Literary Hub

Editorial Power Means Blowing Up the Machine from the Inside

women in war

Many of us aren’t surprised by the revelations of sexual misconduct and abuses of power that have recently come to light, and as editors, we have long expected similar reports of sexual discrimination and abuse in the literary world. Literary Hub decided to bring together nine women editors to have a discussion about these issues, focusing specifically on journals and magazines and the way women in positions of leadership have navigated these issues throughout their careers, and how they continue to navigate them.

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What does editorial “power” mean to you?

Elissa Schappell: Getting to blow up the machine from the inside. Being able to amplify the voices of the writers whose stories aren’t being told and need to be.

Marisa Siegel: Editorial power means the following to me: 1) The power to shape an editorial mission, and in doing so, to shape a publication’s identity and to use its platform in the ways I believe are most important, and, 2) The power to share writing with readers, and hopefully, to open readers’ minds to new ideas, possibilities, and worlds.

Eliza Borné: It’s the freedom to create the kind of magazine I want to read, and it’s an enormous privilege. Many people have put their trust in me as I occupy the editor’s chair—the magazine’s readers and contributors, my colleagues, our board of directors. As editor, I have a responsibility to maintain their trust.

The Oxford American is published by a nonprofit, and I am both an editor-in-chief and a member of the organization’s management team. On a day-to-day basis, my work extends beyond making editorial and creative decisions. I hire people and weigh in on budgetary matters. If we are considering a change to an existing workplace policy, I am part of those conversations, too. It feels important to mention this type of power, which is perhaps more mundane than the work of accepting and shaping stories. So many of the workplace problems we’re reading about now happened (or festered) because of bad or negligent bosses. As a boss, I strive to be ethical and fair.

More broadly, I am keenly aware that when I was young and hungry for editorial work in Arkansas, I benefited from the magazine I now lead. So I also feel that my editorial power comes with a personal mandate to help create meaningful opportunities for other writers and artists in my home state. For instance (and yes, these are plugs!), I serve on the board of the new C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference, based at the University of Central Arkansas, which exists to provide a space for women and women-identifying writers to find camaraderie and networking. I sit on the talent committee for the Arkansas Literary Festival, and I support the efforts of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. A couple of years ago, I was appointed to the Arts & Culture Commission for the City of Little Rock. It’s not lost on me that I am afforded these volunteer positions—which in different ways come with their own kinds of authority—in part because of my professional role.

Jennifer Acker:  Marisa’s definition is spot on, and I also want to highlight Eliza’s point about management. Keeping an organization running is a behind-the-scenes business—one that’s a prerequisite to publishing anything. As a founder, I am keenly aware that we need to keep the lights on in order to create literary conversations and launch the careers of writers.

Medaya Ocher: Editorial power is an odd thing to dissect because it is extensive and pervasive in some ways and negligible in others. There are a few people in this world who decide who speaks and when and where, and editors are part of that small minority. Not only that, but editors also have power over how someone speaks. That is a massive privilege to hand to some other person. I wouldn’t even let someone else order for me at a restaurant. It involves trust and a measure of faith that is kind of shocking if you think about it. Of course, part of being a good editor is maintaining and respecting that voice, but still, I’ve got someone’s language in my hands. What a thing to handle. The other way of looking at this kind of power, is the power of making a text or a voice stronger, clearer, helping another person articulate something that they may have trouble saying. Legibility, making one person’s thoughts legible to another, is a significant power in itself.

At the same time, who cares about editors? We have a vast system of communication that editors don’t have anything to do with. Writers can post whatever they want on Twitter; they can self-publish books on Amazon and make millions of dollars; they can run their own blogs. Editors are people who are lucky enough to foster the talent of others in whatever small way we can.

Halimah Marcus: No one teaches you to be an editor. You can study literary theory and criticism, you can study the craft of fiction, you can even get a degree in publishing, but there is no other way to learn how to edit other than by observing and by doing. If you’re lucky, you come up through the ranks of a publishing house with editorial role models at every step. As a person who co-founded a publication, this was not my situation. I’ve picked up tips and tricks along they way, but I’m mostly self-taught. My strategy has been simple: to help writers achieve the best version of their work as they’ve envisioned it, and to do so in a way that is collaborative and nurturing. I try to be firm but never forceful; ultimate deference goes to the author. After all, editors have no innate authority; their authority is conferred by their employer and later earned by what they publish. In the beginning, founding editors, like me, confer that authority upon themselves.

