Reading fiction submissions for the online literary magazine where I am an assistant editor, it all feels so hopeless. I’m the guy who does the second reading of our submissions—the stories our volunteer readers have already rejected. My job is to catch anything that slipped through the cracks, hidden gems that our fiction readers, in their haste, inexperience or just by an accident of bad taste, rejected foolishly. This is rare. Mostly our readers do an excellent job, so my second reading is mainly ceremonial. It is part of our duty to honor the submitted work with two readings— it’s the least we can do since we don’t pay our writers. I also volunteer for hospice, and I find that my second reading is often similar to sitting vigil with a dying person. The outcome is a foregone conclusion, but it is still a privilege to be there at that moment of desolation, which is shared, even though only one of us must die. And so if the story is ultimately “not for us,” as it is with almost all of them, I’m the guy who sends those rejection letters. They are anonymous form letters stored in our submission manager. I just select which one we send. The wording changes depending on how much we liked the rejected story. The stories I look at, no one liked, and so I usually use our “blunt response” template.
It takes a toll on me, being the instrument of rejection, while at the same time my own stories are making the rounds of rejection at other magazines with other assistant editors and other volunteer readers. The hardest thing is rejecting stories with compelling cover letters—stories by soldiers abroad, single parents, teenagers, social workers, the incarcerated—people with hearts and souls and shadows and thin skin; their aspirations earnestly bleeding through every syllable of their introductions. Most of the editors I know don’t seem to let this kind of thing affect them, and indeed, I don’t either—I do my job, I send the letters, I try not to become too emotional about it. Lots of my friends tell me they don’t even read the cover letters—they say it, almost bragging, as if their reads are purer and cleaner as a result of staying emotionally detached from the personhood of the writer. This may be sound thinking, but, truthfully, the cover letters are my favorite part of the job—because, while the stories rarely break my heart, the cover letters routinely do. And I hate having my heart broken, but I also love having my heart broken. It is why I read, and it is why I write.
Yesterday, I was trying to explain Foucault to my students at the state prison where I teach writing. I gestured around the classroom, “all of this is an idea we made up together,” I said. “We are living in that idea. It is literally no more real than a dream, and we are all slaves to this conception of reality. Every word from your mouth is an act of your own enslavement and the enslavement of those around you. Language is the tool of your subjugation.” They looked at me, wounded, some of them angry. Of course they didn’t understand. How could they? No one asked any questions, and one of COs called for movement, and my class dispersed soundlessly.
“How am I going to write my paper for next week,” one of my more grade-oriented students asked me after class, “I don’t understand any of this. I did the reading—I read it twice. I took notes. You gotta understand, professor, I’m not like these other guys—I want to get a PhD in English when I get out of here, but I don’t know what I’m going to do about this paper. What Foucault is saying—I understand all the words, it just doesn’t make sense, them together.” I didn’t even look him in the eye, I was so furious at myself. “You’ll figure it out,” I said, gazing off at the high windows, the winter sun shining down white and ethereal through the dust and the afternoon clouds, the brilliant light separating us like the cut of a cleaver. “Everyone learns Foucault alone,” I said. “That’s how it works.” And then I told him he needed to get out so I could lock the door to the classroom.
My teaching assistant looked glum as one of the COs escorted us through the yard. “I don’t think they got it,” she said. “Do you think I don’t know that?” I asked her, but it wasn’t a question. We walked in silence, the incarcerated men passing us, melting around us like ghosts—we, each no longer seeing the other. A crowd of pigeons swarmed in the yard, and the sound of their wings was like a column of fire. “I think we could have started with that section about the guillotine and worked back from there,” she said. “It’s more concrete than going straight for the nature of reality. I said that before class, but I don’t think you heard me,” she said. “Yes,” I finally said, “maybe we should have done it that way.”
Then I said, “No. It doesn’t matter.” My TA looked a little hurt. She suggested that it might be all her fault. She reminded me that she’d pushed to put this reading on the syllabus because she thought it would be interesting. “It doesn’t matter,” I said again. “They read it; they came to class. They’ll write their papers, and if they don’t, they’ll fail. All of that is already in motion. It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand. You haven’t been a teacher before. This is how college works when you’re on this side of the podium. It’s on them, not us.” My TA nodded, and she seemed genuinely relieved. “That’s a good point,” she said. And I think she felt better about everything when I said it wasn’t her fault.
My students at the prison are sensitive. They take even the smallest criticism as a personal slight, and they come back at me with rebuttals to each disparagement I put before them, no matter how minor, as if the letter grade is not a sentence but the opening to a discussion. When they realize their grade is final—when I stand my ground—their bodies slump in dejection. They curl into themselves, their bodies already curled into gray uniforms, and they seem to curl deeper into their humiliating sentences, sentences which are mysterious to me and are not my business, and my students do not emerge from this dejection until the following week. But they are good and serious students, some of the best I’ve had in all my years of teaching, and each time I assign a less than excellent grade, I do it with a heavy heart, knowing the intense hurt the grade will inflict. I’ve told them it isn’t personal. They are not to be offended by their grades, I say, and yet they are. Into each assignment, they pour a raw portion of their being. And as a result of this, some of their work scrapes the rooftops of their confinement with its brilliance and poignancy, even as some of their work remains a sad reflection of something they once remembered—something they heard me say in one of my lectures. And I see my own words thrown back at me, pitifully, lovingly reproduced in their handwritten papers, and I hate my own words when I recognize them, and I hate that someone else loved them or thought they were worth something, and I hate how teaching is a mirror, and I hate how writing is a mirror when all I want to do is forget myself.