Uncurated: The Case for a New Term of Art
Lit mag editor re-thinks what it means to be "previously published"
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
It might seem too ironic for fiction, but the literary community has spent decades unnecessarily shackled by language itself. The word “published” bears no weight in the digital age, and yet, purely out of habit and momentum, we still pretend that it does. Literary magazines continue to require submissions be “previously unpublished,” so we hide our work offline in the dungeons of our file folders like some archaic virginity rite. We avoid sharing our newest writing on Zooms and open mics, as if it might become deflowered by the exposure. We refuse to genuinely engage in the medium of the day from this senseless fear alone. Poems, especially, must be banished from our friends and fans when they matter most—when they’re fresh and relevant to the cultural conversation.
We’re creative writers, and yet we constrain ourselves over a simple lack of imagination: we haven’t thought of a word to replace “publication,” now that publication is irrelevant.
The word “publish” is almost 700 years old. It comes through Old French from the Latin publicare: to make public. This wasn’t easy in the 14th century. Books were still copied by hand. We could make a public declaration, shouting out thoughts in the town square, if anyone cared to listen. We could hammer a notice to a post (a poster), and the 10% of the population that was literate could read it. Even after Gutenberg invented the printing press, making something public required real skill and a large capital investment. A press itself was expensive. The very act of having your words published by a press carried significant value.
In the 21st century, in the age of the internet and social media, our words can be published with a single tap. Millions of people published content in the time it took to read this sentence. What does it even mean to be a “publisher” in this new world?
We haven’t thought of a word to replace “publication,” now that publication is irrelevant.
Publication means nothing. But it doesn’t mean that we’re doing nothing as publishers. For 20 years I’ve been publishing Rattle magazine, and that has value—but what specifically is that value? What service are we actually providing by editing and creating a magazine?
I’ve come to realize that what I’ve been providing for my entire career isn’t publication at all: it’s curation, from the Latin “curare,” which means to take care of. I’m not a publisher; I’m a curator. My job is to sift through thousands of submissions each week and highlight, in a respectful and meaningful way, those poems that others might enjoy reading. We have thousands of readers who appreciate the way we curate poems; they like our tastes, and know that if they open a book or click a link to the Rattle website, what they read will probably be worth their time.
In the abundance of the digital age, curation is a far more significant service than publication. More literature is being written today than at any time in history, at a scale that’s difficult to imagine. Millions of books are published each year. Millions of people are actively writing poetry and fiction right now. It would be impossible for anyone to develop any grasp of what writing is worth their time. Duotrope lists over 7,500 literary publishers—and that still isn’t enough.
The need for curation is immense. And that’s what the publishers and editors of the literary world are actually doing—building and providing access to an audience that appreciates their tastes.
But we still think of ourselves as publishers, and still demand that submissions to our magazine be “previously unpublished.” That phrase is what’s known as a term of art, something with a special meaning for a particular field or profession. And it’s become a damaging term of art.
Imagine how literature would thrive if we could share our art with our friends in the medium of the era. How much more fun would online open mics be if everyone knew they were free to share the poem they were most proud of—the one they just wrote yesterday? Rattle’s weekly podcast includes a supportive and enriching open lines segment, but most poets are hesitant to share and “spoil” their newest work. The joy of sharing what we create is one of the main things that sustains us as artists. We shouldn’t have to wait years wading through rejection letters to feel it.
What we need is a new term of art that reflects the environment we’re actually living in.
I propose that we adopt the term “uncurated” to replace “unpublished.” Previously uncurated work is that which has not yet appeared in any curated collection—no books or magazines or anthologies, in print or online. But it leaves open the ability to self-publish on social media or blogs or message boards. It allows the work to be shared on podcasts and open mics. Tweet your poems and flash fiction. Tag the person it was written for on Facebook. Workshop stories online. Blog chapters from your novel-in-progress. This is how a literary culture thrives.