Power often comes with fame, but editors aren’t meant to be famous. On the spectrum of celebrity, editors fall somewhere below authors and above ghostwriters. The most famous literary editors are men, probably Gordon Lish, Maxwell Perkins, William Shawn, and George Plimpton. But these are only household names in a very particular kind of household (the kind with built-in book shelves). Even I, a self-proclaimed Fan of Editors, can tell you about their personalities, dispositions, and about the publications they edited, but, except for Lish, I can’t say much about their editorial styles. Which is to say that, if done correctly, the true work of an editor—editing—is done behind the scenes.

The role gender plays in all of this is at once obvious and inscrutable. What role has my upbringing as a woman played in the moments when I have second-guessed myself, or failed to take proper credit? I have always been confident in my editorial taste and abilities, but I was still nervous, as a graduate student who had just launched Recommended Reading, to edit stories by Ben Marcus, A.M. Homes, and Helen DeWitt in early issues. What business did I have editing the authors of The Age of Wire and String, Music for Torching, and The Last Samurai? Would a man have had those same misgivings? Maybe not, but he probably should have.

Janice Lee: To chime in, yes to much of the above. As Marisa said, the power to shape an editorial mission. As Elissa said, being able to amplify voices. And also, responsibility and management. The role of being an editor is partially one that creates because a certain framework and infrastructure has been created. That infrastructure creates a certain amount of power, allows for the work to be done, allows for publications to happen and for writing to reach audiences, but it’s also something that’s created, nurtured, and learned. It’s about constantly building a better system while remembering the reasons why we do this.

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Do you consider yourself a gatekeeper?

Janice Lee: Yes, all editors and publishers are gatekeepers to some extent, but I try really hard to keep the gate as open as possible. That means lots of communication, openness, willingness to engage, and approaching publishing as a community endeavor rather than highly curated display of masterpieces. For example, I really appreciate all of the various publication outlets that exist in all forms. From highly curated and high-quality content magazines to smaller DIY outlets with specific aesthetics and political aims. But I also care about community and access. So at least with Entropy, I’ve worked really hard to have Entropy be as much of a community as possible. It’s meant to be a safe space. A lot of younger writers find their first publication with us. More established writers share some of their riskier or more personal work with us. The taste and range is diverse to reflect the whole of the community and its wide-ranging interests. We have over 40 different editors of sections and series that all take their own submissions, and edit and solicit and publish content of their own will. I don’t oversee this. It’s a little bit like an anarchist coffee shop where anyone can walk in and propose an event or find others to collaborate with and everyone will listen and engage. Except online and less white. I talk more about the history of Entropy here.

Alexandra Watson: Because Apogee as an organization seeks to knock down barriers to publishing, I think of our work as more of gate-crashing. This means, for us, not taking money from the writers who submit work to us—we’ve never had a submission fee. Financial security, and access to a credit card, are legitimate roadblocks for a lot of writers. Another significant barrier is access to the literary community—we accept submissions via Submittable, a professional platform. Becoming a literary professional costs a lot of unpaid and underpaid labor and often a lot of money as well—people with MFAs are probably most likely to know about how and where to send work for publication. So, we try to spread the word to other communities, by co-hosting events with community organizations or collectives, like Papi Juice and the New York Writers Coalition. If we can throw a party, or hold a free or low-cost workshop, we can reach a wider audience of potential contributors.

Jennifer Acker: Yes, definitely. Though many voices weigh in, ultimately I decide who we publish, putting some pieces forward and rejecting others. This is a fundamental aspect of being an editor, and I don’t believe, as some do, that editors should be eliminated in the name of “democratic” publishing. Publishing is a merit-based system, and editors are experts. This doesn’t mean we are infallible, but we are not dispensable either.

Allison Wright: This and the question above naturally align. Yes, I consider myself a gatekeeper, and so should anyone else who acquires content. If you accept and reject writing, if you even comment on submissions, you hold some level of power—power over the future of that submission, a certain amount of power over that writer’s future, short- and long-term. Is that a tremendous responsibility? Yes.

Marisa Siegel: Of course. I was a gatekeeper even as Managing Editor of The Rumpus for three years prior to becoming Editor-in-Chief and owner. Any editor is a gatekeeper insofar as they are selecting work from a pool of writers, solicited and/or unsolicited, and giving that work an audience. As Managing Editor, sometimes my hands were tied or my vote wasn’t enough, and I certainly wasn’t able to address structural issues in the organization of The Rumpus.

As an Editor-in-Chief and a white woman living in the Age of Trump (UGH), I think about this every single day. I talk about it with my staff editors and with writers and with editors from other publications. I ask myself, and those I talk with, what we are doing right, what we are doing wrong, and what we can do differently and better going forward. I work to make sure I’m not just paying lip service to the idea of diversity, and I make sure its importance permeates every decision I make regarding The Rumpus.

