The Politics of Gatekeeping: On Reconsidering the Ethics of Blind Submissions

by
Joyce Chen
10.7.20

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.

But these days the practice feels anachronistic and actually feeds into the sort of gatekeeping that upholds harmful hierarchies of power. To wit, in many corners of the literary world, quality has long been judged through a largely white, male, cis, heteronormative lens, and the practice of reading submissions blind perpetuates that standard of excellence and allows it to go unchecked. Reading blind makes it all too easy for editors to discount or dismiss work that departs from this standard without scrutinizing who it serves. African American Vernacular English and cultural slang, for example, may not traditionally exist in more mainstream, white-helmed publications, but that should by no means preclude its use in contemporary lit mags. If a short story lacks the narrative arc that one is used to, is it failing as a piece, or is it simply subscribing to a different culture’s storytelling standards? Many non-Western storytellers unfurl narratives in intricate ways that don’t necessarily align with the more individualistic, first-person hero’s journey, but that should hardly be a reason to reject a piece. 

And how often do we discount work because it feels too “unpolished,” built around a solid core of a story but with a few loose ends that could benefit from the insightful feedback of an editor or even just an encouraging comment or two from a sharp-eyed colleague? Are we thinking about the hurdles that some writers face to even submit their work in the first place? Writers who haven’t had the opportunity to share their work with a supportive community, or to workshop a piece, or to go through several rounds of revisions, likely won’t present as polished an essay or poem as a more privileged writer. What could that essay or poem turn into with a little encouragement, a little editing—if only they get a shot? 

In other words, without any context about the writer themselves, how can we fully understand the import or shortcomings of a piece? Blind submissions do not actually have the same effect as, say, blind auditions, which suppose that the strength of a voice or an instrumental skill is more important than the identity of the singer or musician (also, the performed piece is not always an original piece). When it comes to writing, however, acknowledging the totality of the person behind the piece is arguably just as important as the piece itself.

What the practice of blind submissions ultimately fails to address is the bigger systemic problem that the publishing industry faces—merit still determined from a largely white, male, cis, heteronormative perspective—and it assumes, or lets us pretend, that writers and poets are creating in a vacuum absent their lived experiences off the page. It supposes that there is an objective scale of literary excellence by which a piece can be measured and that the “fairest” way to judge a writer’s work is by what’s on the page alone. Reading blind, in short, is the equivalent of claiming that one “doesn’t see color” when it comes to race; it’s a vacant statement that really only serves those who proclaim colorblindness and not those who are actually affected by racist microaggressions and policies. Literary excellence is, and will always be, subjective. There will never be one kind of “good” piece. To pretend otherwise would be a disservice to the art we create from our unique backgrounds and experiences. To pretend that the only standard for excellence is the one that has dominated our literary world for decades would be a veritable whitewashing of our pasts and a supposition that we all need to appease an imaginary, all-white audience.

This all-white, predominantly male audience has a historical precedence. The very first literary magazines were born in a different era. Nouvelles de la république des lettres, or News From the Republic of Letters, is widely regarded as the first literary journal; it was established in France in 1684 and primarily published book reviews. From there the medium, as it were, evolved tremendously—stateside, the North American Review was founded in Boston in 1815, publishing poetry, fiction, and essays on a bimonthly basis, with the intention of collating the work of some of America’s greatest writers and thinkers. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor were among its contributors. Countless literary journals were founded over the next few decades—some serving particular genres, like Poetry magazine, which published its first issue in 1912; others were linked to particular institutions, like the Virginia Quarterly Review, which was first published in 1925 at the request of the University of Virginia’s then president, E. A. Alderman. Almost all of the founding editors of these periodicals were white and male, as were most of the contributors in their early issues. Readers at the time were also likely to be of a certain economic and educational privilege, meaning that the parameters by which “excellence” was judged therefore catered to a narrow taste and readership. 

In more modern times, the list of lit mags has only continued to expand, with award-winning journals like Granta, ZYZZYVA, Ploughshares, the Iowa Review, and the Paris Review blossoming in the second half of the twentieth century. Online-only lit mags like the Rumpus, the Millions, and Guernica began to crop up in earnest in the early 2000s. Many contemporary journals have chosen to adopt the infrastructure and practices of print literary journals from years past—including solicitation, open calls, and the practice of reading submissions blind. But what inheriting this particular institutional tradition doesn’t take into account is just how blatantly exclusionary it actually is in the context of today’s ever-diversifying socioliterary landscape. (It is also worth noting here that some online journals, many helmed by BIPOC and/or queer editors, have actually opted to reject blind submissions from the get-go in the interest of explicitly holding space for marginalized writers.)

All of this matters because statistics show just how underrepresented writers on the margins still are in modern times, generations removed from the North American Review and in spite of a vastly more diverse readership and citizenship as compared with 1815. In 2017, an annual count by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts noted that of the forty surveyed publications, only seven could claim more than 10 percent of their published writers were Black. Only seven of the forty had more than 10 percent of their contributors identify as Asian. The highest rate of self-identified nonbinary writers in one publication, the Atlantic, was 9.1 percent. Needless to say, the contributor pool for many lit mags is far from representative of the nation’s racial, socioeconomic, gender, and sexual makeup; continuing to champion age-old practices in a new social context just hasn’t been working.

The good news, however, is that times are changing. This year’s historic civil rights movement—sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, as well as the police shooting of Jacob Blake—has revealed just how broken our systems really are and how anti-Blackness and discriminatory practices have seeped into just about every arena of our lives, both public and private. Law enforcement, of course, has come under fire, as have institutions of higher education, the health care system, art galleries, multimillion-dollar corporations, start-ups, media companies, and sports teams. Historical monuments glorifying the Confederacy have come toppling down, and calls for some policy reform are actually being met, however incrementally. The message is clear: Now is the time to crack open all the long-standing structures that have upheld unjust practices and to reevaluate what we keep and what we leave behind. 

Blind submissions are a part of what must be left behind.

But it’s not enough to simply discard the practice without pushing for all the other changes that need to happen in order to make the literary realm more sustainably equitable. Narrow-minded editors are not going to automatically read with more openness, humility, and generosity if they stop reading blind. And tokenization has become a major problem across all industries precisely because those in charge haven’t taken the time to do the hard, necessary work of interrogating how these changes need to happen. It is unhelpful to immediately swing the pendulum toward diversity without understanding the actual importance of inclusivity and accessibility, which is how tokenization happens in the first place. What this means, then, is that it’s worthwhile to look at not only what sort of gatekeeping is happening, but who is doing the gatekeeping in the first place.

Earlier this year, following the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests around the globe, a discussion emerged within a literary forum about how lit mags can ensure they are publishing diverse voices. One editor posed the dilemma that their particular publication was facing: The practice of reading submissions blind meant there was no way to determine whether or not editors were actually selecting submissions by BIPOC writers. Another editor quipped, in what was no doubt a well-meaning response, that sometimes “you can just tell” if a writer is BIPOC. As the executive director of the Seventh Wave, a lit mag that champions art in the space of social issues, and as a BIPOC writer myself, I was appalled—but not surprised—that someone had thought this was an acceptable way to judge submissions. “You can just tell” reeks of so many problematic assumptions, including what a BIPOC writer sounds like on the page, what we are expected and/or allowed to write about, and how we are othered in an industry that is still largely white-dominated—in its 2019 survey of the publishing industry, the book publisher Lee & Low found that 76 percent of all respondents and 85 percent of those in editorial positions identified as white. So the root, the real root, of the problem lies not just in whether submissions should be read blind, then, but in what those at the top refuse to, or simply cannot, see.

Change therefore needs to begin with the masthead. And, ultimately, with the scarcity mentality that pervades the literary world. Limited resources in the form of time, energy, attention, and—of course—money have dictated the structures and systems that make up the publishing world as we know it. It has contributed to unfair pay disparity for writers who are coming to the page from the margins; it is the reason mastheads continue to rely on venerated household names to attract readership and community. And this sense that there is not enough, that journals and publishers are just trying to survive in a competitive field, is used as a justification for why meaningful change to these imperfect systems is hard to come by even though the industry so desperately needs it. Because to reallocate these already scarce resources is to upend the delicate balance of power that the literary ecosystem has relied upon for generations.

