Uncategorized | July 08, 2015
Stephan and the Rejection Giant: Plotting Grand Literary Successes in the Midst of Numerically Disastrous Odds
By Josh Huber
Dear Distinguished Publisher,
I, Stephan Elcalabaza, perhaps need no introduction, but for formality’s sake I will concede. When I was born the doctor took two looks at me (one simply wasn’t enough) and immediately retired. What more, after all, could he hope to accomplish beyond this (in your presence I would say this while gently patting my chest, so you know by “this” I mean me).
I am Whitman in a tutu shooting iambs at the moon, yet you dare to wonder where my poems are housed! My publications are breath and bone and blood and warm air rising celestial and free. My publications are brethren to wood and rock, sistren to the sky and sea, descended of the stars, and godlike iridescent.
With that said the poems herein are culled from my latest collection Disagreeable Verse, which is likely (if they have any sense) to be published by Gris Lobo press later this year (probably by November, my birthday month, again if they have any sense). My previous collections Roses in the Plummer’s Crack, Jackson Goes a-Hollering, Reach Right Over and Squeeze, Balls Balanced on a Feline’s Wicked Whiskers, Rickshaw Wonderland, Over the Moon, and Biscuits for Jennifer have won (or should have won) numerous awards (including but not limited to the Jeffrey Murphey Brown Award for Curmudgeonly Sonnets and the Willis O’Neil Award for Poetic Excellence Under Extreme Duress).
Three years from now I win the Pulitzer. Three years and a day from now I will be eating spaghetti with butter and melted cheddar cheese out of my Pulitzer. Impossible you say? Already my microwave is purring! Already the butter is melting! Already my noodle-maker is requisitioning flour! What more is there? Only the Pulitzer. Three years.
Enjoy and may the Baza be ever in your favor.
Obviously there are some potential editorial and logical pitfalls in this copy of my friend Stephan Elcalabaza’s cover letter for a recent round of submissions. But leaving those aside, I sometimes wish my own attitude toward submitting were half as assured as Stephan’s. Stephan laughs in the face of rejection. Or anything short of grandiose success, for that matter. I take a slightly different approach.
My bio is pretty standard: written in the third person, it includes where I live, what I do, my relevant educational credentials, past publications and little more.
As for expectations, unlike Stephan, I have grown to expect rejection.
In the last year, I have submitted a total of 84 different poems in 117 individual submissions.
So far this year, I have been rejected for publication 78 times.
The 84 different poems I have submitted have on average been rejected at least four times each, with a couple being rejected as many as ten times.
Between early December 2014 and March 17, 2015, I received 28 consecutive rejections from literary journals and publishers. One weekend in March, I was rejected five separate times in a thirty-hour period.
In the first two days after I started writing this blog, I was rejected by three literary journals and one anthology.
I carry on. Currently I have 56 poems actively submitted to 35 journals and publishers, and have a list of over 100 publishers to potentially submit to in the future.
I keep accounts of all this data and more in two electronic documents stored on my computer. The first of these is a simple Word document with running lists of which poems I have submitted and where I have sent them. The list is broken into three major categories: active submissions (in black), rejections (in red), and accepted work (accepted poems in blue and bolded). This document also includes the list of places I plan to submit work in the future, including dates submissions are accepted, how many poems are allowable per submission, whether a submission fee is required, and any specific requirements or aesthetic proclivities unique to each particular publication.
The second document is an Excel spreadsheet broken into two parts: 1) a list of all the poems I’ve ever submitted and, in the corresponding rows, a list of every place these poems are currently submitted; 2) a Rejection Chart! that lists every poem I’ve ever had rejected and who has rejected them (a grand total of 341 individual poem rejections according to the running tally located in cell 1B).
Yes, this is all a bit insane.
I wasn’t always like this.
