Sean Preston

What We Talk About When We Talk About Submission

Article by Sean Preston

Tonight I met a writer for a drink. Huddled against the brick of the outer wall, we sheltered against angled rain, and it struck me that he never uses the word “submission”.

The peculiar thing about running a literary magazine is that you talk about submission several times a day. Peculiar, because if you take that word out of the context of creative writing then we know it to mean, “surrender”. Is what writers do – in sending their fiction to a publication like ours – not surrender? The moment a writer deems their work ready for the critical eye is a moment of surrender, of sorts, right? Writers will tell you how difficult it is. To surrender your art. To let go. To submit. Is that what we talk about when we talk about submission?

The inimitable peculiarity of submission in our context had been lost on me, and largely, the word occupies a part of my brain that makes me ache with the dread of deadlines and self-awarded administrative duties. In our call to arms, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the now maligned “Obey” movement, in “Read. Write. Submit.” the request for submission is intended to feel like a command, but aside from that, the word means what the word means.

It used to be difficult, getting people to submit. At first nobody wanted to. Or at least, there was nobody to want to. I was not part of a writing community. I was not from the world of publishing. The idea of networking left me cold to the touch. This was five years ago, and to make things harder on the fledgling publication we called Open Pen, I was entrenched in a mire of anti-social-network/pro-print doctrine. What a time to be alive. Except that the inconvenient truth behind the print partisan is that he will struggle to find a large enough network of fellow print partisans to be print partisans with. Finding writers that we could and wanted to include in our magazine was a grind, and we seldom used the word “submit” or “submission” because we were doing the chasing. We cobbled together enough writing with promise, but we only did so through a relentless word-of-mouth campaign through friends. Now they all submit. That’s how it feels anyway, and that’s due to time and how long we’ve been going as much as anything else. Early on, the increase in submissions was owing to some pride-swallowing campaigns on social networks. It is not something that we’ve had to worry about since. Writers were submitting, and they kept coming back.

Tadhg Muller was one such case, one such writer. This eccentric Tasmanian made a mark when he submitted, and the way in which he submitted to us, felt different. We get writers that don’t take sympathetically to rejection, of course, but largely they’ll sulk; never submit to our publication again. Muller is not a sulk. He’s a blunt, no-bull thylacine. I hadn’t realised at the bookshop event we held at the time, in Bethnal Green, London, but Muller had been in attendance as a conspicuous, shuffling, uneasy presence in the corner, an unlikely tenant of one of the bookshop basement’s primary-coloured beanbags. A ridiculous setting for the New World enfant terrible, now I think it. That night, by email, not only did he tell us why we were wrong to reject his work, he also told us what we were doing wrong with the magazine. He was wide of the mark, I felt, at least in regard to the former point. I believed that at least four submissions for that issue were better than his, and so they got in, his didn’t. Perhaps I was in a bad mood, perhaps my ego had been bruised by his admittedly shrewd commentary on where the magazine could be improved, but I told him exactly why his submission didn’t make it in. Mistake. Muller bit back with ferocity and the two of us went at it with pigheadedness nuanced by our respective cultural backgrounds.

I’ve always considered great writing to be a powerful tool. We all do or we wouldn’t be here, right? The finest fiction often changes us, and changes the way we think. Shapes us. At least until the next book. What I didn’t consider, to expose my callowness, is that a writer can change you, that writers themselves would change me. Not just in their fiction, in their storytelling, whether they favour the Oxford comma, or even in the politics of their protagonists, but in the writers themselves, who as an editor of a prose magazine that we’ve kept as open in submission policy as we can (no themes, no windows, no fees) you get to know through email, through live events, and through editing – where needed. All of this, I would say, could be encompassed under: How a writer submits. I think that’s what Tadhg Muller taught me about writers writing for publishing (writing to be read): They don’t submit. They don’t submit in the sense that they do not yield to the magazine. What writers do is give, proffer, venture, bestow. That may sound as though I’m buttering the writer, but it’s something I make sure to recall when I catch myself sighing at my inbox.

After our spat, I didn’t expect to hear from Tadhg Muller again, truth told. So when he submitted to the magazine the very next issue, egregious editor that I am, I was already mentally selecting adjectives I could admonish the submission with. The rat bastard, I’ll show him. Didn’t work out that way, of course. Tadhg’s submission, “In Lieu of a Memoir” remains one of my favourite submissions we’ve had at Open Pen. It was bent out of shape, rough around the edges, and utterly readable. Edgy without being laboured, the short story had that one thing that I’ve come to value above all else in reviewing our submissions: it had its own voice. A brutal voice. One that wouldn’t submit to moderation. When Tadhg Muller submits, he gives, he doesn’t submit. He doesn’t surrender. He will not yield. He proffers and he throws mud in your eye. He is inviolable from his prose. He does not say “submit”.

That’s what we talk about when we talk about submission.

The Short Story Articles / Sean Preston / 24th February 2016


Sean Preston is the editor of Open Pen Magazine, a free short fiction magazine now in its fifth year, stocked in independent bookshops. Born in east London, Sean lives in east London. He trolls on Twitter as @SeanPrestonLDN

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