On Blind Review: Or, The Problem of Pretend Objectivity

Anyone who submits to lit mags should be familiar with the term ‘blind review.’ This is usually accompanied with directions to remove your name and identifying info from all pages of your submission, except for the cover letter (which should be in a separate document). This way only the editor that receives the incoming submissions has access to the names/identities associated with the submitted pieces (and, ideally, the mag has a high volume of submissions, so the editor that does see names couldn’t possibly be bothered to remember them anyway). That editor then sends the works along to section editors/readers and they are reviewed without bias toward gender, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or any other label or minority identifier that someone could judge the author for.

In a perfect world, that’s all well and good, and certainly the intent behind blind review has its merits, but in practice, this allows terrible people to be published. You might think, “But, if their work is good, doesn’t it deserve publication?” To which we cite Kate Leth:

We think this says it all, but to clarify, in every artistic community there are abusers who get away with having a platform for their work because of the fallacy of ‘artistic merit.’ (No need to name them here, but we’re sure we can all name a few actors or musicians who fit this description). The world of Can Lit and writing globally is not immune. We believe in encouraging emerging writers, and so we also believe that these writers have the potential to become even better than the so-called greats who get published despite their personal failings and the harm they cause their communities. Obviously, we strive to publish good writing, but we do so without allowing shitty people into our community.

So no, we don’t blind review. We leave names and bios on our submissions so that we (and our guest editors) can see who wrote the work submitted. How does this impact our review process? Well, we have some people we will always reject because we know, through whisper networks, that they have abused their positions of power, exploited and crutched on their ‘renown,’ or made people of certain groups feel uncomfortable (at best) and caused serious mental/physical harm (at worst). This doesn’t mean you have to hold the exact same values as us to get published in antilang. or soundbite, but it does mean that you have to genuinely believe all humans are deserving of human rights, respect, and dignity. That seems like a low bar, but apparently it’s not. We also extend this beyond social justice concerns to encompass issues specific to lit mags, for example, plagiarism. If someone has plagiarised in the past, we don’t accept their work, even if it is an original piece. Yes, people can change, but we don’t have to forgive and forget.

But how do we know if someone is a shitty person? To be honest, we can usually tell from the cover letter or the piece itself, but we also do a quick google search of our short listed submitters. Does this mean you spend more time researching submitters than on reviewing their work (AKA, on your job)? No, because most of our submitters are amazing people! We can tell from their cover letters, their bios, their pieces, that they care about people! Many of our submitters mention their activist work in their letter and treat all their characters with dignity (even if they are not great people in the text—there is a quality about the writing that shows its a comment on an individual, not an entire group of people). And we love this—we love that our submitters (at least, the overwhelming majority) are compassionate and considerate.

Guest Editor Reveal: Jaclyn Morken

Hey!

morken2019I’m Jaclyn, I’m Saskatchewan born and raised, and I don’t plan on leaving any time soon. I have an English degree from the University of Saskatchewan and now I’m working through the end of my MFA in Writing—so, I like to read and write. I mostly inhabit the fantasy genre, but I’m trying to branch out.

I’ll start off by saying what smarter people than me have already said: speculative fiction takes us into new territory. Whether it’s yesterday or three million years from now, in our own world or another one entirely, speculative fiction considers something impossible or not-yet possible. But well-written speculative fiction should make me believe it is possible, here and now.

For that, I’m looking for strong characters.

Sure, a real challenge of writing spec fic, especially in shorter pieces, is creating this believable new world without losing the reader’s attention. But a story’s concept could be stunning, its worldbuilding masterful, and it will still fall flat if its characters don’t resonate.

If I can believe that these characters are real—if they have personality and motivation, and actions that coincide with such—then I’ll believe almost anything thrown at them. And I want to believe in those impossible worlds and situations, because I want to see what these characters are made of.

My writing generally starts with a “what if” situation, and I guess, in a nutshell, that’s what speculative fiction means to me. What if the terrible, the fantastic, the impossible collides with the mundane? What if an ordinary individual interacts with the extraordinary?

Show me. I want to know what happens next.

Guest Editor Reveal: Simon Böhm

Hi there, my name is Simon and I’m from Germany, which used to be the land of poets and thinkers and is now the country of cars and beer. I came to Canada in 2016 for my MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan and decided to stay. So here I am.simon2019portrait

First off, I hate the term Speculative Fiction (isn’t the word fiction implying speculation anyway? Asking for a friend) but what can you do. To me, SpecFic includes everything with a fantastic element. Alternative history? Check. Fantasy? Check. SciFi? Check. Magical realism? Check. Horror? Mostly check.

