Friday, May 2, 2008

On Rejection

Though there is a whole blog that covers this subject exceedingly well, maybe it's time to bring up rejection over here in our neighborhood, especially after LROD's latest post: the Virginia Quarterly Review thought it would be entertaining to put on their website some comments from readers of rejected submissions. Yep. Just what all of us rejected writers (and what writer has never been rejected?) has always suspected: those literary magazines are laughing at us.

Oh, well. If you're going to do something like write stories and send them to strangers, you have to grow yourself a big ass suit of armor. When I was a kid and realized that I wanted to be a writer, and I read all those how-to books, I thought the wall covered with rejections slips was terribly romantic. I couldn't wait to start working on my wallpaper of failure. Man, I collected so many. So many that I developed a Keno-machine type relationship with my mailbox: surely this time would bring the payoff, if not the jackpot (acceptance) maybe enough of a win to keep me pumping in my nickels (handwritten comment at bottom of rejection).

After I'd sold a story or two, and was still raking in bushel-baskets of rejections, my rejection collection began to make me feel queasy. Somehow, the tiny (very tiny!) bit of success I'd had made rejection harder to take. Before, it had been a game, very much like gambling: nothing to lose! Once I'd published some stories, I lost my bravado. It did matter, now. Collecting rejections ceased to be fun, and I more or less quit sending stories to magazines.

Hey, who am I kidding? I know exactly why rejection got harder. Before, when I was unpublished, all those anonymous editors who didn't like my stuff were just idiots, just didn't recognize my wonderfulness. Once one or two of them liked me, I had to stop thinking they were all idiots, didn't I?

Anyway, you can see where this is going. The rejection/acceptance tension is what makes writing such a thrilling career, but also an awful, nauseating one. You put your best self, your most true and honest stuff, out there for people to pick over, pick apart, and, for the most part, toss aside. If you'd crocheted yourself a butt-ugly hat, you wouldn't get snarky editors somewhere saying about it: "barf-o." Writing -- fiction, or freelance -- is just a weird job. (Though visual artists tell me that they have it much worse: they have to stand there in their best clothes at the gallery opening and listen to this stuff in person.)

And here's something else: if you're really successful at emotionally disengaging from rejection, you might suddenly find that you're disengaged from acceptance, too. That's probably the best place to be, just focussed on the work, and not caring so much about its worldly status.

But if you're a writer, and not just a diarist, you want to connect. It does matter if you publish or not. You have to let it matter enough, but not too much. Some of us are better at this balancing act than others.

41 comments:

Anonymous said...

Though I don't think it was a good idea for VQR to post that, I must say a little something on the matter: I too have read for a literary magazine and an oppressive majority of what I read was absolute crap. As a writer, I sifted through it all with this fear nibbling away at my soul: what if my stuff is this bad and I just don't know it? After all, each and every one of these authors thinks that his or her story is good enough to at least stand a chance. Of course I made ruthless fun of the terrible stories that I read, but it was a defense mechanism; I had to reassure myself that my stories weren't that awful.

rmellis said...

I too have read for journals, and yes, most submissions are god-awful. But real human beings with real souls wait behind the submissions, and a certain amount of respect is called for.

What we might say in our little office is one thing, but publishing the comments for the amusement of others is wrong.

jrlennon said...

We've read for litmags, too, and had our own for a little while--and of course most submissions are terrible! But the idea of publishing snarky comments like this smacks of the worst kind of indie-lit insiderism. They're publicly insulting writers--specifically, writers who quite possibly actually read their magazine!

This is the kind of thing you post on the wall of the editorial office for the amusement of the rank & file, not on your website for the world to see. Those writers sent in their stuff in good faith, with the expectation that they would be judged soberly and fairly. And it's a shame the VQR feels the need to ruin this illusion.

jrlennon said...

Ha! Cross posted with Rhian...

rmellis said...

Hey, cross-posting across house!

jrlennon said...

OK, we cross-posted AGAIN, but this time Rhian is standing behind me to insure that it doesn't happen a third time...

zoe said...

