The goal of most writers is to become published writers. In his diary, C.S. Lewis describes a rather peculiar route to publication followed by one of his acquaintances at Oxford.
During his prolific career, Lewis dealt with many different editors. Some experiences were positive, while others were less so.
In the diary entry which follows, Lewis expresses his befuddlement at the criteria some editors use to make their decisions.
“Stead” was William Stead, an American poet who came to England as a diplomat, became an Anglican priest, baptized T.S. Eliot, and returned to the States prior to WWII. Stead also introduced Lewis to W.B. Yeats, a curious encounter I will be writing about quite soon.
Wednesday 5 April: Started revising Greek History today. At first I found my notes etc. in great confusion, but when that was straightened out I worked with more interest and pleasure than I had expected. . . .
I also got the two poems (typed v. accurately for I/-)* and saw Stead in order to get the address of the London Mercury.
He told me with a solemn face and admirable naivety how he had got his accepted. Two or three were sent back by return post, whereupon he went up to London and called on the Editor, saying, “Look here Mr Squire, you haven’t taken these poems of mine and I want to know what’s wrong with them!!”
If the story ended there, it would be merely a side light on Stead, but the joke is that Squire said, “I’m glad you’ve come to talk it over: that’s just what I want people to do” and actually accepted what he’d formerly refused. Truly the ways of editors are past finding out! (All My Road Before Me)
Anyone who has submitted their work for publication consideration can relate to Lewis’ incredulity. Long ago I resigned myself to their arbitrariness and irrationality. They are, after all, simply human beings, and as such, inescapably subjective.
While we could all agree on circular filing** submissions filled with typos or misspellings, they sometimes reject what is excellent and embrace what is maudlin. The stories of best sellers that were repeatedly rejected are common.
It’s true that some publications have pretty exhaustive stylebooks, but when it comes to the content of what they publish, it frequently appears to be based on momentary whim.
After many years of writing, and a handful of years as an editor myself, I have come to believe the decisions are purely subjective. Subjective and arbitrary, depending on the mood, time of day, weather, status of family relations and digestion of the editor.
A Postscript on C.S. Lewis and Stead
After the diary excerpt cited above, Lewis continues with a bit more about the brash American.
Stead gave me the proof of his new book, The Sweet Miracle, wh. I took away. So far it seems rather dull. Worked for the rest of the day, except for a nightcap of Repington.
If you would like to assess for yourself the “dullness” of Stead’s poetry, you can download a copy of The Sweet Miracle and Other Poems via Hathitrust.
The book Lewis refers to as his “nightcap” was a history of the First World War, in which he had personally served. It was written by Lieutenant Colonel Charles à Court Repington, a war correspondent. Both volumes are available for your bedtime reading (volume one, volume two).
* “Typed very accurately for one pound.”
** Also referred to as the “round file.”