Changing of the Guard

Posted on July 23, 2010


It’s only natural when new editors take over a magazine (whether commercial or literary) that they would want to put their own stamp on it at some point. After all, magazine editors take their profession seriously and want what they publish to reflect their vision and handiwork. Since readers often take a proprietary view towards the content of the magazines to which they subscribe, prudent (and thoughtful) editors wait for a few issues to fully flex their editorial muscles — by redesigning the magazine; altering the magazine’s mission and focus; reworking its geography; reviewing existing contracts for work; reviewing supporting staff, etc. The idea is to get the lay of the land. Key in gaining that sense is acquiring a firm grasp of what readers want from the magazine and how better to serve them.

In the brouhaha about the Paris Review “unaccepting” a number of poetry manuscripts (no one is certain exactly how many were unaccepted and what the exact percentage of the magazine’s poetry backlog this constitutes — anyone with verifiable info on this, please leave a comment), a number of issues arise.

First is the contractual issue. I am not certain that the Paris Review offered contracts as part of their acceptance package, but that should be standard practice. A contract for first serial rights should accompany every letter of acceptance. This contract should also have a “kill” clause specifying under what circumstances the magazine can decline to publish (and void the contract) and under what terms (usually a “kill” fee). This is a very handy clause, especially useful in change of editorial regime, or, for example, when the writer performs some heinous act that will forever shame the magazine that publishes said writer’s work.

If no contract was ever tendered, then it is implicit that a contract was offered (think: verbal contract). In a field where a letter of acceptance is followed by publication (without a signed contract), that practice constitutes a binding offer to publish.

In any case — “verbal” contract, contract without kill clause, contract with kill clause, the poet does have recourse to sue the magazine in small claims court for the payment for publication (or kill fee if in the contract and not paid). If the poet wins, the poet still might have to go back to court again to get the magazine to pay. Intangibles — such as the prestige of being published in the Paris Review, and how that relates to being published in other high-end magazines, as well as making respectable book publishers take note, as well as hiring committees at institutions of higher learning — can’t be weighed into deliberations in small claims court. (However, one could contend that not getting published in the Paris Review might cost one a tenure-track teaching position with a starting annual salary of $75,000. That would take us out of small claims court and into the realm of hired lawyers, who would have to argue whether there was in fact a direct correlation between not being hired and  having that poem unaccepted by the Paris Review.)

For poets, it’s the intangibles that derive from acceptance and publication in the Paris Review that matter most, and not the paltry cash payment. It’s supreme validation.

However, going back to where I started, it is very understandable that editors would want to put their own mark on what is now their magazine. The new senior editor and poetry editor at the Paris Review might have had a hard time with their predecessors’ selections of poems. After all, it will be their names on the masthead now and readers will nominally infer that they made the decisions to run these poems.

Now let’s go back to that prudent waiting period to size things up before making (rash) decisions. Most readers initially give new editorial leadership the benefit of the doubt (especially if they don’t go about monkeying with their magazine right off the bat). That benefit extends to the first few issues under the new regime. There’s also some understanding — on the readers’ behalf — that not everything in the magazine reflects the new leadership.

Here’s where some more facts are needed (& dear reader[s] if you have verifiable info, please leave a comment). The unsubstantiated reports indicate that the new editors at the Paris Review inherited a year’s worth of poetry. That’s a very sizable backlog. If you were a new editor, you’d have to wait a full year before your decisions get reflected in content that readers would read. That would be very hard to swallow. (At, say roughly 8 poems an issue, we are talking about 30 or so poems. With, say 2 poems per poet, we estimate roughly 15 or so unaccepted poets.) But the new poetry editor (or senior editor) could have written a letter to readers explaining the backlog, etc. Or publish more poems per issue to get through the backlog quicker. Or publish them online.

Creating such a huge backlog is, in my mind, a reflection of grave editorial mismanagement. Or great hubris. Or both. That’s one mistake. A safe amount would be 2 issues.

How does one “undo” a serious mistake? Well, not by making another serious mistake. Two wrongs still do not make a right. If one makes a commitment to publish work, one should follow through. It’s an issue of trust with both contributor (poet) and reader. Who knows if two issues down the line the current poetry editor gets axed and all of his acceptances get unaccepted?

What is curious in this incident is little consideration is being given to the readers of the Paris Review either by the new editorial leadership or by the unaccepted poets. As noted above, readers often feel that they are the true “owners” of the magazine. Not those guys on the masthead. They are the ones who fork their money over and spend the time reading it. How do they stack up in all of this mess?

The decision to unaccept is an exhibition of bad form, bad ethics and a general disregard for both readers and contributors. (I won’t mention that it also is an incredible slap in the face to the previous poetry editors — aw, but I just did…)

What can one do?

Not much. Or at least not much that will amount to much.

But if you’re a reader of the Paris Review and if you don’t like what happened, you can write a letter to the new editors and/or cancel your subscription. Vote with your checkbook (or credit card). If you are a poet or writer, do not submit to a magazine that exhibits such neanderthal practices (hey, you might very well be the next to be unaccepted). It’s called a boycott.

Boycotts are only successful if there’s consensus.  Therefore, unfortunately, I know a boycott won’t work — at least on the submission end. For every poet and writer with enough self-dignity not to acquiesce to this bad behavior, there will be a dozen who will be more than happy to be published in the Paris Review and attain all of its benefits.

Any parent knows: Reward bad behavior and you’ll continue to receive bad behavior.

Any person knows: Nice guys finish last.

Some of us are just content to eat dust.