What do you think to the notion of sending individual chapters from a novel out to magazines rather than (or possibly as well as) sending a whole book proposal out to agents or publishers? I've recently been given that advice by a very successful writer and am not sure if I want to send the book out piece-meal.

Do you think that makes possible rejections even worse?

Anonymous said...

Of course, I agree that it was wrong for VQR to post the comments. I was simply talking about the people who made those comments, that they're not inhumanly cruel -- the fact that the comments were made public is the cruel part.

rmellis said...

I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea; JRL has published lots of excerpts and I think book publishers like that someone else has seen fit to publish parts of the book. But if you're afraid that subjecting a newborn book to rejection will taint it, in your mind anyway, you might want to hold back (certain comments about excerpts have torpedoed whole novels of mine).

Puc said...

In Jack London's semi-autobiographical novel "Martin Eden," Martin, a dock worker who decides to try writing, keeps getting rejections. He doesn't understand why until someone tells him that he should type his manuscripts, that no one reads handwritten manuscripts. He starts to type them and eventually becomes a successful writer. Editors have rules; the question is, what are those rules? And why are they not more transparent? This issue is a greater concern where reading fees are involved. Writers may have unrealistic expectations. How many journals and magazines operate on a "no unsolicited" basis? But they may be hesitant to say that because they would then have to let most of their readers go - and, of course, if they are charging a reading fee, let go of profits also (see Narrative mag.). The VQR post was of course simply snobbery, but we need mags like VQR. The disconnect is in their editors not understanding, or not demonstrating, that the writer's experience always contains seeds of validity, even if handwritten - the expression of the experience may be trite, wornout, false, whatever, but who in this sad world wants to cast the first stone at a would be writer? And why? Why would you do that? The only answer is snobbery. VQR should devote a section of an issue to the issue of their editorial process (i.e. where do the manuscripts actually come from, and how do they get there?)thereby doing their readers and editors a service. They may think this is beneath their mission; and it is - it's in fact the unseen driver of the mission.

Writer Reading said...

The litmags need to development a "manuscript assessment form" that is merely a quick checklist with number scales and a final grade. Hey, I could create one and sell it to them, only I know they wouldn't want to pay me because I'm a writer. I just wrote a post "Virginia Quarterly is Going to Hell" I love PUC's comment and that exact issue would be addressed with a checklist. Plot=10 Typing=0.

Waldo Jaquith said...

You're certainly not the only writer to say that, Rhian. I’m coming from the publishing perspective, not the writers' perspective. So I look at our readers' comments and think “wow, God bless 'em...they’ve got a tough row to hoe,” especially given that the submissions that they're responding to in this instance are so stunningly inappropriate for VQR and, in some cases, simply unpublishable. That's just going to happen when receiving over 10,000 submissions each year. My goal wasn't to make writers look foolish but, rather, show readers at their most beleaguered.

Though the sort of authors who are reading lit blogs are not the sort of authors writing this sort of stuff, and though I provided that disclaimer, inevitably (in retrospect) I tapped into some sort of primal author fear that those readers were talking about their writing.

(Tellingly, the bloggers who also come from a publishing background all think the blog entry is just great, the sort of transparency that should be more widely available. I assume that none of them are any more understanding of what it's like to be a writer than I am. Hell, I'm a programmer.)

What you omit from your blog entry here, though, was that the blog entry in question was part one of a two-part series, and the second one will surely make some writers feel all warm and fuzzy inside: it's a listing of some of the most glowing, excited reviews that have been by our readers. I'm curious what y'all make of that — does it compound the error, or redeem it?

jrlennon said...

I think it compounds the error, personally. The emotional rollercoaster that is the editorial process is not, in my view, good subject matter for your site. It may well amuse and delight people in the publishing industry, but does the world need another publishing industry blog? It's navel-gazing however you slice it. Who on earth cares what your editorial readers' comments are, good or bad? Like I said in my previous comment, it's insiderism. It's graduate students winking and elbowing each other. Nobody gives a crap about your readers' beleagueredness. I've been there, and trust me, writing a story is a thousand times harder.