Imagine how literature would thrive if we could share our art with our friends in the medium of the era.
The new term might help poets the most, but all writers will benefit from the extra creative freedom. Even those who have no intention of using their own digital media will be protecting their ability to start in the future.
By focusing on the act of curation rather than publication, literary editors cease being an impediment to literature’s vitality, while retaining what actually matters to us. We can keep the exclusivity of being the first or only publisher to curate the work. We can still buy printing rights, or serial rights, or archival rights. What is lost by moving on to a better term of art?
From the writer’s perspective, publication is often seen as a kind of validation, but curation seamlessly serves the same purpose. We can still strive to be curated by the best journals; we can still list all the places we’ve been curated in our CVs. Being curated by the New Yorker sounds just as impressive. The art world has been using this terminology for decades.
You might be thinking now that if a poem is published by the author on social media or elsewhere, that makes it discoverable to the public. Their friends and followers might have already read it. The poem or story won’t feel fresh. That line of thinking, though, is still trapped in the old paradigm. It’s already the curation that’s the service, not the act of making public. It’s been this way for a long time; we just didn’t notice.
Imagine how it really works: Your friend shares a poem they wrote last night on Twitter. You read and enjoy it; they feel the joy of your enjoyment. Months or years later, you see the poem in a literary magazine. What do you think? Are you disappointed that you already read it? Of course not! Quite the opposite, you’re thrilled that you remember having that early peek, thrilled you’re friends with a good writer. You might even buy a copy of the magazine just because you have a friend in that issue. And most readers will have no idea that an early version was posted last year on Twitter, and that they could have sifted through billions of tweets to find it. They wouldn’t care if they knew. The curator discovered its value—that was the job of the curator, and that’s what readers are thankful for.
There’s no reason left on earth for publishers to continue blocking this scenario. And as soon as we get out of the way by making this simple change, all of literature will be better for it.
For most of my time as Editor of Rattle, our guidelines have said that we do not accept previously published poems, but don’t consider posting work to blogs or social media as publication. That’s the rule I wanted to practice, but the twisting of language always bothered me. Posting work online is publication. A public tweet is public. But now we have the word to solve that problem.
As of February 1, 2023, Rattle’s guidelines say that we accept submissions of “previously uncurated” poems, and then explain what curated means—that the poems can’t have appeared in any other books or magazines or similarly selected collections, in print or online.
There are some borders to be clarified—are self-published books considered “curated,” for example? Are collectable NFTs? I would say yes to each, but a term of art is something that evolves organically within an industry. All I’m trying to do for now is plant the seed and let this concept—and literature itself—flourish.
If you’re a publisher reading this, I hope you’ll adopt uncurated as a new term of art along with me, and help it to grow. If you’re a writer, I hope you’ll encourage others to switch by using curated in your bios. “My poems and stories have been curated by X, Y, Z.” Focus on the curation that matters, rather than the publication that doesn’t. It will only take a simple find-and-replace to catch us up to the current era and make the literary world a better place.
Update: Find a list of journals who have adopted the uncurated term here. We’ll keep adding to the list until the mission is complete.
Makes great sense to me. Thanks for posting, er, publishing this--and thanks to Becky for curating! I wonder if self-published works should count as curated. There's a big difference between a book written and edited by a single person, not widely distributed (and thus not "curated") and one that is more widely marketed/ publicized, and thus, in a sense, "curated" by the literary community (reviewers, librarians, etc). Might there be an objective standard for breadth of marketing and/or overall sales? I remember reading in someone's submission guidelines something like, "Self-published books accepted if less than 100 copies sold." Seemed arbitrary but a step in the right direction.
I love the idea of this, but wonder if the publishing world's ideas of publishing are so entrenched that "curation" as label will ever catch on.
The term "curated" is unfortunately being bastardized across different media and in academia when "selected" or "chosen" would do just as well. As in" We've curated the best toasters of 2023."