"Rejection": A collage by Chris Blanc.

Crossing the Rubicon: Replying to a Rejection from a Literary Journal

Caesar-crossing-the-rubiconToday I did the unthinkable.

In the literary world, what I did is tantamount to crossing the Rubicon. It’s something that, in 20 years of submitting my work to literary journals, I have never done before:

I replied to a rejection letter.

Actually, I replied to a rejection email (times have changed), but the substance of the transaction was the same: instead of shrugging off the rejection as I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of times before, this time I decided, “Hell, they’re rejecting my work anyway, so I might as well point out their disrespectful behavior.”

How is this crossing the Rubicon, you ask? Well, everything I’ve read about the writer–publication relationship has been explicit: Never send an angry or contentious reply to editors, because it only makes you, the writer, look bad. The other problem is, I don’t know if the editors of these literary journals talk with each other, and whether I might be blacklisted because of my action:

"Rejection": A collage by Chris Blanc.

“Rejection”: A collage by Chris Blanc.

“Oh, here’s a submission from that Chris Orcutt. I’ve heard about him—he’s that troublemaker, that writer who sends nasty replies to rejections. We don’t need to read this. Send him a form slip.”

Let me give you some backstory here. The rejection email went to an account that I set up solely for story submissions, and I hadn’t checked the account in a while. And the reason I hadn’t checked it is this: I had stopped submitting stories—probably a year ago—because (I’ll admit it, I’m human) I got tired of being rejected.

Over the past three years, I wrote 39 stories and made over 250 submissions, all without a single acceptance. Anywhere.

Interestingly, these are some of the same stories that readers of The Man, The Myth, The Legend are now calling “brilliant,” “deliciously cheeky and ironic,” and “beautiful use of our language.”

But back to my submissions over the past three years.

During that time, because of the quality of the stories I was submitting, I did manage to establish a correspondence with major magazine editors—including the accomplished, venerable and gracious C. Michael Curtis at The Atlantic—and all of them, even though they were rejecting my work, always treated me with respect.

Perhaps the most famous New Yorker cover of all time.

Perhaps the most famous New Yorker cover of all time.

The AtlanticThe New YorkerHarper’sThe Missouri Review, Mid-American Review—they’re class acts, every one of them.

I can’t say the same of the literary journal I replied to this morning. I won’t mention it by name, but I will say that it used to be considered a prestigious fiction journal, and it still publishes quite a few name authors.

So why did I reply to this particular rejection, when I’ve never done it before? Read it for yourself, and I think my reasons will be obvious:

 

 

Dear Contributor:

Thank you very much for submitting your work. After careful consideration, the editors were not able to accept it for publication.

We would like to offer personalized letters or feedback but limitations of time and staff have made that impossible at the present. We wish you the best of luck in finding a journal to publish your writing. The editorial staff, including the editor-in-chief, ******* *******, welcomes critical response to past issues of the magazine if you wish to include any in future submissions or letters. If you identify yourself as a writer who submitted to ********, you may order back issues at a fifty percent discount.

With best regards,

The Editors

 

I’ll admit that their insultingly generic salutation of “Dear Contributor” irked me. Not to mention their dubious “careful consideration” of my work. They gave me no indication that my story had been read at all. In fact, every indication is that mine was one of dozens or hundreds of others summarily rejected because the Editors were buried in manuscripts.

And then they had the temerity to intimate that I might actually want to buy something from them? Please.

But what really bothered me—the thing that made me have to reply to them—was the ridiculous length of time that had passed between my sending them the story in question and their rejecting it. (NOTE: In the literary world, a few months is considered an acceptable length of time to wait for a reply.)

 

Dear “The Editors”:

According to my records, the last story I submitted to you was “The Last Great White Hunter,” and that was on October 1 of last year. Fourteen months ago.

After a YEAR and two months before you could respond to my submission, not only did I completely forget that I submitted anything to you, but I stopped caring. I won’t be submitting anything to you again.

Another point: In the future, if a writer takes the time to send you a well-written story, if that writer shows respect for you and your time by not sending you something that is clearly amateur (e.g., mistakes in grammar and punctuation), if that writer is clearly a professional, then that writer at least deserves a personal response. This is something that the major magazines including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s have done for me and other good writers, so why can’t you? Reserve your “Dear Contributor” salutation for the so-called writers who treat this endeavor as another lottery.

