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Taking risks without apology: An interview with Meanjin editor Zora Sanders

by Veronica Sullivan , July 2, 20144 Comments

As the editor of Meanjin, one of Australia’s oldest literary journals, Zora Sanders is no stranger to writers’ behavioural quirks when pitching work and responding to editorial feedback.

On the second ever Pitch, Bitch day, Sanders shares her observations on the ways men and women approach pitching, drops a few truth bombs about the editing process, and discusses the respective responsibilities of editors and writers to address gender disparities.

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Have you observed any differences in ways men and women pitch to Meanjin, and if so what are they? What is the gender ratio of pitches and submissions you receive?

The first thing to say is that no one of either gender pitches to Meanjin very often. I might get about five pitches per month, which is not many at all. If I’ve not worked with a writer before but I like their idea and it sounds like they’re familiar with Meanjin, I’ll commission on spec. That is, I still need to read the piece or a section of the piece before I can commit to publishing it. I think most editors are the same in that regard. We need to know you as a writer before we’re comfortable commissioning work sight unseen.

But to answer your actual questions, the vast majority of the pitches I receive are from men, whereas in our submissions box, about 65% of the submissions are from women. But there’s another issue here which acts to disadvantage women, and it’s this: the majority of pitches are for essays, the majority of submissions are fiction (upwards of 80% of submissions are fiction). However Meanjin generally publishes more essay than fiction in each edition, so women are greatly disadvantaged by this question of genre. Because essays are harder to get, I’m much more likely to accept a pitched essay, and that pitch is most likely to come from a man. We publish fewer pieces of fiction, but receive vastly more of them as submissions. This genre disparity ends up making it harder for women to get published, at least in our magazine.

coverIn your experience editing writers, do male and female writers respond to acceptance and rejection differently? How do they approach the editing process?

This is all very anecdotal of course, and as we know, the plural of anecdote isn’t Science, but… In any instance I can think of where an author had reacted poorly to editing, rejection or feedback, that author has been male. I’ve had women authors argue with me or try to change my mind, which is fine and good and healthy in an author-editor relationship, but I can’t think of an instance where a woman has been insulting or patronising as a result of an edit or rejection.

I have however had male authors use the ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ line on me, respond to pages of considered feedback and suggestions on how they can improve their work with a sulky ‘Forget it then’, and others who imply that I’m both stupid and ignorant and that I ought to to be grateful for the chance to publish them. What this handful of authors share is an inflated sense of entitlement and a lack of self-awareness, two things that are the absolute death of good writing. They privilege their personal perspective on the world over all others, where good authors do the opposite. But cases like that are the absolute minority. My usual experience of both the men and women I work with is that they are respectful of my judgement and the editing process generally.

What do you think are the main factors which influence the ways men and women pitch their writing and engage with editors?

The solution to the underrepresentation of women in published writing is for both writers and editors to acknowledge the reasons behind this disparity. Women should absolutely pitch more. But editors need to be aware of the reasons that they don’t and work to correct them. In my opinion there are a few reasons for the disparity.

One is that for most writers, writing isn’t their main job. Most have a bill-paying job as well, and writing is something they do for the love of it and perhaps the hope that one day it WILL be their bill-paying job (though I’m not sure that is exactly the holy grail writers should be aiming for). What this means is that writing has to fit in around other responsibilities.

It is a fact that women as a whole take on more of these responsibilities than men. Even in households where women are the main breadwinners, they still perform the majority of the domestic duties (they perform the majority in all other kinds of households too, of course). So, for women to make time to pitch and write for publication can be difficult. My perception is that women are far more likely than men to put other responsibilities before their writing, which they may view as ‘personal time’. Men, on the other hand, may see writing as ‘time spent furthering my career’. I have often had women pull out of writing something for me because of a sick child, an ill parent or some other family or domestic responsibility. I cannot think of a single instance where a male writer has pulled out for such a reason.

What should editors be doing to combat these tendencies?

The important thing as an editor is not to roll your eyes and give up on women writers because they miss a deadline. Keep the door open, tell them you still want the piece when they have the time, actively seek out women writers, give them plenty of notice for submission and editing deadlines and generally make room for them in your publication.

If you’re consistently getting good pitches and submissions, it’s easy as an editor to just run those, even if they’re all from men. It can require more work to get gender parity in your publication, and editors are often stressed and overworked as it is. But that isn’t an excuse. Actively commissioning work that isn’t all written by middle aged white men is simply part of the job as an editor. If you aren’t doing it, you’re failing your authors, your readers and your publication.

What can women writers to advantage themselves in their interactions with editors?

My biggest request would be for women to take more risks. It’s often remarked that a man will say yes to an assignment even if he’s barely heard of the topic before, while women want to be experts before they agree to write on a topic.

There was a study that found men will apply for a job if they meet most of the criteria, women will only apply if they meet all of them. That is a symptom of a world where women are generally treated as less knowledgeable, trustworthy and reliable than men. They face greater interrogation and criticism of their work, so it’s understandable that women don’t want to write about unfamiliar topics, knowing that if they get anything wrong or misrepresent something even slightly, they’re going to be incinerated in a firestorm of criticism. So what happens is that women who want to write, seem to flock to fiction and memoir, both places where they are the number one expert in what they’re writing about.

