A couple of months ago, I attended the annual provincial writers’ guild conference. At the opening social event, I was hanging out awkwardly on the fringes of the crowd. A confident-looking woman approached me, stuck out her hand, and said hello. As we shook hands, we glanced at each other’s name tags. Her name rang a bell, but I couldn’t place it. As she introduced herself, the bell rang louder. She appeared to be having the same reaction to my name. At the same moment, we both realized how we knew of each other.
“Oh, you’re the editor of the new animal anthology,” she said.
“You submitted…” I said.
“And you rejected my submission,” she said.
Although I love the work of editing texts, I have to admit that deciding which submissions to turn down is not my favorite part of the editor’s role. For one thing, I have a tendency to want to give every text the benefit of the doubt. Even if my first reaction to a text is negative, I will re-read it again a few weeks later, afraid that perhaps I’d just been having a bad day, sure that there must be some valuable gem hidden in the pages.
Margaret Atwood wrote an essay about how when she was growing up the message to girls was “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Although I’m a few decades younger than Atwood, the message hadn’t change much by the time I was growing up in rural Alberta, and I certainly internalized it. I find myself wanting to find the good in every text, wanting to find only nice things to say to the author. I find myself putting off sending the email that will tell the writer that her text didn’t make it.
Alice Munro alluded to a similar theme in the title of her book Who Do You Think You Are? That question pops into my head when I am on the brink of rejecting a text. Who do I think I am to decide that this text doesn’t fit or that text isn’t good enough? And so I keep it on the “maybe” pile, to read once more another day. Just in case I’ve missed a hidden gem.
In the end, though, I have to turn down texts, for a variety of reasons. This is a part of the editor’s role that I am uncomfortably growing into. With practice, I am getting more confident.
Luckily, the woman at the writers’ conference was professional, and she taught me an important lesson: the world does not end when I reject a writer’s text, and rejecting a writer’s text does not mean I am making an enemy. Quite the opposite, sometimes. She asked how the book was going, we chatted about the project for a few minutes, and then together we headed for the bar and the hors d’oeuvres.