October 22, 2009

meditations on the rejection

Yesterday I received an electronic rejection email from The Kenyon Review. The generic aspect of the rejection surprised me; not because I expected that they would take a special interest in my work (the number of submissions they receive precludes such a thing except under very unusual circumstances), but because I had noticed that someone from Kenyon college had, two days before, looked at my website. So I went online to see other rejections sent by Kenyon Review, to see what rejection letters they usually send.

In searching Google, I noticed a number of other sites, including a blog site that rated rejections (http://awritingyear.blogspot.com/). The not-so-surprising thing about the rating of rejections was that the writer (to a large extent, rightfully so) expected that the rejection slip would convey a sense of care and respect. That is to say, an ideal letter, short of including personal information about a person's work (always, always a good sign), succeeded in making the writer feel a combination of hope, admiration, and respect as well as a general support for the act of writing itself.

I'm not saying that journals should be cold, callous, or unprofessional. I'm saying that even a good rejection slip (again, short of a personalized letter) is presenting the illusion of personal attention, and we might be better off if we understood that.

Why? First, the cold truth of quantity. Given the number of submissions a journal receives (hundreds or thousands per month), very, very few people will receive personal attention, and while a rejection letter may allow the writer to feel loved, chances are they skimmed your piece, or, at most, had a few editors read it. Second, because rejections are mass produced, the attributes of a "good" rejection letter such as properly cut pages, handwritten signatures, a mention of care, appreciation, and thanks do nothing but fall within a fairly recent discourse of professionalization.

The writer wants to feel that in rejection, the institution has taken as much care with their work as they have in writing it, but that can never be true - you spent hundreds of hours in that story (I hope). Accordingly, the writer receives reasons to alternately feel hopeful or bitter, consoled or inconsolable, instead of taking the rejection for what it is: which could be almost anything. When there's a black hole of information, the rejection slip offers a locus for the rant of not knowing.

What I'd like to suggest, however, is that a rejection slip could provide not just emotional support, but actually useful information. I'm not arguing that each letter be personalized - however, journals can and do have more than one rejection slip which, coupled with either transparency on the side of the journal or a collective sharing of resources, could help both writers and journals become more efficient.

Let me explain what I mean by explaining - this may be especially handy for non-editors - how the electronic submission system, at least the Submission Manager designed by Devin Emke, is set up:

When rejecting a work, I have a choice of four rejection letters which can all be customized with canned text or personalized information. In general, journals can choose to use any or all of these four letters (if they are extremely technically savvy, they can create more than four). Generally speaking, one of the four is reserved for a purely personal note without canned text, and so most journals will use between 1 and 3 rejection slips.

This is also true for Versal. We use two canned text rejections, which differ by their level of encouragement, and one hybrid, which allows us to add customized text to the more encouraging of the two canned notes.

And this is where, with the option of multiple notes, efficiency comes in. While we love the fact that people are writing, and we want to encourage them in their writing practice, we don't, given our workload, necessarily want to encourage every single writer to resubmit to us the year after a rejection. Normally this would be because we don't see enough merit in the work, and we don't see that at this point in time, the writer has potential enough to improve their craft in a year. That is to say, very rarely does a writer go from nothing to everything. (This is, at this point, all about (perceived) quality, and has nothing to do with aesthetic - although of course quality is equally subjective).

In a brutally cruel world, we might write, "Hi, we appreciate the fact that you are writing and submitting to us, but this work is really far away from what we're looking for in terms of quality, so maybe you should just concentrate on your craft for a bit, or consider some less restrictive journals." Or: "Hey, we don't accept 10,000 word stories about robot vampires, but you sent us one anyway, so please don't send another." But that's not very nice, so we write a neutral-toned canned text that offers little encouragement, and we hope that that dissuades people from resubmitting at least for a year or two.

This also, of course, can be of help to the writer, who, it would stand to reason, would want to be told, nicely, that their work has an extremely small chance (far less than the "normal" extremely small chance) of being published by this journal at this time - saving the writer time, money and heartache.

In Versal's case, the canned text rejection that offers encouragement is just that - we don't think this work is good enough, but it has plenty of merit, and we believe that you are capable, next year, of submitting a work that is good enough - so keep trying.

As a writer receiving the rejection letter, you have very little information with which to decipher the letter. Without understanding Versal's process, or having access to all three rejection letters, you don't know if we're just sweet-talking you or if we really want you to resubmit. The problem: if the institution does not make their processes clear, then the writer has no way of knowing what the letter might mean. The writer doesn't know how the letter is produced, what system, how many letters there are, and so forth.

Naturally, a journal wouldn't want to make the letters too hierarchical (i.e. you made it to the second round), because you then encourage people to imagine a linear scale, whereas the complexity of submissions (the quality of the work, the aesthetic, who reads it (and in what mood), how many pieces they are taking, changes in editors) precludes any kind of pathway for a writer to follow. It's completely common for a work to be rejected with some love, and then to have the next work, which might be "better," receive no love at all.

What I envision is a journal that makes public and transparent both their reading process and modes of rejection. It helps the writer, by giving them a focus on whom to submit to, and it helps the journal, who will receive a greater percentage of submissions that correspond to what they want. As complement, I would support a web site (Duotrope?) that stores copies of rejection letters sent by the institution. This would further encourage journals to be up front with their processes.

I'm trying to think of ways in which the public revelation of rejection letters compromises the journal, or forces the journal to spend extra resources on rejection letters. I don't believe that it would. On the other hand, it would give some (not a lot, but some) clarity to the writer on where they, at this moment, with this work, stand.




  1. Thanks for this post, Robert. It's a great topic -- the mysterious abyss that opens up around the submission, rejection or acceptance of creative works.

    As an artist who has sent many applications out into the abyss (often with no response, rejection letter or otherwise) and someone who has also accepted portfolios and applications for exhibitions or juried shows while working in galleries, I think Robert's conclusions here about the necessity for transparency in the submission/rejection/acceptance process could/should also hold true in the world of art submissions (which is of course the case for art submissions to Versal).

    When I worked at Gallery Saintonge with artist/curator Kerri Rosenstein, she taught me a lot about the importance of being up front (transparent) with artists when their work simply wasn't up to par for the gallery, and to be frank about the specific reasons why. Granted, with this I'm talking about a one-on-one situation with an artist who submitted his or her portfolio and a gallerist/curator, but I'd say the same would/should hold true when it comes to submitting artwork to journals, residencies (perhaps), exhibitions and so on.

    The problem of course is that this all takes time and attention. But I would argue to say that if you're in this business of reviewing work you should be willing to give that time and attention on the reviewing end of the process. But maybe that's just the teacher instinct in me poking out.

    Suffice to say I commend Robert for his thoughts here and am proud to now be a part of this process myself as assistant art editor for Versal.

  2. As an acquaintance who did dressage (show horses) once explained: I could be riding the same horse, with the same dressage, doing the same routine in front of the same panel of judges, with the same riders in competition, only 3 months apart and in one I would win and the other I wouldn't even place.

    She chalked it up to what they had for breakfast.

    As someone who has entered many visual arts competitions and been rejected. I can tell you that based on seeing some of the other work in the show from which I was declined, I can tell you, the personal preferences of the jurist are everything.

  3. It's important to remember that literary preferences, by definition, are very subjective. The rejections I like the most are the ones that say: "Ultimately, it's a question of taste, and I'm sorry to say that I didn't like your piece. A different editor might think it's brilliant, so keep trying."