A Culmination of Rejection, Street Musicians, and TMR Interning
Publication is a bit of an anomaly. In fiction alone we read thousands of manuscripts for each issue, selecting, say, four to be published. The odds of acceptance are minuscule. Popular database site Duotrope lists our acceptance rate at a modest .63 percent. Anyone quick with numbers could guess a truer percentage would fall closer to .001-.002. And this is simply for fiction.
Before anyone closes forever The Missouri Review‘s submission guidelines page, consider for a moment the relativity of those odds. There are magazines who see, easily, double our amount, maybe more, yet still publish the same number (or less) of stories.
The easy consolation? The pool of writers exponentially outnumbers the available literary magazines. There are only so many slots in the industry to fill. Having read through the slush pile for two semesters now, one of the quickest takeaways is the overall quality of submissions we receive at TMR. We could attribute this to many possible reasons, but let me say this, in my parting days as a TMR intern, because the overall quality so much complicates our job: damn you, writers.
“Your story does not meet our needs” is the rejection letter equivalent to “I still want to be friends.” It’s supposed to comfort. But since those involved know its hollow intent, the condolence becomes that much more scathing. Of course I’ve received it myself (to which side of the equivalency I refer is…unimportant). However, there may not be a more articulate phrase befitting the vast majority of rejections we send. Much of what we reject is publishable. We have only four slots.
I don’t want to try to marginalize the disappointment of our rejected, and I thankfully never received a fuming reply from a rejected and insulted writer, so this isn’t an anonymous apology. As I’m sure many understand, no matter how sincere or invested the rejection letter, the inescapable stamp on its forehead is: “We liked too many pieces more than yours.” Ouch.
Someone (whom for the life of me I can’t recall or find) asked on Twitter last week, who is the best living writer never to have been published in the New Yorker–historically one of the biggest career makers. Immediately I thought of Cormac McCarthy. Maybe unfair, given he’s never professionally published a short story, but I couldn’t shake it. If interested, one can easily find two short stories of his from his undergraduate years at Tennessee. I’ve read them. They’re impressive. Maybe not beyond the “undergraduate” scope, but that’s home enough for me. His language is there–his cadence, his sentence weaving, the mythos, Gothic mysticism, it’s all vibrantly there. Even though he was a couple years older than myself when he wrote them, I added the shaming experience of reading those stories to a pantheon that already included the reluctant knowledge of Mary Shelly publishing Frankenstein at age 19, and T.S. Elliot Prufrock at 23. What am I doing with my life? Damn you, literary legends.
The early successes of all-timers should not be as disheartening as I goodheartedly allow them to be. They are, after all, the best of the best. However, as a writer, I believe I can write to any of their levels. It’s an inherent competition in me.
This is by no means to say I think I ever actually could. Merely, my mindset is that, if I invest, if I care, if I work, and if I do it all painstakingly, I can write with them. This may or may not be true, and whether it is, is irrelevant. I believe thoroughly every writer should possess some sort of confidence that pins them, if fantastically, against their most revered predecessors. We should neither disregard nor take for granted their impact, but we should believe that our work, in its own right, could one day demolish the greats of past and present. And in that same breath, no acceptance percentage should ever deter someone.
There’s a modesty to reading early works from the masters or recognizing similarities between your work and the work you’re rejecting. It’s humbling. Alison, in her post Tuesday, captured the sentiment well: “Are you bored when you go over [your] work? Then it’s boring.” Such an awareness of our own prose, over time, should allow us the means to reconcile our weaknesses and charge forward. Some authors, presumably like the aforementioned three, find that reconciliation earlier than others. We can hate our own work. Doesn’t mean we relinquish confidence or, therefore, approach. No, not every writer is capable of great writing, but the inward process in which we reach for it is personal and dependent on mindset.