The scarcity mentality also keeps so many literary magazines from imagining new realities wherein historically marginalized writers are not only given a seat at the table, but invited to lead within the organization itself. If there is to be a real movement toward industry-wide inclusivity that moves beyond just the aesthetics of good literary citizenship, then there needs to be a shift toward an abundance mentality that welcomes new perspectives and ways of leading and that considers different communities of readers who have a wide array of interests. Homogeneous gatekeepers will inevitably produce homogeneous publications, alienating the very voices that they claim they want to represent. As a writer of color, when I see calls for submissions for lit mags, one of the very first things I do is check the masthead and the latest issue of the publication in question: Is my work welcome there, and if it is, will it be used as a token of diversity or in any other unsavory way? Can I ensure that the cultural nuances that I bring up in my piece will be handled with care by editors, or will these details—and I—be exoticized? And will I be forced to justify or explain my culture and experiences in a way that so often assumes an all-white audience?

What feels clear is that there are so many decisions that have to be made within a lit mag before even getting to the point of submissions that a diverse team and board are not just nice to have, but paramount to the longevity of that publication. And by diverse I don’t mean a superficial sprinkling of marginalized staff members who aren’t given any say while the same long-standing editors make decisions at the top. I mean that there truly needs to be a wide range of writers and editors who represent a diversity of thought, of background, of experience, and of opinion, so that everything—how the call for submissions is framed, where the opportunity is posted, what kind of writing is welcomed—is channeled through a kaleidoscopic lens rather than a myopic one. Having an inclusive masthead will also help the team identify what sorts of barriers might exist that could prevent marginalized writers from submitting their work, whether that be a financial barrier (submission fees can really start to add up), a technical barrier (submission platforms are not always accessible and familiar to many), or a cultural barrier (here, I’m referring to the aforementioned glimpse at the masthead and publication to see whether or not my work would be welcomed there). If literary journals truly want to champion marginalized voices, after all, they’ll need a diverse pool of submissions from which to choose.

Shedding the practice of blind submissions can be daunting for lit mags that have operated the same way for years, if not decades. But in the times that we live in now, arguing that we need to continue upholding policies simply because “that’s the way it’s always been done” is not just unimaginative, it’s harmful. Blind submissions no longer serve the communities the literary industry claims to be built for—readers and writers from all walks of life. The practice instead denies writers the humanity and context that are so crucial to the texture of a piece, regardless of its final form and genre. An abundance mentality allows for this. Because though it is true that resources like money and time and effort are limited, the sustainability of literary magazines in today’s climate extends far beyond just issues of funding and deadlines. The viability of a publication depends upon how well it can understand its role in not just the literary community, but society at large, and then adapt to reflect the needs of its constituents, so to speak. 

Writing is and has always been about building empathy through story and character and word choice and rhythm, about connecting individuals through emotion and sentiment and experiences on the page. The reasons lit mags exist in the first place are manifold, but a core driving force behind those who publish them is, hopefully, to help elevate a writer’s voice to join a textured chorus of words and to pay homage to the literary lineages that came before. To build community and readership and encourage creatives to remember that they belong to a collective body of thought and that their individual stories really matter. 

Art does not exist in a vacuum, and it is so often the context of its creation that completes the piece. As poets and writers, we are constantly creating in reaction to the world around us and as a way to understand our place within it. Eliminating blind submissions opens the door specifically for folks who have traditionally been locked out, and, perhaps most important, it necessitates the sort of deep introspection and deconstruction of existing structures that any “good” literature demands in the first place. If we want to nurture the sort of literary ecosystem that really supports all of its members and welcomes new ones, then we have to understand the ways in which we are presently falling short of our intentions. Only then can we make the mindful changes now that will cause seismic shifts in the environment for future generations of writers.  

 

Joyce Chen is a writer, editor, and creator from Los Angeles who spent a decade in New York City before relocating back to the West Coast in fall 2017. She has covered entertainment and human interest stories for Rolling Stone, Refinery29, Architectural Digest, Paste magazine, the New York Daily News, and People, and her creative writing credits include Literary Hub, Narratively, Slant’d, and Barrelhouse. She’s a proud alum of the Voices of Our Nation Arts workshop and the Coaching Fellowship, as well as a former Hugo House fellow. She is the executive director of the Seventh Wave, a bicoastal arts and literary nonprofit.