What you need to know:
- Our young editor started by informing me that they had in fact done some serious edits on the piece, but when they sent them back to the writer, he refused to be edited and wanted his piece to run as it was.
- I teasingly but very seriously enquired what type of team the editor ran since they were willing to be bullied by writers who submitted to them, whatever their names.
- I half-hoped he would tell me that perhaps they had got paid, which would justify it in the same way that newspapers and magazines are not responsible for the content of their advertisers.
The last few years on the African literary landscape have been exciting.
In addition to the new novels and short story collections that stand up to scrutiny with the best in the world, there has been a proliferation of literary journals. The latter, mostly online, are usually started by young writers or people who have worked in the literary industry as editors so they can give writers, old and new, another platform to get their work to a different audience.
Unable to pay themselves, let alone the content providers, the editors of the journals often accept a story that has been published elsewhere for an established writer and new works from the new names. When the story of an established writer has been published elsewhere, it always turns out fine as this means there has probably been a thorough edit elsewhere. Sadly, if it’s a new work, readers are subjected to just how dangerous literary celebrity can be.
Some weeks ago, one of these new journals asked me to submit a piece for their future issue. I had read their past issues. I discovered new writers alongside some of my contemporaries and the quality was impressive. As soon as they asked me, I agreed to be part of the project. The only question I now had was what piece of work I would submit to them that would be good enough for their journal. I had been given at least a month before submission so I knew I had a bit of time. Just when I thought that I may have something punchy and memorable enough, they published a literary celebrity.
Now publishing a literary celebrity is in and of itself not bad. In fact it’s wonderful. It brings hits to the online journal. And allows for the sort of visibility that the journal may not otherwise have had. Which in this case was a double-edged sword.
BULLIED BY WRITERS
Those of us who had known this journal immediately wondered what happened. The published piece rambled and had no edits to speak of. I could not believe it. So I sent them a message.
“As a writer, I know the bulk of any work I submit lies with me but I also put much stock in good editing. I want to be comfortable in knowing that, whatever minute literary talents I possess, any work I submit to you will be well-edited and that you can withdraw the offer to publish me if I submit something that is not up to standard — whoever I am. Failure to do this does neither your journal nor my reputation as a writer any good. Based on the story that you published dated… I respectfully withdraw my offer to submit to your publication.”
The editor contacted me to try and get me to change my mind.
I was willing to be persuaded.
Our young editor started by informing me that they had in fact done some serious edits on the piece, but when they sent them back to the writer, he refused to be edited and wanted his piece to run as it was. I teasingly but very seriously enquired what type of team the editor ran since they were willing to be bullied by writers who submitted to them, whatever their names.
I half-hoped he would tell me that perhaps they had got paid, which would justify it in the same way that newspapers and magazines are not responsible for the content of their advertisers.
“I personally think the errors are intentional,” he told me. According to him, the mediocrity showed that the writer was anti-colonial and being more African because he subverted the rules of grammar.
It was the most astounding nonsense I have ever heard.
To clarify, this was not one of those pieces that showed subversion after mastery of a language. It was not Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard,Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya or Imasuen’s Fine Boy. The story did not have a beginning, middle and ending, in whatever order. The theme may have been convincing if it were well argued but it was not. In other words, it was mediocre in any language.
And yes, English can be subverted in literature. But in writing, as in other areas of life, those who subvert rules must have mastered them in order to do it successfully. This is the reason why politicians and police make the best criminals.
I have not yet been convinced to give their journal my work. Anyone believing the work of an ‘anti-colonial African’ should be synonymous with inferior quality does not deserve it. Miss me with that. But this, I hope, is a lesson, too, to those who have started journals or are on established ones. Unless a work has been published before, it should be edited no matter who the writer is.