Tuesday, February 10, 2015

In Praise of Rejects

            True or false: There’s no such thing as a good rejection.
            The answer is complicated. Most magazines use a system of tiered rejections, so there is, quite literally, a “good” rejection, as opposed to a “regular” rejection. I used to work at a magazine that even had a “bad” rejection, although we nixed that pretty quickly.
A “good” rejection slip typically invites another submission, and it is unambiguous in that message. Such a rejection may read, “We read your work with interest, and although we are not accepting it, we would like to consider more.”
A “regular” rejection just turns the work down, ideally with a word of appreciation: “Thank you for submitting; unfortunately, we are not going to accept any of your work at this time.”
My former magazine’s “bad” rejection was reserved for only the worst work (rhyming doggerel and the like), and its language aimed to discourage further submissions. It contained the text, “Please familiarize yourself with our magazine before submitting again.” I refused to use this rather rude rejection, and shortly after I joined the staff, the text of the “bad” rejection disappeared mysteriously from the office computer leaving, rather incongruously, only the files for the “good” and “medium” rejection slips.
So that’s the basic answer—magazines have a “good” rejection, so there is, in fact, such a thing. I would go a little bit further, though, to say that all rejections are good rejections.
As literary artists, we try to publish in an effort to find an audience. Our goal is to have our work accepted by a literary journal and, ultimately, to gain an even wider audience through books, anthologies … heck, canonization, while we’re at it.
As a post-MFA writer who operates more or less alone in the universe, I don’t have many readers. I float a few poems by my husband and post the occasional piece to Facebook; I have a writing group, and of course I have my blog. Other than these venues, efforts to publish provide my only audience. Sometimes I hit the jackpot and have a poem accepted, and sometimes I have a much smaller audience—an editor and maybe her staff.
When a poem is read with the kind of care a publication decision requires, it has truly found an audience. When I am functioning as an editor, I put a lot of time and thought into each and every manuscript I consider. All work gets a good look; the better work gets several readings. The care of a good editor is not to be discounted; that is an audience of great worth.
Beyond these actual readers, though, a rejection also provides proof that I am in the game—I am an active poet who is putting forth effort to increase my audience.
There’s nothing inherently hurtful about a rejection. Each one just means that some (shortsighted) editor didn’t like my poems and (foolishly) chose not to accept them. And with each rejected submission, I have three or four more poems to shuffle into new submissions for other magazines. There are hundreds of them, and new ones are launched almost daily.
Another benefit of rejections is that they give a writer a fairly good sense of the effectiveness of her work. After a poem is rejected a dozen times, I start to get the idea that it may not be very good. I can eyeball it for possible revisions, or I can shitcan it, or I can keep it circulating, because why the hell not. At some point, the much-rejected poem becomes the filler poem, the one you stick in with the better pieces to round out a manuscript. (Once you start regarding it as a filler poem, it will probably be accepted right away—or is that just how my luck works?)
Despite the fact that some rejections feel deeply disappointing, and despite the fact that they seem to represent wasted time and effort, and despite the fact that a rejection stalls us on our route to inclusion in a Norton Anthology, rejections are not bad things.

In fact, upon reflection, I would maintain that the opposite of the opening question is true. There’s no such thing as a bad rejection.


  1. How timely of you, Karen. Thank you. I received a "good" rejection today, but as it's one of two or three I've gotten lately it was a little hard to be happy about it (I really wanted this one for some reason). Near misses get old. However, I squared my shoulders and went in search of another market.

    1. That's what you have to do. Onward and upward!

  2. Ugh. The drudgery of the "good" rejection. I know I'm new at this (I'm an undergrad for pete's sake), but I've been submitting for over two years. In the beginning, I was accepted and a finalist in two contests all in the same week. Since, I haven't been accepted, but about half of my rejections are "good" or personal ones. An editor this week even went beyond complimenting my work to telling me she used to live in my neighborhood (that might fall under the category of "too personal" rejection). What's the catch? How does one go from the thanks-but-no-thanks rejection to publication?

  3. Also, congratulations on your Pushcart nomination!