Personally, I love everything horror – especially King, Barker, Herbert – and a lot of classic Science Fiction by the likes of Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, or Isaac Asimov. Those genres have a tendency to produce longer works and stories, which I attribute to the fact that they require a certain amount of buildup or world-building to achieve their goal. The shorter the story, the more universal and familiar the initial situation has to be in my opinion.

Why does this matter? As an editor for antilang., I’m not necessarily looking for an original genius – though if you can deliver the next archetype villain, that’s great. But you don’t need to create the next creature for Stephenie Meyer to ruin. I prefer a well-written, engaging, classic story over a messy but original one any day of the week. Effect is king, especially in horror. Scare me. Knock my socks off. Make me smile (in a sadistic, maniacal way) and go: that was awesome!

I guess that’s it. Here’s my hand. Now take me to the land of your imagination, no matter how weird or dark it is. Just a heads up: like a lizard that dismembers its own tail, I can let go of my hand. So if you turn around and I’m not there anymore, you lost me. But that won’t happen. Not with you. Right?

New Work from 32 Contributors!

We’re so excited to launch our latest issues of antilang. and soundbite! Check out some amazing short work from established and emerging writers across Canada and beyond.

Read antilang. no. 3 and listen to soundbite vol. 2 and tell us what you think!

On Why You Hear “Yes” Before You Hear “No”

We all know how lit mags work: you send something in, and the longer you go without hearing anything, the longer they are taking to decide if they want your work (so, if you hear “no” just before the issue comes out, well, then at least you can take comfort knowing that your piece made the editors’ long-list). On the flip side, if you get a “no” within a month of submitting, then you know they really didn’t like it. Either way, with a “no” it’s rare to receive any type of feedback (so if you do get an encouraging note about your work, celebrate!)

By contrast, when we read submissions to The ALP, we categorise each piece and then go through work we’ve flagged for our issues (antilang. and soundbite). We do the edits for these pieces (the ones we accept for publication) before we send out our rejections. We also adhere to a tight schedule—we give ourselves around a month to edit and send out our acceptances and to put together both publications.

Because of this quick turn-around, things can get a bit awkward—sometimes we’re still sending out rejections after the issue has launched online. However, we post on our social media accounts (@antilangmag) when we have completed all our acceptances. So, if you haven’t heard back from us by then, you’ll be receiving a “no” with feedback.

Do we edit or give feedback on every submission? No. We are a publisher that prioritises editing, but we are not a free editing service. When people send us work that is not even close to being polished (obvious first drafts, an abundance of clichés or abstractions, etc.), then we send a generic “no thanks.”

For our “no with feedback” submissions, we put comments in the body of an email and typically address the strongest element of your work (the spark we see in it!) and any major issues. We do accept work that requires edits, but usually we don’t accept work that requires structural changes (i.e. switching the tense or perspective, rearranging scenes, or other edits that would take substantial time). So, our feedback will not be line edits, but rather comments and questions about the construction of the piece. These are pieces we feel are so close to being what we want, but need some sort of change that would take longer than our one-month deadline to incorporate (but that’s just us—a lot of these pieces do get scooped up by other lit mags that focus on elements outside of concision).

At The ALP, we do things differently. We know good work doesn’t emerge from a vacuum—while you sit down and physically write by yourself, the rewriting and editing are often done by sharing your work with trusted readers and editors. We want to highlight this communal element that is inherent to the writing process (and often overlooked).

On Canadian Content: By the Numbers

If you’ve ever listened to a Canadian radio station, you probably noticed an over-abundance of Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, and the ever-berated Nickelback. This is because most stations in Canada are required to play at least 40% Canadian content (or as we lovingly call it: CanCon), and there are similar rules for Canadian periodicals. If you want to be supported by the Canadian Periodical Fund, as The ALP does (because we’re in this double bind of having no money yet wanting to pay our contributors), then a certain percentage of your content needs to be Canadian. This number varies somewhat from one grant to another, but for lit mags it’s often as high as 80%.math-1500720_960_720

We’ll jump into the hot mess of “what makes something Canadian?” in Part 2 of this mini blog series, but the big question, for now, is “how do we calculate that 80%?” This might seem like it has a straightforward answer, but many of the grant applications let you decide how you calculate your CanCon so long as the calculation is clearly explained and justified. So, do you go by number of pages, number of contributors, or number of contributions? This distinction can drastically swing the final number since many poets submit numerous short pieces that get published together while prose writers tend to take up more pages but usually only have a single entry. Consider Jessica Mehta’s two poems on the first two pages of antilang. no. 2 in contrast with Michaela Stephen’s five-page single story: who is contributing ‘more’ content to the magazine? And how problematic is it to imply, through the criteria we choose, that a one-page poem has the same content ‘value’ as a five-page story or, from the opposite approach, that a story has five times the ‘value’ as a poem? These issues get even more flustered when dealing with soundbite, which doesn’t have pages but could be considered in terms of time or number of pieces. And, though we consider these as distinct entities, or sister-publications, do they actually count as such, or should we be accounting for the total amount of CanCon published by the entire organisation?

