Poets & Writers

The Politics of Gatekeeping

FOR many emerging writers, literary magazines are a way to get a foot in the door, to snag a byline, and to build a portfolio of work that might one day lead to a full manuscript, a chapbook, an artistic collaboration, or whatever form success might take for different poets and writers. Getting published in a lit mag is, for many, a first step toward becoming a Writer with a capital W, and the opportunity to share one’s work on a far-reaching platform is a coveted one. Recognizing the significance of their platforms, editors of literary magazines have long attempted to find a method of reading submissions that gives every writer a fair chance. Which is why many literary magazines have proudly adhered to the policy of reading submissions “blind”—that is, stripped of all identifying factors so that the writing itself can ostensibly stand on its own merit.

At first glance the aim of the practice seems reasonable: to help curb the nepotism and bias that unfortunately plagues much of the industry (and most industries, let’s be honest). It’s framed as a way to acknowledge that editors are human and that their decisions can be swayed by identifying factors unrelated to the work itself—gender, celebrity, age, or race, for instance. It supposes that if an editor, say, were to read a mediocre piece by a renowned author and compare it with a stellar story by an up-and-coming writer, that there would be no unfair favoritism heaped upon the literary darling. Or if a particular white, male editor had an (un)conscious bias toward white, male writers from his home state, that he wouldn’t fill an issue of his lit mag with contributors who represented only those particular demographics. Blind submissions are supposed to help level a playing field that is inherently imbalanced.

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