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The Publishing Rat Race
I took the dystopic featured above last spring. It's from a series I shot on my Brooklyn rooftop, a series I plan to continue when it warms up again. But today I'm not writing about this photo shoot or even making art more generally. I'm writing about submitting art. Because when I found out that this piece was selected by Humanities Fund for the Humanities Annual Review in the fall, I didn't even remember submitting it. It turns out I had—nobody stole my work (this time.) I simply had zero recollection of it because of something many artists and writers know: submission fatigue. It had gotten to the point where I was submitting work to publications all. The. Damn. Time.
The irony is that art and literary magazines are supposed to represent a pause in society. They invite us to halt our daily Capitalist activities to reflect about the world around us and dream of other possibilities. Yet the reality is that art and literary magazines still exist within a Capitalist system. This reality is evident in several ways, but I will focus on the submissions process—which, like Capitalism, is also a system. Capitalism requires us to have money in order to participate in the system. For most of us, that means getting a job. To get a job, we typically have to generate certain materials: a cover letter, resume, and maybe a portfolio. Then we must find job listings and submit our materials until we get a bite from a potential employer. Submitting work to art and literary magazines is not so different. We generate our materials—our submission, a cover letter, a contributor bio, and maybe a headshot. Then we find submissions calls and submit our materials until an editor says, "Yes, this." There are exceptions. Just as a friend might refer you for a job that lands you an instant interview, you might have an editor or curator reach out to you and say they want to publish a specific piece. Much more often, we keep applying to jobs. We keep submitting our work to art and literary magazines. We wait.
Fatigue kicks in eventually. Applying to jobs can be exhausting. How exactly should you tailor a cover letter? What version of your resume should you use now? Is your portfolio up to par? Is it what a potential employer wants right now? Are you the best candidate for this job? Now look at the submissions process and the questions you ask yourself are so similar. What should you mention in your cover letter? Does your submission fit this magazine? Does your submission gel well with other pieces being considered for this issue? There are so many questions and so many mysteries. All of that guesswork can make you want to take a nap.
So let's pretend you got the job or the publication credit. Is it enough? Capitalism says no. Capitalism says you need a higher-paying job with a fancier title. Capitalism says you need a more prominent publication credit in a more popular (and profitable) magazine. Remember, Capitalism doesn't care about your health or happiness. Capitalism wants you to work yourself to the bone. Keep submitting. And submitting.
I've fallen for the trap and I'm not proud. I've found ways to subvert the submissions system—like founding Quail Bell and giving myself the power to call some of the shots—but I'm still complicit. As a little girl, I never imagined that art and writing would be about competition. When I won awards in school, I felt a surge of joy for the recognition, but I wasn't hungry for it. I never wanted to be hungry for it. Capitalism made me hungry for it. I can resist to an extent. I can foster community within my art and literary circles. I can carve out time to create without a specific goal in mind. But if I want my work to be seen in art and literary magazines, I cannot completely opt out of the system. I have to participate to some degree. All of us with that same desire find ourselves in that same position.
So we have to ask ourselves: What does self-care look like in the world of submissions? What is sane? And what are we willing to compromise?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.