For example: in mid-October, I put up a call for submissions to what has become a new Rumpus series, ENOUGH. We received over 400 unsolicited submissions before the deadline, and while we did cull this into as diverse a selection as possible for publication, it would be a lie to pretend we didn’t overwhelmingly receive writing from white, heterosexual women. I’ve been thinking, researching, and talking with others since; we know we will be doing another call for submissions to ENOUGH, and we know we need to reach, and reach out to, more writers of color. It will be challenging because we can’t offer much compensation and don’t believe in dangling the promise of “exposure” as a carrot for submission (especially for this subject matter). But it’s important to me, personally, and to our editorial staff, and to our readers. And for our readers.

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Have you noticed a difference between the way male and female editors are treated?

Eliza Borné: My sample size is small since my editorial experience has been fairly isolated; I’ve spent most of my career at one magazine located far from the center of publishing. But I will say that as I observe this reckoning on harassment in the workplace, I keep thinking of how I’ve seen this movie before.

Twelve years ago, when I was 19, I got stuck on the idea that I wanted to be a magazine editor, though I couldn’t afford to spend a summer anywhere other than Little Rock, Arkansas, where I could live rent-free at my parents’ house. Lucky for me, the Oxford American was published nearby. So I applied for an internship. It feels canned to say this now, but it remains true that the three-month internship cemented the course of my career, and it changed my life. When I started at the Oxford American, I already knew I loved literature, but that summer I found that I enjoyed collaborating with smart people to create something beautiful and bigger than myself. I delighted in the work, all of it: fact-checking, line edits, art research, reading submissions.

Not everything that summer was completely rosy. Before I started the internship, my college had conducted a training for students on professionalism; that summer many of us, including me, would be taking our first office jobs. A career counselor shared a handout with a phone number to call if we ever needed help handling a difficult situation on the job. I thought of that phone number when the OA’s editor-in-chief called me “baby,” or critiqued one of my edits by drawing a doodle of my face and hair in the margin of the manuscript we were both working on, or pranked me by leaving a forged note from the editor of another magazine encouraging me to submit (making fun of what he perceived as my huge ambition, I guess). I considered this treatment annoying but mostly benign, and I didn’t report his behavior. Six years later, I questioned that decision when, in 2012, the editor was fired following a sexual harassment accusation, including, among much greater charges, the complaint that he called female interns “baby.”

Today, I’m the editor of the Oxford American—its first female editor-in-chief since the magazine’s founding in 1992. Soon after my old boss was fired, his successor, Roger Hodge, hired me as a junior-level editor. Roger did what we should all be able to expect from our bosses: he gave me tough assignments, treated me with respect, promoted me, and eventually recommended me for his job when he moved on to another gig. Then—and this part is crucial—the Oxford American’s board gave me a chance to succeed.

So, yes, to answer the question: I have noticed a difference between the way male and female editors are treated. But I have also seen what kind of change can happen when organizations address the problem of harassment, hire women, then get out of the way and let professionals do the good work they were hired to do.

Jennifer Acker: One gender norm that drives me crazy is the tolerance for male editors, and writers, to act out and be demanding. While I can think of a handful of men who have behaved like children in a professional setting—cursing, shouting, refusing to listen, hanging up the phone or slamming the door—I can think of no women who have done so. The same is true for writers. Some men have tried to bully their way into the magazine (“Publishing me would be good for you,” etc.); zero women writers have done the same. (I also think to myself: Where are the digressive, thousand-page, exhaustive and exhausting sagas written by women? If they have been written, they have not been published. I don’t have evidence for this, but my sense is that it is the rare editor who would take a chance on a female Knausgaard or David Foster Wallace.)

I think wrong-headed gender norms are also reflected in how we treat male and female characters. In general, readers and critics hold difficult female and male characters to different standards. Simply the appellation “difficult” is given more often to women than to their “interesting” or “struggling” male counterparts. We expect our male characters to challenge authority, to fail spectacularly in the name of ambition. Our female characters have less room to flail and rage.

Elissa Schappell: Sure. Male writers are asked what they think and female writers are asked what they feel. Male writers are not expected to read their female contemporaries work, but women writers are expected to have read theirs. It’s changing I think, but I’ve noticed that despite the fact that the majority of agents are women, the majority of the authors they really advocate for happen to be men. Not sure what that’s about.

