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The Insatiable Sea

Sven Birkerts is the editor of AGNI. He recently wrote an article for the AGNI Newsletter (subscribe here): “Five Things the Submitting Writer Should Know.”

Birkerts invokes the phrase “the insatiable sea” to describe the slush pile at AGNI because:

“…while the submitter thinks of herself as a lone writer writing (at least this submitter has always thought of himself that way), the magazine editor hauling in the bin packed with envelopes—or nowadays opening the Submissions Manager on the office computer—cannot but react each time to the quantity, the oceanic volume.”

Let’s say it again. Oceanic. Volume. Of submissions.

So, what goes on after we hit “submit”? Birkerts offers these five insights.

1. At AGNI, unsolicited submissions are sorted into one of three categories: “not right for us, look more closely, and promising.” More than 60 percent are “not right for us.” About a quarter percent are “look more closely.” And about 10 percent get passed along to first readers as “promising.” Maybe less.

2. Of the more than 60 percent of submissions that don’t make the first cut, “this is in many cases less because the work is not accomplished in its way, but because its way is not ours.” That is, the author has submitted a piece to AGNI that doesn’t fit the magazine’s aesthetic. Writers can save themselves time and frustration (and heartbreak) by researching each magazine ahead of time to see if that magazine publishes writing like ours.

3. Cover letters are nice, but the opening lines are more important than anything else. “As an editor confronting the day’s abundance, I want to find a reason to stop reading as soon as I can,” Birkerts says. “As an editor in love with good writing, I want to find that I cannot stop.”

4. Submitting a piece that’s right for the magazine is much more important than any of your publication credits or awards. Birkerts says, “Finding myself unable to stop reading the work of a new or unfamiliar writer is—well, it’s frankly one of the two or three things that make this job compelling to me.”

5. This last one is hardest to define, so here’s Birkerts again:

Finally, most important—and maybe the thing most rarely mentioned in discussions of literary magazines and what they look for—is the fact of the art itself: the fiction, poetry, or essay that arrives, whether on paper or backlit by computer light. That it should never seem to the person receiving it like a submission. That it should not feel like another rung on some writer’s ladder to some imagined success, a potential bit of cachet for the CV. That it should feel like—and be—an authentic and necessary expression, something that couldn’t not be written. That it be part of the long sustaining continuum of literature. We know when we are in the presence of that and, believe me, we are interested.

AGNI opens for submissions September 1. Click here to visit their website.