Saturday, January 9, 2016

It's only a rejection

Once I got a rejection slip that issued its expected non-acceptance news, but closed by urging me to keep writing.

Naturally, though, I ignored that plea and quit writing forever, as I was unable to get over the disappointment of rejection by a journal that has a print run of five hundred copies but distributes only to contributors.

There is much we could say about rejection slips. As a writer, I want two things from an editor’s rejection of my work: a note of appreciation and a verdict. And if I’m being honest, I don’t want much more than that with an acceptance.

Writers can be a needy bunch. I remember this well from my decade or so at the helm of Mid-American Review, a rather distinguished litmag that received something on the order of ten thousand individual pieces of writing in an average year, not counting contest submissions.

Some writers wanted feedback, and occasionally they would write and ask why I hadn’t accepted a particular piece. The sad truth was that I didn’t really remember rejected work well enough to say. That’s one of the reasons I rejected it.

Some writers also want to argue that if we printed such-and-such, a piece of total crapola, then we should by-God have accepted their crapola. But there is seldom any accounting for taste, mine or another’s. You should see what I’m wearing right now.

Writers who are serious about their craft seldom make these rookie errors. We just want to find our audience, and we don’t want to argue with an editor over aesthetics or anything else. We read a “no” as a “Try somewhere else.” Some of us are sufficiently full of ourselves to also read it as an “Our heads are clearly up our asses, so try somewhere else.” (I’m not above that kind of thinking some days.) But nos aren’t up for debate. They aren’t even a bad thing. Receive enough nos and you’re probably going to spend some time thinking about your artistic decision-making, then sticking to it or making a change.

I do expect an editor to see the value of my submission, even if I’m rejected. I have no use for editors who talk about the “problem” of high numbers of submissions. Lots of submissions means an opportunity to find even better work. They take some time to get through, and writers like fast responses, so there is built-in tension. But editors are lucky to get lots of submissions, and the smart ones try to find a way to turn submitters into readers and subscribers.

Here’s a big secret about the whole vetting process: It doesn’t take much time to deal with the bad writing. That stuff gets a very quick no. What takes the most time for editors isn’t saying “No” to bad writing or work that doesn’t meet our needs; nor is it saying “OhGodpleaseyesyesYES!” to amazing work (although this reaction is a little rare). What takes the most time is thinking about the maybes. When the submissions came in paper form, not all that long ago, I always had a bulging “no” pile and a small “maybe” pile, with the occasional piece I would tie myself to a train track before losing.

Having been an editor for such a long time, I know that “no” is not an indictment; it just means that I didn’t like a piece, or didn’t like it enough. I don’t like a lot of things other people love—Game of Thrones, Nickelback, tempeh. I also know often that less than 1 percent of the work gets the coveted “yes,” and the odds are against me. Sadly, the odds are particularly against a poet or prose writer whose work is quiet and subtle, and sometimes I fall into that camp. When work is read quickly, the quiet piece can easily be overlooked.

I do think that an editor owes me appreciation. I’m a strong poet, frequently; if an editor can reject my work, he or she is in the lucky position of having better work than mine to consider. I have worked hard on my craft over an entire lifetime, and I tried my best with my submission. My work improved the pool and gave the editor a better magazine. So, by the way, did yours. An editor owes us a thank-you, and we deserve to see it on the rejection slip.

An editor doesn’t owe me an apology for a rejection, and I certainly don’t expect counseling. Don’t worry, editors. I’ll keep writing, probably long after you’re done editing. In a better world, we respect each other enough to recognize and appreciate the other’s role.

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