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Writers, blogs, e-mail, and civil discourse

Posted by Robin Abrahams  May 1, 2008 08:52 AM

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This is all a little bit of inside baseball, but not too much, so bear with me if you will ...

Surviving the Workday posts in response to the blog of the literary magazine Virginia Quarterly Review, which posted some of the comments made by their editorial reviewers on ... shall we say, unsatisfactory submissions to the magazine. Examples:

* Planet of the Apes fan-fiction! Have we no standards?

Narrator/murderer describes how he is going to kill his victim and dispose of the body by mixing it into the fillings of eclairs. Then he talks about himself. God this is awful.

Federico the cat is put to sleep. Boys wait for him to “wake up.” Guess what? He doesn’t.

StW's Ms. Theologian thinks this is uncivil and unfunny, and in the comments section of her post, the editor who posted the comments disagrees with her.

My feelings are mixed. I respect the need for civility, but I do enjoy literary snark. (The reviewers' comments aren't really the best examples of it, unfortunately; it's so much easier to defend incivility that is actually funny, a point I wish someone could explain to Christopher Hitchens.) Also, my husband publishes a small magazine, and the fact is that deeply inappropriate submissions are themselves discourteous. Editors are almost universally overworked, especially at small-press publications, and it's rude to take up their time with a submission that may as well state up front, "Hi, I just wanted to make it painfully obvious that your magazine isn't good enough for me to actually read and become familiar with, but might be desperate enough to publish my work! Have a nice day!" I can understand the desire for revenge.

So I'm mixed. And a few things on my own blog, recently, also open the question of what communications are private and what are not, and what courtesies writers owe one another. In a recent post, I linked to a Cary Tennis advice column, and said I found his response "as usual, meandering and bizarre," Rather to my surprise, Mr. Tennis found my blog and posted a comment saying, "Man, that hurts." I wondered if any of my readers would call me out for discourtesy toward Mr. Tennis, but none did. Had anyone done so, I would have responded that for writers to publicly critique each others' work is a longstanding literary tradition, and that while I would never use such language to in critiquing the work of a friend, or even to Mr. Tennis's face, to do so to a fellow professional in a public forum is an accepted mode of conduct. Manners are about context.

But in the blog world, context can rapidly shift from private to public. The Virginia Quarterly's reviewers never shared their snarky thoughts with the writers themselves; rejections were always phrased in more tactful language. The blog made a private conversation--between reviewers and editors--public, though they kept it anonymous to spare the writers embarrassment. (Although there can't be all that many people submitting "Planet of the Apes" fanfic to literary magazines, I perhaps naively hope. UPDATE: As you'll see in the comments, identifying details were changed by VQR.)

I was outed myself recently, although for more benign purposes. When I was blogging about money mores, I e-mailed Boston Gal of Boston Gal's Open Wallet and asked her if she'd link to my post in her blog. She did--and she published the entire text of my e-mail to her, as well! I had not intended that for publication. I wasn't offended, exactly; she did it because she thought I'd made the request in a good way, and wanted to analyze exactly what made it work, so it was very complimentary, and I was and am grateful to her for her kind words and for giving me space on her excellent blog. But I was slightly embarrassed because I'd used the word "blogwhoring" in my e-mail to her. This is a well-known term among bloggers, but it's a word I'd only use in private; it's a little too pop-vulgar to be an appropriate part of the official Miss Conduct lexicon. (Well, until now, anyway.) I was using a more informal, blogger-to-blogger register with Boston Gal, and it was a bit disconcerting to see my private register suddenly made public.

I wonder if anyone who has written to me was surprised to see their letter pop up in this blog. We newsies (I say in my hardened-journalist way, tilting my fedora back and taking a nip from the whiskey bottle in my bottom drawer) assume that every letter we get is for publication unless it is specifically noted otherwise. But I wonder if our readers and letter-writer-inners know that?

What are your thoughts about privacy, civility, literary discourse, blogwars, assumptions, O dear readers and letter-writer-inners?

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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7 comments so far...
  1. Excuse me. I just have to gush here at the outset. Ohmygod your husband is the publisher of AIR that is so deeply awesome.

    OK. Onward:

    "The blog made a private conversation--between reviewers and editors--public, though they kept it anonymous to spare the writers embarrassment. (Although there can't be all that many people submitting "Planet of the Apes" fanfic to literary magazines, I perhaps naively hope.)"

    Actually, we didn't merely suppress the identity of the authors, but actually changed any identifying details of the readers' comments, so that even the authors themselves may not realize that it was their work being written about. (The cat was not actually named "Federico." The murderer was not going to mix his victims into eclairs, but a different food entirely. Etc.) Though, honestly, I can't see any of these authors ever reading our blog. I genuinely doubt that any of them have ever read VQR. That step was taken out of precisely the concern that is the theme of your blog, Robin: a desire for civility and polite discourse, though obviously within the realm of humor, self-deprecating and otherwise.

    I have nothing but sympathy for your husband. He knows how maddening it can be to read submission after submission from people who surely have never read his publication. Which, now that I think about it, might make an interesting topic for him to study and publish in his own magazine. :)

    Robin says: Ah, I'm glad to hear that you've changed the names of cats, eclairs, and bad Charlton Heston movies to protect the guilty. Perhaps that was clear on your blog and I simply missed it; my apologies if so. I'm sure if we ever met in person we could have a DELIGHTFUL chat about inappropriate submissions ... your blog post got me to thinking about why, exactly, I find them so frustrating, so thank you for that.

