Submit to Me: Inside Mid-American Review

Posted on 05 February 2014

Part of what made Bowling Green’s MFA program offer attractive to me was the chance to work on Mid-American Review, a journal I’ve long admired. This year, as I eased into the role of assistant fiction editor, I received a crash course in the inner workings of a literary magazine. I proofread pages, presented at our Winter Wheat festival, discussed stories with other editors, and read hundreds upon hundreds of submissions. Here’s a general look at what I’ve experienced so far as the assistant fiction editor:

We really do read everything. Like many writers, I’ve had my suspicions that certain journals don’t really read all their submissions – that they fill their magazine pages with solicited material and/or send huge chunks of submissions into the trash bin unread – but I’m happy to say this is definitely not the case at MAR. Not only do we read everything, but we approach each story in good faith, with good intentions, and with the hope that this one might be a “yes.”

The quality of writing is stronger than I expected. Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about the draining and hopeless process of reviewing submissions. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced that. Not every story is for MAR, and not every story we receive feels ready yet, but the quality of the average submission is higher than I anticipated. Reading submissions is also a reminder of just how many people out there are writing and maintaining the hope that someone will say “yes.”

That infuriating “Sorry, this isn’t for me” line is true. I might recognize a story has many admirable qualities and is strong, but it either doesn’t float my boat or just wouldn’t fit with the aesthetic of the magazine. When I come across a story like this – one that’s strong but isn’t to my personal taste – I still forward it to staff members to see if anyone else feels differently.

We don’t always agree. Reading for MAR reminds me many times over how subjective this business is. Sometimes the differences are subtle – I might love with the voice of a piece while another reader is only vaguely interested – while other times it’s a dramatic difference in opinion. For example, I might be an emphatic “no” on a particular story that another editor is willing to fight for, or vice versa. To make it even more interesting, this same editor and I might generally have a similar aesthetic, so there’s no predicting how we will each react to an individual story.

A connection is by no means a golden ticket. Very rarely, someone on staff might personally know one of the writers we’re discussing, or perhaps stories from past MAR contributors or other writers with some sort of “connection” enter our reading pile. Believe it or not, these relationships don’t make the journey to publication in MAR easier. Not even close. We discuss everything based on its own merits and how it might fit in with our publication.

Cover letters don’t matter much. I view cover letters as unnecessary but sometimes helpful tools that might satisfy my curiosity about a writer. A long list of impressive credentials is all fine and good, but it doesn’t mean I’ll love the story that writer submitted. On the flip side, if a writer has no previous publications, I’ll hold out hope that this story could be her first winner. And if a writer leaves the cover letter section blank in our online Submissions Manager, I couldn’t care less. It’s the story that counts.

I don’t like sending rejections. I’ve received enough rejections in my writing career to cringe at the thought of a writer opening an email from me that includes a rejection. It’s not fun, and I don’t think any literary editor enjoys it. But it’s part of the job.

We’re doing our best. I know what it’s like to be stuck waiting eight months or longer for a response from a journal, but now, I also know what it’s like to face thousands and thousands of pending submission in the Submissions Manager. We don’t like to be behind, but because we actually read everything, get second or third or fourth opinions on work, and are open to free submissions year-round, it happens. Please be patient with us.

You’ve heard it before from other journals and editors, but it’s true: We really, really want to find stuff we love in the slush. It’s such a treat to stumble across a compelling story or strong voice while reading submissions.

Actually, we don’t use the word “slush.” Slush is the word I use to mentally refer to the huge pile of submissions sent through our Submission Manager because that’s what I’m used to. In reality, however, I haven’t heard that term thrown around by other readers at MAR. We view our submissions as simply that: submissions sent by hardworking writers.

Where are you submitting?

6 responses to Submit to Me: Inside Mid-American Review

  • D. A. Hosek says:

    Thanks, an interesting look behind the curtain. So far I’m running about 50% on getting tiered rejections from MAR… with any luck I’ll manage to crack through one of these days.

    • Yep, our tiered rejections really do mean something. We just picked up a story a few days ago from a writer who’d previously received a tiered rejection from us — so it happens! Good luck.

  • Everywhere.

    (I was once published in the MAR!)

    • Hey, congrats! One thing I should have mentioned is just how difficult it is to get an acceptance, even when the work is really strong. We get so many submissions and yet only have so much room in the print journal. Acceptances really mean a lot.

  • hue says:

    the fact that you have a whole section on ‘connections’ pretty much sums up the whole literary fiction scene —- connections connections connections.

    one hand washes the other

    oh.. and the first readers usually check the cover letters for MFA creds (or connections) and if there are none — instant move over the return pile.

    our literary landscape is decided by pretentious naive kids. its a shame.

    • hue,

      Did you read the post? The whole point was that at Mid-American Review, we care only about the writing and the story. Connections don’t make a difference. I usually don’t read even the cover letter, and if I do, it has zero bearing on whether I accept a piece or not. I send rejections on a regular basis to writers with absolutely stellar publishing histories. I send rejections to the fiction editors of other journals. I have sent rejections to personal acquaintances and close personal friends. In my tenure first as assistant fiction editor and now as fiction editor, I have never accepted a story from someone I personally know. I care about the story and whether it’s a real fit for MAR, not the writer’s name or cover letter.

      You know, I understand how frustrating this process can be. I submit too, and believe it or not, my role as fiction editor of MAR doesn’t make things easier. So far this fall I have received many more rejections than I feel comfortable counting up and sharing in this space. I get it. Rejection sucks. And sometimes it can seem like the literary world is this closed-off enclave where editors only publish people they know. Maybe that’s true in some places, but guess what? Mid-American Review is not like that.

      So I think writers have two choices. You can be bitter and decide that you’re getting rejected because the literary world is out to get you. Or you can return to the writing desk, keep sending stuff out, handle rejection just like all of us have to, and persist. If you are tenacious and serious and do you research, over time, the good work will rise to the top. I truly believe that.

      But thank you for your comment, which will likely be helpful as I plan my Winter Wheat session about rejection. Best of luck to you.

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