Chain reaction: Duotrope went paid, which means I've spent more time than I'd like reading through individual web sites of journals for their submission guidelines. (Not exactly a laugh riot, but better, I assume, than the days when you'd have no recourse but to sift through Writer's Market or go to the shelf and look at the back page of individual journal issues). For the most part, this stuff is so standardized that it would probably save journals time and effort if they just linked to one web site with a unified set of guidelines. Simultaneous submissions, check. Cover letter optional but encouraged, check. No genre, check.
There are always exceptions; the occasional journal that mixes things up by being particular strict or particularly open. (Tin House has annoying little requirements about how to format the manuscript--but then, they're Tin House, so they get to do that. PANK has no submission guidelines whatsoever, leaving it up to you to send them what you want). But in all my submission guideline travels, which are usually accompanied by a glass of whiskey and something brain-meltingly stupid on Netflix, the only journal whose guidelines have ever really surprised me---and I should give the little milquetoast reassurance that I like and admire the journal, blah blah blah--is Ploughshares. Check out their guidelines here. Anything strike you as...weird? I'm talking specifically about this:
A short cover letter citing major publications and awards is helpful.
And then there's this:
...feel free to note any association or past correspondence with a guest or staff editor in your cover letter.
Now, I'm not naive. I edit a journal, and I know other people who do, and I submit to them a lot, and I know even more people who do that. I even know some people who read journals from time to time (although that number seems to be considerably less than the previous sum). So, I understand that a) Having a nice list of publications gives you momentum, and maybe even merits a second look from the slush pile, and that b) Having some "association" with an editor certainly can't hurt. I do like to think that, for the most part, this "It's a Small World After All" of ours is a meritocracy. To admit over drinks or in a Q&A panel that sure, "who you know" can be a leg up, and that having some great credits is a help...that's one thing. To explicitly say so in your submission guidelines seems a little cavalier, even if it's true.
Am I naive? I don't know. An example at New South is our "No Biscuits Rule." This is a tongue in cheek way we have around the office of articulating what is actually a sincere and important aesthetic standard, namely, our resistance to publishing work that simplifies and celebrates an idea of the South that we consider outdated (at best) and offensive (more often). Corn pone. I think not publishing this type of work is a valid editorial choice. Would I put it in our official submission guidelines? Although I've often considered it in the midst of reading a particularly egregious passage about collard greens and alfalfa sprouts, my answer is, "No." The reason I wouldn't do so is because it could easily be misinterpreted as a rejection of our region and the richness of the literary South as it is today. I'll gladly sift through reams of fry oil extemporanea if it means that the likes of an Adam Vines or a Randall Keenan would feel safe to publish with us one day.
What I'm getting at, and maybe it is naive, is that literary journals should be in the business of publishing The Good Work. The fact that a big name has a better chance, or that knowing someone is your key in the door, may be unavoidable, but it is nonetheless regrettable. To celebrate it in your submission guidelines seems to me to be more than a subtle attempt to discourage early career writers. Yes, we'll accept your manuscript, and your $3 submission fee, but if you actually think we're going to consider it for publication, well, try meeting one of us at a cocktail party first. That's never how I've seen my role as an editor.
Matt Sailor puts words here.