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.