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