A memo to editors of literary journals: You do important work. But you are not the important part of the work you do.
I know. I’m an editor myself, and I have been for years. I’ve learned on the job, through some pretty good decisions and some ridiculous mistakes. But the most important thing I learned about literary editing was that the work is the most important thing—the work, and the readers we connect to it.
Still important, but less so, are the writers of the work. The work has a life beyond the writer. It lives on the page and in the minds of those who receive it. The work originates with the writer, but it’s a lot bigger than that. Its potential, once a writer summons it into being, is nearly endless. It’s different for every reader. It’s a living thing.
So let’s recap. Here’s a list of the most important entities associated with literary publishing, in order:
- The writing.
- The audience who receives the writing.
- The author who operated the pen or the keyboard.
Those are the top three—and not that editors and publishers aren’t on the list. Maybe they’d share the fourth spot. But as an editor, I know that these three entities come before all other considerations, and that I am their servant.
It is undeniably true that editors do holy work. They are the clerics who convey the prophecy from the prophet to the people. Without them, the reach of the work is limited; without their discretion and insight, excellence would never be known, past the writer, and worthwhile voices would be lost to a lot of noise. But a problem happens when editors exalt themselves over their vital and necessary work. It happens often enough that nearly every writer has a story.
I have a regular feature here, one I haven’t written in a while, called “Reading the Tea Leaves of Rejection.” In that feature, I parse the language of a rejection note so that writers can understand the messages they’re receiving. A rejection is both highly crafted and highly coded, and it’s important to pay close attention to the wording—to understand that a “send again” message is more than a breezy kindness, and to get a feel for how their work was received.
Today, I was kind of blanking on a blog topic, and I asked a large group of my friends for oddball rejections that I could choose from for a Tea Leaves feature. The response was huge and the examples were stunning. It became clear to me that among all of the excellent literary editors who are now operating, there are quite a lot of people operating not with a public servant’s heart, but rather on the engine of pure ego.
Let’s look at some examples—all names removed to protect some stunned writers and some editors who, like all of us, deserve the benefit of the doubt:
- M. recalls that an editor wrote to him about what poems were supposed to be like—and included a treatise she had written on Anthony Hecht, her paragon of poetic quality. “It was long, too,” he remembers. “A couple of pages and barely about my work except to say it wasn’t real poetry.”
- T. remembers an editor who felt helpless in regarding his writing. “My weirdest rejection situation came from an editor who stated their main sorrow in life was that they would never have enough time to teach me how to write, even if they set aside their other projects,” he says—and to be clear, T. never asked this editor to teach him anything; he was just wanting a decision on a submission.
- K. recalls two memorable rejections. “One journal used to use a form letter that was a play on an ‘it’s not you, it’s us’ breakup letter. Literally, it repeated that phrase a few times, which made it feel ironic and not so nice,” he says. “It was trying to be funny and cute, but a funny and cute rejection like that felt kind of disrespectful to me. I haven’t submitted there since.”
- K.’s other weird rejection was scrawled in pencil on a piece of the journal’s stationery: “Sorry, but no.” Says K., “This was so bad that I have kind of grown to like it. I still have a photo of it somewhere.”
- S. notes that her poetry was rejected for its “remorseless insistence on free verse.” She admits to being puzzled: “I’m still not sure what I should have felt sorry about.”
- L. received a weird fiction rejection once that sounded somewhat angry, as she recalls. “They didn’t think the one-sentence overview in the cover letter matched what happened in the story well enough. It was quite strange, and I’ve never submitted to that journal again.” L. hunted and found the correspondence, and she offered this actual quote from the editor’s rejection note: “Hmmm. I always try to be encouraging in my comments about a story, but your’e making it tough to do.”
- Another L. writes, “I just looked this up so I could get the wording right. I got one a couple of years ago that rejected all of the poems, but noted the one that was least offensive because ‘Despite its personal references, it felt less self-absorbed than some of the others.’ The whole tone and response felt really sexist to me. IDK, sorry for being a woman and connecting to the world around me, I guess?”
- My friend J. received a similarly dismissive and possibly sexist rejection slip, but while L. can laugh hers off, J.’s unfriendly rejection still works on her. She notes that her rejection “blasted me on writing about the experience of being a mother, and writing from personal experience at all.” She adds, “I’ve never forgotten it, and it’s one of the main reasons I’m still reluctant to send my work out.”
I’m going to interrupt my list here to point out that what J. describes is some of the real damage that can come out of an abuse in an unequal power relationship. Here’s J., new to publishing and sending her work in good faith to an editor, and that editor responds to her by saying that her lived experience is not sufficient to be the stuff of poetry. I’ve had the pleasure of reading J.’s poetry, and I found it to be both insightful and well crafted. Maybe the editor misspoke or was misconstrued. Maybe the editor has a strong preference for poems that avoid domestic topics. But the advice was phrased in a way that wasn’t meant to build J. up or to encourage her to keep trying; instead, it lingers with her as yet another societal voice telling her that women don’t matter, mothers don’t matter—she doesn’t matter. But I know for a fact she does.
The heck of it is, when writers send their work out for possible publication, the very act announces that the work is not intended for workshopping. An editor may have a critique to offer, but submitted work is regarded by the writer as finished work—not work in progress. What a writer is asking for is a decision—yes or no—and, ideally, a home.
Many writers love receiving advice from editors, and these folks should have some unique insights. No one reads more new poems than a literary editor, and few are as adept as saying what works and what doesn’t in a poem. But my strong sense is that if one editor doesn’t like a set of poems, another might—or might not. I just send it on along, while I focus on writing my new work and tracking what’s in the hopper. A rejection is a piece of information. A dozen rejections provide a compelling piece of information. That simple “yes” or “no” is the only information I really need from an editor who has spent a brief time with my work. If an editor shows interest, I’d be very happy to talk about edits or revisions, but barring that, an editor’s opinion is just one person’s idea about the work, and I’d just as soon keep it brief.
J.’s editor, though, went beyond the purview of an editor to comment on … what? J.’s humanity, maybe, and its value? But feedback about the choice of subject matter is just next to useless. I’m not even fully convinced that poets are fully responsible for their choice of subjects. I write what I’m compelled to write, and sometimes that’s motherhood—the most significant experience of my life.
- Another J., a memoirist, tells me that she was rejected because her piece was just too sad. “It made us want to cry,” the editor told her, explaining that the journal couldn’t publish something that sad.
- W. writes that he received a rejection accompanied by a link to a website offering information on basic plot construction.
- My friend S. writes that she was rejected once because, in the words of the editor, she wasn’t “established” enough. She also notes that she was just recently rejected by the editor of a journal immediately after she had done the same to that editor—a would-be tit-for-tat situation—“And yes,” S. says, “they mentioned that in the rejection letter.”
I file all of these rejection under the category of editors behaving badly. Sometimes they’re behaving cruelly. Sometimes they’re behaving self-importantly. And sometimes they’re behaving ignorantly, with a very narrow view of what poems, essays, or stories are allowed to be.
Editors curate a journal. They work toward a publishing mission that they’re allowed to define, and they get to say no to work that doesn’t fit that mission or doesn’t meet the quality of the work they wish to print. All writers get rejections. I don’t even regard them as particularly negative. Rejecting, in and of itself, is a neutral act.
And incidentally, we read a lot into acceptances, because they’re what we want, and they’re a sign that our writing is going in a good direction, but they’re rather neutral, too. The writing is the thing, and the publishing activity is what happens around the thing. It’s so much nicer when the publishing efforts are successful, but excellent work is rejected every day—and ridiculously bad work is published. Acceptance is no indication that a writer should work less hard.
It kind of sounds like I don’t love or appreciate editors—but I do. I think my own editing work has been the most exhilarating and educational work of my life. I know that I’ve helped and encouraged writers, and I also know that without meaning to, I’ve hurt and discouraged my fair share.
But editors need to be humble, even when they choose to share hard news. I’m not referring to a simple rejection, but rather some element of commentary or critique that they feel compelled to spend precious time communicating to a writer—often this is exactly the information that the writer most needs to hear—they really ought to practice audience awareness. To newer writers, editors represent a voice of authority. That authority should be used with grace and discretion.
I received more editor horror stories than I could easily use in one post—plus lots of full rejection slips that I plan to parse in future installments of my Reading the Tea Leaves of Rejection series. Check back Wednesday for more unusual responses—and on Thursday we’ll turn the tables and discuss editors who are making the literary world a better place with their actions.