Back in February, I posted that I was taking a month-long break from posting submission calls while preparing for a move. Well, that move happened, followed by a viral infection that knocked me out for two weeks, followed by my chronic migraine getting worse so that I was sick just about every day … You get the picture.
I have a big backlog of submission calls I want to share. But if you’ve had migraines, you know that getting on a computer while experience an attack is somewhat akin to the Wolverine stabbing himself in the eyes and forehead with an icepick over and over again. It’s not fatal, but it hurts like hell. So I haven’t been.
Yesterday morning I woke up without a migraine, so I took the opportunity to make a submission call post. I also took a moment to write this, which I am scheduling to post a day after writing. I didn’t want to overwhelm you with two posts in one day after such a long dry spell.
I have an appointment with my neurologist this week, and hopefully that means I’ll get to try something new that may help with the attacks. Or it might not. You’ll know by whether my posts pick back up to their former frequency.
In the midst of all this, I’ve had a bit of a crisis in terms of how I should approach the task of filtering submission calls before I post. As you can read in the footer to this post, I strive to make this blog LGBTQ-inclusive and to post submission calls from publishers who embrace writers from underrepresented groups. I *do* occasionally share calls that are not open to all writers (because they want stories from Canadian writers or women writers or writers of the African diaspora or …), but make it clear when publishers are looking for submissions from these groups so that, if you don’t belong to them, you don’t unwittingly submit and get a heartbreaking email response that, for example, you’re not Canadian for fuck’s sake, read the goddamn guidelines and don’t submit to us again.
But sometimes I make mistakes.
(That should be especially apparent in this blog post, since I’m awaiting my new glasses prescription and can barely read, much less proof, what I’m typing write now.)
Publishers can be bigoted without even knowing it
A publisher can look great on paper. It can have a track record of publishing diverse fiction, go on and on about how it wants to represent marginalized voices, and even have a mini-mentoring program for writers from underrepresented groups. So you submit a story.
And then you find out that, while the publisher knows how to talk the talk, it doesn’t know how to walk the walk.
Last fall, I submitted a short story to a publisher that I’ve promoted on this blog. The initial reviewers liked it and it got passed on to the next level for consideration by the higher-ups. A few months later, I got a rejection. Oh well, ho hum. That happens.
Unfortunately for both me and the publisher, the rejection letter said more than just “your story isn’t a good fit for us.” It decided to tell me why. Now, the first part of that why was normal—they didn’t like the worldbuilding. OK, fair enough.
But the person who wrote the rejection added another, weird paragraph. That paragraph included a bunch of incorrect assumptions about my gender, sexual orientation, and cultural background. They went on to say that since I didn’t share any of those characteristics with the main characters, I should have employed sensitivity readers and included a note in my cover letter about their use.
There were a bunch of problems with this paragraph:
- Their assumptions about my various identities were incorrect.
- Their assumption that I didn’t share any of these identities with my main characters were incorrect.
- Their assumption that I didn’t have beta readers who shared identities with the main characters was incorrect. (I prefer the term “beta reader” or “content editor” to “sensitivity reader,” because that’s what they are; YMMV.)
- The submission guidelines do not include instructions about disclosing the use of sensitivity readers in the cover letter. They also do not ask writers to disclose their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, cultural heritage, or anything else other than “I wrote this” in the cover letter. So telling the writer they should have included it after the fact is (1) weird; (2) unprofessional; and (3) creepy.
- The fact that this paragraph even existed in a rejection letter. If a publication wants to publish a story, that’s the time to ask about the author’s identities and the use of sensitivity readers—if those questions align with the editorial mission. But if it’s not interested in the story, the topic is irrelevant.
Is the problem that my writing is so awful that, even when I write stories with characters who have similar life experiences to my own, they come off as inauthentic and written by an outsider? Or is the problem that the publisher assumes every writer is a member of every conceivable “majority” group unless otherwise indicated?
My writing’s not perfect, but given previous feedback I’ve gotten on my writing, I don’t think the answer to the first question is “yes.” Which means the answer to the second question probably is.
And you know what that does? That marginalizes people.
There is this rule in publishing that you don’t respond to rejection letters, except perhaps with a “thanks for the feedback.” That left me in a bit of a bind. I had actively promoted this publication to readers of this blog. I felt shitty about this. If you spend most of your life defending who you are as a person, the last thing I want to do is send you to a publisher who is going to ask you to defend yourself from them, too.
So I felt obliged to write a note to the editor. I did my best to be absolutely clear what my concerns were. At the outset, I said I had no problems with them turning down my story. I’ve had stories rejected before and expect to have them rejected again. Also, thanks for the helpful feedback about my worldbuilding! (OK, it wasn’t actually helpful. It was incredibly vague. But they didn’t have to give me any feedback at all, so the fact that they did was nice. So I just said thanks in the note and didn’t comment on the feedback quality.)
And then I said, by the way, whoever wrote the rejection letter made some incorrect assumptions about my gender, sexual orientation, and cultural background, and that felt weird to me. Since you are a publication that’s so focused on welcoming diverse voices, I thought you’d want to know it felt weird and uncomfortable. Maybe you all would want look at this issue and decide whether including such assumptions in editorial responses meets your goals. Thanks so much for considering my feedback!
I had writer friends look over this email. I had editor friends look over it. They assured me it was absolutely clear that I was not complaining about the rejection, and that my feedback was constructive and came across as well-intended.
I sent the email.
A few hours later, or less, I got the nastiest response I’ve ever received from an editor—a bunch of general nastiness, but also specific nastiness in which the editor doubled down on their assumptions about my various “identities.” Followed by more general nastiness and a note that I shouldn’t bother responding or pursuing this topic with anyone else in the publication because I would be ignored.
So … I will not be submitting to this publication any time soon. I won’t be sharing its submission calls on this blog or anywhere else. Maybe one day, when a new editor comes to the helm, I’ll look into it. But maybe not.
It’s hard to be a gatekeeper when you can’t see who’s at the gate
This incident sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I started screening and sharing submission calls on this blog because I was tired of finding submission calls that seemed perfect for my work, only to find out that the publication rejects work with LGBTQ characters out of hand or asks writers to “tone them down.” Then there were the stories of publishers who told to writers that black characters weren’t “black enough” unless they lived in an inner-city ghetto, or think that “Hispanic” and “Mexican” mean the same thing, or that trans bodies are confusing, or that the existence of biracial or multiracial or multicultural families need to be explained.
I wanted to promote publishers who recognize the diversity of human experience and are looking for stories that represent it.
I recognize that few publishers are perfect at this, but that many are trying.
I believe that trying is good. I don’t ask for perfection.
But sometimes publishers convince themselves they’re doing everything they need to do. And, as my experience above illustrates, they give up on trying.
They end up being real jerks as a result.
When I publish a submission call, it’s because I believe the publisher is truly trying. But I can’t see the inner workings of every publisher. I don’t know the minds of each person on their staffs. I’m a gatekeeper who only sees a vague outline of each person standing at the gate. They tell me their name, but I don’t have any ID to check that against. I have to trust them at their word.
Do I want to trust people at their word? I struggle with that.
And this struggle, along with the migraines, may also affect how frequently I post in the future.