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Criticism, Writings

The Great Literary Experiment

For much of the past year, a few writer friends and I ran our own literary web site, called Third Reader. It was a unique journal in that we provided feedback to writers for every submission. Each of us was tired of receiving those banal, sickeningly politically-correct rejections slips (. . . don’t take this insulting rejection form personally, but we want nothing to do with you . . .), so we felt it our literary duty to challenge the paradigm and make writers feel appreciated by at least offering some constructive criticism.

As long as the number of submissions remained low, it was possible. Many of the writers we corresponded with, even those who were rejected, expressed their appreciation for the dialogue we initiated. We were able to do this because a friend designed a site that allowed editors to communicate directly with writers and each other in private.

We began to think we might have something—a way to change the literary world that would encourage writers, and rip away the curtain that conceals journal editors behind a seeming facade of anonymous pomposity.

But it couldn’t go on. While submissions grew, the number of editors on staff dwindled. And the percentage of stories and poems that were of publishable quality remained the same. That meant more and more bad writing for fewer readers to slog through. Worse, it meant trying to come up with new ways to say “keep learning, keep trying,” when what we increasingly wanted to say was, “your submission sucks.”

After three issues, we closed down the site.

It’s a few months later, and I am now an assistant editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal, one of the better publications in the literary world. Our editorial structure is more traditional. We simply read and either reject or approve and pass on to the next level. The volume of poor writing we receive dictates that it can really be no other way. So many stories are from people who have an idea of what it’s like to create fiction, but are clearly years away from having command of their craft. As much as I’d like to help them to do better, it’s simply too much effort.

Did Third Reader fail? Yes and no. Yeah, we closed the site, but the idea of communication among writers and editors is still a good one in my opinion. The technology makes it possible. But it would also take a large enough staff of editors so the reading and commenting load is not overwhelming. And that means having more people interested and dedicated to making literature a larger part of our culture. But of course, that’s not going to happen as long as new, less confident writers continue to receive impersonal rejections, because they’ll never feel part of the literary community.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


3 thoughts on “The Great Literary Experiment

  1. Yeah, but sometimes people need to hear that it sucks. Nothing annoys me more when I get a rejection and not even one sniff of a reason why. (I’m spoiled though. All of my stories have been accepted on the first or second try, and almost all of my rejections gave a sentence or two hinting at what might be wrong.)

    Posted by uninvoked | September 6, 2009, 5:57 PM
  2. Yes, you are fortunate. Usually journal editors don’t send personal comments unless they want you to submit to them again.

    And yeah, sometimes writers need to hear that a story sucks, but I’ve seen what can happen if the “sucks” isn’t accompanied by some constructive criticism. Frankly, the literary community in the US just isn’t big enough or strong enough to tell people who want to be a part of it, “Get lost, you’re not good enough.” With a little encouragement, more people will write, and read, and maybe down the line we writers will sell more books and stories because more people feel connected to the art, rather than alienated by it.

    Posted by jpon | September 7, 2009, 10:31 AM
  3. Such a noble endeavor – heartbreaking that this didn’t work (though totally understandable). The industry and system needs more of your grace!

    Posted by kobala | September 10, 2009, 12:09 PM

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