And I think you're very wrong that those writers don't read literary blogs. They do. And they may not suck forever. And even if they do, their efforts to write are legitimate and worthy of your public respect. You can roll your eyes all you want in your office, but that post is a mockery of writers. Of all writers.

That's the ultimate point, I think--it doesn't matter whether those particular writers are reading the blog or not. The post is an insult to ALL writers. Because, in one way or another, we have all been those writers. Even those of us who have read for litmags and found some howlingly bad stories and poems.

I don't mean to overstate my case here. But think about it. Your would-be contributors are laying it on the line. What they write is important to them, and they are taking a personal risk sending it to you. Meanwhile, your staff doesn't have to sacrifice a single iota of confidence or self-regard in reading that writing. All they have to do is decide whether or not they like it. I think the writers of the world deserve the courtesy of their doing so silently.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

Bravo, JR. I agree with everything you wrote. Well said. And Waldo, the second part of the piece is just going to come off now as paternalistic and condescending. Let's just throw these pathetic writers a bone now. This was a very serious miscalculation that reflects poorly on your journal's judgment regarding what's publishable in the first place. This should never have been published. Rejection for sure.

Anonymous said...

although i do think it was really uncool of vqr to post that in the first place, i think you're really overreacting there, jrl. writers should know the editorial process, and a little dose of reality is not nearly as traumatic as you're making it out to be. still, vqr should not have done it.

Monketah said...

Who's deciding the VQR's content? Editors or programmers?

Waldo Jaquith said...

What's interesting is that we've been continually making our submission process more transparent, to praise every step of the way, but now I'm suspecting that people may not actually like the transparency that they clamor for. We've routinely provided quite detailed statistics about precisely how many submissions we received, how long it takes for us to respond, the percentage that are accepted, the percentage that are totally inappropriate for us, etc. And that's just a small bit of what we'd intended to provide. Soon, regularly updated graphs of our submission rates, declination e-mail stats, backlog calculation, wait-time estimation for responses, etc.

But, based on the comments here, I have to assume that would all be bad. It's certainly "navel-gazing" and "insiderism." And if "nobody gives a crap about your readers' beleagueredness," then there's a few more stats that "nobody" wants. Don't we "ruin the illusion" that people have a decent chance of having their work accepted by providing the statistic that, in fact, only 0.7% of the work submitted to us is going to be accepted?

VQR should devote a section of an issue to the issue of their editorial process (i.e. where do the manuscripts actually come from, and how do they get there?) thereby doing their readers and editors a service.

Actually, we've written quite a bit about that. Ironically, that's also "navel-gazing" and "insiderism." Obviously, I can't expect a dozen people commenting on a single blog to speak with one voice (heck, y'all disagree on whether there's anything wrong with posting these comments), but I hope you can appreciate that this presents a pretty tough line to walk.

My conclusion is that every other publication in creation is onto something in their steadfast refusal to provide any substantive information about how their editorial process functions. To provide a glimpse into those mechanics seems to invite certain anger from some constituency of authors.

As an open source software developer and open government activist, my assumption has been that more information is inherently better. Here I see why it's easiest to clam up; not everybody agrees on what should be "open." After all, here I am, working on a Saturday night at 11pm, a day and a half into an extended heartburn session. Seems to me it's probably best not to head down this road any farther.

zoe said...

As a beginning writer, I think that the transparency of how long it takes for things to be read, how many pieces are accepted, who does the reading etc. etc. are a good thing. I don't think that is insidery, but rather gives a writer an idea of the reality of the situation.

I can fully understand why readers make these comments. Teachers do the same thing at times. It's a way of keeping sane when you are often looking at dire writing. However, I'd never share that with the kids I teach. The other side of the coin is that we give kids examples of good writing and share the kind of helpful constructive comments that might help them improve. But the pretty vague, feel good stuff that you posted really just serves to make the magazine feel a bit better about their dark side comment-wise. It isn't of any intrinsic value. I agree, there is a great deal of dreadful writing out there. But the best way to deal with it is to keep pushing the submission guidelines - not making a tit of some of the writers on your website.

jrlennon said...

