The Art of Saying No

I should keep quiet. That’s what I’ve done in the past when the urge to speak out has come over me. But no matter how many rejections I’ve survived over these many years of submitting my writing, I haven’t entirely suppressed the urge to say a few things back. And then yesterday, when an automated email rejection arrived in my inbox from a literary journal that had already put me through the wringer last summer, I kept hearing Paul Simon’s classic song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” in my head—“I’d like to help you in your struggle / To be free / There must be fifty ways / to leave your lover.”

About this rejection yesterday: I had submitted an essay through an online manager system to a journal whose name I won’t give. On May 23 last year I received an email from the nonfiction editor of the journal—I’ll call him John—who was interested in my essay but had a few editing suggestions. He also informed me that the editor in chief and others would have to agree to publish the piece. We then embarked on a back-and-forth exchange for two days. John suggested various rearrangements and cuts and explained his vision. I went back into the piece and moved things around. Eventually he proclaimed himself pleased and ready to send the essay forward for review.

On May 25, he wrote: “Hi, we’re good to go with the piece. The last variable is whether it goes into the summer 2011 or winter 2011/2012 issue.” No formal contract was sent to me or other usual notifications, which I found odd. Then on August 24, I received an email with the subject heading bad news. In it John wrote: “I have terrible news. We are going to have to cut your piece from the next issue and offer you a $100 kill fee. Apparently, the issue is too full.”

I never received the $100 kill fee, nor did I receive any explanation of how such a turn of events could happen. I let it go. I was never going to know what had transpired behind the scenes.

Yesterday I received an email notification that my essay had been declined. Really, I thought, again! Wasn’t it sufficient to cut the piece last summer after having accepted it? Did they think the message hadn’t come through clearly enough? I began to wonder if my correspondence with John was an elaborate hoax. Was he pretending to be an editor to see how far he could yank me around without my screaming? You see, what I had experienced so departed from any semblance of professional behavior, I began to entertain some wild explanations.

I wrote John this morning to register my complaint, in hopes someone might answer my questions. It seems there was a glitch in the submission manager system. I wasn’t supposed to receive an email declining work that had already been declined. John was sorry. Oh, that makes me feel much better. Almost as good as the email response I received from an editorial assistant at another literary journal last spring explaining that my essay submission had been thoroughly read and considered in the fifteen minutes between my online submission and my online rejection.  The essay was about twelve pages long.

Fair enough: rejections happen, that’s what editors have to do. But perhaps they should do a better job at saying no.

I’m sure that if I invited writers to share the most egregious examples of being rejected, the rejections that seemed to either wound or insult, my comments section would be flooded. There may be some merit in compiling just such a catalogue; I could call it the shaming wall, modeled on the Gum Wall near Pike Place Market in Seattle where everyone goes to stick their gum.

I’m writing from the double position of a writer who submits her work and as an editor who oversaw the running of a journal. I was the editor of Fourth Genre for four years, and one of my goals was to manage the acceptance and rejection process professionally. I didn’t want to send out letters that used words I had myself cringed over in rejection letters. I didn’t want to tell a writer she had “come awfully close” without providing specific details. Close how? Close to what target? I didn’t want to scribble at the bottom of a standard rejection form Almost or Keep trying or the god-awful Dig deeper, as if I was encouraging a kid to clear a hurdle. I didn’t want to tell a writer her work wasn’t the right fit or didn’t suit the journal at this time, as if at another time it might. I’m sure I made mistakes as an editor; I’m sure we weren’t perfect, but we tried to do a good job saying no.

As any writer who has not achieved pantheon status knows, for every acceptance garnered, ten rejections are suffered. Even writers with multiple books to their names are routinely turned away with hastily penned words smashed at the bottom of the small rejection form. Inevitably I regret making the effort to translate the tiny scratches—This came close, Some of us liked this, Sorry to say no—that fall so short of the faint encouragement they intend. Better, I think, to simply be rejected.

A rejection is a rejection is a rejection. You can’t dress it up as an invitation, and whatever chagrin or ambivalence an editor feels doesn’t change the verdict. Revealing the emotional conflict taxes the writer doubly, for now, in addition to dealing with the rejection, she is compelled to interpret the note. What kept my essay from not being close enough? Does it mean I should be slightly encouraged, as in my writing has potential, or does it mean my writing is so pathetic that even the poor readers at the bottom of the editorial food chain felt they needed to lessen the blow? I’d rather have the bad news delivered as impersonally and succinctly as possible. Why add a personal touch? Give it to me straight—up or down, in or out, yes or no—don’t sugar coat the medicine, don’t dilute the whiskey. I’m being shown the door, eliminated, there’s no maybe about it, baby, no is no. Do I really need to hear more?

You be the judge. For your reading amusement, I’ve selected rejections (realer than real) from when I first started submitting my work, mostly poetry, after I graduated from college. Granted, I think I should have waited, but I was seeing how this publishing world worked before deciding whether I should go onto graduate school or not. It was an education in its own right. Does anyone find these helpful?

“Corpses at the Window” came awfully close, but ultimately we were divided. Some of us felt the dead female body is an exquisite subject for poetry, but some of us loathed it. For my part, I was with you, on your side, but alas we operate by consensus of which there was none.

 I won’t be able to accept “Two Sisters with Red Hair” although some of the lines are lovely—“you wave from the window / with the eyes of a whaler widow.” However, I feel the poem becomes muddled in abstraction that doesn’t appear to be leading up to anything (I’m confused by the first stanza; its symbolism etc.); and the last stanza is too melodramatic and the language obscure—does the speaker die? The blood river coming to get the speaker is a bit much. I won’t be able to accept “Cowboy” either for again the poem confuses me. The “he” referents are at once the cowboy and the horse: do you really want that kind of symbiotic relationship? Does the cowboy stab himself or the horse? I hope this helps. Does it?