When I started trying to publish last May, I spent a good amount of time selecting the most appropriate contests and journals (as you are supposed to) and painstakingly attempting to match my work to fit each venue (again, as you are supposed to). I was blissfully hopeful. Eagerly awaiting inevitable acceptance, I feared only that all the poems I had simultaneously submitted would end up being accepted by multiple parties (an irrational fear some publishers’ submission guidelines seem eager to encourage in you as a submitter). By the end of the summer, I had sent work to a whopping seven publications!
Then the rejections started. Though it took over six months, I was finally rejected by all seven of the venues I’d sent to over the summer. Gradually my game plan changed. I found myself repeatedly scanning the AWP calendar of submission deadlines and applied to handfuls and eventually full dozens of publications.
On the flip side, reading for the Missouri Review has allowed me to see manuscript rejections from a different perspective. I’ve had the opportunity to read other writers’ work and done my fair share of rejecting a manuscript myself (a couple hundred submissions by my count) or suggesting that one of my colleagues reject a submission. Naturally, as a reader, I know that rejecting manuscripts is unavoidable, as we have to eventually winnow the vast quantity of submissions we receive down to a select handful for publication. TMR, for example, publishes less than one half of one percent (.5%, or 1/200) of its submitters, and rejections I have received from other journals lead me to believe this number is not uniquely low.
To put that number in perspective, imagine you’re back in elementary school again and it happens to be the day everyone gets to guess how many jelly beans are in Principle Story’s gallon-sized glass jar. The rules are simple: whoever ends up guessing closest to the actual number of jelly beans in the jar wins the jar and all its contents. Let’s say there are roughly 200 kids, kindergarten through fifth grade, in your school and each student in the school hazards a guess. You also—after meticulous calculation and thoughtful consideration—hazard a guess: 9,642. It’s 9,642. Now, having guessed, your chance of actually winning the much-coveted jelly bean jar roughly corresponds to the statistical chance of someone being featured in The Missouri Review upon submission. Of course, there are those like Timothy Blithers and Suzy O’Simmons who guess 17 and 1,000,045 respectively. But for the most part, the guesses fall more or less within the range of plausibility. And, still, only one of the 200 plus students in your school will end up winning all the 4,318.5 jelly beans in the jar (alas, your guess of 9,642 is off by over 5,000 beans; it’s unfortunately not you, sorry).
Jelly beans or no, however you look at it, rejection is part, and a rather large part, of the nature of publishing. Yet, despite the bleakness of the numbers game, and my self-perceived submission mania, I continue to submit, not just because I want to be published, but also because I believe the process is worthwhile.
Beyond the simple, inescapable dynamics of publishing—acceptance or, much more likely, rejection—submitting encourages something of a conversation. For a writer, submitting work guarantees that your work is read by somebody, encourages you to write with a real, live, human reader in mind, and provides you an audience —however detached and critical. And for the reader working through the slush pile, reading manuscripts allows you to peek at a cross-section of the writers publishing (or attempting to publish) right now, to glimpse unique, never-before-seen details of our present literary landscape, and then to respond.
Apart from the simple binary of acceptance/rejection, the submission process is comprised of a multitude of writer-to-reader exchanges. And no matter how frustrated a particular writer’s ambitions or how jaded a particular reader may be, these exchanges are meaningful. They are the very building blocks of successful literary publishing and the essence of shared literary experiences.
Simply put, to submit is to offer your work to another: yes in judgment, but also for the simple bliss and terror of sharing, and to read a submission from a fellow writer is to accept this offering. And this simple exchange—writer to reader, writer to reader, writer to reader, again and again—persists whether your work is published or never gets beyond the first read.
In the end, rejection or no, I like to imagine that the process of submitting work is one way to bridge the loneliness of what it can mean to be a writer. At least, it offers me the hope that such loneliness might be bridged—that my work can someday be appreciated and relished for all its worth and, with some good luck, even more.
As for Stephan, when I tell him, in my humble editorial opinion, he should probably tone down his bio a bit and embrace the certain uncertainty of the publication gambit more fully, he sets fire to a manuscript of my most recent poems. “It’s all about the passion,” he informs me as he tosses the burning manuscript in my direction. “If it ain’t too hot to hold, broseph, why pass it on?”
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