This last weekend, I made my first excursion to California (woah). During a weekend that included, among many other things, an outrageously anticipated film release, getting a picture with the SAG star on Hollywood Boulevard, a macabre intrusion of mortality, a simple, nondescript encounter with a street musician on the Santa Monica pier struck me most. LA street musicians are like Nora Roberts novels in a Barnes and Noble (except the novels actually tend to receive the money for which they are there). This one was just a guy and his electric guitar, amp, and small poster propped up advertising his CD. He played songs like a slowed Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours”, John Lennon’s “Imagine”, Leonard Cohen’s (via Jeff Buckley) “Hallelujah”. Typical. Quiet. Nice. The latter two, in particular, unsurprisingly beautiful. Even with the local indie record company logo slapped onto his CD’s miniature poster, the dude just played. Proportionally, there’s about as much money in music as there is in writing. He’d scored the music world equivalent to notable graduate school literary magazine–a respectable stepping stone. Regardless, though, of the money it brought him, his contractual or aspiring future plans, he came out at night, with only the prospect of passersby’s extra change, to play music in front of, at any given time, maybe fifteen people. He played recognizable songs, but he played and sang them his way. You could see in his weary but unbeaten eyes honesty–an honesty which emanated an infectious pathos. His passion and easy love for what he was doing was visually obvious. Not even an eccentric, probably tripping character dressed in Jesus attire and dancing with his multicolored glow stick partner could distract the musician. Not much mattered outside of him playing, and that he was playing for a handful of people intently listening.
He is the perfect image I keep in my head with regard to what the TMR experience has added to me. While the development of an objective muscle in evaluating writing is vital and variously practical, my readings, fellow interns, and the staff here reinforced that there is more to the experience than the acquisition of skill. The essence, rather, of it all is to affect others, the only way you know–to enliven in others what the art enlivens in you. The skills will without a doubt assist me in future writing and editorial adventures. Skill is an outward thing. The essence will guide the rest. Thank you, Missouri Review.
On My First Rejection From a Literary Magazine
I have no memory of my first rejection from a literary magazine.
No, really. Not a clue.
I can tell you what and where my first acceptance was—“Then and Now in Chattanooga” was picked up by Sou’wester about eight years ago. I also know that it wasn’t the first time I printed off a story, attached a cover letter and a SASE with a paper clip, zipped off to the post office, and threw $1.29 in postage on a manila envelope. I certainly had stories rejected before that, and I certainly have had stories (many, many stories) rejected since.
I’m sure I sent my early stories to places like the New Yorker and Harper’s. I’m sure they were politely, and quickly, turned down. But I have never felt seething rage at the editors, or at myself, or anyone else about these rejections. I don’t keep rejection letters in a folder or in a shoebox, plaster my walls with all those Thank You Please Try Again notes, or pin them to a dartboard and crack a six-pack and let ’em fly. My rejections get put in the recycling bin with all the other paper products to be left curbside for the city of Columbia to cart off every Tuesday morning.
Certainly, there have been been rejections that have puzzled me. I thought a story of mine at journal X was a perfect fit (really); the lengthy notes from an editor at journal Y were both awfully generous and also showed that the editor had completely misread my story; the eleven month wait from journal Z over by way of an inkless rejection note made me wonder if they had just found the story in a pile somewhere and rushed to send it back.
Hey: it happens. I’ve worked for literary magazines for long enough to know that the only thing a rejection means is that this particular journal is not publishing your work. That’s it. Nothing else. Nothing else about who I am, my work, my choice of stamps, my choice of font, or whatever other reason we might feel a magazine has turned down our work.
I spent time last night trying to remember what journal was the first one to reject my work. I thought it would be great to actually be able to tell you that This Particular Journal was the very first one to be all like “Yeah, buddy, shoulda left this one in workshop, okay?” But, the name of the journal won’t come to me. I don’t even have a good guess. The rejection wasn’t important enough, then or now, for my brain to keep that memory intact.
Rejections happen. So do acceptances. I’d much rather focus on the latter.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
On The (Not So) Fine Art of Literary Rejection
Each semester, The Missouri Review gets new interns at our magazine. We also hope to have at least a few interns take the class for a second semester, and this semester, we do have six students who were with us in the fall. I don’t have to explain to anyone who has run a literary magazine (or, really, any business) how tremendously valuable it is to have good, reliable people working for you, and we’re very grateful to have them back with us again this year.
This also means we also have a new batch of interns joining us who haven’t read manuscripts for us before. The vast majority of manuscripts we receive, even the really good ones, are returned to the author, unaccepted. That’s just the nature of literary magazines: we receive far more manuscripts than we can possibly publish.