These poems would not disgrace our pages, but then again, they wouldn’t bring us honor. Your stuff has some power, but does it have glory? That is the question.

Surely you are a beginner. The history of poetry has obviously passed you by. You haven’t read enough; you haven’t lived enough, and you don’t know enough. You might consider foreign travel. The element of discovery, so essential to mature work, is entirely lacking in yours. You seem to know the endings (like the colors of your father’s socks) before you begin. In writing, as in life, there should always be a sort of breath, pushing forward, blind and groping, to reach what the writer will discover in the fullness of time by writing his thoughts down.

Perhaps your story has one or two points of interest, rather like the lonely stations a train stops at to pick up a few impoverished passengers. But trains are an outmoded form of transportation. I recommend the air.

I particularly liked “Fact or Fiction,” “Solaster,” and “A Strange Affair.” What I didn’t like about them were their titles, the way you broke the lines, and your use of language. I have to say your poems look just awful on the page. The language couldn’t be more constipated. I think I understand the monotone effect you seek with the tense, short line, but it seems to me you are corseting yourself into a training bra when you should go to a D cup. Without becoming florid, I think you might loosen the stays a bit, without slackening the overall form. I replied . . . . that’s a lot. I can’t use any of these, but you could submit others. No bull. No guarantees. I print what I like.

All the editors read your story. Most get thrown out after the first paragraph—so the fact that we read your whole story should encourage you despite our rejection. Mainly we think that its length, by bringing on boredom, absolutely shortens interest. Mainly we think your story goes on too long. Our interest just wasn’t sustained through the whole story. Perhaps send shorter pieces, if you are so inclined. Another way of saying this is that our obligation to judge and discern talent is in some proportion to our own abilities and ambitions, for that which we value in ourselves is that which we value in others. Surely we are under greater personal obligation to approve a familiar style rather than a less familiar one, wouldn’t you agree? If a story be infinitely familiar or recognizable, are we not under an obligation to accept that story? We regret, et cetera.

The literary world does not issue invitations. Don’t expect writing to be easy, and don’t think just because you are writing that the work is any good. Don’t make excuses or whine or snivel—nothing is worse than a sniveling poet. Don’t say you haven’t the proper time, that your day falls to pieces, that you have responsibilities. Who doesn’t? Don’t look to teachers and don’t wait for public success. It may never come. What then? Throw away the manuals, the how-to guides, and stop following advice. Classes are fine, but they must end. Friends are well meaning but usually wrong, and editors are caught in an undertow of words. Finally it’s up to you: become a debutante of the senses.

Years ago we published a poem of the same title as your submission. Perhaps it would be instructive for you to read it, since clearly you know next to nothing about poetry. I must confess I find it immoral to encourage so-called “poets” such as you who would be better off doing anything other than writing. It is possible you have a talent buried very deep, too deep to see, but I doubt it. I have seen enough to positively say I regard your poems as a misfortune. Let me speak frankly. I really think that poetry is not your forte. You must be able to do something, but it clearly is not writing poetry. I admire you for trying, which is more than I can do. It is most uncomfortable for me, as you can see, to express anything but sympathy. Nevertheless, I must say you are surely an imperfect person regardless of how sincerely attached you are to poetry.

We have decided to hold “Search for a Voice” for further consideration.

We have no poem called “Search for a Voice” in our files. Please resubmit.

We are not reading manuscripts from August through June. Please resubmit “Search for a Voice” in July.

We are not accepting manuscripts from anyone who has not been previously published.

We are not accepting manuscripts from anyone who has been previously published.

We are not reading or accepting manuscripts.

We are not accepting anything from you.


8 Comments on “The Art of Saying No”

  1. Fabulous! (Some of these could sink a week–but surely also make you laugh?)

    • Max says:

      I do laugh now, laugh and laugh. And think about tacking up my rejections like gum. i love the Gum Wall in Seattle. I’d visit often.

  2. Larry B says:

    My goodness, the vehemence of some of those responses! I have always thought that poets constantly behave as if under attack from any others who would do poetry but are not as yet established.

    “These poems would not disgrace our pages, but then again, they wouldn’t bring us honor. Your stuff has some power, but does it have glory? That is the question.”

    Who was the editor of that one, Pompey Magnus? I feel like s/he wanted you to conquer Gaul, not write a great poem.

    This was really good to read actually. Very helpful. Helpful in a different way than those editors/responders intended, no doubt. It says a lot about your resilience that you saved all of these, I think.

    • Max says:

      I was very young, just out of college and was floored by the responses I was getting. In my cover letter i said this was my first submission and the floodgates opened. I doubt anything like this could happen now. After one rejection I went to bed for a weekend. I didn’t keep the actual rejections but i typed them up. This is a sampling!

  3. Sari says:

    One of the (many) qualities I find disturbing in these rejection notes is how the person writing the rejection is trying to show off his/her cleverness at the expense of the submitting writer. That’s immature and unprofessional.

  4. DT says:

    “Mainly we think that its length, by bringing on boredom, absolutely shortens interest.”

    The paragraph containing this sentence is one of the best examples of (un-self-aware) self-criticism I’ve ever seen!

    Thanks for a great read.

    • Max says:

      I kept the most hilarious rejections from my youth–really. Now I get the garden variety ones that I mention–almost, close, but . . . Not nearly as amusing.

  5. Jennifer says:

    I needed to read this. Thanks for sharing

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