Many years ago, when I was a poet ingénue and New Labour was still in its first term, I cornered a distinguished editor of a distinguished literary journal and ruined their night. What, I wished to know, are you looking for? I can still recall the waves of nausée playing across that kindly face. They made their excuses and promptly exited the building.
Now, as well as being asked that question fairly regularly by others, it’s a question I am regularly asking of myself. Any editor worth their salt will tell you that they prize strong, tight writing. Correct spelling and grammar is crucial (there’s no quicker way to rejection than a questionable grasp of the English language). Originality is high up there, as long as the writer can evidence a knowledge of tradition and the current. And as for that slippery article ‘panache’? Yes, please. Clean white A4 paper? No fancy fonts? Both are a must. I am guessing that most editors would concur with these criteria.
If these alone were sufficient, however, they would approximate a formula. You could spread the word and much heartache would be spared. And those writers who could do the sums would be well on their way to world domination. But no: they are not sufficient. In fact, a surprising amount of work that editors receive may fulfil many – sometimes all – of these requirements. And yet… There is something, somehow, missing. What is it? Well, it’s that thing you’re looking for, of course. That thing… It’s a matter of taste, isn’t it? No, not in the way you’d think. So what is it? And, more to the point, where is it? The truth is, you simply can’t tell because you don’t know until you’ve found it. Because the best writers, whether new or established, are not simply capable of satisfying a taste, they can actually create a taste for their work in a reader. And the best editor is, first and foremost, an open reader.
So the bad and the good news for writers and editors is that there is no definitive answer to the question.
Poet and critic Zoe Skoulding has recently been appointed editor of Poetry Wales. We’ll both be appearing at the Dylan Thomas Festival on 9 November and will be discussing aspects of editing literary magazines and of our envisaged creative directions for Poetry Wales and New Welsh Review. The discussion will be chaired by Professor M Wynn Thomas, and no doubt there will be the opportunity to ask questions (except for the dreaded one above) about publishing in literary magazines and practical ways to maximise the chances of a successful submission.