Friday, February 5, 2016

Rejection: It's not you, it's you

I receive a fair number of rejections from editors apologizing that they can’t accept my work right now. Such rejections always raise the same question in me: Well, why the hell can’t you?
Because, see … they can.
Editors can accept or reject anything they want. There’s no law that says my twelve-line poem about my cat can’t be placed in the Such-and-Such Review, and an editor who is physically capable of sending me a rejection is certainly able to plop a poem down on a page.
What editors mean when they say they can’t accept my work is that they won’t. They don’t like it enough. They don’t want to devote space to it. It may not, in fact, be good enough.
I really wish editors would stop pussyfooting around to spare writers’ feelings. A rejection, or a string of rejections, actually provides very useful information for a serious writer. When my work is rejected, I know that it’s not connecting with a particular (and small) real-world audience, and I need to find a different audience or write different work. I don’t get that information when the poem is sitting in my notebook or on my computer desktop. I may also get the indication that it doesn’t work on its own, or in a particular combination. A rejection may be a signal that I need to revise; it’s certainly a signal that I need to write more.
I’ve written the text of rejection notes, and it’s a hard thing to do, but I always tried to avoid the suggestion that I’m not able to accept a piece of writing right now. That same submission won’t be any more acceptable to me in a week, month, or year, unless something radically changes about my submission pool or my aesthetic judgment. If I don’t want work now, I pretty much never want it. It’s a hard truth, but there you go.
Ideally, a rejection note should offer thanks and then articulate a simple no. I like to say, “Although we are not accepting your work, we wish you luck in placing it elsewhere.” Different editors, with different aesthetics, may leap on the work I reject, and I hope they do.
An editor may respond by talking about space issues, of course. I’ve certainly seen long prose pieces that I absolutely loved but that I rejected because of length. Could I have accepted them, though? Absolutely. If the 2016 version of Moby-Dick arrives and I’m smart enough to see that, holy hell, this thing is Moby-Dick!, then I can certainly cancel everything and put it in print. I may have to dump everything else and do some fundraising and shorten my print run, but there’s no reason I can’t publish anything I wish. This is particularly true for online publications, where space for a long story costs the same as space for a small one.

When work grabs us by the neck and compels us to share it with our audiences, we make room. When my rather small poems are rejected, it means that someone has chosen not to make room. A smart writer takes that information and goes back to her desk and tries like crazy to write something better.

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