James Engelhardt: No Paper Airplanes

When I was a young writer hanging out with other young writers, we fretted and groused about editors. Faceless names at the top of mastheads in the journals we picked up at bookstores or ordered from PO Boxes in places like Lincoln, Nebraska and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Anchorage, Alaska. Who were these people judging us? And no doubt mocking our work before sailing the pages as paper airplanes out of their high-rise, penthouse windows. 

When I began working for Prairie Schooner, the literary journal at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, I learned exactly who these people were: they were me. And they were working in windowless offices in substantial buildings that were anything but high-rise (three stories, for the record, and built to be a bomb shelter). When I moved up to managing editor of that journal, I graduated to having a window. And now I’m in a small building that began life as a ranch-style house about a mile from the university campus. 

No paper airplanes, either. 

But the interesting aspect of this little story is that I have been—and continue to be—on both sides of the editorial desk. I know what it feels like to be rejected time and again. To query a journal or publisher and be told that they simply lost my work. To work for hours on a piece that the editor says still needs work, or just lose the last stanza—the stanza I worked on for hours. And I know the joy when something gets accepted and finds its way into print. I understand how good it feels to see your name and work in conversation with others. It’s a spectrum of emotions familiar to most writers.

What is unfamiliar is the other side of the desk. I remember opening up envelope after envelope at Prairie Schooner and saying, out loud, “Amaze me.” I have taken that attitude to this office, and I hope it’s an attitude I never lose. Because it could be easy. Every publisher, even a publisher as small as we are, gets far more material than they can publish. Some of it isn’t ready, and that’s a sad moment. Far more is close. It’s good writing. Or good ideas. But the book it needs to be hasn’t yet come together. That’s a hard letter to write. We also get good books, but books that aren’t right for us, and we get good books that we simply don’t have the space to publish. The former letter is easier to write, though heartwrenching (because you know they were thinking you were just the right people), and the latter letter is almost too sad for words. 

Honestly, editors would love nothing more than to publish all the good books that come their way. 

Publishing books is in the job description, and editors are drawn to this profession for a reason: love of books. We love to read good books, new voices, new ideas. We truly want to see authors succeed. We have the pride of parents when it comes to our authors. As parents, we have some sort of role in the development and success of our children, but while we can’t pinpoint exactly what we did, we still take great pleasure in their success. And so it is with editors and authors. It’s a pleasure that requires helping others, and we are always looking for those others, our authors. 

I wish I could go back to that group of young writers and tell them that the truth was different from what they imagined. Maybe I’d let them hang out to the high-rise fantasy, but I would definitely want them to know that editors were not the enemy. One day, in fact, the editors would be them. 

James Engelhardt is the acquisitions editor at the University of Alaska Press and a former managing editor of Prairie Schooner. His scholarly and creative writing appears in numerous literary journals and anthologies.

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