On the principles upon which this journal has been built
By Toh Hsien Min
After the last issue, one of our readers posted a critical reading of it on the forum, and there ensued an interesting debate on the best practices of literary journals. It was a good exercise to have done, and in the course of the six pages of discussion I laid out some of the processes that go into the production of each issue of QLRS.
A couple of months later, I was in the midst of an email discussion with Alvin Pang, who oversees only the technical aspects of the website and does not have any editorial input whatsoever into the journal, when he mentioned that he was receiving "criticisms and resentments" about QLRS. Naturally I asked what they were, and he said in summary that there was ignorance about QLRS's agenda, editorial management structure and the basic rule that the views of contributors do not represent the views of the editors, "plus the usual grouses about not getting submissions accepted". He suggested that I might want to "clarify, in an editorial and in the mission statement, how it actually works".
I did give it some thought. It occurred to me that I had been reading editors' defences of their journals recently. Wolfgang Görtschacher of Poetry Salzburg Review was sufficiently alarmed by an accusation that PSR had become elitist that he wrote a defence of the magazine in PSR7. In the 51st issue of Acumen, Patricia Oxley found it necessary to mention that "Acumen has been accused of pandering to poems rather than poets, and publishing poems by writers who have, perhaps, written only one good poem", and to outline why she thought her approach was positive (it is: just pick up a copy and you'll see why I believe it's one of the best little magazines around). And then of course there's that great little final statement in Thumbscrew.
Nonetheless it also seemed to me faintly ridiculous to defend QLRS against phantoms, so I shall not. Instead, I shall make three points that I hope will help QLRS's various constituents - readers, contributors or complainants - understand the journal a little better.
1. QLRS is an open space. Or perhaps I should say QLRS can be an open space. Our editors aren't appointed to the magazine - they have come forward and made their own case for why they should be managing the sections that they are managing. There has been change - people get busier and have to take a break, we've to move editors around the sections, we have new editors coming on board. For this issue, I've had to step in to take over Essays on short notice because our editor had gone off to Laos to do a different kind of non-profit work. So if you don't like what you're seeing at QLRS, one option is to come forward to do something about it. I can't guarantee that any applicant will get on the editorial team, and in fact past applicants have always been met by a fair whack of scepticism, but this is necessary partly because if you don't have the energy to make your own case you probably won't have the energy to cope with what is at one level purely optional demands on your time anyway (and frankly I wouldn't have the time to chase you), and partly because of the point that follows.
2. Editors run their own sections. I wouldn't quite put it that QLRS is really a handful of little mags, but the editors of each section have the say-so on that section. Theoretically as overall editor I have a veto if something really problematic comes up, but the last time I've exercised that was in the first volume. I may not necessarily agree with the respective editors' choices - in fact I often disagree - but I do respect these choices. As Görtschacher says in PSR7, "I still hold [...] that it is the heterogeneity of an editorial board and, I have to add, the work of its contributors, that makes for the vitality and catholicity of a magazine." But on the same token, the editors aren't involved in any content outside of the sections they run and cannot be held responsible for them, notwithstanding the occasions when one editor asks another for a second opinion.
3. In my own editing practice, and from what I've seen I believe in those of my fellow editors as well, there isn't an interest in pushing particular writers, styles, viewpoints or agendas. All we're interested in is good writing. My own reading is an almost clinical measure of individual poems. As a result, I have no hesitation in publishing the work of complete unknowns if it's good enough, and no hesitation either in turning down established writers when the submitted work is not up to scratch; and I have seen my fellow editors do the same - in fact, an editor has turned down one of my own submissions to another section of the journal before. Nor do I select poems to push particular styles; it has been observed by others that what I publish on QLRS is very different from my own writing practice and my own reading favourites, simply because what's chosen for the journal is what has come in that is good. Nor do we try to control which books are reviewed, beyond our own guidelines that the books in question should have been published in the last twelve months and should be reasonably easily available in Singapore (though here I shall add that there're really only two ways books get reviewed in QLRS: either we get sent a review copy or a reader feels enthused enough to write something on his/her own volition - we have no budget to buy books for review). Nor do we try to control or influence what our reviewers say, again because we respect the perspectives they have to contribute, even if we've all lost count of the number of times we've disagreed with the reviews. In short, QLRS is rather like a free market economy - we run by laissant faire what's out there rather than by central planning.
I say all this to help our constituents see what's possible at QLRS, or, if their expectations differ too widely from ours, what's not. Having done so, I'm glad to report that many people do see what's possible with QLRS. The material that is actually published tells one side of that story, but there's activity around the journal as well as in it. We've had filmmakers come knocking seeking to adapt stories and anthology editors looking to reprint material. We've had requests from academics seeking research information and contact with the National Diet Library of Japan and German UNESCO. Most recently, we've helped a major Italian publisher, il Saggiatore, who are the Italian equivalent of the Penguin Group in Britain, to produce an anthology of QLRS short stories translated into Italian. Simply titled Singapore, the anthology has already generated enough demand to prompt the publisher to come back to the short story writers to ask to buy worldwide in addition to Italian rights.
And, if I'm honest, I say this also because I don't know how much longer I'll be doing this. While it's true that the nominal dollar-value costs of continuing to run the site are low, my opportunity costs are growing. Just to give one example, this issue has both eaten up two weeks of time that I could have deployed towards my CFA examination in June and prevented me from taking on another earnings-accretive consulting project. So it's probably good for me if I at least start to consider the alternative, and to do so in a manner that preserves what we've managed to build; and this to my mind involves, for a start, a greater openness about the principles that underlie QLRS, with all that entails.
I'm not sure if my brief notes on the content of each issue have settled into habit, or even if they're of any value. But for this issue I have to say that the quantity and quality of poetry submissions were exceptionally strong, and I had some really hard decisions to make. The short stories were again well chosen by Kai Chai (I particularly enjoyed Marshall Getz's), and the single essay I picked offers a view into Beckett's aesthetic. Mine notwithstanding, the criticism this time is insightful - and fiercely uncompromising. There's an interview with Michael Chiang, which leads on to another roundup of theatre offerings in the first quarter of 2005, and then there's a review of British newspapers' fiery reaction to the Singapore Dance Theatre. Happy reading!QLRS Vol. 4 No. 3 Apr 2005
How would you run QLRS? Tell everyone in the Forum.