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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9 Comments »

  1. Brian Herrera Said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    Thanks SO much for sharing this process, Phil. I am disappointed that AQ passed on this piece (in no small part because I am so excited to read it). But now that this essay is finally loosed from this particular bottleneck, I’m intrigued to see what/where unexpected opportunities await!

  2. Robin Bernstein Said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    I second everything Brian says. I’m bummed that AQ passed on the article, and I want to read it anyway (would you send it to me?). I think you’re giving the academic world a gift in talking about your experience. It’s so important (and often hard) for us to be honest about our labor.

  3. Marah Gubar Said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

    You are so admirably even-handed and fair-minded, Phil! I am still angry on your behalf (and my own, as you know!) that AQ takes so unconscionably long. It’s really out of hand. they need to hire some more editors or something! I have no doubt your piece will come out somewhere else soon and be fabulous. It’s their loss!

  4. Philip Nel Said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    Thank you both for your encouraging words. Robin: I would, of course, be glad to send it to you. I do wonder whether it would be a better use of your time if I, before sending, first did further work on it. To write the piece, I read a lot about blackface minstrelsy, but I’ve much yet to learn on theorizing race. Your book, Racial Innocence, has been very helpful, but I only read it since writing the essay. And then, there are suggestions included in the editor’s note as well, suggestions I’ve yet to follow up on. In sum, I’m glad to send the essay — but only if I won’t be wasting your time.

  5. Philip Nel Said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    And Marah: your comment landed just as I was writing back to Robin and Brian! But thank you, also. Kind of you to suggest that it’s their loss, but I wouldn’t say that it is, myself. I find the points of critique useful, and — when I get the time (this summer, I hope) — I’ll look forward to following up on them.

  6. BJ Epstein Said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 5:45 am

    Thank you for posting this. It is extremely helpful to hear from a well-known scholar and to know that even full professors sometimes get rejected. The whole submission process can be rather disheartening; like you, I’m a hard, persistent work, and I jut want to share my ideas with others. But it doesn’t always work out as such.
    I remember submitting an article to a children’s lit journal just a few years ago, at the beginning of my career, and the editor sent me the meanest letter, cruelly ripping everything apart and basically telling me I had no talent and no worthy contributions. I wrote back to point out that I was open to constructive criticism, but there was no need to be so harsh, and he responded that someone had to tell me. He seemed to have no sense of the “good fit” idea, and he didn’t acknowledge that he might simply just have not liked my style, whereas others clearly did (I’ve had other papers accepted and that particular paper was accepted by another journal). I think we should make sure we tell people — at all stages of their career — that something that isn’t a good fit for one editor/journal might very well be highly appreciated by another one.

    Best wishes,
    BJ

  7. Jennifer Hughes Said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 11:11 am

    Thanks, Phil, (as other people have said) for talking about your writing, submission, revision, and journal-selection process so openly. As a relative newb on the scene, and finding that my 4-4 load is rendering me much more of a teacher than a scholar, reading about your experiences and your advice on how to deal with questions of “fit” is so helpful! Can’t wait to read that article once you’ve revised it to your satisfaction!

  8. Marah Gubar Said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    You and others might want to post your experiences with particular journals on this website:

    http://humanitiesjournals.wikia.com/wiki/Literary_Studies_Journals

    I still think that no journal should take as long as AQ did; if the piece is not a good fit, an editor could have told you that MONTHS ago. How long does it take to skim a piece and determine whether it fits with your journal? You don’t need an outside reader to tell you that!

  9. Philip Nel Said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

    Thanks, BJ, Jennifer, & Marah, for your supportive comments.

    BJ: Kind of you to say. I have similar story. About a decade ago, a children’s lit journal took 8 months to turn down my essay on how Seuss’s World War II cartoons influenced his career as a children’s author. The journal’s reader also suggested that I consult a resource that had not even been published when I’d submitted the article. It took a change of editor before I submitted anything else to that journal. The essay itself was subsequently published by Mosaic, and became Chapter 2 of Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004).

    Jennifer: publishing on a 4-4 load is very challenging, to say the least. It can be done and it’s easier once you have more preps ready to go. But it’s really hard to find the time. When I look back on the two years that I had a 4-4 load, I’m surprised that I managed to get much written. Of course, I wanted to get out of that job, and so anger was a powerful motivator. In contrast, my sense of you is that, while you’d be grateful for less teaching, you do like your job.

    Marah: Thanks for the tip. I don’t see a category for AQ on that page, but it’s a thought. I concur that the wait time was unusually long, but I also know what it’s like to be overwhelmed with work — editorial and otherwise.

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