canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

On Becoming an Editor: An Act of Betrayal?

by Michael Bryson

Writers and their productions are amazingly diverse. There is one topic, however, on which most writers agree. Editors don't know what they're doing.

Not surprisingly, the animosity is often shared by editors. This was made clear to me when I signed up for two night classes a couple of years ago. One was called "Writing for Magazines", the other "Magazine Editing." Each class began with the instructor informing his students the largest obstacle to their happiness would be a member of a different class of human beings: writers for editors, editors for writers.

I have never subscribed to this polarized view of the world. To participate in the literary community requires wearing different hats at different times. One can write and publish fiction and poetry. One can wear the hat of the critic or book reviewer. One can be an editor or publisher and help shepherd writers and their writing to the marketplace of ideas. I am convinced these are complimentary, though not uncomplicated roles.

One of the complications is the shifting balance of power. For the novice writer, the editor is something akin to a vengeful God who inflicts plague after plague (rejection after rejection) on the house of "Art." Judging from the state of much popular writing, it seems fair to conclude that the balance of power shifts in favour of the writer as the dollars pile up. If it's selling, why edit the garbage out of it.

Having written fiction and poetry and having now edited two editions of The Danforth Review, I can offer a perspective from both sides of the street. More than once I have sent the same story to two or more publications and received vastly different responses in return. I have found this frustrating and of little use to my development as a writer. Instead, I nurtured an opinion about the ignorance of some editors and readers.

I have tried not to be that kind of editor in my role of selecting work for The Danforth Review. As of the date of this writing (September 24, 1999), I have rejected fiction from five writers and poetry from 13. In return I have received a half-dozen notes of thanks for my comments and one stinging note informing me I had two choices: a) I could provide the writer a better explanation of why I turned down his work, or b) I had a moral obligation to remove my publication from the internet. (I did neither.)

One of the notes of thanks was from a poet who told me he had made a decision last year to send his work "everywhere" and had since received "every comment imaginable," including my own comment that I couldn't accept his poems but I wished him well. What else is there to say? I firmly believe it is not an act of betrayal to reject a writers work, simply stating "this work is not suitable for us at this time."

Acts of betrayal do happen, however. When a story or poem is lost. When a publication takes over a year to respond to a submission. (Both of these things have happened to me and many others.) Editors are neither vengeful Gods or the ultimate champions of good writing, decorum or dare we call it literature. In the end, writers are on their own, alone with the page, making decisions about which word goes after which word.

That's exactly the way it should be.







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