Bewildering Stories goes...
Behind the Scenes
with our review readers
by Don Webb
This message is intended mainly for our Associate Editors — our review readers — but it will surely interest our contributors and regular readers alike.
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Now that our second quarter is coming to an end, I hasten to thank everyone who has reviewed submissions. As our Quarterly Reviews say, our Associate Editors determine what Bewildering Stories shall be.
A note of encouragement is in order, because review readers operate almost necessarily “in the dark.” Submissions are normally assigned to one of our Coordinating Editors, who asks for critiques from two members of his or her team. Desirable as discussion and consensus may be, we need the emphases in individual opinions. And critiques get no feedback. That may be unfortunate, but what more can we say than “Thanks, good job”?
And yet I receive almost weekly expressions of gratitude from our contributors. And it doesn’t matter whether we’ve accepted or declined their submissions. Here’s one, received this past week; it can represent them all:
That was a really great piece of feedback I couldn't see from being inside the story. I appreciate your consideration.
And you may onsider the compliment as being made to you. It tells us we’re on the right track.
Do we receive requests for no feedback, only “yes” or “no”? One such came in last week, but they’re vanishingly rare, and you’ll never see them. My response: “Sorry, we can’t proceed under such a condition. Feedback is Bewildering Stories’ stock in trade. Whether we accept or decline a submission, we always say why.”
I do not add that I consider the request insulting. If the author is worth listening to, then so are we. Great artists have often had personalities ranging from strange to downright weird, but they never hid under a rock.
It doesn’t really matter whether you, as a review reader, address your critique to the Coordinating Editor or to the author. Your Coordinating Editor makes sure that our official response — though it may be trenchant — will be polite.
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Now, what about “split decisions,” where one reader says “yes” and the other, “no”? In observance of President Truman’s famous motto “The buck stops here,” the Coordinating Editors pass split decisions to me, often with their own recommendations. And I cast the deciding vote. The task is welcome, because I always read the critiques; I want to know who’s saying what.
The result is faintly humorous. I almost always respond to our Coordinating Editors with something like: “Our two review readers come to different conclusions. As usual, they’re both right.” I say that so often that it may as well be boilerplate.
Here are a few of the most common critiques. They can be classified according to some of our unofficial mottoes:
“Tell the readers what they need to know, but do not do the reading for them.” That applies especially to authorial interventions that tell readers what to think.
“Astute on-line readers scroll to the first instance of dialogue. That’s where they figure the story really begins.” That’s “show, don’t tell” in action.
The next is a corollary: “Beginnings and endings are both important but, if the beginning is bad, nobody will read to the end.” I’m sure we all wish we had the proverbial nickel for the number of submissions that devote hundreds of words to exposition before a character finally gets around to saying or doing something.
Here are two famous opening lines. Notice how they resemble catchy titles:
“Call me Ishmael.” — Herman Melville. One can hardly frame an introduction more forcefully than one in the imperative mood.
“For a long time I’ve gone to bed early.” — Marcel Proust. That’s almost an “in your face” opening. What kind of action is that? And what’s the result?
And here’s one that’s more on the notorious side:
“He lurched through the door of the mad scientist’s laboratory, arms outstretched, seeking bottled brains. ‘Aargh,’ he roared hiccuppily.” — in Speedways to Literary Oblivion
The opening oversteps our guideline #4, “grammatical puzzles,” but the character — whoever he is — at least says and does something.
Over the years, Bewildering Stories’ preferences have taken shape in our review readers’ responses and in our mottoes. And we’re all in substantial agreement on at least one thing: reading on line is not the same as curling up in an easy chair with a book in which you can mark your place with a thumb. The readers’ situation ultimately makes a difference in the form of on-line literature.
Again, thanks to our review readers. Your voices are heard, heeded, and appreciated. Keep up the good work!
Copyright © 2017 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories