A Student-Editor Rambling About Student-Editors

So. I read this article the other day and liked the following:

“The aspiration to write and publish is generally frowned upon by writers, of course. We constantly complain about the flooded marketplace, about the talentless hacks in the slush (and on store shelves). Self publishing is not allowed. If we see you trying, it makes us furious. And the MFA student, more than the writer outside the academy, more even than the self-published writer, is purely and always trying. It makes us feel all icky. What we want is for everyone else to give up so it can be just us and the writers we admire. (In the purest cases of this sickness, the writer admires nobody living: it should be him and the dead white men alone.)”

It’s a gut-level recognition of how selfish, how unreasonable, we writers can be, I suppose. Or, that’s why I liked the bit. The article overall is about how MFA students, especially those acting as editors, are viewed as “kids,” as unreal, as unworthy. The post is a response to this article, in which one editor assures her readers that an MFA student will never be able to reject a submission.

I’m interested because I had a piece recently rejected by a student (undergraduate, actually, not MFA) at a big magazine. My immediate reaction was to be annoyed, to feel like it didn’t get a good read. (Unreasonable, I mentioned above—I know, I know.) I in part agree when the first article I linked goes

“Writers are upset about the idea of a student rejecting their work (in spite of the fact that many of these writers have not received degrees themselves, or ever formally studied writing — incredible hypocrisy). This is silly. If your story was rejected that was because the publisher didn’t feel like publishing it. There are better reasons for this and there are worse, but not liking the story seems like a pretty solid one. And it doesn’t take much education to dislike a story. I’ve been doing it quite well for some time.

If you think it takes an MFA to understand what you’ve written, or to know that it’s good, maybe you need to write better stories. Maybe you need to stop trying to publish what you’ve got. Maybe you should send it to your friends — and only the ones you are sure will really get it. Maybe you should bury it with Beckett.”

Maybe. But I also wonder whether disliking a story can often involve not treating the story on its own terms. Is not liking the story really a pretty solid reason? Editors certainly have the right to act on taste; as an editor, I’m guilty of this, of course. Readers, however, really can be quick to retreat from a story they don’t immediately feel comfortable with. In my MFA workshop this semester, for instance, we read Murakami’s “A Shinagawa Monkey,” which evenly split our class (five to five), regarding who liked and disliked the story. At the heart of the issue was whether it was too difficult to “really get it.” What to do, if we were editors reading some submission? What’s the standard? Should we turn down a story because there’s a talking monkey?

This is not to say that students shouldn’t be editors. Gosh, no. Nor do I think a degree matters in determining value. Nor do I think rejected writers should rely on the excuse that “no one gets me.” But I do understand the impulse, by writers submitting work, to prefer other readers. By definition, MFA students are trying to figure out what they want to write, how they want to write, and in what voice they want to consider writing. Students are in transition. Students have decided, as the article puts it, that they “need to learn more.” Editors like that can be disconcerting to other writers, especially those, like Murakami, trying to experiment.

I like the idea of anonymous editors more and more, I think.

As a student, I’m really trying more to figure out why I dislike stuff.

Tim

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