At this point, if you haven’t gotten bored of all the math questions, you might be wondering “so what? just pick the formula that makes the most sense and send in your numbers.” At The ALP we want to publish the best short writing that we receive and we feel it’s unfair that a great piece might be cut or bumped to the next issue simply because of the contributor’s nationality (the complexities of which we’ll delve into in the next post). We hate the subtext of implied value systems and hierarchies that any one of these formulas imposes. This might sound a little melodramatic, but these questions of CanCon cause us to wrestle with what give writing its value. So, when caught between the rock of grant regulations and the hard place of financial dependence, we’re going to do everything we can by the numbers to ensure the largest quantity and the greatest possible diversity of good short writing appears in our publications. And to help us with this, we want your input! What do you think would be the best solution: page count, by piece, or by contributor? Leave your input in the comments (either on our social media posts or on our blog) and join in the conversation.

Why Write?

Turn on any news program or open any social media app and the world comes in. And you realise, that right now, the world is ugly. Fascism dominates, and with it all the ugly -isms and -phobias that generate and feed on hate. When people aren’t killing or hurting each other, they’re destroying the planet. When you see all this, hopelessness becomes inevitable. The words “thoughts and prayers” ring too hollow and you don’t know what to do, what you could do, to make a difference. You aren’t a politician, you aren’t a scientist, and words feel too feeble. Why write?

At the ALP, we’ve been quiet as these tragedies continue. We’ve been hurting. And we’ve been asking ourselves: why write? Why dedicate our lives to writing?

We have two answers: beauty and empathy. We write to create something beautiful in an ugly world. To remind ourselves and others that beauty does exist. And that taking the time to notice beauty and to appreciate it enough to write it is important. This takes us back, to a time before, when we didn’t see the ugly in the world. Who didn’t start writing poetry out of love? You fall in love, that first time you have a crush on someone, so young, and you can’t help but write it. And maybe those first love poems weren’t the best poems, but they tried to capture something beautiful. So, why write? To get back to that.

But what if you didn’t start with love poems? What if you saw the ugly in the world and started writing your anger? Who didn’t, as they wrote love poems, not also write angsty poems about injustice? Even if that injustice was only your parents disallowing you to be with the one you loved, it was still felt, deep enough to write. And this brings us to empathy, because sometimes you can’t write only beauty. Sometimes you must write anger and hurt. Why? Why write? Because you feel a pain so acute that you must communicate it. In this communication we find community–other people with the same pain or other people wanting the same change. That’s what writing does: communicates.

We can’t understand the suffering of other people or the planet. Those hurts are too big. So we put it in writing. We use our craft to create characters, worlds, and we invite readers to know these people, to start to know each other. We begin to recognise others and ourselves, and we start to understand how to support each other.

So, while our mission at the ALP is to curate good. short. writing., what we mean by this is that we want to bring people together. We believe that through writing we can remember to notice beauty. And we can connect to each other, regardless of our backgrounds, to create a community of writers and readers, aware of our differences, and supportive, nonetheless.

All the speeches and rhetoric used for destruction can be turned around. We can use story and poetry and memory, delivered through well-chosen words to understand each other and to create something better.

Why write? Because it gives us hope.

On Blurring Genre: antilang.

As we start vetting pieces for antilang. no. 3 and soundbite vol. 2 (check out our call for submissions & guidelines!), we want to draw attention to an important aspect of our mandate: work that blends and blurs the lines of genre. Unlike many literary journals and magazines, the ALP’s publications aren’t divided up into genre sections. We also don’t ask you to identify the genre of your writing when you submit it. Finally, we made sure to solicit some hybrid creators for our inaugural issue to lead by example (like Geoff Pevlin’s delightful translation poems and Larissa Lai’s activist-inclined language play). As a result of these practices, we received a huge spectrum of forms and genres for antilang. no. 2 and soundbite no. 1 when we opened for general submissions.

Of course, we can’t take credit for the idea. Challenges to and deconstructions of ‘traditional’ (read dominant) notions of literary genre go back as far as the traditions and genres themselves, but are especially seen in the writings of marginalized groups (i.e., those displaced/silenced by said dominating traditions). What’s interesting is that in contemporary times the challenging of genres has become subtle and fluid, particularly through blurred middle grounds and hybridity. Consider this excerpt from Robert Kroetsch’s The Hornbooks of Rita K: “When I tell you that I love you I’m trying to tell you that I love you” (97).

Now consider the closing of Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach:

I lie on the sand.
The clamshells are hard
against my back. I am no longer
cold. I am so light I could just
drift away. Close, very close, a b’gwus howls–
not quite human, not quite wolf,
but something in between.

