Thursday, December 21, 2006

Lying in submissions

C. Dale Young writes, in his post "Lies and Garbage" (and in his role as poetry editor of New England Review):

"Why do writers lie in their cover letters? I mean, they not only lie but they lie like dogs. Not all of them. Not even the majority of them. But the ones that do just about kill me. It is never a good idea to lie about something like having work in The New Yorker and POETRY. These can be checked in less than a minute. And even if your lie gets your work past the screeners and into the hands of the poetry editor, s/he will know almost immediately that you are lying. So weird."

My comment to him:

1) I, too, am astonished that somebody would lie about the really biggest names, where it is, in the age of the web, astonishingly easy to be caught in one's lie.

In composition classes and academic work, it is easy these days for students to steal essays from the web (or essay-like texts from blogs), but it is also incredibly easy for their teachers to find them, too (and the stolen material sticks out like a sore thumb, because of the change in style—and, with my students, the sudden absence of the common mistakes made by German speakers). In fact, the English Seminar in Basel subscribes to a service that can identify plagiarized texts—the flip side of students' buying essays from web services.

2) Why do editors need bios at all? I just read the guidelines page at NER. It does not ask writers to submit a bio in their cover letters. Have you thought about asking people to NOT send bios?

What is the purpose of a bio with a submission to a literary magazine, anyway? If the editors are really serious about the idea that they look only at the poems themselves and not at the names of the poets who wrote them, then a bio should be superfluous. If a good bio increases the poet's chances of being published, then the editors are looking at more than just the poems themselves, aren't they?

Of course, even without bios in cover letters, editors will still recognize the names of many of the poets who submit to them. But short of blind submissions (as in prizes), there's nothing to be done about that.


C. Dale said...

I have no intention of reading 45,000 poems per year for NER. I have readers and the way we screen submissions to go to me directly or to readers is via cover letter. I wrote more about this as a comment at my blog below your own.

Andrew Shields said...

Dale's comment certainly completely clarifies the role of the cover letter! I did the math: if he read all the poems submitted to NER, it would take him over s months of eight-hour days (including weekends) to read them all—and that would be a minimum, because that's assuming one minute per poem!

Andrew Shields said...

I did some more math: assuming 5 poems per submission, NER gets 9,000 submissions per year. Just reading the cover letters to sort them (these go straight to CDY, these go to readers) would take at least 150 hours (again, assuming one minute per letter). Since NER only accepts submissions nine months per year, that means just sorting the letters must involve about an hour of work every working day for nine months (and that's not even considering the physical sorting of the letters themselves).

Numbers like this make me appreciate the work that those who publish literary magazines (often with no remuneration at all) even more than I ever have!

Donald Brown said...

But the point of your blog comment is still valid (if perhaps naive).

The reason for lying in cover letters is that, if not caught, the lie may cause the poems to be looked at when, otherwise (i.e., no impressive previous publication mentioned), they won't be.

In other words, the liars know that the letter is the open-sesame; and the same math applies: who has time to read all the poems submitted? who has time to read all the cover letters? who has time to check the bogus publication credits in the letters? Sooooo, it's worth a shot.

It's like the kid in "The Squid and the Whale" who claimed he wrote Pink Floyd's "Hey You." When confronted he said, "I feel that I could've written it. It's just a technicality that I didn't..."

Andrew Shields said...

C. Dale's point in his original post, though, is that if he sees an impressive publication listed, he can easily check it if he has not heard the poet's name before. And if he catches the lie, he won't publish the poet's work.

The math argument does not apply here, because NER only publishes 65-80 poems a year. In the end, it's only those poets whose lies need to be checked, and since many of those poets will be ones whose work C. Dale is already familiar with in one way or another (even if he has never published them before), then the number of poets whose lies he really needs to check becomes even smaller.

Also, at least at NER (according to C. Dale), all submissions do get read—the cover letter serves as a way to sort out the work that goes straight to the Poetry Editor from the work that goes to other readers first. So even if you do not lie and you say that you have never published any poetry, it still gets read.