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So Much “Talent”

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In my most recent post, I touched upon the nastiness of self-absorbed gatekeepers. This time, I want to mention self-focused writers.

Like gatekeepers, folk who create manuscripts are able or not, and are civil or not. The best writers with whom to work, understandably, are both masterful and well-mannered. The worst, equally obviously, are neither competent nor courteous. Capable writers who are rude, but produce great copy, are annoying. Inexpert writers, who are accommodating, but write tosh, are a waste of editors’ time.

Not much needs to be said about decorous, adept writers, except that every now and then even their work gets rejected because of print venues’ page limitations or because of any type of venues’ thematic or other constraints. Correspondingly, little needs to be said about obnoxious, maladroit writers – the sooner that editors disengage from them, the better. As per sweet, clueless wordies, sometimes, editors allocate time to them anyway, to help them build skills or to connect them to resources that could likewise aid them in developing their craft. Otherwise, those writers, too, receive little attention.

It’s the good writers, who are simultaneously lousy human beings, who generate the most distress for editors. Those word players regularly produce print worthy pieces, but concurrently interrelate with editors in disturbing ways, thus making taking in their work a choice of questionable value.

Management expert, Art Petty, provides strategies for interacting with those sorts of subordinates, in “How to Handle the Brilliant but Toxic Employee.”1 His model is useful for this post.

First, Petty suggests that gatekeepers ought to “avoid being blinded by [that kind of] employee’s brilliance.” Editors need to maintain publication standards as well as to maintain personal boundaries.

Despite the fact that editors, from time to time, seek “names” in order to draw readership, more regularly we read submissions without knowing anything about the authors presenting them. Videlicet, at least as often, we choose to include tendered work not because the works’ authors know persons on our masthead and not because the works’ authors have respectable publication records, but because the works, themselves, have merit. Nonetheless, idiots exist who insist that either their protexia or their publishing history automatically makes them candidates for publication. The antidote to their positioning is straightforward rejection.

Second, Petty reminds gatekeepers to “accept that [we] cannot create a culture of accountability with two sets of rules.” In other words, even a past president of an elitist writers’ organization is not supposed to get an automatic nod for inclusion if a publication’s policy is to read all submissions without knowing authors’ identities or is to use a specified scale to rate all offered works. Such checks don’t silence literary prima donnas, but do help muffle them.

Third, Petty cautions that if one’s “instinct is to walk on eggshells around this [species of] individual[, one’s] instinct is wrong.” Established writers, more than emerging ones, need candid feedback. 

If colleagues won’t provide established writers with frank assessments, likely, no one else will. Every so often, the sass in a cover letter accompanying a submission is not disrespect, but a hidden petition for guidance. Although editors are not therapists, it is worth our while to learn some basics about human behavior – after all, our arena is information exchange. It’s better for all parties if we connect openly, honestly, and directly with the writers, who fashion powerful pieces, but have the social IQ of toddlers, than if we coddle them.

Fourth, on balance, Petty reminds managers, e.g. editors, to “learn to recognize the signs of a simmering problem.” Unrestrained and otherwise improper communications are frequently indicators of deeper troubles. Careful conversations are prudent when submitters get nasty.

At times, it’s more difficult to sidestep a talented, but palpably angry writer than it is to encourage a promising, undeveloped one. The latter might never make use of editors’ invested energies, but the former can become a statistic of the variety of spacetime that allows no light to pass.

Fifth, Petty suggests that superiors “gauge the[ir subordinates’] level of toxicity.” He discerns between “annoying” and “dangerous.” 

While few writers threaten editors with physical harm, a small number of them manifest antisocial personality disorders. Most individuals create or read horror stories or mysteries for entertainment, but a minority occupies themselves with those genres for disturbing reasons. To wit, editors’ electronic walls are designed to keep out not only annoying submitters, but also unstable ones.

Sixth, “observation, feedback and coaching are your primary power tools,” says Petty. Again, an editor is answerable for his or her product, not for his or her contributors. 

Appropriate actions that editors can take when dealing with exasperating, gifted writers include: noticing their reactions, but not enmeshing; providing constructive criticism, but not insisting on compliance; and schooling them, without investing in the results of such efforts, about their weaknesses. These movements constitute quick, efficient replies to unsavory individuals.

Petty next suggests that now and again managers have to consider professional coaching for their underlings. I’m unacquainted with any publications that provide funds for writers’ training or for writers’ therapy. However, I know many gatekeepers who have the presence of mind to aid abhorrent, but brilliant word artists by constructing bridges for them to peer reviewers, mentors, and more. 

In some ways, verbally extraordinary, yet socially blundering writers are similar to pleasant, inept ones. Both sets need to become aware of and then to embrace industry norms. The newbies need to learn how to write; in contrast, the rude ones need to learn how to deal with other people.

Eighth, Petty advises that administrators have a duty to not “ignore the politics of the situation.” Unfortunately, persons immature enough to throw tantrums, in lieu of dialoguing, are persons who are most likely to seek comeuppance for unsatisfying responses to their offerings. Such writers, at times, try to adversely impact editors and publications’ reputation. Most of the time, the industry gives little notice to such detonations. On rare occasions, though, self-aggrandizing writers succeed in damaging people or presses through their rhetoric.

Rather than try to please those ranting cretins, sensible editors ignore them. Gatekeepers can’t waste their time worrying about how stupid people might or might impact their publications or their professional status. 

Ninth, Petty recommends that decision-makers “face reality… This program may very well include termination for non-compliance.” In the publishing world, that means, in very limited circumstances, that a nasty writer gets formally blacklisted at a particular venue, and less officially, within a portion of or within the entirety of the industry. 

This consequence of poor social skills is extreme. I’ve heard of it being implemented, but have never witnessed it being put into play. Creatives are temperamental. Their sensitivity is a plus as well as a detriment. Providentially, only a minority of writers seem so impossible as to have to be barred from participating with the rest of us.

There exists an abundance of writing talent. It’s not enough to be a good writer; getting published requires being nice, too. Whereas there are means for dealing with the writing world’s brats, as explained in pieces like Petty’s “How to Handle the Brilliant but Toxic Employee,” editors would rather not have to do so.

1 Art Perry. “How to Handle the Brilliant but Toxic Employee.” The Balance.  https://www.thebalance.com/how-to-handle-the-brilliant-but-toxic-employee-3575677.

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