Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Here is a cautionary tale for writers.  It is a lesson, first, in not taking one person’s judgement of your work as definitive, and second, about how not to run a magazine. 

In 1997 a story of mine called “Matters Arising” was placed second in the South Island Writers’ Association’s Dame Ngaio Marsh competition. Three years later, trawling through the bottom drawer, I found it and thought it might find a wider readership in the real world and I sent it to a modest little quarterly magazine.  I was a subscriber to the magazine to indicate support for its efforts to showcase New Zealand writing, even though the short fiction it published was not particularly to my taste. Also, I was sometimes disturbed by the tone of the editorial content, which was couched in language that was routinely brusque and sometimes offensive. 

The story came back to me. The title page had the following scrawled over it:  

“Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately we cannot use it. Joan, we scan stories. Your leaving 2 double space lines between every paragraph means we have to spend time adjusting every page. We DON’T have the time and WON’T do it. The Editorial Board felt your story lacked ‘bite’, tension & a main character. It also needed a good edit & cutting. A decent sized envelope for the return of your script – or a disposable script – would save you time & money.” 

In January 2001 Takahe magazine (issue 41) published “Matters Arising” without changing or cutting a word. The story attracted considerable attention and in the years since has become almost viral, having been copied and distributed many times. [Feel free, everybody, spread the word.] 

The cautionary tale doesn’t end there.  In February 2001 I received a plea from the editorial team of the little magazine asking me, as a subscriber, to renew my subscription as times were tough and the magazine was in danger of folding. They wanted an “instant response” plus $24 for four issues. 

I was really, really calm and polite when replying. I said that I wouldn’t be renewing my subscription because I thought the magazine was “mumsie” and the stories rather tired. I considered the editorial taste unsophisticated. And I objected to the tone in which readers, subscribers and potential contributors were addressed by editorial staff, and that offending just about everybody on whom they depended for support was probably not the best way forward. 

Judge the story for yourself. The link is up there on the left, on the story page.



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