Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Writing and American Idol

Most people I know will demur when invited to sing, insisting that his/her voice is nothing anyone could stand to hear. Yet, secretly, we all nourish the belief that were a talent scout to stand outside our shower, we'd be snapped up in a New York minute. The same is true of writing. Deep down, just about everyone believes there is a writer inside them, just waiting for the right opportunity to emerge.

Being a reviewer/editor is a lot like being a judge on American Idol. Okay, I imagine it is because––don't all gasp at once––I've never watched the show, but going by the previews, the majority of the contestants really, really suck. And I bet, for every one of those contestants willing to make an a-- of themselves in front of TV viewing America, there are probably hundreds who truly believe they could win if they only had the nerve to stand up there.

Now imagine if contestants didn't actually appear on American Idol, but only had to send a video or podcast. And instead of the performance being viewed across the country, only the panel of judges would see and vote on it. Only the winners would sing their hearts out on TV. The losers would receive a letter telling them they hadn't won––no voice of Simon Cowell ringing in their humiliated ears––and perhaps some words of encouragement like, "We hope you will enter again."

That pretty much sums up the world of literary journals today, except that there are also thousands and thousands of "American Idols" to submit to. So, if one doesn't work, the writer can keep trying. While many submitters complain bitterly about those empty rejections that tell them nothing of why the piece didn't make it, it rarely occurs to most that the editors may, indeed, be attempting a great kindness by hiding the truth.

Yet, I sometimes wonder how kind it is. In education we now favor building self-esteem. I'm reminded of some Everybody Loves Raymond episodes when Ray can't grasp how there are no winners and losers in t-ball or peewee basketball. Having gone to school in the era of self-esteem busters (I was told to just mouth the words for our 5th grade caroling program) , I'm all for praise when it comes to kids. But how far into adulthood should that ego-stroking continue?

There are endless numbers of writing classes and workshops available, both in the cyber and real worlds, where attendees need only pay their money to get in. I've attended my share, and in addition to the mediocre, above average, and occassionally really good writers (and no I'm not referring to myself in the last one), all of whom can improve and learn something, there are several students who––to continue the musical metaphor–-have a tin ear. No matter how many writing books they read, no matter how much constructive feedback they receive, no matter how many examples of good writing they read, they turn out the same really bad stuff over and over. Yet every member and the instructor struggles to provide feedback that starts and ends with a bit of praise, and makes some suggestions for improvement in the middle.

The same happens with submissions to literary journals. The majority of the work submitted is irredeemably awful. Yet we send every writer away with the same idea, that the work isn't right for our publication, meaning it could be just perfect for another publication––when, in fact, it's best use might be in a writing textbook under "Don't Let This Happen to You."

We do this mainly because, being writers ourselves, we just can't stand to be unkind. Though, I sometimes wonder if this isn't the unkindest cut of all. Encouraging these folks with no chance whatever of making it in the business, to give up precious time with family, perhaps forgo the overtime that might lead to a promotion, and, instead, tap away on laptops, "creating" stories and essays most editors won't read past the first paragraph.

Maybe we need more Simon Cowells dispatching contestants with the clear knowledge that they really do "suck" beyond hope, and perhaps shocking them into applying their considerable ambition to an area where they might actually succeed. In fairness, if we do that, we should also stop putting good writers off with the same standard rejection.

So here's my entry for the perfect rejection letter:

Dear Author,

Thank you for submitting to XYZ Literay Journal.

(Editors check one)

_Your submission was wonderful, but it just didn't make the final cut due to space considerations. Please submit again, possibly earlier in our reading period.

_Your submission is very well written, but it isn't something we would publish (really, send it somewhere else and I'm sure you'll get a nibble.)

_Your writing is above average. Take some classes, read some books, and send us something else next year.

_After reading three of your submissions in a row I would ask that you stop submitting to our journal because we are never going to publish anything you write.

_Do yourself a favor and give up.

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