We need women’s voices in all genres of writing, and as non-fiction is still in many cases the most influential form in which to communicate important ideas, we need women to be writing it. I understand why they are hesitant to do so. It is a tough situation, but if we wait until women’s authority is respected in the same way that men’s authority is before women take risks in non-fiction writing, we might be waiting a long time.

In your time editing student media [Sanders co-edited the Melbourne University student magazine Farrago in 2009], did you encounter any particular trends among younger and less experienced writers, particularly women writers? Does this change or shift in any way with increased age and experience?

I think at the level of student media, women in particular are more willing to take risks and cover unfamiliar material in the way I was discussing above. The stakes are lower and you’re allowed to make mistakes. Having said that, sometimes the mainstream media will pick up on something you do and run with it, exposing you, especially if you’re a women, to the full glare of public scrutiny and ridicule.

hunIn 2012 I followed the story about the young women who interned at the Herald Sun and then wrote for Farrago about the despicable workplace culture she witnessed there. She was treated like a prissy lunatic by both wings of the mainstream media for highlighting the sexist, transphobic, bigoted workplace culture at the paper. They acted like her use of the term heteronormative was the funniest thing they’d ever heard, and when she commented that she found it sexist that the men in the office always held the door open for her, this was seized upon and trotted out as proof of her derangement (as if women can’t tell when someone is performing an act in order to belittle or demean them. Any women knows that having the door held open for you can be a sexist act, we spend our lives alert, judging, constantly assessing the men around us and their motives).

What it really showed is just how out of touch and antiquated newsroom culture really is. Journalists on both sides defended that culture as somehow necessary and natural, and blamed the student for not speaking up at the time (as if she could have without facing derision and censure), for being naïve, and for writing about it publically afterwards.

The student paper should have been a safe place for her to write about these experiences. Her audience, university students, would be highly familiar with the terms heteronormative and transphobia, and be used to interrogating gender relations in everyday situations too. But instead she was hounded, ridiculed and dismissed. What a terrible lesson for young women who want to speak out about their experiences. Is it any wonder women learn to keep their mouths shut about anything that isn’t a) fictional or b) personal, subjective experience?

Ok, so I went off topic a little there, but to answer your actual question, I think at the level of student media women generally feel they have the space to experiment and take more risks. We also had a policy of never rejecting work without feedback, and we felt our role as editors was to do our best to get every writer’s work to a publishable standard if possible, so we took a lot of time to edit in consultation with writers and explain our decisions. I think that attitude has stayed with me to a large extent, though sadly I no longer have the time to give individualised feedback to every author!

What do you look for from a strong pitch, and are there any common mistakes writers make which absolutely turn you off? Do you have any advice for women writers considering pitching their work to Meanjin specifically, or for publication more generally?

A strong pitch is polite but not self-deprecating. One of my biggest hopes is that women who pitch and submit to me will stop denigrating themselves and their own work. I often get submissions from women that start with something like, ‘Sorry it’s so bad, I was rushed, I can work more on it, so don’t worry about how terrible it is now’. Well Jesus, it could be the best piece of writing in the world, but with that introduction I’m going to go in assuming it’s a piece of crap.

The urge to pre-empt someone’s negative opinion of you is SO STRONG, but you must fight it! Don’t apologise for your pitch or your submission. Don’t apologise for anything if you haven’t done anything wrong! If an editor doesn’t like a piece, they’ll tell you. You also have to respect them to make up their own mind about something. I’ve also had the experience where I really like something, and the author is constantly telling me how shit it is. I start to doubt my own judgment and it can make me question the quality of a piece that I loved at the beginning.

If you’ve never worked with an editor before they will probably be a bit wary, which you shouldn’t take personally. We’ve all commissioned work that sounded amazing in the pitch but in reality turned out… not to be. So we need to see what you can do first. All editors dream of writers who are good at what they do, on time, within word limit and submit clean prose. Prove yourself to be one of those and an editor will want to commission you again and again. And for god’s sake, READ THE PUBLICATION YOU ARE SUBMITTING TO. You must actually do this. If you say you have, but your style is totally off, an editor will assume you’re lying and will never commission you again. So read that publication, not just one essay or even one issue. Really get into what they are about. And then you’ll be unstoppable!

Kill Your Darlings is the Pitch, Bitch media partner. Find out more about Pitch, Bitch at yeahpitchbitch.tumblr.com, and follow the #pitchbitch hashtag on Twitter.

http://meanjin.com.au




  • Scarlett Harris

    Thanks for this. It has given me the courage to pitch to Meanjin!

  • Kate Harper

    This is such a fantastic account of the challenges facing so many women writers! Really honest and inspiring, thanks so much.

  • Simon Collinson

    Anybody who’s casting around for an idea to pitch may want to visit http://openpitches.tumblr.com/, a Tumblr we’ve created so editors can post article openings for which they’d like to receive pitches.

    There’s currently one opening for Meanjin and another for The Lifted Brow.

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