I think Zoe has come up with pretty much the "correct" answer. Be upfront about your submission guidelines, and don't mock your writers. Personally, I don't think it's beneficial to anyone to tell readers and contributors who is doing the reading, or what percentage of submissions are accepted, but there's nothing wrong with sharing those things, either.

Waldo, what it comes down to is that you are underestimating the degree to which even the very best writers identify with the terrible writers you're making fun of. We are all those writers, no matter how successful we become.

jrlennon said...

And anonymous, I am not talking about "trauma." We scribblers can take it. I'm talking about common decency.

jrlennon said...

And one last thing. More information is inherently better? What? As a Linux user and inveterate tinkerer, I applaud the basic philosophy, but literature isn't an NES hack. It's emotional. It's more akin to an "open-source marriage," in which people would get to say to one another all day long, "Sayyyy, your boobs are looking very saggy this morning," or "Was your penis always this small?"

zoe said...

True, somteimes it's better to preserve the magic. Both in marriage and writing.

Waldo Jaquith said...

It's more akin to an "open-source marriage," in which people would get to say to one another all day long, "Sayyyy, your boobs are looking very saggy this morning," or "Was your penis always this small?"

I follow your metaphor, and it helps inform me how you feel. But to illustrate the gap in my own understanding, it strikes me more like a wife being offended because another man who is not her husband declared that there exist wives whose appearance is not ideal.

I think the difference here is one of abstraction. From my perspective, abstraction makes all of the difference. But from the perspective of some writers (I think), it doesn't matter a) that their own work isn't being discussed or b) that they've actually never submitted anything to VQR, because it taps into a sort of a fundamental sense of camaraderie and the ongoing dread of rejection that surely accompanies the submission process.

This isn't something that I describe for the purpose of disagreement, but for illustration of our different perspectives. The trick for me, of course, is to learn y'all's perspective. I can have whatever perspective that I want, but if it pisses off writers unnecessarily, it's not doing VQR any good.

FWIW, this weekend I've been toying with the idea of submitting some work to lit mags. Not because I harbor any suspicion that I'm capable of producing anything that will be published, but because it's the lone -- and glaring -- omission from my knowledge and experience in the publishing process. (I spent a year as a contributing editor to a political industry publication, but I knew that my monthly columns weren't subject to rejection.) That would be a bit of adventure, I suspect.

James said...

"Waldo, what it comes down to is that you are underestimating the degree to which even the very best writers identify with the terrible writers you're making fun of. We are all those writers, no matter how successful we become."

This is very true, however, as a writer currently serving my time at an MFA program, I often times hate how thin-skinned writers are. Seriously. I've read for two lit mags and a majority of the submissions are terrible. Listen, if you're sending a story based around the Planet of the Apes to VQR then you clearly aren't an avid reader of VQR. Odds are most people who submit to lit mags don't even have the decency to read/subscribe to the same lit mags. They're obsessed with publishing and that's that. So do I feel sorry for them? Hell no. I honestly thought the piece was hilarious. Bottom line, we're all trying to write for a living. Writers need to stop acting like they want to be handled with kid gloves. Do you understand that we're striving for a lifestyle that's simply not available to a majority of hardworking, blue-collar Americans? Although I love writing, I honestly hate dealing with a majority of "writers". Blah, blah, somebody wrote something that hurt my feelings. Grow up! Do you think I can whine about such things to my father who came to this country barely speaking the language, busting his ass to make ends meet, working back breaking labor 55 hours a week for most of his life? He would punch me dead in my face. And I'd deserve it.

jrlennon said...

James, like I said in response to anonymous, I am not making a pitch here for the fragility of writers. And I don't appreciate having the working class throw in my face, as if I've never busted my ass before. Do you actually think I'm arguing that writing is harder than coal mining? I've done roofing, I've been a janitor, I've laid flooring, and one of the reasons I became a teacher is so that I never have to do that crap again. Writing is hard, but it's fun hard.