Janice Lee: Yes, and though I’m aware of all of the ways in which sexism is pervasive in publishing, as in the rest of the world, I think it’s more complex than how males and females get treated differently. Because it isn’t just about how people are treated, but who is treating who in this way, the reasons for these different and often invisible perceptual differences, and the different roles people are often expected to play. For example, I see “celebrity” as operating differently around some identities. Because of this, some editors and writers might be perceived as being “unattainable” or “someone to kiss up to” or “somebody important to be on their radar” or “somebody with power.” In other cases though, some editors and writers aren’t seen this way. They are seen as people who perform certain functions and roles are therefore are somehow “useful” or “a resource,” and instead, are only “important” when they have something to offer or one is able to get what they want from them. This is often gendered yes. But this is also about race (for example, I find that POC editors and writers often get asked to participate in curatorial projects for their “expertise” on other POC writers, and so end up doing much of the labor around “diversity” for “more important” white editors), social media cache and age (it seems more and more younger writers find people with large social media presences more important, which ends up dismissing a lot of important writers, including older writers), disability (writers expect a lot of work from editors and therefore don’t take into consideration other factors for productivity speeds and expectations), sexuality, ambiguous gender identity, economic status, etc. The list goes on. I also think that there is a pervasive problem in general too, of writers (who haven’t worked extensively as editors) as not understanding that editors are also humans, and having obscene expectations. My favorite (not really) thing that people say to me often are, “Wow! You do so many things! I don’t know how you find the time to do everything you do! I’m constantly impressed by how much you take on and how involved you are in everything! By the way, can I ask you to look at ___?”

Medaya Ocher: Absolutely. Writers will fight me tooth and nail and back off quietly when faced with a male editor. Writers will “report” me to a higher up (I’m managing editor, there’s not that far to go but it still happens), hoping for a different verdict or a lighter edit. I’ve seen this happen to a number of other female editors but never to a male editor. I suppose it must, but I’m sure it’s not with the same level of frequency or dismissal.

I have noticed that the most persistent writers are often men, even when the pitch or piece has been turned down numerous times. Women often need more encouragement to pitch or express their interests or experience. I’ve been to meetings where the men in the room will simply address each other, fully turn their backs to their female colleagues. I’ve been called a “girl” too many times to count. I’ve even been told to put my “big girl pants on.” I have been offered “assessments” of what I am best at—socializing, charming, wearing a dress and having a pair of eyes—never mind my experience, degrees or any evidence of other skills. (Let me ask: would there be a male editor, who had worked in publishing for years, had gone to complete a PhD, and still had to prove that he is more than a social butterfly?) I have seen multiple female colleagues express their concern about a problem, just to be dismissed or ignored. I have of course, frequently been sexualized and reminded of my gender or my desirability or lack thereof. I have also seen female writers and editors be sexualized more times than I can say.

Allison Wright: I’ve noticed a difference in the way male and female writers behave. Upon rejection, of a pitch or a story—the content is neither here nor there—male writers will reply with another pitch or story, sometimes a day or two later, but often immediately. Female writers typically respond with a kind, thank-you email, but wait weeks or even months to submit again. This is a generalization, and certainly not true of every male or female writer, but my inbox bears witness to this pattern. Does this happen to me because I am a female editor? I don’t know. I do know that my male colleagues have experienced similar submission behavior. Does this make a difference in the way male and female writers are treated? Maybe, in the sense that the more you submit the more likely you are to be published (if you believe it’s a numbers game); the more your name is in the ether at editorial meetings, the more likely you are to receive an assignment. In the end, timidity is not your friend. We’ve had multiple pitches or multiple stories under consideration from the same writer, usually male. Recently I suggested that a female writer send us a piece she had pulled from another magazine and her response was that we were already considering something of hers. So?

Marisa Siegel: Male editors are given more respect, more credit, and are often more forward-facing. (The only Managing Editor at The Rumpus who had an especially forward-facing role was a man.) Regarding that last point, I think this is institutional and historical, to some extent, but also a choice that more male editors might make, whereas I think women editors are more likely to think and understand, as Halimah so eloquently stated in her answer to the first question, that editors aren’t meant to be famous. That isn’t the work of an editor, and yet I don’t know if male editors would be as likely to feel this way.

I would echo what everyone else has noted about the vastly different behavior of male and female writers, too. I don’t like to be gender-reductive, but objectively, I, too, receive angry or heated responses to rejections from men and kind thank-you responses to rejections from women. And I, too, wonder if I am receiving these emails because I’m a woman. Would a man in my position receive the same kind of emails from other men, worded in the same angry, sometimes demeaning ways? I doubt it, and definitely not with the frequency I do.

Part two of the discussion will continue tomorrow.

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Contributors

Alexandra Watson, Editor of Apogee

Allison Wright, Executive Editor of Virginia Quarterly Review

Elissa Shappell, Editor of Tin House

Eliza Borné, Editor of Oxford American

Halimah Marcus, Executive Director of Electric Literature and Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading

Janice Lee, Executive Editor of Entropy, Co-Publisher of Civil Coping Mechanisms

Jennifer Acker, Founder and Editor in Chief of The Common

Marisa Siegel, Editor-in-Chief and owner of The Rumpus

Medaya Ocher, Managing Editor of Los Angeles Review of Books

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