In the early days of receiving rebuffs from editors, agents and publishers, I was taken aback by their similarities. Like a visitor to a foreign planet, I couldn’t distinguish the aliens. Yet, two decades spent in transit between my small world and Planet Rejection has cleansed the doors of my perception, revealing an infinite range of styles. And, in the interests of going there less, or at least easing the ride, I’ve been training myself to read the subtext (most of which remains as obscure as cuneiform) only to find you can make the gaps between clichés mean whatever you want them to mean. Where do the gods of this ringed planet learn how to say no? It stands to reason that most have received rejections themselves, and may still be doing so. Presumably their skill has developed through trial and error + osmosis. In instances, such as major comps, where writers pay a stiff fee to submit, embellishment of the standard thanks-but-no-thanks is politic. These personal touches, while general in scope, are sometimes evocative, e.g.:
‘The depth of this year’s entries was very impressive, and we would like to thank you again for letting us consider your work.’
Does very impressive depth in this case mean ankle-deep? Knee-deep? Waist-deep? (I’m picturing a very small office.)
Customised knock-backs, though, can be even more puzzling. Despite modest circulation, some leading Oz lit journals attract 50–100 or more fiction submissions per fortnight; aspiring contributors over a year far outnumber subscribers. And so perhaps I should feel flattered by the following hand-scrawled lines?
‘It went to all of our readers, many of whom liked it a lot. Unfortunately, in the end, we simply couldn’t find room.’
This gives me retrospective stage fright. How many is ‘many’? My dictionary says ‘a large number’. But if ‘in the end’ means they truly did try to include me (taking two months), it doesn’t imply hope for the future. And if space is always scarce on Planet Rejection, there’s even less time, e.g.:
‘Thank you for submitting “This” and “That” to S-P J. I am sorry it has taken me so long to respond. / While we enjoyed both stories, unfortunately they did not make the final cut for issue # of S-P J. / Note that we had an unprecedented number of very strong submissions for this issue, so the standard for inclusion was very high. / We wish you good luck in placing both stories elsewhere, if you have not done so already. / Again let me apologise about the length of time it has taken to reply regarding your stories. As you can probably appreciate, S-P J is a small-press journal with very limited resources, and the number of submissions is extremely high. I am sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused you.’
This response took 13 months; it came a few months after issue # had been published. Note the wordiness (although, apart from the mention of both stories, the email isn’t personalised). This editor wants to convince the potential subscriber that they care. Not so in the case of the sender of the email below, which arrived weeks after release of the relevant issue, 2 days before Christmas:
‘Thank you for submitting your work to [academic journal] for consideration. / The editors regret that they are unable to use your work in the forthcoming edition. We look forward to reading and receiving work from you in the future. / Best wishes’
It was sent as a reply to my 6-month-old covering email, with ‘Dear contributor’ inserted directly under my name. So it’s no surprise that most journal editors don’t have time to offer advice. And peer crits can mislead because, for obvious reasons, professional editors have rather different needs to struggling writers. Though not all editors are professional. Seeing an ad for an online US mag promising feedback on all submissions, I emailed a story with a twist. To my surprise, I heard back very quickly:
‘Thank you again for your submission to [amateur flash fiction mag]. Regretfully, we’ve decided to decline it for publication. Following are some of the editorial comments for your consideration. Please keep in mind that all opinions are subjective, and although your story was not accepted by us, it may still find a home elsewhere. / EDITOR 1: No. The end seems to be disconnected with the rest. Unless she is the mentally ill person, in which case there needs to be greater clarity. / EDITOR 2: No. The ending is confusing. / EDITOR 3: No. The ending didn’t work for me. / EDITOR 4: No. the entire piece was confusing and the story itself didn’t progress.’
What’s to consider? Cultural differences between Oz and US concepts of mental illness? My story hadn’t confused the peers who’d critiqued it (but perhaps a group which includes actors and uni tutors is unrepresentative). Some professional editors, too, will impart judgements after having reserved work for months in case nothing more fitting shows up. Editorial assistants then translate the bad news, e.g.:
‘The editors have said that your work is very promising and has great potential and that they feel it will get published eventually. However, it is not quite ready for this special issue.’
Why not? This ed. asst (whose story made the final cut!) quoted the editors’ doubts about the ‘voice’ (point of view). Yet that was integral to my story’s meaning. So I sent it unchanged to a journal whose new, less conservative editor used it. And then, as most anthologies consider previously published work if it’s recent, I sent it out again but sans SSAE, not needing news asap of my now vindicated work. However…
‘… I’m sorry to say your story was one of those I was forced, finally, to omit. / I wanted you to know, though, that despite this difficult process of culling, your story made it to my shortlist from hundreds of entries received, and stayed there – only narrowly missing selection – and my final decisions in no way reflected on the quality of the work in this shortlist, but rather a sense of balance and scope for the anthology as a whole. / I wanted to let you know how much I was struck by the calibre of your work, and to urge you to keep submitting this story for publication elsewhere; I’m certain that its quality will be recognised by other judges and editors too, and this story deserves a far wider audience.’
This is halfway heartening despite being a form letter. Its warm tone is atypically free of condescension. But where does one find a ‘far wider audience’ than that of a top anthology? Online? Who takes time to read literary short stories in cyberspace?