“The poet knows that he is a genius; and the editor still hopes to discover that he is in each manuscript examined. The editor has a hundred sorrows for the poet’s one. The poet may swear at the editor, and rather adds to his [in]dignity in doing so; but the editor, in addressing the poet, has to assume the polite demeanor of the dancing master.”
– Alice Corbin Henderson, “The Rejection Slip“
Rejections, we all get them. We know how disheartening and frustrating they can be — not only for the person who receives them, but also for the person who must deal them out. I believe this is especially true of writers and editors. Because writing is so filtered by and infused with the writer’s subjectivity, the rejection of a literary “baby” may seem like a personal affront. But editors don’t seek to put writers down. They’re not thrilled by the prospect of returning manuscripts with letters of regret. If anything, they find themselves in the world of publishing and become editors because they believe in talent, intelligence, and creativity and the works these qualities give rise to, because they wish to discover, encourage, and provide avenues for promising writers. Often, they must turn works away, but they are always careful with rejection, having experienced it many times themselves.
Though we know that rejection is an inevitable part of life, and criticism, sometimes brutal, is part of the writing process — as anybody who’s participated in a writing workshop will tell you — the knowing doesn’t make the experiencing any less painful. But there’s always something beyond rejection and criticism — as successful authors who had been repeatedly rejected realized — and it is the task of any aspiring writer to get to this “beyond” and turn what seems to be a disappointment into an opportunity to prove one’s mettle and hone one’s craft. After all, there is more to being an artist than coming up with a well-wrought work — there is life to live, circumstances to change, love to find, bills to pay, poetics to form, and yes, cultural gatekeepers, critics, and general apathy to face. As Chuck Wendig says in “25 Things Every Writer Should Know,” the writing life is a tough one, so harden the fuck up. Learn to make friends with rejection, or at least try not to be like that psycho ex after a bad breakup. Write an angsty poem or draw something morbid, cry a bit, and move on. Better yet, start working on that new piece or revision.
I work for such a “cultural gatekeeper.” Though I may have my reservations about some of the books we’ve come out with, I must say that we have been striving to raise the bar for our publications. This means that we can’t publish every single manuscript submitted to us — and we receive many. This doesn’t mean, however, that we treat these submissions lightly, even contemptuously. We’re not SlushPile Hell. On the contrary, we recognize the effort, time, and love invested in these works, and the good faith with which writers send them to us. Despite our limited resources and small number of staff, we read each manuscript with the respect it deserves and carefully consider its potential for further review or publication. But oftentimes, we find that we must reject a work. I think it would be great — at least helpful — if we could write an exhaustive evaluation of the work we’re turning away, but this is just not possible with our current capacity, especially now that we’re preoccupied with the university’s 400 Books Project. All we can do is recommend a different publisher, if possible, or send a letter of regret — but not of discouragement — to the writer in question and hope that he would accept it with grace and determination to progress in his craft.