I'm back at the computer after a solid week and a half of work judging a fiction contest. It's great to be able to give people the good news that they have won something (though in this case it won't be me doing that). But as always when I do this kind of thing I think a lot about the people who will come away empty-handed. We have all been those people, of course--we are those people every day. Any serious writer learns quickly to accept rejection, and stops taking it personally. But it certainly helps to be rejected respectfully, and you'd be surprised how few times this has happened to me.
I'm not talking about litmag rejections, which are, by their very nature, rather impersonal--I'm talking about rejections by people you know and have worked with--people with whom you have developed a professional relationship. It's a mistake to assume these people will publish you just because they like you and you like them, and the best relationships contain a strong element of critical give-and-take. But I think it's reasonable to expect to be turned down bravely, directly, and straightforwardly.
Of the book editors I've worked with, only one cut me loose like a pro--he called and apologized for not being able to accept the book (that book was Mailman, and it was the marketing department who said no--presciently, it turned out!), and I still respect him for it. One editor at a national magazine whom I have worked with has occasion to reject me now and then, and always does so gracefully, in a way that makes me like her all the more. Another favorite magazine editor, now at a book publisher, always used to bypass my agent, emailing me directly with his reasons for not saying yes.
But when I'm in a foul mood, I still gnash my teeth over the shitty dumpings of my literary life. Most of them consist of long relationships terminated through a proxy, with nary an email of explanation and no further contact after. There was one contact who spent an entire day talking me into not dumping her, only to send an email dumping me first thing the next morning. And there are editors who ran me through several rounds of on-spec revising before deciding the work was not for them. One editor called me a creep and a hanger-on for wanting an answer on the book I'd sent him, exclusively, nine months before.
I understand where these people were coming from--nobody likes saying no, especially to a friend. But I don't think most people realize that it actually feels good to be rejected like a pro--not as good as getting accepted, of course, but pretty good nonetheless. "I take you seriously," these rejections are saying. "Which is why I want better things from you." A good rejection flatters the writer's sense of himself--it is a validation of his ambition.
Of course it isn't easy being a literary gatekeeper, especially in this publishing climate. And most editors have to do a lot of rejecting, often of things they really like and wish they could publish. But a word of advice: treat the talent with care. We are easily wounded.