Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Reading the Tea Leaves of Rejection: Alas, it's a no

Journals tend to reject in spurts, so if one writer friend receives a rejection from a prominent journal, chances are, several others do, too.

My friends and I like to share our acceptances, our rejections, and our close calls on various Facebook pages, and when an oddity comes through, it always makes for interesting conversations.

A spate of rejections were sent out recently by a particular poetry journal, and some friends raised an (electronic) eyebrow over the editor’s wording. Here’s the text:

Hi, [Name],

First, let me tell you that this is a form letter—so many submissions! And I reach [sic] each one myself. Second, though this work is fine in many ways, it is not for [Journal], alas.

As you know, acceptance of work is almost entirely a matter of a particular editor's (or group of editors') tastes. Such is life. I am very grateful that you thought enough of our little journal to send, and I do hope you continue to read us—and perhaps submit again in the future. Once more, much gratitude, and much good fortune in placing these poems elsewhere.

[Name], Editor, [Journal]

The strongest reaction to this rejection was bemusement over the weird nineteenth-century novelist’s language—including the interjection “alas” and the sentence, “Such is life.” I’m not sure what the editor had in mind with these, but the sentiments were not well received by writers. Several people raised the question of whether the editor was mocking their work.

But to me, the more egregious moment comes in the first sentence: “First, let me tell you that this is a form letter—so many submissions!” Writers don’t expect personal notes from editors, but this editor comes across as needlessly cold here, despite the warmth suggested by the familiar address and the breathless syntax.

The fact is that this journal uses Submittable, and when rejecting on a submission management system, an editor has a choice of a few forms that can then very easily be personalized. There is a window where an editor can write a quick sentence or two for the writer, and nothing is easier than offering a personal word of thanks or some brief feedback. When I’m rejecting work, I always make sure to type in the writer’s name with a brief personal note, even if it’s just, “Thanks again for sending, John.” Typing that person’s name is a contemplative practice for me; it reminds me to keep the writer foremost in mind, and to remember that a real person is getting the note and sent me work that he or she was proud of.

In the most basic terms, there is no reason to send every writer a form letter—so one wonders why this editor is so boldly impersonal with this first line.

The second part of the sentence is no better than the first, however—“So many submissions!” I’m certain that all editors of prominent journals get lots of submissions, yet this editor is excusing impersonality with a statement that he is working very hard. He is not alone—editing is hard work, and there are few acceptable shortcuts for much of it. Almost all editors are very hard workers, but plenty of them find time to communicate in a personal way with writers.

Let me put it this way: If Parker Stevenson found time at the apex of The Hardy Boys TV show to send eight-year-old me a signed photograph, I think some editor can personalize a rejection.

The funny thing here is that the editor could have left the overt statement of impersonality of his note, and right now he would not find himself being unfavorably compared to Parker Stevenson. (Most people fall a little short of Parker-level awesomeness, so he can cut himself a little slack.) What exposes this editor to censure is that he is so committed to making writers feel unimportant and even neglected.

By the way, does anyone else wonder about the sentence that says that “this work is fine in many ways”? And yet it is (quite pointedly) a form rejection? Does this mean that all work is fine? I would be very curious to know whether this is the only rejection slip from this journal or if it is sent to work of a higher tier. I get the feeling that this is the only rejection, but I could be wrong.

Moving on briefly, while there is nothing terribly wrong with that second paragraph, I have to mention a qualm I have with this rejection and with others of its ilk. What is with the hand-holding of that first sentence? Anyone who submits work understands that editorial taste is subjective, yet this editor feels compelled to say that “acceptance of work is almost entirely a matter of a particular editor's (or group of editors') tastes.” It’s another moment that approaches oblique self-praise, and I feel as though this editor would be better served to write to the writer with the writer, not the self, in mind.

With that being said, a timely and clear rejection is always a helpful thing, and no truly serious offense is noted here. Writing a good rejection slip is a special talent that few editors have, and receiving them in a gracious spirit can be nearly as hard.

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