The relationship between writers and editors of literary journals has always been complex. Editors of even the smallest journals with a staff of one editor might receive 100 pieces a week. Writers often expect personal attention for their submission. Something has to give.
What has developed over the past century is a hierarchy of rejections, encouragement, discouragement, critique, and acceptance. After awhile, writers develop a literacy of rejections and encouragement, all from a small piece of paper or email from a general address. This was often easy in the days of self-addressed stamp envelopes with manuscript and rejection slip returned. Often a writer will read into rejection letters with Talmud-scholar intensity. Were there any signs of a human touching the manuscript? Were the pages dog-eared? What was the content of the rejection? People have whole websites about dedicated to these little slips of paper.
Over at the Pank blog, Roxanne Gay talks about getting nasty emails from writers whose work has been rejected. One reason for the nastiness, Roxanne supposes, is that the editors of Pank try to offer a critique of each work that is submitted.
Our feedback is subjective and your writing is, in some cases, apparently beyond reproach. We were not aware of that when we communicated with you. Pardon our error. It’s just that when you use ellipses more than thirty times in a story, we will feel compelled to point that out because perhaps, that was something you overlooked. And maybe you use too many modifiers or say things like “I feel” too much, and maybe the ending doesn’t work or the beginning doesn’t work or there are some tonal inconsistencies. When we point these things out, we are not attacking you as a person. We are not saying you are a bad writer. We are not saying that your writing is irredeemable. We’re saying the writing in question is simply not right for PANK and we’re providing you with a little information as to why so that the next time you send us something, you might have a better sense of what we’re looking for.
Something sounded odd to me. Do you mean you’re offering criticism? I asked. That does seem to be the case; I wrote in a couple times in the responses below the post. What I am not sure about is if it’s a journal editor’s job to point out that someone uses too many ellipses or modifiers or say “I feel” too much. At the very least, a writer who submits his or her work would be surprised to get this feedback along with a rejection.
One thing that occurred to me is that perhaps these instances of specific critique, or personalized comments, represent the future, and my feelings represent the past. What is changing these days is that there isn’t such a large divide between some editors and the writer-prospective contributor. The literary journal editor no longer resides in some office at Kenyon College, surrounded by interns and accessible only by first-class mail; she can now be emailed or Facebook-friended or Twitter DM’d at the click of a mouse.
This scares many editors, but it inspires others. Roxanne at Pank, Jurgen Fauth and the gang at Fictionaut, I would say, are from the latter camp. These are not only publications–they are writing communities. These places feature writing of the literary kind, but also blogs, feeds, side commentary, process notes. People poop while reading them with their laptops on the toilet. It’s a new kind of intimate relationship that not only welcomes two-way communication; it thrives on it. It’s a participatory culture where the writer is part of the editing process and the editor is part of the writing process.
This also scares many writers, including myself, but I am willing to see where it goes. Writers and editors navigate these new versions of their roles as we speak. Some, like those at Pank, are rising to the occasion, but are going to get some pushback.
My point over at the Pank blog: Writers aren’t used to being told about their ellipses use from what they assumed was a robot or intern on the other end. Some writers just want or expect a yes-or-no answer and move onto the next journal. This relationship can’t just be assumed. Not yet at least.
It was not always this way. Writers did not always get personal comments on every, let alone any, submission they sent out in the ether. Let’s review what rejections looked like, and still do, in 90% of literary culture.
To your left is what is what is called a form rejection. [Thanks to David Ng for posting these.]
The definition is in its name: it’s a form. It uses general, boilerplate language found in just about every form rejection you find across literary magazines. “We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material,” this New Yorker form rejection says. “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.” This isn’t my rejection slip, but I have seen this same slip over, say, the past 20 years, I have gotten tens of these from the New Yorker.
This form rejection is very general, but many journals–I think the New Yorker is included in this–have different versions of form rejections. There is the not right for us form rejection, the good luck placing your work elsewhere form rejection, and the please do consider sending more work form rejection. These and many, many more. Writers take not of the differences even of their form rejections in tone, content, even the weight of paper they were written on.
Actually, as I think of it, this form rejection, by virtue of two, hand-written words, Best regards, merits it being classified as another classification, the hand-written rejection. That’s right: it does not go unnoticed by the anxious writer that their form rejection letter includes some mark of a human hand. This, the writer will assume, is some sort of encouragement; this means that, among the thousands of submissions received, an editor told an intern to write the words “Best regards” on a certain stack of rejections, and place them in those SASEs there in the corner before placing them in the mail basket. Or not.
Sometimes, the hand-written rejection will include whole sentences, but never anything more than a version of what is found in the form rejection itself.
Now, some journals use actual forms for their rejection.
Here’s one from a publication called E-scape: The Digital Journal of Speculative Fiction. I suppose this could be called a form rejection with critiques. I’ve only seen or heard of these in what is called genre writing: science fiction, fantasy, that sort of stuff. Maybe the so-called literary journal editors use it, but I have never heard of it.
Do notice, however, that the personalized hand-written content on the bottom is completely general and boilerplate. The phrase “just didn’t grab me enough,” the editor writes could be from Open City. The use of general, even oblique terms is no accident on the editor’s part, I would argue.
Writers, even of the speculative variety, are a sensitive sort, and perhaps hold editors in too high a regard. The use of the checklist rejection might be something literary journal editors should consider if they want to have some sort of conversation without getting those amorphous feelings in the way.
But, again. take a look at the language. Very general. “I regret to say that it won’t quite work for us,” it reads. “We’re grateful for your attention all the same.” Nothing particular is said about the piece, nothing to make the writer bubble up in either hope or desperation or anger. The writer is grateful for the attention, but the work is still rejected nonetheless.
This is, in fact, a handwritten, good-luck-placing it elsewhere rejection. In other words, the rejection means to say: don’t re-send this; send this somewhere else. Just not us.
What about an editor’s critique? Well, I would suppose there are difference subspecies of the critique, and it is a very rare one indeed. There is the change this piece/edit/shorten this piece and resubmit critique-slash-rejection. That is common in the prose world, but I have never heard of that–and please do enlighten me if I am wrong–in the poetry world; I have never heard of any poet who has gotten a lose the overarching metaphor and resubmit rejection. In poetryland, it’s mostly held as some sort of taboo. Not that it never happens: twenty years ago, I got a rejection of a couple poems from a journal now based in Ohio. All of my adjectives crossed out; on one, there was a reading list (Williams, Zukofsky) included in the marginalia. Even then, I knew the editor was doing something wrong or at least unconventional; now, I would just consider it overzealous at best, douchebaggery at its worst.
In prose–fiction, essays, journalism–the outright rejection with critique is rare. It might be appreciated by some, but it’s a trigger for a nervous breakdown for others.
So where does that leave us? The acceptance, of course, and it is a glorious thing. In the snail mail version, it’s accompanied by another envelope and a contract agreement. In email, there might be a Word document attached.
What is surprising about the acceptance is that, just as in a form rejection, it’s all business. Rare is the acceptance I have read, my own or otherwise, that says anything nice about the work specifically. Maybe there’s a sentence or sentence fragment about how affecting the poem/story/piece was to the editors, but not much beyond that.
Other than that, it’s all business and boilerplate: blah blah blah send us your bio blah blah blah copyright reverts back to you upon publication.
It reflects a fairly straightforward relationship. But it’s also one that is changing as we speak.