What Waldo seems to want to know is how that post comes off to writers, and I'm telling him. It comes off shittily.

Flannery O'Connor said...

re: "Planet of the Apes fan-fiction!"

Writers like that must be stifled with deliberate speed.

[But seriously, the point James makes is correct: most terrible submissions journals get are from people who clearly have never read the journal, and if it's a matter of respect we're talking about here, then that shows a great lack of it on the part of the writers.]

James said...

"James, like I said in response to anonymous, I am not making a pitch here for the fragility of writers.

What Waldo seems to want to know is how that post comes off to writers, and I'm telling him. It comes off shittily."

I'm not pointing a finger at you specifically JRL. And I wasn't trying to throw "working class" in your face.

You're arguing two points that aren't mutually exclusive. You say you're not arguing for the fragility of writers yet you say you're telling him how the post is coming off to writers -- shittily. What I'm saying is, it's not shitty in my opinion and I think that those who are taking it so hard need to remember that, like you said, writing is hard but it's fun hard, it could be a lot worse. That's my point.

Writer Reading said...

Waldo: As a programmer you must be able to appreciate the distinction between offering objective statistics versus subjective nasty comments. To risk a cliche: don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. And seriously, think about just giving all those crappy manuscripts a zero and leave it at that. The readers can yuck it up meanly with their own poorly written comments on their lunch hour.

Warren Adler said...

If a literary magazine rejects a cold submission, the chances are that the editors are making their choices from coteries of sycophants and favorites that are part of their backslapping clique. Flush your rejections down the toilet. Above all do not let the bastards beat you down. I have survived five decades of rejections and most of the rejectors are now either drunks, dead, or in real estate.

Waldo Jaquith said...

What Waldo seems to want to know is how that post comes off to writers, and I'm telling him. It comes off shittily.

You are correct, that is what I want to know, and I appreciate your frankness. As I appreciate Ward Six hosting this discussion. This is the kind of exchange that could be considerably less constructive on a great many other lit blogs.

You're arguing two points that aren't mutually exclusive. You say you're not arguing for the fragility of writers yet you say you're telling him how the post is coming off to writers -- shittily.

I'm glad that you mentioned that, James, because I've been puzzled by that same dichotomy. I can only conclude that writers must have one heck of a fraternity between them. Only a single author who has ever submitted to VQR (of whom I know) has expressed concern. Everybody else appears to be concerned on behalf of hypothetical aggrieved parties. I don't say that to belittle the concern but, rather, to highlight how unusual and even impressive it is that some writers feel it's so important to look out for the interests of their fellow writers.

As a programmer you must be able to appreciate the distinction between offering objective statistics versus subjective nasty comments.

Well, I'd say that the difference is between statistics and a sample, but I take your meaning. That may be an optimistic viewpoint, though my perspective at the moment is admittedly a tad pessimistic. I'm truly concerned that some statistics will leave writers angry. How would you feel if you knew that the average declined submission required just 18.5 days for consideration, and you heard back in 2? Though I'd hope most writers will appreciate the efficiency of that response, I worry that some will simply be angry, assuming either that their work didn't receive a proper read or that we disliked it utterly.

I have survived five decades of rejections and most of the rejectors are now either drunks, dead, or in real estate.

Sweet Lord, that's funny. I'm definitely stealing that. Though I must remember never to utter it in front of any real estate agents. (Or, if I take any lesson here, friends of real estate agents. ;)

martin said...

Since when is writing a "career"? That seems out of date to me.

Anonymous said...

You were just linked on LROD and I agree with the commentator there: this is a great post. And I agree with you that they're insulting writers, they're insulting the whole process, and especially when you peek behind the scenes and discover that most VQR material is agented or solicited. This is sick. They are a really ugly bunch, that's for sure.

And this is the prime example for why I take the LROD advice about these literary journals: do not support them, ever. Do not buy them. Make your voice heard where it counts: their advertisers (or in the case of VQR), the school itself. Make their actions accountable. Make U of Virginia know that VQR under Genoways is a liability, not a promotion tool.

