Tuesday, July 13, 2010

They're Just Not That Into Me: The Art of Rejection

The first word of the rejection letter I received yesterday was “Though.”

And the first word of my reaction was “Ouch.”

I’ve submitted, and been rejected, often enough to know nothing promising can come of a letter that opens with “Though.” Granted, the thin envelope should have tipped me off—thin is never good in the world of literary submissions—but I was still taken aback by how quickly my brain was forced to conclude, Yeah, it’s all downhill from here.

And indeed, the remainder of the message on the little blue cardstock upheld its opening tone: “Though your work has been declined by our editors, we thank you for allowing us to consider it.”

My writerly half was a bit stung. According to my experience with rejection letters, this one was committing quite a few egregious fouls. There was no personalization, no signature (fake or otherwise)—and the length! My work has been declined so summarily that I can’t even get twenty words? I reiterate: ouch.

But my volunteer/intern half took things in stride and attempted to console my writerly half: Think about how many submissions you’re up against; think of those punk slush-readers who just don’t pay enough attention; think of how much money X Review apparently needed to save by way of this crappy rejection mini-letter; etc.

I know these arguments are more legitimate than “How dare they!” Any agent or editor who accepts material electronically will tell you e-mail opens up an agency or publication to hundreds more submissions than they received via snail mail, and in most cases this makes it logistically impossible to send each writer a detailed, personalized response. I also know literary reviews are struggling right now in an economy of readers who still can’t justify an extra $50 a year for subscriptions. The magazines cut their own spending in turn, and this often trickles down to smaller, plainer rejection letters, which reduce printing costs, and shorter messages, which might allow a staff member to help out with a project other than tailoring rejections with names, titles, and addresses.

A few of my graduate classmates used to tell urban legends about receiving helpful, detailed critiques from certain editors along with extensive line editing in their actual manuscripts, but I’ve had no such luck. I have become accustomed, instead, to polite and concise notes that let me know someone appreciates my submission but is sorry to say my story cannot be used at this time. These, I think, are successful enough in their missions. They let the author down easy, but they include a dash of hope, of encouragement for the author to submit more work in the future. And I find myself wondering whether I would really want the intensive feedback I mentioned above. Knowing how specific certain publications are, I’d fear an editor would mold my story to his exact standards but would render my work ill-fitting for anywhere else. And knowing that feedback from writing workshops can be extremely contradictory, I’d also worry that one review’s exhaustive revisions would alienate big groups of readers who might like my story as is, that maybe X Review truly wasn’t the right place for my work.

But still: “though?”

So as I lick my wounds today, I’m also contemplating what makes for a “good” rejection, and whether there even is such a thing. I know, from internships with different reviews and literary agencies, that if a rejection letter is too soft, some authors will re-query, unsuccessfully. I once opened an e-mail that simply asked our agency (not EPE) to “indulge [his] request that [we] take another look.” My supervisor was furious at this author’s demands on her time and at his presumption that our agency didn’t know what it was doing when we first turned him down. (Our second rejection letter was…um…clearer (but we still didn’t start with “though”).)

These, I think, are two ends of a definable spectrum: too nice and not nice enough. In between there are countless nuances of rejection letter etiquette. Too long, too brief, too personal, too generic, et al. Ultimately, however, it helps me to remember that even the nicest, most delicate, or even flattering, rejection letter is still a rejection letter at the end of the day. I’ve found, from a writer’s standpoint and from an agency's, that honesty is the common denominator in all valuable feedback. And if the price of X Review’s honesty is a message that starts with “Though,” then so be it (she grumbles).




Rejections do get easier after you've received a few hundred. It's a numbers game, I'm convinced. And once you accumulate x number of rejections you will begin to see acceptance letters. Those will come after you start receiving actual letters that are kind and encouraging. Those are still being sent out. So hang in. You're at a great agency and you'll only go up from there. Besides every time you rewrite your manuscript it will only be better.
And tell Elaine hello.
Barb W

Anna Banks said...

Okay, this was great. Couldn't have said it better myself, even with expletives.