Holding The Line: Consistent Standards and the Virtues of the ‘Hold’ Pile

By Amy Milton, Assistant Editor

So you’re on the editorial team of a literary journal.  It’s a few weeks into the reading period, and the sum total of your accepted pages is less than 10.  You start to wonder if your standards are too high, if maybe that story about the girl who saves her town through dance was really so bad.  You wonder if it’s just not a good year for literary writing, or if the problem is with the work that’s being sent to your journal, which you didn’t think was bottom-of-the-barrel but at this point might as well be a pamphlet with a cover that reads “WE’RE SORRY.”  You begin, in other words, to panic.

Don’t panic.

Yes, you have an obligation to your subscribers to provide them with a journal.  Yes, a piece of fiction or poetry that’s only a 6 or 7 out of 10 is better than blank pages and an invitation to readers to “Write your own story here!”  But a big part of the purpose of literary editing, as well as literary fiction, is to set standards that are a cut above.  Quantity is required, but quality is essential.  Your mid-level literary journal won’t read like a Best American collection, but each piece should have that spark of originality, insight, and inspiration that challenges, enlightens, and keeps us reading.  We want work that is entertaining and worthwhile, and that is what your readers signed up for when they subscribed to a literary journal.  Journals that fail to deliver gain a reputation and are pretty much a waste of everyone’s time.

Ok, I see why you’re panicking.  It’s easy to accept the pieces that are really dynamite and to reject the flood of work that ranges from cliché to insane.   But what to do with a short story that is likeable but flawed, smart and fun but a little underdeveloped, with realistic characters but a slightly rushed resolution?   Or the poem with 12 lines you love but 2 you hate?  Do you accept them to fill space and risk lowering the overall quality of your journal?  Or do you reject them and take the risk that you might not get anything better?

A great thing about writers who send out to journals is that they never know when their work will be read.  They don’t expect to hear back for months after they put the envelope in the mail or submit online.  They’ve likely already waited for a few months by the time you’ve read their piece, shared it with your fellow editors, and torn out bits of your hair deciding whether it’s the best you’re going to get.

This expected waiting period can work to the uncertain editor’s advantage.  You don’t have to make a snap decision on every submission.  Putting a story, poem, or essay in a hold pile for a month or two can’t hurt you (unless it’s accepted somewhere else, but if so you weren’t all that attached to it anyway), won’t offend the writer, and gives you a chance to find out, rather than speculate, whether or not you’ll receive better work later in the reading period.

It’s also nice to return to a piece you felt sort of ambivalent about a few months after your first reading.  Sometimes you won’t like it as well; other times you’ll still be charmed and want to accept it, even without panic as a motivator.