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Bewildering Stories


Look But Don’t Touch?

with Gary Inbinder, Don Webb, and Bill Bowler

I never allow an editor to tell me anything is wrong with a poem.

— Rebecca Lu Kiernan, in the Interview

[Gary Inbinder] Neither do I. That’s because editors reject my prose without telling me what’s wrong with it. :=)

Seriously though, no one’s above criticism. For example, Mark Twain sent most of his manuscripts to his pal William Dean Howells, and Twain accepted many of Howells’ edits and suggestions. Tolstoy made Anna Karenina a more sympathetic character at a reader’s suggestion, if memory serves me correctly, and probably for other reasons as well. Even the greatest writers consider their readers.

[Don Webb] Our Submissions guidelines cover the waterfront:

Authors vary widely. Some are grateful for all the help we can give them; others cherish their every jot and tittle, and there’s everything in between.

Rebecca is at the “jot and tittle” end of the spectrum. She’s by no means the only one. Like some others — and unlike a few I could name but won’t — she’s been a good sport about it. As editors, we do our job unless and until a contributor says to stop. It’s a matter of finding out where a writer stands, and we can’t be expected to know in advance.

When a writer pours her heart and soul and craft into a poem, I can see how it might be considered her “baby,” namely an extension of herself. Hence the title of our discussion: “look but don’t touch.” Rebecca has apparently received some breathtakingly obtuse feedback, and if she suffers fools neither gladly nor in silence, I can understand why.

There is more: poems and stories are like automobiles. Drive a car long enough and you become one with the machine. But I can’t get all mystical about it: I do take my car to the shop regularly for maintenance and repairs. That’s what Twain was doing when he sent his drafts to Howells.

And in that sense, Bewildering Stories is like an automobile dealership: we display bright, shiny models every week. And they’ve all been inspected by the managers and checked out by the service department. However, when they go on line, the driver is no longer in the car; it’s the readers’ turn to take the vehicles for a spin.

But back to your wryly facetious one-liner, Gary: Bewildering Stories has an ironclad rule; we never tell a contributor that a submission “didn’t grab us.” Or, worse, say nothing at all. Reject or rewrite, we make no bones about the reasons; that’s part of our mission. We run a good and honest shop. That’s what keeps contributors and readers coming back.

[Bill Bowler] It’s important for an author to know when to stick to his guns. I have, on occasion, been sorry to see a writer cave in to an editor’s well-intentioned suggestion when the original creation seemed more interesting or powerful to me than the edited version.

On the other hand, if an author is completely unwilling to “kill his darlings,” if he holds his work sacrosanct, if he refuses to consider criticism, then how is that author to find the means to improve his craft and art? The poet and poem spin in place, self-contained and self-referential.

It’s not a matter of something being “wrong” with a poem. It’s a matter of a dispassionate reader seeing what the creator of the work, bound to it by blood and dream, may not see.

Copyright © 2010 by Bewildering Stories

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