Ronald Spatz: A Busy Editor on the Last Frontier
By Robert Lee Brewer
Here Ronald Spatz, Editor of Alaska Quarterly Review, relays the specifics of his job, as well as what he expects from writers who try to get published in AQR.
Brewer: What are the most gratifying and frustrating aspects of your job as an editor?
Spatz: It’s quite a thrill to find new writers and give them a chance to be heard. The opportunity to promote new works by new and emerging writers is a wonderful benefit of this job. Not having enough space to publish all the good work we receive is one frustration. The large volume of manuscripts we receive causes another. The time we spend carefully reviewing each work does not always allow us to reply to our authors in a timely manner.
Brewer: Are there aspects to an editor’s job you feel writers may frequently overlook?
Spatz: The publication process is a professional collaboration between a writer and an editor. So writers need to know their market and which venues are the best fit for their work. A key to this is an understanding of the magazine’s editorial vision or aesthetic. The most direct way for writers to get this information is to read the magazine. If the publication is difficult to find in the local bookstore or library, most literary magazines offer sample copies at reasonable prices. At a minimum, writers should always consult the publication’s website and listings in the market guides. This initial investment helps writers target submissions to markets in which their work will have the best chance of standing out and fitting in.
Brewer: What do you look for in a submission from a writer?
Spatz: If the works published in AQR have certain characteristics, they are freshness, honesty, and a compelling subject. In my case, the voice of the piece must be strong – idiosyncratic enough to create a unique persona. I look for the demonstration of craft, making the situation palpable and putting it in a form where it becomes emotionally and intellectually complex. One could look through our pages over time and see that many of the pieces published in AQR concern everyday life. We’re not asking our writers to go outside themselves and their experiences to the absolute exotic to catch our interest. I look for the experiential and revelatory qualities of the work. I will, without hesitation, champion a piece that may be less polished or stylistically sophisticated, if it engages and surprises me. The joy in reading such a work is in discovering something true. Moreover, I am looking for voices our readers do not know, voices that may not always be reflected in the dominant culture and have something important to convey. My hope is that what I find to be a revelatory experience in a work will strike a resonant chord with the readers of AQR, that through our pages readers will experience a world made larger and more meaningful, and that they, too, will have the joy of discovering something true.
Brewer: What subjects or genres of writing do you see too much?
Spatz: Twenty years ago, I would have said that AQR received quite a few stereotyped outdoor adventure genre stories and that we were not the venue for those stories. I don’t think I can say we see too much of any subject or genre at this juncture. While the quantity of our manuscript submissions is increasing, so, too, is the quality of the submissions. We receive a rich mix of subjects and stylistic approaches to those subjects. May it always be so. However, I would like to see more creative nonfiction and drama submissions.
Brewer: Do you read pieces that have only made it past a certain screening process?
Spatz: The sheer numbers of manuscripts make it often true that I do not read manuscripts until they have passed at least second level screening. But that is not always the case. Our screeners are instructed to flag pieces for me if they think I might be interested in reading them — whether or not they have recommended the pieces for publication. My standing instruction is to treat each author with respect and to be open-minded to a range of presentations. If a screener happens upon a work whose style they have little tolerance for, say, a very unconventional story, then they are not to pass judgment upon it, but rather, they are to pass it along to somebody else or bring it to my attention.
Brewer: Do you just go with the recommendations of other editors below you?
Spatz: No, but I have worked with our senior readers a long time — some as long as fifteen years. I know they try to make sure I read the pieces I might be receptive to, even if they do not wholeheartedly recommend them. I very much value their insights. On the other side, I often choose not to offer publication to pieces that are recommended to me. There is just not enough space for them all.
Brewer: Are submissions sent directly to you usually chucked into a slush pile?
Spatz: I would not choose your words to describe our large pool of unsolicited manuscripts. It’s an honor to receive these manuscripts. At AQR the vast majority of pieces we publish come from this pool of work. We have made a serious commitment to new writers for the past twenty years, and our national stature is in no small measure based on this. But reviewing literally thousands of manuscripts poses a significant challenge for us too. Within that context, our multi-tiered screening process has an important purpose. I think it is important wherever possible to have more than one opinion about a piece we are interested in publishing.
Brewer: Do you have any words of advice for a writer trying to get published in a well-respected literary magazine?
Spatz: Professionalism, patience, and persistence come immediately to mind. One needs to do one’s homework and know the market. The competition is very intense, and funding for the front-line journals is generally inadequate, so staffing is low. It takes time to get a response, and rejections are a fact of life. It’s important not to take rejections personally and also to know that editors make decisions for better or worse, sometimes making mistakes. Fortunately there are many gatekeepers. AQR has published many pieces turned down by other journals — including pieces that went on to win national awards. I also know of instances in which pieces AQR rejected later appeared in other magazines as well. I don’t regret we didn’t take those pieces. Rather, I’m happy the authors made a good match. Disappointment should never stop anyone.
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