There's a question on a lot of people's minds when it comes to small, competitive fields in the arts: is it about who you know? Acknowledging I can only speak to one of the lower levels of being a writer, I don't have a book, an agent, a column, a heart,
or a father who happened to be OJ Simpson's lawyer. But to answer the question about whether or not you need to know someone to get published, the answer is the same as it is anywhere. Yes and no. But at this level, mostly no.
Not too long ago, I was looking for a job. My mother kept begging me to let her talk to her friends and have them put in a good word for me at their various places of work. I refused. Exasperated, she kept telling me that "you have to use your connections. Everyone who has landed somewhere knows someone. Everybody gets help, let me help you, you needlessly stubborn imbecile."
In the end, I landed a job without knowing anyone at a place where no one had heard of me or my mother or my mother's uncountable friends, and I felt soothed that even though connections undoubtedly help, getting by without them is possible.
When it comes to Canadian lit journals, I feel like things are (mostly) egalitarian. Writers don't need to know readers or editors to have their work accepted. If they did, I wouldn't have a publication list to speak of, just a propensity for whiskey with nothing romantic to show for it. Sometimes, there are actually systems in place to mitigate writerly nepotism. For example, entries to writing contests are submitted anonymously so that none of the judges know whose work they're reading (unless they've read it before.) It's a good mechanism, but it's mostly just for contests. For non-contests, or "regular submissions" as they're referred to, you include your name with your submission package.
Still, especially among lit journals that have been around for awhile, there doesn't seem to be an excess of favouritism. Are there people who occasionally benefit from knowing someone on the inside? Yeah, probably. But if you don't know anyone at all and you've just quit your job as an actuary or a high powered pastry chef in the interest of becoming a writer, don't worry. You've got the same laughably poor chance as the rest of us.
Case in point, for this rejection, rejection 8/100, a writer I adore and am friendly with was one of the two folks guest editing the issue. I wasn't planning on submitting to this issue, but the night before the deadline, she (the talented guest editor I sometimes still can't believe I know in real life,) made a Facebook post reminding everyone that tomorrow would be the last day to get your poetry in, and proceeded to tag people who she'd like to see send work. And among those names was little old me, Erin Von Facebookson, of the clan Von Facebookson.
I was stoked as a 90s bay area skateboarder to be on her radar at all, so I went through my poems, found some that were appropriate to the theme, and emailed them to the magazine within the hour. Two of the three pieces I had never sent out before, and I felt particularly excited about one of them. My partner called it his favourite of my poems. I was glad I'd been able to deliver something after the personal shout out. It was a real clapping my hands clean of dust moment.
Did I feel confident I would be accepted because I knew one of the guest editors? Of course not. I've never felt confident about anything a day in my life. There was perhaps the smallest part of me (okay second smallest behind the truly negligible portion of my brain is supposed to be able to remember my medical history when doctors ask me questions) that wondered if it might help, just on the grounds that she likes???my work enough to have tagged me in that post.
As a shrewd and careful reader, you know that this particular tale is one of rejection. But it was a heartening rejection in its way, because it affirmed that while this is a losing game, it's not rigged. At least, it's not when this guest editor is in charge. I was satisfied by her incredible integrity. I imagine it's challenging to turn down work from strangers, let alone work from people you know, but she was brave and made the call that was best for the issue. Post rejection, I was left feeling even more proud to know her.
Just like I didn't want a job on the grounds that my mother knows Harold Weiners, the inventor of toaster strudel,
I don't want writing acceptances because I know the decision makers. No, I want writing acceptances because my shit is so good that even my longstanding nemesis Ray Anderson* would grudgingly want my work.
*who's frumpy now, Ray, you human rugburn.
[WRITING REJECTION 8/100]
Thank you so much for sending your work to the Coven issue of Poetry Is Dead--we enjoyed reading your poems! We received an enthusiastic volume of submissions for the issue and had to make some very difficult decisions. We regret to inform you that we can’t offer your submission a home in the issue. This, however, does not reflect the quality of your work.
We wish you the best in placing your work elsewhere! Thank you for taking the time and care to share your writing with us.
Poetry Is Dead
There you have it. I'm not getting rejected because for lack of contacts. I'm getting rejected on my own merit.
Until next time,
- E.B Kirsh