Advice

Rude Young Nobodies Misbehave

How not to treat a senior eminence whose manuscript you’ve solicited

Vernon Chen / Creative Commons

August 24, 2015

Question (from "Praxilla"): I could say I am a "famous creator of literary fiction" — and some of your readers might recognize my name. I’m writing to ask how Ms. Mentor, in all her wisdom and grace, might handle an, alas, all-too-common situation.

Two youngsters, call them "Billy" and "Milly," wrote to say they’re starting a literary magazine and would love to include a piece by me. They professed to be great admirers of my work. There would be, of course, no payment for my piece in The Billy and Milly Review, but they would be honored and delighted and so forth (all the things people say when you won’t get paid).

My first reaction was "Meh." But they came back to me, even more ardently. It would be their first issue, and they knew my reputation would draw people to their venture. Oh please, please, please, they said. So I was interested, flattered, and willing to help them out. I sent them one of my best new short stories and then heard nothing. They did not acknowledge receiving it — not even, as I sometimes get, a quick "it arrived, we’re thrilled, back to you soon about when we’ll publish." Nothing at all for several weeks.

And then, to my astonishment, I got an e-mail saying, "The work you sent is not fully realized, and not up to the standard we hope to set with The Billy and Milly Review. We’ll be happy to consider future work, but this one isn’t for us."

I wish I could say that this has never happened to me before, but it has — and not just to me. "Arminta," a poet I know, went through the same appalling sequence. Her work was eagerly solicited, then brusquely rejected — after which the editors asked her to volunteer for their magazine again. So I wasn’t amazed by Billy and Milly’s disrespect. But it did leave me feeling rejected, ashamed, and reminded of my general worthlessness (as all writers often feel). I regret my kindness.

Still, I know this isn’t a good way for Billy and Milly to begin a career in a tiny world. I certainly won’t support their activities or recommend them to anyone who still has an ego. As a teacher and mentor myself, though, I’d like to find a way to remind the young editors that our scene is very small, and that this kind of thing will come back to bite them in the butt. How might I do that?

Answer: Oh, Ms. Mentor knows how rejected writers feel. First you want to cry ("I am a worthless worm"), and then you imagine your revenge. Some with stronger egos may go for smiting first. If they’re particularly reckless, they may put out immoderate tweets ("Young dolts!"). That will rile everyone up.

Resist that temptation. If you want to express your rage, write it out by hand. Do it in cursive, since that’s dying out, and you can brag about knowing a special code. By the time you’ve spewed all your feelings, you’ll be calmer. You may even laugh at the stupidity of human existence, and how we all run around like gnats in this barbarous vale of tears, underappreciated by everyone.

Lest Ms. Mentor’s readers misunderstand … Billy and Milly have been grossly rude and insulting to our Praxilla. They’ve seduced and slapped her, showing their own lack of — well, one could call it class. Or social professional grace.

Many obstreperous youngsters twitch and rail at the idea that they should respect their elders. But truly, they must. Their elders know more, have experienced more, and have knowledge that could be shared with young learners. For young people, internships and apprenticeships are not just for the vita. They’re for figuring out a job, a milieu, and a hierarchy.

No, we’re not all equal in the literary world. Nor are we equal in academe. As the journalist James Fallows famously said long ago, the only real meritocracy is the National Football League. Everywhere else, there’s room for judgment and for "fit." Does the piece fit the theme of an issue? Is the author photogenic? Will having a story by Praxilla make a glorious premiere issue, something that’ll attract readers, readings, panel invitations, critical notices, and literary prizes?

Ms. Mentor notes that a fledgling editor does not have to be like the Erica Jong character who said, "My natural instinct is to toady." Nor do you have to kiss a top author’s ring lest you find a horse’s head in your bed. But you do have to be aware of who gets top billing, and where you are on the marquee.

But metaphors and literary allusions aside, Billy and Milly don’t seem to know that unless they’re publishing well-known writers, no one’s going to be interested in their magazine. Praxilla is the draw, the star.

Praxilla has fans who’ll read The Billy and Milly Review and recommend it to their friends. Tweets and blogs will spread their fame. They’ll be liked and shared on Facebook. They’ll be click bait. They may go viral. They’ll be top bananas on Google.

But Billy and Milly have smothered their web before it was born.

They’ve also personally insulted Praxilla. Even if they don’t like the story Praxilla has sent, she’s given them a great gift — which they’ve thrown back at her.

Ms. Mentor does not agree with Samuel Johnson, who famously wrote that no one "but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Ms. Mentor praises writers who donate their labor — now and then. Some editors who can’t (yet) pay their writers are superb readers and shapers of material. All writers can learn new techniques, including the sly convolutions of classic British authors and the crude clarity of today’s young rappers.

If Billy and Milly did not want to publish Praxilla’s piece as is — which is what they should have done — they could at least have given her strokes. Instead Praxilla, in the future, will be particularly wary when asked to donate her work. If she feels "meh," she’ll listen to her inner voice and say No.

Ms. Mentor decrees that Billy and Milly have been rude, mean, and dumb. Praxilla shows a generous spirit in wanting to mentor them and teach them better ways. But there is no smooth, classy way to do that. After you get some version of "We’re just not into you," it’s — well — embarrassing to chase down the one who dumped you, with "No! You’ve misunderstood! I really deserve to be in your mag!"

Ms. Mentor regrets a sad fact of life: We have to let adults make their own mistakes.

But in her infinite wisdom, Ms. Mentor is also giving Praxilla, for free, a way to say something to Billy and Milly anyway.

Send them this column.

Question: I’ve been invited to write a blurb for Big Famous Scholar’s latest book. I read it, and am filled with deep feelings of "meh." I’m tempted to write an ambiguous but favorable-sounding blurb ("Worthy addition to his canon"), so I’ll get my name on his book cover and curry favor with him and our small scholarly subfield. Will I rot in hell?

Answer: No.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor thanks those generous souls who have already nominated Academic Novels for next spring’s annual roundup of the same. She is troubled, though, by readers who do not seem to understand what a novel is (a long fictitious prose narrative). Members of her flock have recommended books that have nothing to do with academe, except that their characters once attended college. Other readers want to send Ms. Mentor their self-printed memoirs. (Ms. Mentor, being a spirit, does not have an earthly mailbox.) One reader emailed his university’s pamphlet about sexual harassment.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, details are pureed, and anonymity is guaranteed. Do feel free to send Ms. Mentor your late summer woes and whinings, especially if they are satirical. No one will know you’re that clever. Feel underappreciated, as always.

C Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com .