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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rejecting Rejection

A number of my writer friends have recently been mildly depressed due to having received rejections from literary magazines. I have gotten my fair share of rejections lately too, but it doesn't bother me the way it used to, and here's why.

Some years ago, when I had just begun to send my poems around, I received a rejection letter from a journal sponsored by a university in the midwest. The letter said that because my work had come so close to being accepted by them, they felt that I might benefit from the notes they had made in their consideration of it. Which I thought was very generous of them.

Attached to the letter (with a rusty paperclip) was a business-sized envelope on which notes were written on both sides. It appeared that the envelope had been attached to my poem and circulated among about 8 people prior to (or perhaps in lieu of) a verbal discussion on submissions. Each person wrote 2 or 3 lines and apparently passed it along, signing only their first names, since obviously they worked together and knew one another.

The first comment miffed me since it criticized my line breaks, and if there is one thing I am scrupulous about, it is line breaks. The second comment hit home when it mentioned the lack of imagery. The third thought some wordplay was just a little too precious. Both these comments were dead on, and I knew it immediately when I read them. And indeed, each succeeding comment had something worthwhile to think about.

On the back of the envelope there was this comment: "This is a brilliant poem. We should publish it." And it was signed by an unusual first name. An unusual first name that happened to be shared by a poet who is extremely important to me and whose books are all lined up prominently on my top bookshelf. What kind of coincidence is that, I wondered, such an unsual name. But I knew my beloved poet was teaching elsewhere, so that's what it was: a crazy coincidence.

Days passed, and I continued to be bothered by the line break comment (see, I'm as obsessive as the next guy), so I finally went online to journal's website to look at first names of the staff and see who it was who had written the comment (see, I'm as petty as the next guy). And guess what? It was an MFA grad student who had even fewer publication credits than I did. Furthermore I knew she was wrong, and was probably just trying to impress her colleagues and classmates with her criticism, especially since she was first to comment.

Since I was already online, I decided to look for the person with the unusual name. And guess what? My beloved poet was doing a year as a guest lecturer at this university. It was indeed him.

Nothing could have pleased me more. Needless to say, I still have that envelope. It is more important to me than any acceptance ever could have been. A brilliant poet important to me had loved my poem. And wanted to publish it.

And still it hadn't been published. Why not? Because one of the functions of literary magazines sponsored by universities is to teach grad students (and in some cases undergrads) how to run a magazine, part of which means making editorial decisions. Sometimes good ones, sometimes bad ones. So that is one reason you should not be upset when rejected by a university-sponsored journal. In all likelihood, you are being rejected by students with less experience writing than you have. Which doesn't mean that their judgment is always wrong, or always at odds with more experienced writers', but it could be. You just don't know.

And you have to keep  in mind with all journals what their functions are. Publishing the best writing they can is only one of their goals. They have to stay solvent (or try to get solvent, more likely). If that means publishing a more famous poet than you, when your submissions are of roughly equal quality, then that's what it means. And that's no criticism of the less-well-known writer. It's just a fact of life. So don't feel criticized.

And there's cronyism, nepotism, and all that. If your poem is as good as an editor's old classmate's poem, but there's only space for one, you might lose out. There are so many reasons not to take rejection personally.

But remember, as William Stafford said, "Editors are our friends. They keep us from embarrassing ourselves." And indeed, many times when our work is rejected, it is for our own good. Maybe we sent something out that wasn't ready yet. It's hard to be objective about our own work, so be grateful to editors who reject you. It gives you another chance (and often another and another and another) to evaluate your piece with the objective eye that has had some time and distance apart from work. We've all heard the story of Louise Glück going from bookstore to bookstore trying to buy back all the copies of her earliest (or one of her earliest?) books, having decided post-publication that it was not good enough to put out there in the public eye. If it can happen to Louise Glück, it can happen to anyone.

So don't be bothered by rejection. Or (more realistically), be less bothered than you were by rejection the last time. Just keep on writing, which is really its own reward anyway.


drew said...

This is the best explanation of literary journal rejection I have ever read. Seen from many angles and wonderfully said. Thank you!

Mari said...

This post is so helpful to me, Jessica. I'm fantasizing about the identity of your poem's mysterious champion! And you're right, we can't take rejection personally. It gets easier with time. These days it seems there may not be *enough* editorial gatekeeping as it becomes increasingly easier to publish in an ever proliferating array of online venues...

shawnte said...

That's probably the greatest rejection story ever.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

This post clearly hit a nerve, resulting in a sky-high number of page views. Thanks to those who commented.
Mari, I shall tell you the beloved poet's name in private!