What’s a Howler? A cutthroat peer reviewer teaches Cindy a lesson!

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When I started this blog in August of 2010, just after graduating from the Solstice MFA program of Pine Manor College, I told stories from long ago about personal embarrassment. A couple of times in my life, some ruthless teachers cut me to the core about my writing and embarrassed me to the point of wanting to give up. The first time happened in 7th grade and the second time was in my 1st graduate writing program at UNH.

After graduating from Solstice with so much support and encouragement, I never thought I’d find myself in that embarrassing place again, but recently I ran into a cutthroat academic who I suspect had an orgasm as she read my academic paper on Dorothy Allison and proceeded to rip not just the paper, but me, to shreds.

I could not bring myself to print out her FOUR PAGES of comments, and since they were sent to my work email, I don’t have them here. I think that’s a small mercy.

The anonymous reviewer called one of my sentences “a howler.” I had to look that up. Was that like a screamer during sex? No, I figured it wasn’t that good. I knew the word had something to do with laughter, but I wanted understand how the reviewer meant this term. Dictionary.com has this as the third definition of howler: a mistake, especially an embarrassing one in speech or writing, that evokes laughter; a very humorous mistake or a funny blunder. The reviewer used the word in this way, “And then there was this howler…” as if the paper were full of such embarrassing and stupid writing moments.

English: A stack of copy paper.
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The academic went on to say that my writing was better suited to “book jacket copy” than to a peer reviewed scholarly journal. She took offense at the style of my paper (a combination of personal story and academic research), she said my research was unoriginal, that my paper proved nothing, and that it was a failed attempt to try to bridge my personal coming out story with lesbian literature. She went so far as to insinuate that she couldn’t believe I’d had such a hard time coming out in the 1980s after the women’s movement, Gay rights, etc. In other words, there must be something wrong with me. In the vernacular, she said my paper was a piece of shit, and when she suggested what the paper might have had the potential to be, she added that she was certain this author (me) was incapable of writing such a paper. I could hear the snide, intellectual laughter in her words.

I like to imagine her as some snot-faced sex-less bitch who has nothing better to do than write scathing reviews of other people’s work. But maybe she’s hot and sexy and beautiful…No, I won’t let myself believe that. This is a matter of self preservation.

If you’re interested in the background, here is the rest of this little horror story.

In September 2010, I sent out my paper about Dorothy Allison’s use of “nasty” words to create an erotic language that opened doors for other lesbian writers to write about sex in a straightforward manner. I focused on her books Trash and Skin.

At the suggestion of a former mentor and another academic (a brilliant writer and scholar) I sent the paper out for peer review. The editor of the journal read the abstract and said to send the entire paper. I’d never done this before, so I figured it was something, that not all papers are accepted for such review.

Fifteen months went by, yes, 15 months, and I’d heard nothing. In November 2011, I decided to send the Allison paper to a different journal, assuming the first one had lost interest. First, I sent a withdrawal email to the first journal. Upon receiving the email, the editorial coordinator wrote back, “Please ask the other journal to hold off as your paper is in the final stages with the last reviewer and we will expedite getting it to the editors for a decision. You will have a decision from us in a week.”

Well, call me green or stupid or naive, or all of the above, but I thought: wow, if they’re asking me to hold off on sending my paper elsewhere, they must have some real interest in it.

And in about a week, or a week and a half to be exact, I did get a response: they wanted to “pass.” The editorial coordinator then gave me “permission” to send it to the second journal, which I did. I was even okay with the rejection, although I wondered why it took 15 months and 1.5 weeks to get there. But then the editorial coordinator wanted to know if I’d like to see the reviewers’ comments. She said they didn’t normally send them to the authors but since I’d waited so long, it was the least they could do. I said, “Sure.” Call me stupid, green, or naive again, but I thought maybe there’d be some encouragement in there, a sort of consolation prize for not having the paper accepted after all of that waiting.

Wow. You readwhat happened. I was sent one other review. She, too, hated the paper, but she did have the decency to keep from making too much fun of me and my research. She merely said it wasn’t very good or convincing or original. Thanks for being the bright spot in my day.

The mentor-writer-scholar I mentioned, who encouraged me to send this paper out for publication, offers this paper to her graduate and undergraduate students interested in the subject of Dorothy Allison and lesbian images in literature. I take this as a great compliment. I am bewildered that another academic could hate the paper SO much. I can certainly understand not everyone thinking it merits publication, but how can one scholar tell me it’s original work that she will share with her students now and WHEN it’s published (she has that much confidence) and another tell me I’m nothing but a shithead writing “howlers?”

The reviewer tripped up in one statement and was as guilty of generalization as she’d accused me of being. She said that NO ONE would be interested in Radclyff Hall’s The Well of Loneliness if she hadn’t been a lesbian. Really??? You know everyone? I love that book, as do many of us, as it’s one of the first that ever found the courage in the English language to write about lesbian love. The reviewer was quite offended when I compared Hall’s courage to write straightforwardly in comparison to the oblique language of some of the canonized girls like Gertrude Stein and H.D. Oh, well, there’s no accounting for taste.