The howl echoes off the mountains.
In the distance,
I hear the sound of a speedboat. (374)

Note the absent line breaks from Kroetsch’s “[hornbook #73],” whereas we’ve added line breaks to what was, originally, a single paragraph in Robinson’s novel. And yet, the passage from Monkey Beach seems, or feels, to read more ‘poetically’ than Kroetsch’s, whose line(s) behave like a straightforward statement or piece of dialogue. The telling poem and the novel’s imagistic end reveal the folly of commonly held beliefs about the differences between prose and poetry: that poetry is inaccessible (thanks, modernists!) and that novels are expected to deliver plot and therefore closure. Monkey Beach gives us the opposite of both: accessible concrete images and total uncertainty regarding Lisa’s fate. Hornbooks gives us a self-evident fact, a description with built-in implied plot and closure, for what more can be told on the topic?

A piece in antilang. no. 2 that brilliantly befuddles these typical expectations of genres is Melinda Jane – The Poet Mj’s “Kit” (pg. 25). While ‘clearly’ a poem at first glance, we lovingly call it a micro-novel written in verse. Not only is it broken into chapters rather than numbered or titled sections, “Kit” is a long (relative to our mandate) narrative that features all the staples of a novel: multiple characters and settings, prosaic descriptions, (indirect) dialogue, and, that slipperiest of all fiction ‘requirements,’ plot. How could the short lines full of imagery belong to a novel? How could they not?

3, (antilang. no.) 2, (soundbite vol.) 1, LAUNCH!

We promised you more good. short. writing., and we hope you enjoy!

Check out our latest issue of antilang. and our inaugural issue of soundbite

Thanks for all your support, and lots of love from the ALP team!

(and don’t worry, you can still read antilang. no. 1 in our archive)

On Putting Together Issue 2

If you’ve followed us since Issue 1, then you know that our inaugural issue was solicitation-only, and that we used that model to put established authors beside emerging writers. You already know we like work that b(l)ends genres and operates on multiple levels, according to varying types of readers. And putting together the first issue was relatively easy–we already knew so many amazing writers that we wanted to feature together.

So, what about issue 2? For the second issue (coming this September!) we opened for submissions from all over the world. We received some repeat submitters who appeared in Issue 1 (spoiler alert–they are also in issue 2), but this upcoming issue is not a repeat of what we’ve already done. We considered every submission and accepted it purely on the merit of the work, though as we did so, we made sure to push ourselves and our understandings of ‘merit.’ We read cover letters and when we were unsure of a piece, we considered it in light of what the cover letter said the piece was doing and the positionality of the author. This is important, because we are editors, but that does not mean we are infallible. We are also white and in a heterosexual relationship, and regardless of how much we strive to be allies, we are not subject to the same forms of oppression and marginalisation as many of the writers who submitted work to us are. We read your pieces, and we grew. And the magazine has also grown to encompass and support these voices.

If you have submitted work to us, then you know our policy is to help edit pieces–most of the work in our issues has received edits (though some comes to us in its best form). And in doing this editing, we opened our dialogue with our submitters. At times, we would suggest a change to be made (usually a line to be cut, because we are about concision), and the submitter would correct us, would point out the importance of including that line, even if it was, technically, a redundancy. Because although we (being university-educated as readers) could ascertain the message of a piece, the inclusion of that line opens the piece to people not as well-trained in reading. Thank you. To all our submitters who expressed concern that their pieces would not have the same, or as broad, resonance if they followed our edits, thank you. You have helped us become better editors, and we are grateful that you entrusted your work to us and had the courage to correct us. And we are so happy that so many writers–including those who corrected us–agreed with our edits. We believe every piece in Issue 2 is as strong as it can be, and that is what we strive for. Good. Short. Writing.

So, now that it’s edited, how do we put it together? Well, we start with a huge list of our submitters and their pieces on an excel spreadsheet. Then Allie writes it out by hand because she doesn’t understand technology and she highlights the names according to prose vs verse (ish–there are genre blurring pieces, so this is done by feel). We agree on a piece to start the issue–the tone we want to set. And from there we find the thematically linked pieces. For issue 2 this means the (loosely) place-based pieces. We start making lists of names with arrows to indicate different groupings of themes and which pieces flow together best and rearrange so that each grouping leads into the next intuitively. This process involves a lot of back and forth of names and titles and general confusion between the hand-written order and the master copy Jordan compiles on the computer. We found three main themes for this up coming issue: place, deconstruction of form, and intersectional feminism, with five ‘random’ pieces to round out the issue (there is a similarity to the ‘randomness,’ but we haven’t come up with the right adjective for it).

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Keep an eye open for our upcoming previews, because we’re going to start launching Issue 2 previews in the next few days!