    A note to any hopeful writers: please don't let this discourse scare you off from submitting your work. There's "not right for us" and then there's DEEPLY inappropriate. It's only the latter that's rude; the former is just unfortunate, and pretty much inevitable sooner or later in publishing.

    Posted by Waldo Jaquith May 1, 08 10:04 AM
  1. I was taken aback once when an e-mail I sent was published as a letter in the Globe magazine. I'd been called and asked for permission, and told the caller I'd prefer it to be anonymous but it wasn't.

    The main reason I was disheartened was I wrote to Tales of the City that same week to thank a good Samaritan (with a NH license plate) that helped me start my broken down car in the middle of a snowstorm and had gotten an e-mail back saying it may be published.

    My Tales of the City was never published, and I worried it may have been because they didn't want 2 things from the same person to appear the same week.

    Robin says: Wow, I'm sorry they didn't honor your request for anonymity! They definitely should have, or else not published the letter if there's a policy against anonymice.

    Posted by Danielle D. May 1, 08 11:13 AM
  1. It is thought-provoking, isn't it?

    On the one hand, I think that sharing the comments readers make (and emails between writer and editor) allows the process of submitting to become more transparent, and transparency seems to be one of the features of healthy organizations. So that seems well and good.

    On the other hand, the process of taking internal communications and sharing them with the outside world seems morally troublesome to me, and leaves me wondering about intent, motivation, and why exactly I don't find it funny.

    Furthermore, I think the argument about inappropriateness is far harder to judge on the writers' side. I read a lot of literary journals, and fairly often, I will read something that I wouldn't have expected to see in that journal, so I think it is more difficult to judge than it appears on the editor side of things.

    Robin says: Literary journals probably are different that way; there's more subjectivity there. (I still think sending fan fiction of any kind is beyond the pale, and any reasonable person should know that.) My husband's magazine is science humor, and as long as someone is clearly trying to be at least one of those two things, I don't find it annoying. I do get irritated when people send us poems about kitties.

    Posted by Ms. Theologian May 1, 08 12:47 PM
  1. For some reason I thought it was fairly standard practice to request the writer's permission before publishing something, but I could be incorrect. In your colleague's case, I would have considered it a professional courtesy, particularly was you are the Dame of Conduct. I personally would be very uncomfortable, but then again I'm insanely self-conscious and was raised by attorneys; one never puts much in writing if one can avoid it as it could be used in evidence.

    The VQR thing seemed more like blowing off steam than anything else - as an external reader I didn't find it very humorous, although some of them were worth a chuckle. But that's just me. Had I been someone who normally receives bizarre submissions, it may have resonated a bit more. I was quite well known for my snarky e-mail replies to clients (always only circulated internally) at my former employed life, and I think these things are sometimes more enjoyed by those who can intimately relate to them.

    Posted by kath meusey May 1, 08 02:10 PM
  1. >

    I liked the way she parsed what you had said, pointing out the respect you showed for her territory and prerogatives, that made her feel generous with them in return; and I didn't notice much variation in your voice, since I'm familiar with the range of your column, blog, and chats.


    Once it hits the internet, in any form, you have to know anybody could see it, anywhere, any time.
    I was flattered to be quoted at length a while back, when I was waxing on about my linguistic, north/south culture hobbyhorse.
    Thanks also, by the way, for the pointer to Ozarque, whom I quickly recognized as Suzette Haden Elgin. I've admired her books for years, fiction and otherwise. She's a wonderful explicator of the conversational-politeness-to-a-fault culture, and she shows that, within such a code, a complete range of social emotions and expressions is actually possible.

    Also, I hear that Steven Pinker is studying the social uses of indirect language. I can't wait to see what he says, since I believe his native culture is doesn't hold with it.

    On the VQR comments post, I lead toward considering it amusing rather than mean-spirited. It's good to know that readers can be so impassioned, as I have been myself on occasion, when some piece of idiocy gets through the filtering process and hits print.
    And--would you call it ironic that the post has been further propagated in the service of discussing and disapproving of it? That must happen all the time--is there a word for it?

    Robin says: Yes, that was Elgin--whose book on "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" has now been moved up several dozen on my to-read list.

    When you refer to Steven Pinker's "native culture," do you mean as a Canadian, a Jew, or a self-promoting academic?

    Posted by Carolyn, Cambridge May 2, 08 12:26 AM
  1. The last, I think, since I've encountered Pinker mainly as author and interview subject, but I'll be interested to see if, or how, he addresses all three.

    Posted by Carolyn, Cambridge May 2, 08 07:07 PM
  1. Hey, I was kind of kidding with the "that hurts" comment, I mean, my gosh, if you look at the letters column on, it's carnivorous. We feast on each other's gizzards. But truth be told I was a little taken aback by "meandering and bizarre," because I think of my writing as more "full of extended metaphors" and "highly unusual in tone." but did not mean to imply that we shouldn't say things about each other! Let's at it! (see my recent letter to readers where I finally stop apologizing for making them upset):

    Posted by Cary Tennis May 5, 08 07:12 PM
About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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