Archive for February 18, 2012

Not a Good Fit

            “It has been a long trip,” said Milo, climbing onto the couch where the princesses sat; “but we would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes. I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”

            “You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

            “But there’s so much to learn,” he said with a thoughtful frown.

            “Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”

— Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), p. 233

Sometimes, a press or a journal will tell you that what you’ve sent simply isn’t a “good fit.” Over a decade ago, American Literature turned down a piece on Crockett Johnson that I subsequently published in Children’s Literature 29 (2001) — the article that inspired my forthcoming biography of Johnson and Ruth Krauss. What does a “good fit” mean?  In that case, it meant that an American author of comics and of picture books did not qualify as American Literature (at least, not according to the journal’s editor).

Here is a slightly trickier case. Yesterday, eighteen and a half months after I submitted my essay “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Seuss and Race in the 1950s,” American Quarterly at last returned a verdict. Reject. The very helpful reader’s report recommends “revise and resubmit,” but the accompanying letter notes that the board “decided that your essay was not a good fit for American Quarterly.  This is primarily because we felt your argument needed clarification and further elaboration.”  Judging by both the report and the letter, “not a good fit” in this case means insufficient theorizing of how race is constructed — and I’d be the first to acknowledge that I’m not well versed in race theory. I did do some of that theoretical work in writing this piece, but I’m much better versed in Seuss and in children’s literature than I am in critical theory.  This is a new area for me. “Not a good fit” in this case also means (as the editor elaborates) that the argument could have been more effectively structured.

On that note, the reader’s report will be very useful to me as I further revise the essay.  To paraphrase Rhyme’s advice (in Juster’s novel), there’s much to do with what I’ve learned.  Indeed, I’m quite happy to be able to rewrite the essay without thinking “Oh, what if they like it in its original form?”  I turned in the piece a year and a half ago, and my own thinking has evolved considerably since then.  Even if the essay had been accepted, I was going to ask if I might make some revisions to it.

Any junior scholars reading this might wonder why I’ve let this essay languish at American Quarterly for so long. A big reason is that I have had the luxury to wait.  If I were earlier in my career, I would have certainly pulled this essay about a year ago, and sent it elsewhere. (As I note in an earlier blog post, it’s good to be proactive.) American Quarterly currently says that they require six to eight months simply to decide whether or not to send the essay out for review.  In my case, the journal took a year to decide to send the essay out for review — nearly exactly a year, in fact.  I submitted the essay on 31 Aug. 2010, and the editor sent it out for review on 25 Aug. 2011.  However, since American Quarterly is a good journal, since I’m a full professor, and since I have more than enough to keep me busy, I decided to wait it out. I followed up with the managing editor at regular intervals… and worked on the many other projects I’d committed myself to.

The final issue to address, then, is “If a journal deems your work ‘not a good fit,’ should you submit something else to same journal?”  The answer is “yes, if you write something that seems a better fit,” but otherwise “no.”  My answer to the question (regarding AQ) is “probably not” — but less for the unusually long delay (for which both editor and managing editor apologized) and more because I doubt that anything I’m doing will be “a good fit” for AQ. Of the sort of work I do, this piece seemed to me to be the best fit for AQ. It’s interdisciplinary, mixing history, close-reading, theory — though not well enough, evidently. But, as I’ve acknowledged before, as a scholar, I’m more hard worker than big thinker. That is, I’m persistent, I produce a fair amount, but I seem unable to write the sort of scholarship that changes the paradigm. I admire people who do that type of work, but acknowledge that I’m not one of them. So, if “best fit” (from my perspective) is “not a good fit” (from AQ’s perspective), then I’ll need to pursue other venues for my work.

And, happily, there are other venues. Generally speaking, I try to publish in both children’s literature journals and in ones that are not devoted to children’s literature. My reasons are many — seeking a broader audience for my own work, wanting to diversify, believing that one shouldn’t always talk to the same group of scholars, feeling that children’s literature scholarship should be more thoroughly integrated into academe, and so on. But, of course, some journals will be a better fit than others.

So, following the advice of Rhyme and Reason, what have I learned from this experience? (1) I’m grateful for the helpful feedback, and look forward to putting it to good use. (2) It’s useful to know that AQ is unlikely to be a good fit for me: I can turn towards (what I hope will be) more receptive venues instead. (3) Finally, it’s a cliché, but it’s also true: nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Onwards!

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