Literary Journals and the Folly of the “Good Fit”


One of the essays in my forthcoming book pummels the notion of a “good fit.” We hear about the “good fit” everywhere–in colleges, workplaces, and everyday life–and are pressed, day by day, to seek it out. Employers routinely assess candidates for “fit” (either informally or through personality tests) and consider or reject them accordingly. College applicants can take a number of quizzes designed to help them find their “perfect fit.”

Taken in moderation, the idea of a “good fit” makes some sense; few of us want to put ourselves in settings where we would be miserable. But the quest for a “good fit” has turned feverish; people seek it out as though it were their obligation and right. In all this fervor, the benefits of a slight mismatch get forgotten.

I won’t repeat the points I make in the essay–but will instead consider the “good fit” from an angle that occurred to me just now: the literary journal (and publication more generally).

Literary journals’ submission guidelines routinely advise writers to familiarize themselves with the journal in advance, so that they can determine whether their work is appropriate for it. Often the editors simply mean that writers should not waste their time submitting junk. For instance, a poem like the following (which I made up just now) should not be sent to the Paris Review, Missouri Review, Shenandoah, or other high-caliber journal:

After eating a bowl of cherries,
I found myself getting wary.
What will happen to all those pits?
Into the dustbin–and that’s it?
Or will I plant them in the ground
to bear more cherries sweet and sound?
As with the pits, so with my life:
Let me compost my juicy strife.

Besides being trite, the poem has bad rhyming, rhythm, and diction; even in its quaintness it doesn’t work.

Besides trying to weed out bad work, the editors also seek writing that they particularly like or that suits the journal’s nature. Here we come to the messy subject of the “good fit.” On the one hand, it would be silly to submit a research article to a journal that publishes only fiction except for the occasional nonfictional narrative. If a journal specializes in heartwarming stories about animals, it probably will not consider a drama in verse about construction workers. A new translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon will probably not get published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Those extreme considerations aside, I hope that writers and editors alike will consider the slight misfit: the “purple thread” (an Epictetus reference) that, by not belonging, makes the journal memorable and beautiful.  Yes, journals reflect not only editorial tastes, but editorial tradition; yes, a journal is more than an assemblage of unrelated pieces. Something–whether quality, topic,  tone, style, whim, or a combination of these–holds the pieces together. Even so, the whole point of writing for an audience is to offer something new. A perfect fit would not be worth reading.

Blatant novelty isn’t the point. A piece that’s entirely new misses something; it’s an impossibility anyway. There’s a sense of ancientness in some of the most daring works. Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” would be nothing without the cathedrals of “those olden days”–yet it takes those cathedrals to a startling place.

Originality turns into matter; you feel it physically. As you’re reading, something catches your mind and emotions; once you’ve finished, this thing chases you around–or maybe goes away and then returns years later.

So with all the pressure to find a “good fit” in publication–and all the anxiety over getting published in the first place–I hope that writers and editors will dare their misfits onto us.


I took the photo here in Szolnok last week. By the way, here’s my first “Hunglish” joke: What do you call someone who eats her last piece of cheese, then bikes around the corner and disappears from view? Answer: Out of sajt. (The “s” is pronounced “sh,” and the “aj” more like “oy” than like “igh,” so it doesn’t quite work–but I think it would get a few good groans on the right occasion.)

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