Editor’s Notes: Submissions Then and Now
Not so long ago—the later 1970s—I wandered vaguely into the elegant Jeffersonian chambers of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Lounging with a newspaper in his wing-backed chair sat the legendary editor Staige Blackford, toothpick jiggling in the corner of his mouth. Despite the heat, he wore a three-piece suit. Mr. Blackford looked up at me with mild interest.
Somehow—Staige had many sources—he’d heard tell that I’d come to Charlottesville to work with Peter Taylor and therefore must know something about evaluating fiction. There lay a fiction in itself. Nevertheless, without his ever asking or my quite agreeing, Staige maneuvered a stack of manila envelopes into my arms. Thus an on-again, off-again, and forever-on-again career of reading manuscripts was commenced.
Looking back, it’s not just the dark suit (with wingtips) or even those manila envelopes bearing laboriously typewritten stories that seem antediluvian. It’s that only a couple dozen of them lay dozing in the stack.
Even when nearly twenty years later and through many strange twists of fortune and fate I had become editor of the Kenyon Review, submissions still arrived clad in manila. By then, however, many, many more of them were appearing regularly, perhaps a thousand or two for the entire year, carted in plastic postal tubs. Buried deep in the radon and murk of Sunset Cottage’s basement, my office featured those tubs stacked nearly to the ceiling.
And then the world changed. First came word processors and computers. The plastic tubs, the paper cuts, and the manila envelopes all went the way of wing-backed chairs and well-dressed editors. Our transom is now virtual, and writers can submit to multiple journals almost effortlessly.
For the most part this has been all to the good. No longer do we occasionally misplace manuscripts. If a digital sheaf of poems needs to be shared with G. C. Waldrep or David Baker, or a promising story with Caitlin Horrocks, or an essay with Geeta Kothari, it takes only the click of a key.
A parallel truth, however, has been the extraordinary growth of writing programs across the land. They flourish from elementary schools all the way through university MFAs and PhDs. Their graduates, aspiring authors, naturally seek publishers. And the Internet—where the click of another key also allows painless submission—has led to exploding numbers of stories, poems, and essays received by literary magazines.
Partly to address the growing numbers, partly to salve our frustrations at having to say no to so much great work, we launched KROnline a decade ago. Since then we’ve published twice as many stories, poems, essays, and reviews as in print alone. Yet even that hasn’t stanched the flow. During the four months of our 2014–15 reading period we received some 9,200 digital manuscripts—an all but overwhelming flood. In Fall 2015, with the period shortened to three months, we still received 7,500—and as I write these notes, in March, we haven’t yet completed evaluating them, though we’re close.
We remain committed to reading each and every submission that arrives. That’s part of our mission, and it’s the only way we can discover the unexpected, the fresh, new voice, the unlikely gem. And we also want to ensure that stories or poems arriving late in the period stand the same chance at publication in the Kenyon Review or KROnline as do those that appear at the very start.
No easy solution to the challenges presents itself. But to try to make the process a little fairer, we will shorten our reading period still further in 2016: from September 15 to November 1. My guess is we’ll still receive many more superb pieces than we can publish. But we will strive for all to have an equal shot based simply on the merits of writers’ work. That’s my hope and my goal.
On the Cover
Eleanor Taylor lives and works from her home by the sea in Hastings, England. She graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2011 and has since been working for a variety of clients, including the New York Times, Smithsonian, New Republic, Wall Street Journal, and New Statesman. In 2011 she was shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize and in 2015 won the AOI Prize for Illustration. She illustrated David Almond’s collection of short stories Half a Creature from the Sea, published by Walker Books.