By Shannon Cain
Backlash this week in the ongoing struggle against institutionalized sexism in the literary world—by which I mean the aggressively male table of contents in the current issue of The New Yorker and Wikipedia’s bizarre behavior in the wake of a New York Times piece on their erasure of women from the “American Novelists” category—has me thinking and rethinking my own experiences with rejection.
In his post here last month, Major Jackson revealed a dirty secret of literary publishing: we are a culture of rejection. I’ll share our corollary secret, and an even more scandalous one: we’ve all implicitly agreed upon the necessity of this culture. Nobody’s suggesting we eliminate this most brutal and fundamental principle of the game.
To imagine literature without editors is to imagine chaos. These valiant gatekeepers do the hard and tedious work of seeking the good and eliminating the mediocre, so that readers seeking beauty and truth will find what they came for, and so that writers will know when their work doesn’t (yet) measure up to that standard. Diligent and caring men, like Major at The Harvard Review and Sven Birkerts at AGNI, have saved me from myself, over and over again, with a simple and eloquent No.
I have collected hundreds of rejections for my short stories. The number, to be exact, is 234—and these are for just the nine stories that ended up in the table of contents of my book. The title story alone was rejected 23 times before Steven Donadio at The New England Review accepted it; the following year it appeared in the O. Henry Prize anthology. My story “Cultivation” was rejected by almost as many magazines before the team at Tin House, led by Rob Spillman, gave it a home, and the editors at the Pushcart Press subsequently saw fit to include it in their annual volume.
In between the rejections, I revised. I worked those stories, hard, until they shone. And I am left feeling grateful for male editors like Steven, Rob, Major and Sven. The Harvard Review was one of the few literary magazines to undergo a self-assessment in the wake of the 2012 VIDA Count, that elegant exposé of institutionalized sexism in the literary world. And Erin Belieu, the co-founder of VIDA, earned her chops working for years alongside Askold Melnyczuk as the managing and poetry editor for AGNI. My informal count reveals the two most recent issues of AGNI contain more female authors than male.
So I did a count of my own, as a writer who spent years of her life submitting stories to literary magazines. It turns out that the majority of the stories in my collection—six out of nine—were originally acquired by male editors.
The results of my count surprised me, although they shouldn’t—the gender imbalance of litmag editors in the U.S. mostly explains it—but as a former editor for a women’s literary press and a lifelong activist for women’s issues, I did not expect to discover such approval of my work from male gatekeepers. Certainly not my work, which is overtly political and fundamentally feminist.
Major feels lousy for giving only two minutes to a poem. Yet a two-minute rejection from an editor like Sven or Major isn’t so much a rejection as it is a free opinion from a master of the craft. A don’t call us, we’ll call you from Major is far more valuable to a new writer than a similarly silent rejection from an intern assigned to the slush pile at Harper’s. If my story can’t hold the attention of an editor like Sven for two full minutes—two minutes is an eternity!—then it means I need to fix it. It means I haven’t achieved what he—and I—want literature to achieve. The moment “when I am admitted into the language,” he writes, “when I feel the writer’s rhythms resonating with mine. Then I have the sensation … of being very near to the movement of another human consciousness.”
Yes. This is what I want my work to do. And I don’t know about most writers, but I need a good editor to tell me whether I’ve succeeded.
Major says he often questions the authority that forces him to play literary gatekeeper, which for me is signal enough that his is the kind of gatekeeping we need. Our problem isn’t the fact of gatekeeping; it’s that so few of those guards ask this question of themselves.
Although I am full of righteous indignation against the men who presumably dismissed my work because it was written by a woman, I find myself more interested today in praising those men who not only transcend their privileged status as keepers of the literary gates, but who also use it to advance social equity. Editors of this ilk understand how to keep American letters relevant and vibrant. I send my work to men like Sven and Major because I know if they reject it, they’ll have done so not because a woman wrote it, but because she didn’t write it well enough.