How we group “good” and “bad” writing can be really tricky. Each reader brings to a work their own set of values, beliefs, experiences, and tastes. A hardcore Dickinson fan is probably going to look at a new piece of writing differently than a hardcore Philip K. Dick fan.
So how do literary magazines (and even book publishers) make the call? As a reader for Pif Magazine I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We have a total of five editors going over submissions, and not all of us always agree on what should (and shouldn’t) be published. At the end of the day, however, I feel that what we choose to publish on the site is really strong writing.
What interests me, though, is the recent summer issue of The Paris Review (full review upcoming). I’ve only read a few of the stories and poems so far, but as I’ve been reading I’ve been thinking about them in a new way: If this was submitted to Pif, would I have accepted it?
What bothers me is that the answer has been mostly no. Now, this could be a number of things. What bothers me the most is the possibility that because I wouldn’t have accepted the piece and The Paris Review obviously did, it means I have a faulty sense of strong writing and storytelling. If that is the case, I should probably choose a different field. Another possibility is that The Paris Review’s standards are faltering, or they have been publishing for some unknown political reasons rather than merit. Yet another possibility is that writing is just too damn subjective. One person loves it, another doesn’t, and neither is wrong.
But in a world with so much content being produced and made available, who do we trust to point us in the right reading direction? Everyone must trust a source to tell them what to read and what to avoid, as most people don’t have the time or energy to wade through all of the available content themselves.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with The Paris Review, and often find myself unimpressed by the writing they publish. On the other hand, I’m almost always impressed by the selection chosen by Tin House, so it may be to my personal benefit to rely on Tin House as my go-to source for new fiction. I think a fun (albeit spendy) experiment would be to try out as many literary journals as possible and find the one that best suits your own individual tastes and then stick with it. I’ve been attempting this for a few years now, though most smaller journals have failed to catch my interest (to be fair, they only get one shot).
As someone as immersed in reading (and reviewing) as myself, it can be hard to be confident in my own opinions. I try to give fair and informative reviews, highlighting the positive but not letting the negative slip by unchecked, either. I hope I can be a good source for you, my readers, when choosing what to read next.