Sven Birkerts‘ “Submission Guidelines” (from AGNI #59) is an honest and revealing look at Birkerts’ process of deciding what stays (and gets further reading) and what goes (into the reject bin)from AGNI‘s slush pile.
It would be easy to take Birkerts to task for “making editorial judgments based in many cases on a reading of a paragraph or two of prose, sometimes less”, but what’s the sense in being angry? He’s being honest. He’s letting all the poor, disillusioned and yet hopeful writers out there know how it really works in his world and for this, I am grateful.
The point is that EVERY WORD COUNTS. Every word matters. There are no throw aways. And to ask yourself what he is looking for is almost pointless because in the end it is about an ethereal and personal aesthetic. Birkerts says:
As for the qualities, the attributes, the instancings of vision I find myself searching for—how can I compose a coherent list? They are intangible, as variable as the plastic expressions of the face. But these selections, I believe, share something in common: They all go after the density and complication of inwardness, avoiding the feint of posed simplicity or the postmodern defensiveness of ironic self-consciousness. They offer up—from the floundering Jew to the foundering Finn to the prism of poetry and beyond—a sense of the irrational thrust of living, its comedy and its horror, and in this they honor, implicitly, the carrying power of the word.
Great essay and well worth the read.
It is a fascinating read. Of course, everyone does this on a daily basis, armed with the remote control mentality that we’ll move on to the next channel/article/story if we are not intrigued at the outset. If anything, editors should be granted more leeway to do this because they will actually publish (and pay) for those that interest them. The irony is that writers give them less leeway to be so selective, standing instead on a perceived lack of respect (instead of a practical reality).