This is an email I’ve been receiving a lot lately:
Your writing is really polished and there are some very good lines in here, but ultimately I just couldn’t fall in love with it. But I want you to know I’m rooting for you!
It is not a comforting email, despite the best intentions of the sender.
* * *
Currently, I have three stories, an essay, and a novel under review by a variety of editors and agents. There is another novel that made the rounds and, as the euphemism goes, couldn’t find a home (although the plan is that after some revisions it will be submitted to some small presses and book contests), and there are a couple more short pieces on the way out this week or next. All of which means a few things:
- I check my email more obsessively than usual, am prone to mild panic when several hours have passed without a new notification on either my phone or my laptop, because I keep waiting for something to give. It’s been a dry spell since mid-summer, during which time my memoir has gone out of print, and I have accrued many rejections, and so there is the waiting, always. While the present is continually disappointing, the future always holds promise.
- My penchant for myopic pessimism is only exacerbated by all the waiting, which makes me occasionally mopier and more self-absorbed than usual.
- Regardless of how things turn out—whether I publish one or all of those pieces— I will receive dozens of rejections over the next couple months.
* * *
I want to be as clear as possible: this post is not about soliciting sympathy or settling scores or calling people out. That all has nothing to do with it. The agents and editors who have been rejecting my submissions are just doing their jobs; they owe me nothing beyond simple courtesy, and they need to get on with their lives once they’ve finished reading my work.
I don’t want to overdramatize things. Rejection is part of life in general, but especially the writing life, and we all know this and have heard it a thousand times. You get used to it, mostly. But that doesn’t make it feel any better when it happens.
Still, my goal here isn’t to whine about how I’m having a hard time publishing things; so is everyone else I know, and most of them are far more talented than I am. What I want to talk about, what I’m trying to better understand, is the language of rejection.
* * *
Here’s another email I keep receiving:
Thanks so much for taking the time to send me a detailed response. This is the best rejection I’ve ever received.
I don’t send personalized rejections to everyone who submits, but about 30% of the essays I reject do get a little email from me with some specific notes on the essay the sent, and these people frequently respond with gracious emails like the one above. Invariably, what these people are grateful for is the fact that I took time to respond directly to their work and to show them, in one way or another, that I appreciated their work, even if it’s in the context of me telling them why I ultimately think the essay wasn’t good enough. It’s the acknowledgment they appreciate.
* * *
A while back, I posted my updated version of the standard Barrelhouse rejection letter, which I send to about 70% of the people who submit essays. It goes like this:
Thanks for letting me read [SubmissionTitle]. Lately, I’ve been submitting a lot of work myself and have found that personalized and flattering rejection notes tend to be paradoxically more discouraging and invite the sort of neurotic over-analysis that is generally not in any way healthy or productive, and so I hope you’ll accept this 100% neutral and non-encouraging (but also non-discouraging!) note as an indication that we will not be running your submission in Barrelhouse, but this choice of mine doesn’t reflect negatively on you as a person or as a writer, and is instead the result of a totally fucked up and subjective system which we all, for some reason, agree to perpetuate.
Thanks for thinking of us.
I wrote that not as a joke, not because I needed something kind of funny to post on Facebook that day, but because ever since I took this job with Barrelhouse, I’ve been grappling with the way we express our choice to reject someone’s work, and this seemed the most honest way to say it. We’re not publishing you, and it would be a terrible mistake to attach your conceptions of self worth to my opinion.
* * *
If we’re being honest, me and you, we can agree on this: a lot of the shit that gets submitted isn’t any good. That’s just a reality of the submission process. It’s the reason for the submission process. But still– there are people on the other end, waiting and hoping, and telling their spouses I have a good feeling about this one. There are people at home, checking their emails, hoping someone will respond and say, “I fell in love with this.”
* * *
So, what’s the right way to tell someone their work isn’t good enough? Is it the euphemism-soaked, everyone-gets-a-trophy keep on truckin style of bland encouragement? Is it a generic, totally impersonal response that betrays nothing beyond the bare facts (you will not be published today, and also here’s how to subscribe to our journal)? Is it something performative that is a little bit potentially mean-spirited but also engages with the text in the way we all say we want people to engage with our writing? Is it a picture of a sad puppy and a bowl of ice cream?
* * *
While I was in the midst of reading Barrelhouse submisssions last week, I received this email from an agent.
“After careful consideration, and much admiration, I’m afraid I am going to step aside. I’m just not in love with the writing quite enough to think I’d be the right agent for your work. But it is engaging, and moving, and I know you’ll find the passionate representation you deserve.”
I stopped reading submissions then because I’d lost track of my place in the world.
The agent’s email was obviously a form letter, and while I appreciate that the agent read the manuscript at all and sent the email that’s probably saved on her desktop as “nice rejection,” the end result is still the same as if she had emailed to say, “Listen, this book is fucking terrible, and I hope you never send anyone anything ever again.” So which one are you supposed to believe– the email you actually got, or the email you’ve imagined?
* * *
Think about the way most of us phrase it: I got rejected by three journals this week. Not my story was rejected. Because that’s rarely what it feels like when you care so much about the writing that it becomes a part of who you are.