This paper is not so close to my heart, honestly, so I don’t feel that badly about how it was beaten to a pulp, but it does have me questioning my judgement. The reviewer made a few good points when I could see past her miserable personality. I, too, felt the paper was a bit repetitious and maybe didn’t go far enough in analysis. Couldn’t she have just said that? Did she need to make fun of it and of me?

I’ve encountered a lot of rejection and/or condescension in the last week in my writing, professional, and personal life. All things said, this particular rejection and condescension, while the ugliest, is not the hardest to take.

What’s been tougher is seeing my essay, “Claudia Songs,” rejected time and time again, no matter how much I revise it, or which version I send out. I sit here and wonder: are the editors of the literary journals reading that memoir and saying, “Oh my god, look at THAT howler; oh wait, look at THIS one.” Oy.

I must tell you as I finish this blog entry, I find myself saying, Oh, fuck them, Cindy, you don’t really feel like that seventh grader or that younger version of yourself at UNH. You know everything you write is not golden, but you know you aren’t full of howlers, either.

I’m not sure how to end this entry except to say thank you for reading, and now I need to get back to my writing.


  1. I am not a “peer reviewer.” I am just someone, who after reading 2 or 3 pieces of your pieces,
    finds myself back, reading more of your work.

    If the book you reviewed yesterday is half as good as your review, it will be fantastic.

    I think the peer reviewer flys around on a broom!


    • Thank you, Joanne. I would much rather have you reading my work than the one who flies around on a broom. Hahaha. You make me feel good about my writing and I need that. Thank you. That book really is good. I hope you think so, too. Cindy


  2. No one would be interested in Radclyff Hall’s Well of Loneliness if she wasn’t a lesbian? I guess I’m no one. I might add that when I attended Barnard in the early nineties, I encountered it there, as assigned reading in a Women’s Studies class. Apparently my professor was interested in it as well.

    Regardless, I’m sorry you received a lot of tough feedback this week. I don’t know why some people think personal attack is an important part of the editorial process, but they do. I personally try for the kind of tactful yet ruthless honesty I like best to hear. Maybe that’s the moral of the story? As a writer, you’re going to have to critique work you find unprofessional work, messy sentences and clunk stories. What kind of editor will you strive to be?


    • Ack – I don’t know how that sentence fell apart, and my keys aren’t always working as they should. What I meant: As a writer, you’re going to have to critique work you find unprofessional, messy sentences and clunky stories.


  3. Hi Laura,

    First, it’s so great that you read my blog (at least I know you do sometimes!) And second, thanks for taking the time to respond. I took liberties in the blog to call the reviewer a bitch, so I think I sunk to her level. But as for the question you ask, I always strive to be honest, yet tactful when looking at someone’s work. That’s what I learned in Solstice and truthfully, that’s my nature – not to be hurtful when someone makes herself vulnerable through the written word.

    As for the reviewer’s ridiculous comment about The Well of Loneliness, that helps me to feel better, oddly, because it reveals so much of her personal prejudice. The Well of Loneliness is a fascinating story and a good read. It’s good to hear it was assigned reading at Barnard in the 1990s. You know it probably wasn’t at Bates.

    Perhaps the reviewer commits her own howler as she buys into long-held acceptable academic views and speaks on everyone’s behalf. She was quite miffed that I had the audacity to say Hall’s book was good and should have gotten more attention as I posed the question – maybe it didn’t because of the subject matter? Oh, by the way, then the reviewer made fun of me for trying to start a “conspiracy theory.”

    Anyway, you’re not no one and neither am I. The reviewer is someone, too, someone I hope never to meet.

    Thank you, Laura, for your time and supportive words. They mean a lot.



  4. Dearest Cindy, It really irks me when people take it upon themselves to pass judgement on others personally, or creatively. One person’s opinion is just that. One person’s opinion. You know what they say about those…

    You have many readers who love your work. Your wit, your honesty, your style. What does that peer reviewer know? Maybe they were pmsing and took it out on you, who knows. Please, please don’t let it get you down. You are better and stronger than that.

    You are loved. Personally and creatively. By many. Enough said.


    • Geenie, how I’ve missed you. Thank you for the lovely, supportive words. I will take them to heart. I hope to see you again someday. Life has changed so much, just since last summer. Hope you are well. Love, Cindy


  5. Eeek brutal to think of someone tearing you down that way..
    Don’t let the man get you down, you’re fantastic and you know it! Everyone knows it.


  6. There are very cruel people in the world, Cindy, even in the refined academic literary world. There is no excuse for mean and insensitive feedback and I’m sorry you bore the brunt of it. Hopefully, your piece will find a good home. Write on!


    • Hi Faye,

      I’m sorry it took so long to reply. Thank you for being so supportive, as you always are. I think the best thing for me to do is move forward, just keep writing. A jerk like that is not someone I’d want to trade places with, so I feel lucky to be who I am. I will see you soon.


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