Please do not bother to reply to this email. I wouldn’t want to wait another YEAR and two months before someone responded.

On a personal note, I do wish the Editors and all of the staff at ******** a happy holiday season and a New Year of health and prosperity.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Chris Orcutt

 

Once I had written my reply, I sat in my chair with my finger poised over the mouse, and the cursor over the Send button. What I felt was a faint taste of what Caesar probably felt when he stood on the bank of the Rubicon, debating whether to defy the Roman Senate by crossing that insignificant little stream.

Caesar’s crossing committed him to a future course of action, and my pressing the Send button would not only eliminate this particular literary journal as an option for future publication, but possibly many others. Over 20 years of submissions, I had established a reputation (albeit modest) as a writer of professional-quality work, a writer who had taken rejection in stride, and here I was, about to potentially undo all of that with a single email.

I thought about this for several minutes, and then I gradually realized something: I don’t need them anymore. They aren’t the only game in town now. Although publication in them would be nice, I don’t need them to reach readers the way I used to. If  literary journals won’t publish my stories in the future, it doesn’t matter; I can publish them myself in ebook format, reach more readers, and make more money on them than I ever could by being published in an obscure, incestual† literary journal that the general reading public doesn’t read anyway.

†See my comment below regarding my use of the non-word “incestual.”

 

Rottenecards_44747360_r669nrr654

 

Caesar is said to have quoted a line from a play as he crossed the Rubicon, saying, “Alea iacta est! Let the die be cast!” Just before I hit the Send button on my email, I said aloud one of my own favorite lines about commitment—spoken by King Claudius in my favorite Shakespeare play, Hamlet:

“Do it, England.”

And with a click and an audible whoosh, my message went out.

Do I regret doing it? No. The literary journal in question is only one of many that engage in this kind of disrespectful behavior towards good writers. They forget that they are utterly dependent on writers for their content.

No content, no journal. Period.

I plan to continue to send stories to the above-mentioned better magazines, and, publication or no, I’m hoping they’ll continue to read and be respectful of my work.

And speaking of work, it’s time for me to get back to it.

 

Postscript: A few days after I made this post, my short story collection The Man, The Myth, The Legend was voted one of the Best Indie Books of 2013. What makes this particularly gratifying is that 9 of the 10 stories in the collection were among the 39 that literary journals had rejected over the past three years.

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By Chris Orcutt

Writer — The Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, Short fiction, Plays — Editor & Speechwriter for Hire — Avid Golfer, Chess Player & Awesome Wood-Splitter — Twitter: @chrisorcutt

Comments (19)

  1. Pingback: Things Other People Posted | Cuisine of Loneliness

  2. Pingback: Chris Orcutt: The Man Has Guts (as Well as Glory) Part I | Nanotwit

  3. Wendy Breuer December 19, 2013 at 12:21 am

    Perhaps editors don’t have the time to respond to each submitting writer. However, I think that after nine or ten months, it is not out of line to send a query to the editor, especially to a journal that still abjures simultaneous subs. It is disrespectful to submitters to fail to respond to such inquiries re: “yes,” “no,” or “maybe,” let alone send personal or form rejections. I once received an effusive note from the editor of such a journal, thanking me for my subscription to the publication; subsequently, I submitted work and heard not one word in 18 months despite a query. This seemed a combination of elitism, discourtesy and plain organizational dysfunction. I did not renew.

    • Chris Orcutt December 19, 2013 at 1:28 am

      Thanks for your comments, Wendy. Please excuse any mistakes I might make here, or if my reply isn’t very engaging; it’s been a long day.

      I agree with your idea of contacting the journals if you haven’t heard from them in several months, and in the past, for certain journals and certain submissions, I’ve done that. The good ones usually reply immediately with a status update, and the bad ones often don’t reply at all.

      I’m sorry you had the experience you did with the journal you submitted to and subscribed to, but I think there’s a lesson in your experience for you and all of us writers, and that’s to not submit to, or support, those journals ever again. We all need to be more selective about the journals we submit our work to.

      Many of us have believed that the world of literary journals is like the tier system in professional baseball (i.e., A clubs, AA clubs, AAA clubs, the Majors), and if a writer got herself published in an A-level journal, when she submitted to an AA-level journal they’d give her work more consideration because of the prior publication. But I don’t think this is the case.