How we handle rejection is a delicate thing. It’s very easy to think of it as just another mindless task when there is always a fresh stack of manuscripts that have just rolled in and need to be read. In our first production meeting of each semester, our associate editor, Evelyn Somers, always emphazies the same critical point: we read looking to accept, not to reject. It’s a tremendous difference in your frame of mind not to say “What’s wrong with this piece?” but to say “What do I love about this piece?” In class, I regularly remind our interns that the writer spent weeks (and, really, more like months or even years) writing the story that they just read and that we need to treat each manuscript with the same amount of respect and patience that went into creating it.
We’re two weeks from AWP, and this will be my third spin with The Missouri Review staff. When writers come and visit us at our table, they tell us how much they appreciate our rejection letters: I’ve heard that “you send the nicest rejection letters” and “you give the best responses.” To be fair, usually, people do not come up and curse us out and tell us our rejections are cruel and unfeeling. AWP tends to be friendly. Still, saying, essentially “That was nicest refusal, like, ever!” used to strike me as a very odd thing to say.
However, the more I write, and consequently the more work I send to other journals, the more rejections I receive. I get it. I really do. How we handle your work matters. I’ve brought up specific things every single week to my class—compliment or comment but not critique, keep it professional but friendly, don’t make assumptions, etc.—and our staff takes this task very seriously.
This past week, I received three rejections on the same story that bothered me a little bit. And a taste of my own editorial medicine is a good reminder that there is someone, always, who receives those SASEs from us and that even with the best intentions, can get pissed off. Including me.
The point of this post is not to point fingers or be angered that they turned down my work. Hey, I wanted my story to appear in their magazine because I know they publish terrific fiction. They turned down the work, not me, and that’s just how it works. I know that better than anyone. No, what bugged me were the comments. Each editor gave comments that were, I believe, intended to be helpful. Instead, their comments made me question their judgment, that they misread the story in such a fundamental way that I wondered how on earth they had read the same story I wrote.
In one of his essay collections (I’m afraid I can’t recall which essay), Charles Baxter wrote about receiving a rejection letter from an editor. I remember being stunned that Baxter’s stories still got rejected (his are probably from the New Yorker. But, still) but also how he viewed the rejections: he understood the editor’s position but also believed the editor was wrong about the work. The editor had seen so much of a certain type of story that his exhaustion immediately turned him off to Baxter’s story, making him believe Baxter was attempting something that, in fact, he wasn’t.
All three editors focused on a particular part of my story that, I knew, was the most challenging, both for me and the reader, and that if the story fails or succeeds, it’s probably right there. I’ve never received such a length response to my work from an editor (unless the editor was accepting it), and so I know, from writing such lengthy responses myself, that these editors were genuinely trying to be helpful. But the commentary turned into criticism, and suggested that I do something that I am less and less interested in fiction: explanation. One editor suggested nothing happened in the story up to this particular scene, which is about two-thirds of the way through the story. Another editor asserted that all the events in the story should be explained, all the connections drawn clearly, scene by scene, so that the reader could completely understand exactly what the story was trying to say.
Well. This sounds awfully didactic to me. I don’t quite see why any work of fiction (or any other form of creative writing) needs such a clear explanation. The more things get explained in fiction, to me, the more the story feels less imaginative, less engaging, less true (in whatever sense of that word you want to go with). This is a fine line to be sure; stories have to make sense within the milieu they exist in. But, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the reader of my story hadn’t experienced heartbreak before. I made a judgment on the editor, as a person, and that’s absolutely the wrong way to view editorial comments. It’s just about my story. That’s all.
Maybe my story needs more work. Maybe it gets accepted today. The point is that even though the comments I received felt off to me, they were written with genuine belief that the story deserved a detailed response. These editors were being generous, and despite my initial annoyance, I understand that. All of us at TMR know how awful rejection is. We all do. Every single person on our staff that has had stories, poems, and essays rejected knows it all too well, and we know that our work will be rejected again in the future. It’s not pleasant. And if we screw up and send you one of these rejections, one of these notes that angers or annoys you, believe me, it was not done with any malice. We’re doing our best, whatever failing that might bring. Keep having faith in the work we do. Because we’re definitely keeping our faith in yours.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye