I have a different reaction these days when I get a submission rejected from somewhere I have sent it: it still doesn’t feel good, but I take it less seriously than I used to. I’ve come to believe the authority we invest in editors and magazines is way beyond their capacity or competence.
I speak more to my own limitations, and to the difficulty I have personally encountered in starting a literary magazine and dealing with submissions, editing quality work that has rough edges, cultivating new work, doing outreach, corresponding with authors, etc, than to the incompetence of anyone else.
My experience starting a literary and arts-and-culture magazine, The Creosote Journal, has been much slower and more difficult than I expected. I haven’t given up, but I have been humbled by the project and delayed over and over. My collaborators and I are still, almost 2 years in, “starting” rather than “running” the journal, and still figuring out what it is and what it’s going to be.
So my point is not to indict the literary establishment (whatever that means these days) of conservatism (aesthetic or otherwise), or say they’re not open to new voices. Those are valid arguments, but that isn’t the main thing I think about now when I get a rejection letter or email.
Before, I took it as a devastating negation of my work. To have it rejected was to have the whole world give a No to my dream of being a writer, when what I needed was a series of Yeses. I shrugged it off and kept writing, but it seriously discouraged me every time.
Now I take it less seriously. I wonder who read it. And whether they read beyond the first two sentences. It might not have made it to the over-busy editor, and landed in the inbox of an intern or contributor. And if it made it to the over-busy editor, they were probably too stressed and busy to give it a deep reading, too rushed to look over its flaws. And even if these scenarios didn’t come to pass, maybe they simply were deluged with submissions, got what they needed, and needed to reject anything else coming in automatically.
This is good news for any writer. Accept the editors as your fellows, your peers, your potential audience. Don’t put them on a pedestal or take them too seriously. To the extent that they’re gatekeepers to power they have responsibilities that are enormous, and abilities that are extremely limited and constrained by time and resources. This is especially true the more grassroots and small-shop the publisher, but I am sure this is true across the entire profession, from the top to the bottom.
Great work has always been answered with at least some rejection, so while rejection certainly isn’t always a sign of greatness it actually doesn’t automatically mean your work is crap. That’s a harder thing to really feel than to say and know intellectually. But get involved with a literary journal of some kind, or try starting your own, and it brings the point home.
Nobody who auditions the dreams of others can be totally confident of their own judgments. And nobody who has the nerve or compulsion to put their thoughts in writing and share them with the world can afford to keep a thin skin for long. It’s a cliche, but a true one: if a little rejection is enough to discourage you, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
I’m still figuring out what it means to “be a writer” – which was an idea that captivated me as a young person so much that I swore one day I’d be one. It was reading that made me feel that way, reading the work of others that motivated me and stirred me to put my own sensations, emotions, and ideas into words. And it still is.