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When the Stakes Were High and the Odds Were Low: On seeking publication and combing the archive

Shoshana Olidort

INTRODUCTION

I wrote this piece in 2009, when I was working in the YIVO archives and struggling to break into the world of freelance writing and book reviewing. Rejection stings, as anyone who’s ever been rejected (and who hasn’t?) can attest. But even more frustrating is that liminal space of no-response. It’s like pulling off a band-aid real slow, prolonging the pain. In the end, no reply is usually just a crueler form of rejection. Of course, this is not unique to the writer’s life, and as a graduate student I have had ample opportunity to feel the sting of rejection, or worse, utter disregard. When I wrote this, all those years ago, the stakes felt very high, and the odds extremely low. In the interim, life happened and I discovered that the stakes were not, in the end, all that high (what’s another byline, after all?), and neither were the odds quite so very low. I’ve amassed a decent portfolio of published work, and I am still an aspiring writer. I spent part of last summer at YIVO, going through the Celia Dropkin archives, and relished my time there, and the discovery of letters from Dropkin’s editor, Liessin, rebuking her for work he deemed childish, and urging her to produce higher caliber material: “I know you’re busy caring for five kids and a sick husband, but that’s no excuse. Either write great poetry or don’t write at all.” When I started out at YIVO gender wasn’t at the forefront of my own reckoning as a writer or a researcher; now I’m completing a dissertation on Jewish women’s poetry that focuses on how identities are constructed in and through literary work. All of which is to say, much has changed and also, so much remains the same. I am still hopeful, still often despondent, I still look to Yiddish writers for inspiration and also for consolation.

As a freelance writer I’ve been making valiant attempts at getting published, but to little avail. In the last five months, I published only one book review—in a national Jewish paper, and that was no easy feat. The editor was, as editors often are, utterly elusive. Weeks after submitting my review I sent a follow-up email asking if he’d seen the piece. Only several emails later did I hear back: he had. But was he going to run it, I’d meant to ask, and surely he knew that was the crux of my email. I sent several more emails, my nudging escalating to the point where I felt ashamed, but also vindicated. Finally, he assured me that the review had been accepted, but by now I had lost all confidence. I relaxed, only somewhat, when I saw the review online, and more fully when it appeared in the paper’s print version. The business of freelance writing has its perks, but it’s tough. Gradually, I’ve learned to let go of my pride.

In order to supplement an otherwise highly erratic income, I took on a part-time position as a contract researcher. The work consisted of sifting through many boxes of archival material at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, with the aim of selecting about a hundred documents—mostly Yiddish letters, almost all of them handwritten—to be included as a special feature on the web-based version of the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (set to launch in May 2010). The letters represent correspondence between, primarily, various movers and shakers in the world of pre and inter-war Jews in Europe and America. They were social activists and thinkers, poets and politicians. Often, I came across exchanges between editors and writers. I took particular comfort in reading of the frustrations of writers who were experiencing rejection, or, worse yet, were getting no response. It occurred to me that I might be able to learn some valuable skills from these writers, which I could apply to my own frustrated attempts at negotiating the tricky terrain of the editor-writer relationship.

Take Der Nister, a member of the Yiddish Writer’s Union and an acclaimed poet and writer. In a letter dating from the 1920s, Der Nister, then living in Berlin, wrote a letter to Abraham Liessin, editor of the American Yiddish monthly Tsukunft, regarding a submission. The writer’s tone is harsh and adamant; he will not be rebuffed. Der Nister insists, perhaps anticipating the editor’s negative response, that his piece be published “notwithstanding your American amoretsim [know-nothings] … They don’t understand? They will LEARN to understand.”

Liessin was surely used to this attitude on the part of his writers. In 1922 he received a letter similar in tone, from one R. Abramowitsch of Berlin. The writer starts off by saying that his preoccupation with the Russian issues of the day leaves him with little emotional energy for any other pursuits. Nevertheless, he says he would like to pitch a piece about Trotsky and Kautsky. Although he realizes the subject matter may be beyond the scope of the average American reader, the writer insists that it’s “high-time” American Jews learn a thing or two about the “Socialist Weltanschauung.” In closing, he implores the editor to publish the article sooner rather than later, because, as he explains: “I am not a professional writer, and if I see that my articles go unpublished, I lose the impetus to write further.” Ah, so true. If only I’d inherited some of that chutzpah, along with the rest of the shtetl baggage that was handed down to me, neurosis and all.

But in America things are different. This occurred to me when I came upon a letter by one Yisroel Trut of Winnipeg, writing to Kalman Marmor, a contemporary of Liessin’s, and editor of various Yiddish publications in the U.S. Trut politely asks Marmor for feedback on his submission, and very gently suggests that it would be so wonderful if Marmor might be so kind as to help him place the work, if he deems it worthy, in a suitable Communist publication. Trut has none of the nerve of his compatriots in Europe—and I wonder whether this might explain why his name is unknown. Perhaps he simply didn’t push hard enough.

I refused to make the same mistake. And so, with nothing else working, I began to send cold emails to new editors, at different papers—not exclusively Jewish. Briefly, I imagined my luck would improve. I told myself that in the real world—which, to me, meant everything beyond the confines of my Jewish background—editors do respond. So far this has proved to be only partly true. After all, what great comfort is there to be found in an editor who responds promptly with a chipper “thank you for your pitch,” immediately followed by a rejection?

But what can I do? I continue to pitch my article ideas to editors at newspapers and magazines—Jewish and not—, exercising tremendous patience, and also an enviable degree of perseverance. Recently an editor who had expressed interest in my pitch failed to let me know whether or not he wanted me to go ahead with the article and did not respond to my follow-up emails, I decided to play fair. I sent him a calm but firm email. It was short, civil, and very much to the point. It consisted of two, maybe three lines, which essentially said, quite simply, that I would sincerely appreciate a response letting me know, one way or the other, whether he wanted to go ahead with the article.

A lot of good it did me. I have yet to hear back from the editor, and am at my wit’s end.

I have imagined my revenge in the form of a personal transformation. Suppose I were to become a literary sensation—sought after by publications across the country. This editor, no doubt, would call me too. And I, self-important, accomplished, and no longer at his mercy—I would simply ignore his call.

Or, I could start my own highly successful publication. A friend, also of shtetl ancestry, but more recently of Brooklyn (like myself), did just that, ostensibly in the name of high art. He founded an online literary zine, on the premise that it would give him the opportunity to exercise the same abject cruelty to others that had been dealt to him by editor after editor.

For now, I take solace from my compatriots and colleagues, whether deceased or alive, who have been subjected to similar forms of editorial neglect and obfuscation whether in this century or another, in this country or across the ocean.

MLA STYLE
Olidort, Shoshana. “When the Stakes Were High and the Odds Were Low: On seeking publication and combing the archive.” In geveb, December 2018: https://ingeveb.org/blog/when-the-stakes-were-high-and-the-odds-were-low.
CHICAGO STYLE
Olidort, Shoshana. “When the Stakes Were High and the Odds Were Low: On seeking publication and combing the archive.” In geveb (December 2018): Accessed Dec 15, 2018.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shoshana Olidort