Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Art of the Bad Rejection

            These poor literary editors. There is a force at work—mysterious, inexplicable—that sometimes restrains them, to the point where they must throw up their hands and share the disappointing news: “We are unable to accept your work at this time.”
            Such a rejection fails to take account of the editors’ own agency, and it blames mystic waves for the cosmic injustice of the rejection. If an editor falls in love with a piece of writing, he or she finds a way to take it. I offer this observation as a former editor-in-chief myself. I have never once rejected work that completely blew my mind.  And what is this business about time? I’m in no hurry. These editors are welcome to put my work in their next issue, or the issue after that. Poetry is urgent, of course, but not in a way that relates to the calendar or clock. I’ll wait.
As bad as the “unable” rejection is, there is one I dislike even more, and it goes like this: “We don’t have room for this [eight-line poem] right now.” Making room for a poem in a magazine is easy. Just adjust the kerning (that is, the space between letters) in a long prose piece in a way that would be imperceptible to a reader, and, bam, a whole page opens up, and now there’s room for my poem, if you really, really want it. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t.
            Here and now, I must take a stand in favor of the direct rejection—the type that says, “We are not going to print your work” or “We decline” or even “Your work is not fucking good enough. You’re drunk. Go home.”
            Like anyone, I prefer kindness. (Hell, I prefer an acceptance, if I’m being honest.) But the best thing a rejection note can do is to give it to me straight. I just want a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. A thumbs-up is not going to make me; a thumbs-down is not going to break me. I’m just going to send those to another editor, one with better taste, maybe, or more time, or less sudden, inexplicable, full-body paralysis.
            Here is an example of a solid rejection that does the job:

Thank you for sending your work to OurEditorIsClearlyDrunk Quarterly. We have decided not to accept it, but we appreciated the opportunity to read it. Sincerely, Joe Schmoe

Let’s break it down. It starts with a “thank you,” a cordial statement that recognizes the central role that writers play in literary publishing, and the fact that a submission is a great compliment to a journal. It goes on to a straightforward statement that shoulders responsibility: “We have decided not to accept it.” And then there is another polite acknowledgement that every submission does literary editors a great favor. (It does.) Finally, the editor’s name is included, once again reinforcing that this is the very person who made the decision—again, it’s a matter of agency. Someone, some flesh-and-blood person, rejects a poem. It’s not caused by ghosts or gravity or any other invisible force. A person said no.
            A “no” can be a big boon to a writer. I’m thankful for many of the nos I received when I was just starting out. That shit doesn’t need an audience. I don’t even want to look at it myself.
            A “no” can also motivate a writer to do better—to take bigger risks or to work out problems of form or to analyze the rhetoric of a piece. I thank every editor for every rejection I’ve ever received (even the stupid ones). There is nothing more motivating than a negative reaction. If I’m playing the funny-face peek-a-boo game with my toddler and he doesn’t laugh at one of my crazy expressions, you can bet that the next one will make him roll on the floor. I want to impress him. I want to be at the top of my game, even in this small thing.
            And poetry is a big thing. It’s everything to me. I don’t want acceptances; I want to be stellar. I want to change something in a reader. I’m trying to be great.
            Editors, you have nothing to be ashamed of when you reject a writer. You are doing the grunt work of American letters. Your efforts—probably voluntary, or at least poorly paid—keep the literary ship afloat. In partnership with writers, you make it all happen. Our work isn’t really finished until it finds an audience, so it is fair to say that writers and editors are partners in this endeavor.
            With some notable exceptions from throughout literary history, I believe that great work eventually finds a home. Your rejection, no matter how mealy-mouthed, forces me to acknowledge that a particular poem isn’t great (at least not to a particular group of readers). I thank you for your time and your discernment.

            But however you write it, one thing is clear: It’s not you. It’s me.


  1. Some of the greats even add a smiley face now and then.

    1. I've never heard of that practice. Sounds solid. :)