The worst rejection letter I ever received was from a small Colorado-based "literary" magazine that billed itself as prime literature for the doctor's office waiting room.
I'm going to let the above line stand alone and sink in. Consider for a moment, if you will, the plight of the writer. Good writing doesn't just happen; it takes time and effort. Querying literary magazines to get the writing published, thereby validating said expended time and effort, takes even more time and effort. The higher profile publications receive hundreds—perhaps thousands—of stories each month. Competition for placement is fierce, and refusals are many. Rejection-free indie publishing has removed some of the sting, but even these authors will admit they'd rather have someone accept and publish their work "traditionally," which is the only reason why we continue to subject ourselves to the often soul-crushing process of querying.
This, of course, brings me back to my opening sentence. The rejecting publication was not The Paris Review. It was something people read while waiting to get their tonsils swabbed for a strep test. Moreover, it was helping to spread strep to the next unsuspecting reader/patient, and then to the one after that. What I'm trying to say here, gently, is that I wasn't aiming all that high.
Even so, I'd done my homework by reading the publication and developing a feel for what they liked. I selected a story that fit their style. After drafting a professional query letter, I mailed the still-warm manuscript out First Class. For a few days, I basked in the pleasant possibility that another one of my stories would be published.
Less than a week later, an S.A.S.E. arrived in my mailbox. At once, I knew that a single sheet of paper was inside—never a good sign. Sighing, I tore it open, expecting the usual: Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, we do not feel it is right for our publication. We wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. These form rejection letters are unsigned and grainy from years of having been photocopied off other yellowing photocopies of the first form rejection letter ever written, no doubt penned and printed by Gutenberg himself. Like most professional writers, I've received more than my fair share of them.
What I found inside, however, was something altogether different. In my hands was the same query letter I'd mailed out only days earlier. Right underneath my signature, the editor had written in two-inch-tall block letters with a red Sharpie marker:
It's difficult to describe what went through my mind and in what order. I remember an initial flash of mortification, some disbelief (Was Allen Funt hiding nearby, filming everything?) and, finally, indignation. Would it have killed the editor to be polite? After all, he'd solicited in Novel & Short Story Writer's Market. Why respond like I'd shown up selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door just as dinner was being put on the table?
Rejection sucks in general, but it especially blows when delivered by sucker-punch from a decidedly mediocre publication. My good friend Erin, a talented poet, shared her own frustration a while back when her work was rejected by a "literary" magazine that was—I kid you not—printed on typing paper and then crookedly stapled with such amateurish aplomb that it made me (a former print production manager for a Fortune 500 company) want to throw its editors into a cage and spray them with a fire hose until they screamed for mercy. At least they’d had the common decency, however, to be polite to her.
Yes, I know: Writers aren't supposed to bitch about these things. It's considered poor form. Still, someone needs to point out that we’re all in the same boat here. In graduate school, we were told that we should "support" literary magazines with subscriptions and purchases because those people worked so hard with little financial recompense for their troubles. Oh, the irony.
This question-doubling-as-a-suggestion probably flies in the face of The Way Things Are™, but here it goes, anyway: Wouldn’t it be great if these publications were wired to support writers too? Perhaps a more cordial “thank you” for having taking the time and effort to submit material should be offered instead of a sterile form letter or worse, an obnoxious note. Yes, writers want something when querying, but in most cases it’s in exchange for no cash payment, just a single copy of the issue and “exposure” in a mostly-unknown publication. These publications should, at the very least, reciprocate some professional courtesy.
I’ve said my piece and counted to three. Say yours below, if you’re so inclined.