Our meetings are public: we hold them in the campus coffee house, amid the traffic of students and the noise of the espresso machine. Sometimes I glance up to notice students (or faculty) listening to our (sometimes heated) discussions. Each semester, we hire two new interns, undergrads who log in all the mss and who read the work we (the editorial staff)select for the editorial packet: we encourage them to jump right into the fray but I'm sure it's a shock at first, the way we wade in, gloves off, to defend (or dismiss) each piece. It's nothing like even the most shark-infested workshop session they've attended. The author is nowhere present, and therein lies the difficulty, because sometimes, for at least one of us, the author is very much in our minds:
- It's hard to like someone's work, invite the writer to send more, and like the new work less.
- It's hard to like the new work just as much--or even more--but see it shot down in the meeting.
- It's hard to write a rejection note in either case, but harder in the second scenario, because it's hard to resist the easy route of placing the blame on others ("I'm sorry we couldn't agree on this one") ("Some of us just couldn't be brought on board") (meaning, you're still the tops in my book but some people just can't see how good you are).
- It's weird how, at my particular journal, we're simultaneously public but also secretive about the process: while a ms. is moving through the pipeline, we rarely contact the author, unless a lot (read: too much) time has passed (it happens) and we want them to know we're still considering the work.
If I had time--say, if I were paid a living wage to do this for 40-50 hours a week--I would be tempted to write a personal note on every rejection slip, just to let each writer know that someone really did read their work attentively. The problem with this notion is that some work really sucks: it's sloppy, leaden, dull, or suffers from any number of fatal flaws. If I had the nerve, and if this were my magazine, I sometimes fantasize that I would be truthful in every rejection note:
- "I liked one of these but the rest bored me."
- "You should stop wasting Priority Mail postage and save your money instead toward a writing class."
- "Why must you barrage us with submission after submission, one hot on the heels of the other, like fists upon our door (which, based on your work to date, shall always be closed against you)?"
- "I loved these--loved them--but was outvoted at our meeting."
- "Seek out a writing group, or one good mentor, to help you develop your work, and try us again in five years."
What we say instead--what most journals say--is nothing. We did spend quite a lot of time developing a series of rejection slips with quotes from Rotten Rejections. The intended message: "Hey, you're not alone; even some really great writers were panned by editors, so maybe we're wrong and you're right." I've grown to loathe our rejection slip: it's just a mask that we, the editors, hide behind. Its implicit message is often nowhere near the truth. I usually send one of our postcards instead, with a minimum “Sorry” and my initials, or (as often as I can) a quick but honest note.
But who has time to tell the truth? It's like teaching composition, or more specifically, the dreaded heart of teaching composition, which is grading the essays. When I taught second-year composition one fall at another campus, one of the fellow adjuncts boasted that he'd worked his grading down to "four minutes per essay." I was horrified. Even if the writing's terrible, even if you know the student doesn't give a fuck, how can you reduce their work to this level? Four minutes, tops. For everyone?
I linger too long on bad stories, stories I know we will never publish. By "too long," I mean that I sometimes catch myself on page three when I knew on page one that the cause was lost. I want to say that I'm getting "better" about this, but it still distresses me that "better" in this case means "ruthless.” If I’m ever going to get to the good stuff during the hours I set aside for reading slush, I have to mow through the bad stuff like a hot knife through butter, like Sherman through Atlanta, like every bad simile that has ever caused me to grimace and toss another envelope into the “no way” bin.
Here’s something, though: the last time I could afford to go to AWP (Chicago), someone came up to our table specifically to meet me. Another one of “our” writers! I thought. But no. She said “I just wanted to thank you for writing the nicest rejection note I’ve ever received.”
Well, okay then.