      I think that, provided we’re writing and submitting professional-quality writing, we’re better off submitting our work to only the best journals, and accepting that that work will most likely be rejected. Rejection is rejection, whether it’s a top-tier magazine or an obscure journal, so if we’re going to be rejected, it might as well be while we shoot for the moon.

      Again, Wendy, thank you for your comments, and I hope you have a great holiday.

      —Chris

  4. Mather Schneider December 18, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    I agree with you for the most part except that you think the rejections from the New Yorker, etc. are better than the one you received. Also just because they say they’ve read your story with care does not really mean they did. Finally, your reply to them was hardly scathing.

  5. Hillary Leftwich December 18, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Hi Chris. I applaud you on your response to this literary magazine. It took a lot of guts. I was wondering when you said “if that writer is clearly a professional, then that writer at least deserves a personal response,” do you feel it is more about the magazine biting off more than it can chew rather than it having to do with you being a professional writer? I have been submitting for 18 years (back when you had to mail things in as well) and have come to accept standard, generic rejection. The times when I do get a personalized response is like winning the lottery, it feels special.

    My issue is that there are many literary mags out there which will say they are focused on “emerging new writers” or “unpublished,” but truth be told, I see a great deal of already established and with many prestigious publications under their belts being published in these exact same magazines. Your frustration seems to lie with being blown off in a generic, robotic fashion because you are established, whereas my frustration lies with already established writers being accepted in magazines that are meant for writers in my scenario. Do you think either one will change, or is it just a matter of number of submissions outweighs staff and the problem will never be solved?

    • Chris Orcutt December 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm

      Hillary:

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Regarding your first point, I think the problem is that we writers have developed a reflexive acceptance of the impersonal nature of the rejection process. We’ve acquired this attitude of, “Oh, well…that’s the way it’s always been, so I guess this is the way it will always have to be.”

      The problem with these impersonal transactions (i.e., writer submits a story, then receives a form rejection X months later), is that the publication often doesn’t give any indication that they’ve read even part of your story. The tacit agreement in the submission process is that the writer submits a well-written story, and even if the publication chooses not to publish it, they at least read it. Now I can understand impersonal or form rejections to writing that is clearly amateur (e.g., mistakes in spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.), because in those cases, the writers are violating the tacit agreement by submitting material that is disrespectful of the reader’s or editor’s time; no one, least of all an editor, should be expected to have to parse a story.

      Returning to your original point, I almost think that literary magazines should get out of the business of replying to every single submission (whether paper or electronic), and that they should reserve responses for the well-written work that comes across their desk. Not receiving any reply would, in my opinion, be preferable to the disingenuous form replies in which “The Editors” say that they read my (or another good writer’s) work “with careful consideration” or “great interest,” or that they “truly enjoyed the story, but because of space considerations…,” blah, blah, blah. We’ve all read these stock phrases a million times.

      And if the problem is that the journals are biting off more than they can chew (i.e., they can’t handle the number of submissions), then they need to stop advertising in Writer’s Market and on their websites that they’re currently accepting submissions. Close the doors, say they’re closed, and make it clear that if a writer submits anything, it will go into a wastebasket.

      Your second point is an excellent one, and were my post not about the length of time (14 months) it took for the journal to respond with a form rejection, then I might have addressed it as well. You are absolutely right about how many prominent literary journals advertise that they are open to submissions from new writers, but then, month after month, when you look at who they’re publishing (and it’s always the same names), you know that’s untrue. I’m *not* saying they’re lying; they might even start out with egalitarian intentions. Over time, though, I think they see that although they would like to be a journal “dedicated to finding new voices,” the reality is that they need the big names to sell the few copies of the journal that they can sell. But if this is the case, again, they need to make it clear that they’re a closed shop. Stop perpetuating the myth that you’re a journal of the people, when in fact your journal is read by a very small audience, and publishes predominantly well-established writers.

      As to your final point about whether any of this will change, I think it’s changing as we speak. More and more literary journals that have been exclusively print journals for their entire history are now transitioning to online-only, and as that happens, I think most writers are going to conclude, “Why bother submitting?” An online journal isn’t doing anything for writers today that writers can’t do for themselves.

      The entire value proposition of literary journals used to be that they printed what you wrote. Because print publication was the only way to get your words out there, and because they had presses (or access to them), literary journals did something for writers that they couldn’t do for themselves. There was also the prestige factor, and the fact that a bound, printed journal was tangible—a tangible symbol that you’d accomplished something. But now, as journals get out of the print publication business and move to digital publishing, there’s none of that. There’s only the name and the history of the publication, and that all came from its print days, and as we get further and further from the journal’s days of print publication, the journal loses more and more of its former cachet, its former luster.

      I love printed books, magazines and journals, and as sad as it might be, the reality is that print matter is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. I believe that within 10 years, we are all going to look back nostalgically on this period as the last days of printed literary journals and magazines. In the future, only the very *best* publications might be available (at a premium) in bound, printed form. There are young people out there now who have never known the world before the internet, before iPads, smart phones, blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Does anyone really think that these people are going to subscribe to a bulky print journal? “What do you mean I can’t read it on my phone? What’s happening?!”

      I know there are editors (and some writers) out there who disagree with me about this issue of whether or not they owe the writers of their better-written submissions personal replies. I can imagine how BURIED they are in manuscripts—all the time—but if they didn’t reflexively reply to ALL submissions (including the ones so poorly written that they don’t merit a response), wouldn’t they have more time to dedicate to their better submissions? They’d have the thirty seconds necessary to jot on the first page of the manuscript, “Good stuff. No space right now, but keep going.” A simple reply such as that means the world to a writer, and it encourages the good ones to submit again.

      Although some editors will disagree with me about this, since I made this post I’ve received a few emails and some Twitter replies from editors at prominent journals, in which they expressed their support of my post. People forget that some editors of journals are excellent, long-suffering writers themselves and have experienced what I’m talking about many, many times. Receiving kudos from *one* of these editor-writers was enough to make me proud that I wrote what I wrote.

      Finally, there is one statement I made in my post that I’d like to clarify. When I used the phrase, “an obscure, incestual literary journal,” I was *not* referring to all literary journals and magazines. There are some excellent ones out there—ones with editors who work hard at publishing great stories, poems and essays, and who make an effort to cultivate new writers. I used the adjectives “obscure” and “incestual” to describe the particular journal I replied to, but clearly those adjectives can be used to describe some other literary journals.

      When you look into these particular journals and who they’re publishing, you find that they’re little more than vanity presses for other people in the literary journal community. These journals also tend to be among the most obscure ones. My answer to this problem is simple. With these particular journals, this is what I’m going to be doing from now on, and I encourage other writers to do likewise: Stop submitting to them. I’m not wasting my time, money and energy on them anymore. I’m only going to submit to the best from now on; the opportunity costs of doing otherwise are too high.

      Thank you again, Hillary, for your insightful questions. I hope you’ll return to my blog in the future. I wish you a great holiday season and a Happy New Year.

      Sincerely,

      Chris

      • Hillary Leftwich December 18, 2013 at 6:05 pm

        Chris,

        Thank you for your detailed response. I appreciate and applaud your honesty and guts. It is wonderful to get feedback and thoughts from other writers and know that we aren’t all too busy to help each other out. It should not be a rare occurrence, but unfortunately it is. You are the exception. Keep it up! You have my support!

      • Chris Orcutt December 18, 2013 at 6:42 pm

        NOTE: A careful reader pointed out to me in a reply that “incestual” is not a *real* word. I know this. I used “incestual” over the technically correct “incestuous” because 1) correct or not, its usage is becoming increasingly common; 2) “incestual” sounded better; and 3) I had seen the word used in the *exact* context in which I wanted to use it:

        “Some journals are perceived as incestual because they only advance scholarship from those who are ‘members of their club’ in terms of institutional or organizational affiliation.”

        The quote was taken from this piece:

        http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Academic+excellence%3a+a+commentary+and+reflections+on+the+inherent+…-a0295551089

      • Jon Chaiim McConnell December 20, 2013 at 2:44 pm

        As a (now former) fiction editor and guy-who-just-started-submitting-a-few-years-ago, I know your frustrations. And it was mortifying to me when writers called us out on bad practices, sometimes rightly sometimes not. We rushed to make things right if needed. But their stories were always read, usually several times, and a non-read was never a thing. Sometimes the aesthetic really just didn’t match mine. That was all. Sometimes a form email could be more sensitively worded (I absolutely hate the “dear writer” when I get them) but I don’t think that necessarily indicates more than bad form letter judgment on these bigger journals.

        Hopefully.

        • Chris Orcutt December 20, 2013 at 5:16 pm

          Jon:

          I really appreciate your comments, especially as they come from a former fiction editor, and I’m glad that you recognized that what I had to say about certain literary journals doesn’t apply to *all* of them. Clearly, yours was a professional operation, and for that I have to give you kudos.

          From what I’ve experienced, some of the *worst* culprits are certain journals with long, venerable histories, who, in my opinion, are riding on the past glories of the publication and have little regard for new or journeyman writers. These are often the journals to whom a writer will send a story, and nine or ten months will pass without the writer hearing anything, and then, when the writer finally does hear from them, they send the writer a microscopic form slip. Not even a form letter. A sheet of paper that isn’t even big enough to use for tinder in a campfire.

          But what about my idea, Jon, of journals simply *stopping* the practice of replying to every single submission? What if the following were the baseline practice instead?

          Editor: “If we like it and want to publish it, or if we like it and we want to see more of your work in the future, we’ll send you a short, personal note. But as for the so-called writers submitting “writing” that wastes my time because, for one reason or another, I have to parse the damn stuff, you guys get nothing.”

          What do you think? If editors didn’t reply to the time-wasting submissions, would they have more time to dedicate to the ones that—while perhaps not publishable at the moment—show promise?

          • Jon Chaiim McConnell December 20, 2013 at 5:31 pm

            As a writer I would find that idea atrocious honestly. I like my record keeping and I like being able to cast my wide net and then thin it down based on things like this (non-responses, nice responses, time for response, etc).

            As an editor I couldn’t abide by it either. One of the stories from an issue I prepared earlier this year was overlooked via human error + Submittable double-entry confusion and I just happened to pluck it out of near-rejection due to it being frankly missed. It needed a lot of work but the premise really stuck with me so we worked on it and it became one of the stories that got the most notice once the issue came out. THAT’s the kind of thing that makes me love working on a journal and I can’t imagine allowing any story further opportunity to slip through the cracks. This isn’t the exact scenario you’re talking about but my point is: the journal is in the parsing. A journal that exists mainly on solicited work by writer-friends can be a great read but it’s almost an entirely different product to my mind.

  6. Bradley Young December 18, 2013 at 10:04 am

    I agree that fourteen months is too long to wait for a response, but I don’t see why you think you deserve a personalised response to your submission. Get over yourself. It’s great that some of the magazines you mentioned have taken the time to give you personalised responses, but that doesn’t mean you should expect it as an entitlement.

  7. Claudia Putnam December 17, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    Why did you say in the letter you wouldn’t be submitting to them again, and then say in the blog you would?

    • Chris Orcutt December 17, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      Claudia: In the letter I said that I would not be sending anything to that particular journal again, but in the blog entry I *did* say that I would continue to submit work to the above-mentioned better journals and magazines: The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, etc. The reason I will continue to submit to those publications is that they have always treated me and my work with respect. As I mention in the blog piece, they’re class acts, every one of them.

  8. Frank Jones December 15, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Bravo! Now you really are my favorite “new” author!!

    • Chris Orcutt December 15, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      Thank you, Frank. I felt that it was time somebody said something, because nobody ever does. I’m tired of seeing these journals that are run unprofessionally mistreat writers and give the *good* magazines and journals a bad name.

      • Tony Scotto December 19, 2013 at 5:20 pm

        Tut-tut. This is simply a case of having years of your blood and sweat shrugged off by a jaded hack hunting and pecking his way across the blank lines of a generic form letter.

        And for the record, my good man, dashing off rejection letters is not exactly a tiptoe through the tulips. In fact, next to commercial crabbing, it is considered the most risky and potentially gruesome form of employment in America to date.

        I have personally heard of one account in which a gentleman claimed that he had nearly bobbled a perfectly good croissant-half whilst attempting to mail a corpulent bundle of such letters.

        In more extreme cases, a publisher may be required to walk as far as the next room in order to sufficiently moisten his stamp sponge. So just simmer down, you petulant jackanapes!