." (In the literary world, many editors' work is 90%+ curatorial.) I sort of admire this approach to publishing, but I also think it's kind of naive. (Or, I admire it because it's naive.) Most people publish not because they want their work to be better, but because they want it to be validated by a third party and then exposed to a larger audience. This is also why most people don't self-publish: both validation and potential audience tend to be greatly reduced. Of course there are exceptions, but it's more work to find an audience when you don't have an established publicity department, and without the built-in reputation of an established press, you're fighting the biases of the many people who believe gatekeepers exist for a reason.

The Birds LLC model entails a close writer-editor relationship, and the goal of the process from both ends is to produce a better book. Working on The French Exit with Birds was a great experience, because the editors knew me and my work well, and vice versa, and I trusted them completely. But when it comes to publishing single poems, I'm more averse to heavy editing, because that mutual trust and experience usually isn't there. Like Mike, I try to be accommodating when editors make requests, but I have refused requests if I felt they didn't improve the work, and I think it's fair to insist at least upon the opportunity for refusal.


  1. Have you read the relevant issue of Fugue? I mean this seems goofy and surreal enough -- Martone never saw where the footnotes would go, they were just randomly inserted, etc. -- to be an amusing prank in the dept. of vaguely postmodern gestures. Given the presumably obvious irrelevance of the footnotes, I think Meginnis's first argument is a little less strawmannish: at least I'm sympathetic to the idea that this is the sort of prank that is very hard to grumble about w/o sounding humorless.

  2. "If you don't want your work changed, why do you publish with other people?"

    That's just plain silly. I submit to compete, to find out if my work is any good, to win. I don't submit to have it changed, though occasionally an editor suggests that and I generally agree.


  3. Games, like sex, best consensually methinks.


  4. Sarang, I haven't seen the issue, but I take less issue with the, er, issue itself than the idea that we publish in order to improve our work. I do think it's the sort of prank that is only really funny if it's not your work being toyed with.

    Whimsy, I appreciate that you put it so bluntly. I think many people "submit to compete" but I've never heard it put exactly that way.

    Kirsten, they should have sent out a safe word with the acceptances.

  5. I agree with you here, Elisa. I understood the play but I also understood why writers took issue with how their work was presented. You do surrender some control when you seek to be published but the idea that we put our work into the world to be improved... doesn't make sense to me. If an editor sees areas where my work can be improved while also seeing promise, I hope they are willing to work with me but to suggest that writers should send imperfect work into the world in the hopes that it will find editorial benefactors makes no sense and encourages, I think, sloppy submissions.

    I also think there's a huge difference between what happened at Fugue and font choices.

  6. Thanks, Roxane. Have you seen the issue of Fugue in question? I'm rather curious now, how it "played" out.

  7. I did buy the issue, Elisa and am waiting for it to arrive because I'm just curious enough to want to see how it looks.

  8. Editors do have a right to suggest changes. Note key word: suggest. I would be rightly annoyed, I think, if my work was altered without my input, or without somebody saying, "We're not really going to use your work as is; it'll be part of this conceptual project, if that's okay with you?"

    That said, back when I was editing a poetry magazine, I had a writer submit a poem in a format that I simply couldn't reproduce. I told him, multiple times, that to publish it I would have to make it look different, and he said okay. Then when it came out, he was furious and said it wasn't his poem at all.

    Sadly, editors aren't the only ones who can be unreasonable.

  9. True, Mark. The problem I've bumped into most often as an editor: writers sending me new, revised versions of the poems I've already accepted. Usually, they're cool about it and give me the option of publishing the first version of the poem, but I have had writers insist upon the revisions; in one case, I felt that the author had ruined the poems through revision, and they had to be pulled from the issue.