Then when you do this (it doesn't take much time to make a phone call or write a letter), you'll be having a positive effect.

Anonymous said...

I will defend VQR. I think the substance of the comments shows that they are not dissing stories and poems that are merely not good enough for the journal. They are laughing at the egregiously bad submissions. This reminds me of the kind of compilations you might find from a computer help desk ("Which one is the 'any' key?") or a similar "insider" group that has to deal with the whole great big world, a world with both idiots and geniuses.

Was it politically wise for VQR to do this? Probably not. But it gave me a giggle.

Anonymous said...

"They are laughing at the egregiously bad submissions. This reminds me of the kind of compilations you might find from a computer help desk ("Which one is the 'any' key?") or a similar "insider" group that has to deal with the whole great big world, a world with both idiots and geniuses."

No, anonymous VQR defender, this is wrong.

They are laughing at the idiots, right? Well they took the time to write these comments, and by Waldo Jaquith's own admission, they sent "nicer" versions of these comments to the people who sent in the submissions.

I am a published author. I have two "serious" books out, innumerable essays and articles, am generally well reviewed. I have never appeared in VQR but I have sent them a half-dozen serious poems and two stories. What did I get from them?

Form letters.

I never received any comment on my work. And yet ... their readers have the time to make smarmy, better-than-thou comments like these, just for their own amusement?

Out of principle, I will never submit to VQR again, and I will never support them. I'm also taking the suggestion to write to the dean; they ought to know what's going on.

And I will say this: if Waldo Jaquith is just the tech guy, why is he the one defending VQR in the blogs, and speaking for VQR's editorial decisions? Where the hell is Ted Genoways?

Anonymous said...

"I have never appeared in VQR but I have sent them a half-dozen serious poems and two stories. What did I get from them?

Form letters.

I never received any comment on my work."

My writing accomplishments are far smaller than yours, and perhaps I am more used to receiving form letters. Actually, not even form letters, but form fragments of a letter. Form small scraps of paper. Form smallest-amalgamation-possible-of-paper-molecules that is capable of transmitting the legible word "Rejected."

I am not sure that as writers we have a right to expect critiques from publications we submit to. At best, I am happy if I receive a fair reading and a prompt response. Do we even get that from all mags? Obviously not. Still, I am far less miffed by VQR's posting of its snarky insiders' petty little jokes than I am by the attitude characterized on the companion post to this one, the one that says "I'll demand exclusive submission and sit on your manuscript as long as I want."

max said...

Warren Adler's comment is refreshing -- the truth always is. When a Nobody speaks the truth, nobody pays attention (he's just a whiner). But Adler's on the inside track in the publishing world. So it should carry some weight when he writes that magazines select the stories they publish from "coteries of sycophants and favorites that are part of their backslapping clique."
Kinda sounds like the corporate world, or politics.
It also goes counter to what jrl wrote, that literature "assumes that all people, regardless of class, race or socioeconomic staus, are of value."
Maybe he should replace "assumes" with "professes." Because, if you're not in the country club, you don't get your work published.
As for me, I'd have been fired from my busboy job long ago.

Anonymous said...

You made a mistake in exchanging links with LROD. You may find yourself Maxed out with malcontents (like me).
I agree with what he has to say, though he's clearly getting the cold shoulder.
Look at the bright side, Establishment. If literature mattered -- really, really mattered to the masses -- you'd find yourself and your ilk being led to the guillotine.

rmellis said...

Max, two things: one, literature is NOT the same thing as the literary establishment. So when JR says "literature assumes all people of value" he doesn't mean editors do. Some do, some don't.

Second, if there is a country club, it isn't one that actively keeps people out because of who they are. Anyone can get in with perseverence and good writing. Some get in on good looks or connections or whatever, but others depend on their work and their ability to keep hammering at the door.

To quote William Stafford, "The literary world is a community in that one interchanges with others naturally and becomes an insider, not by deals and stealth, but by a natural engagement with the ongoing work of other writers, editors, and publishers."

I would add "bloggers" to that list...

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