* * *
Probably if I weren’t actively submitting, I wouldn’t think of it much at all. I would blithely reject and reject and reject and I would, let’s admit it, laugh at the worst submissions and share them with people so they could laugh too. But every time I have that impulse, I think of my own work, sitting there on the desk of some laughing agent; my work, being passed around a New York City office, a joke.
* * *
A lot of rejectors rely on the language of dating: I didn’t fall in love with it. Probably it’s a pretty accurate representation of their feelings: there are some books you love and some books you endure and a lot of books you casually know. How many books have you read whose pleasures were entirely fleeting, books that were objectively pretty good but never stuck with you? Why should it be a surprise to find out your own work falls into this good-but-not-good-enough category?
* * *
What does it mean to fall in love with literature? This question probably opens a bigger can of worms, which is, what does it mean to fall in love at all? This is a question I can’t answer beyond: falling in love means finding something or someone you care about more than yourself. It takes an incredible ego to sit around by yourself for a year or two, working on a novel, and then send it blindly out into the world and ask people to love it. But that’s pretty much the only option we have, and anyway, part of writing seriously is possessing an ego that makes you believe the things you’re writing are important enough for other people to care about them.
* * *
These are a lot of quarter-formed thoughts, I admit. I don’t really have a conclusion to offer, and I’m not sure I’m the person to offer it anyway. Here’s what I keep coming back to: rejection is awful all the time, and the rejector is in a difficult position, because it is impossible to guess what the writer needs to hear at the exact moment of rejection. Maybe they’re abjectly, objectively terrible and need someone to tell them so. Maybe they’re terrible but the writing is therapeutic and they’re not hurting anybody by continually submitting weak work. Maybe they’re okay with engaging in a workmanlike career and know that one of the hazards is they will receive more rejections than acceptances. Maybe they’re talented but on the verge of quitting and need someone to acknowledge that they’re doing something wortwhile.
* * *
The first big-time publication I ever had was with Black Warrior Review in 2007. That acceptance email was a lifeline– had that essay (which turned out to be chapter two of my memoir) not been accepted, I was prepared to quit, to go work for an insurance company or something, and to spend the rest of my life telling people I used to be a writer. It was the only complete thing I’d written since leaving grad school, and it was the only thing I’d felt good enough about to share with any friends. I wouldn’t have continued writing. I wouldn’t have continued teaching because I would have been ashamed to associate with colleagues who were actively publishing. If we want to extrapolate this fully, the rejection would have resulted in the dissolution of my marriage, because I would have been so incredibly unhappy with myself that I would have sabotaged the life I’d been building with my wife.
The editors at BWR probably had a debate about my essay. They probably came very close to rejecting it, just like nine other journals had. They didn’t know, or care, that it was a make-or-break situation for me, that their email would literally change my life and make me care again. But that’s the power they had, and that’s the razor thin line between abject failure and whatever we’re going to call my current condition (upwardly mobile mediocrity?)
* * *
What makes me reject an essay? The biggest thing is a lack of urgency, the sense that an essay only exists to fulfill some vaguely defined criteria or to be checked off somebody’s list. But there are other issues too: abject humorlessness, terrible jokes, lacking self awareness, sagging language, essays contriving “happy” endings in order to duck the requisite complexity. It’s a failure to make me care on a visceral level.
Every time I think about this issue, it comes back to one question: why publish? Is it for the money, the glory, the ideal of sharing your thoughts with the world? Shouldn’t the work itself be enough to sustain you?
There are so many journals out there. There are terrible journals with low standards, journals who will accept eighty percent of the work submitted to them. I could send my stories and essays to those places, could even benefit from being published in those awful journals that nobody reads, because they would become another line on my CV and make me slightly more employable from a University’s perspective. But that would be pitiful and that would be sad, and that would deny my primary reason for submitting, which is the ego. Regardless of what any author says, that motivation is always there, that desire to see one’s byline printed under the header of a prestigious publication. There is a need to have people read your thoughts, and for a real publisher to validate your work. You’re putting yourself out in the world and inviting the world to love you; this is a dangerous game to play.
* * *
Sometimes i think it would be better if the form letters were more blunt : “this isn’t really good at all, and you’re never going to publish it” or, “I really like this book, but it’s not going to sell more than 400 copies no matter what we do, so, sorry.” It seems like a good idea until I think about receiving one myself.
I realize people have a lot of reasons for offering the diplomatic and soulless responses they do: they need to keep the lunatics at bay, they want to be polite, they don’t want to be dreamcrushers, they actually mean the nice things they’re saying, etc. etc.
What’s the best way to say I don’t want you? That’s the question people have been dealing with for millenia.
* * *
Probably, what most of us have to face is that we’re never going to be quite as good as we’d like to be, not nearly as good as the people we idolize and who inspire us. We’re going to be regular people who are known by only a few and we die without having produced anything on the level of Guernica or The Brothers Karamazov or whatever. We’re going to be temporary and not long after we’re dead nobody will know we ever existed.
Does that mean we shouldn’t even bother? Or does it amplify the urgency to write and publish?
* * *
Are we deluding ourselves when we try to overcome the fundamental reality of our own meaninglessness via writing? I don’t know. Probably. But I think maybe that’s the wrong question. The question, more likely, is something like this: is this thing worth doing anyway? And, inevitably the answer, time after time, is, Yes, yes, absolutely it is. Because what else is there to do?