Every writer has faced rejection. Every editor has begrudgingly rejected someone. More often than not, these rejections end with amicable silence. There may even be subsequent attempts at literary courtship. However, in some cases, the writer unleashes a hateful wrath.
As a writer, I’ve had my stories rejected over 500 times. As an editor at Bartleby Snopes, I’ve personally rejected several thousand stories. That’s not something I’m proud of, but I’m not ashamed of it either. It’s the nature of the game.
Most writers take rejection with grace; or at least they keep their onslaught of hatred private. Roughly ten percent of writers will respond to a rejection. These responses generally fall into one of three categories:
- Gratitude – Thank you for taking the time to read my work.
- Curiosity – I know you’re busy, but could you take a few minutes to explain why you rejected my work? or, Could you elaborate on what you mean by [insert criticism here]?
- Intense hatred – Fuck you. My work was perfect. You are the worst editor in the world.
Let’s focus on the third type of response, the one we remember the most. You’d be amazed at what writers are willing to say in the privacy of an email, especially to someone who has told them their work isn’t good enough for publication (which is almost never what a rejection actually says). My personal favorite rejection response used “fuck” more times than a 2 Live Crew album. It was so filled with hate that I wondered briefly if I needed to watch my back during the day and sleep with one eye open at night.
As the rejecting editor, I’ve been called just about every name in the book, as well as some names that weren’t in the book. What would possess a writer to tell me I’m a “fuckhead” for not liking his story? Or to criticize my personal life when he’s never even met me?
Honestly, not one of these angry responses has ever really gotten to me. I didn’t lose sleep. I didn’t change my editorial policies. And I sure as hell didn’t go back and accept any of those stories. In other words, these writers gained nothing from their responses.
Of course, not all rejected writers reserve their angst for emails. Some of them launch into public tirades on Twitter or Facebook. They drop the names of editors. They call for boycotts. I suspect one day they will post the names of an editor’s children or even a map to the editor’s house. And to what purpose?
Writers who attack editors and publishers—whether they do it privately by email or publicly on social media or a blog post—are doing nothing to help the writing community. Nor are they helping their own writing.
Here’s what the writer might be trying to accomplish with these attacks:
– A sense of vengeance (If they won’t publish me, I’ll see to it they never publish anything again!)
– Some weird relief (I feel so much better after insulting someone who didn’t like my work)
– Pity (Oh, woe is me. An editor didn’t like my story. Please tell me I’m a great writer)
– Vindication (The editors will see the error of their ways! But after they apologize and offer to publish my work, I won’t let them.)
The seething response may provide some temporary relief. A few sympathetic friends will rush to their aid and shower them with praise. But none of it will last as long as the side effects of such reaction.
Here are the more likely outcomes:
– Blacklisted (Wow, you look like a jerk. What editor would want to work with you now?)
– Loss of fans and friends (Hmm…maybe you aren’t cut out for this writing thing after all.)
In other words, you end up looking bad, not the venue that rejected you.
Moral of the story: keep your post-rejection blues to yourself.
But, wait, there’s more.
There’s another danger of rejection—especially the type that comes with editorial feedback. Writers often get in the habit of taking rejection too seriously (which is why they occasionally send back those hate-filled replies). When writers send out their work, they’re sending out something very dear to them. To hear that someone doesn’t like it can feel like a personal affront. Possibly even more dangerous than the public outcry is the internalization of our rejection anger.
As writers, we have to learn not to get pissed about rejection. It’s a lesson we must learn quickly. No matter what a publication tells you about your work, it should never be taken as the gospel truth. Writers need to remember that a publication’s feedback is precisely that: the publication’s feedback. It’s never a universal reflection of your work.
Yet writers will bury a story that gets rejected a few times. They’ll spend hours rewriting a story based on canned comments like “this didn’t fit our aesthetic” or “we thought this moved too slowly.”
Rejection is never nice. It can crush spirits, ruin lives, and force the worst out of us. But it can only do those things if we let it. There are plenty of lit mags and publishers in the proverbial sea. Don’t hate the ones that reject you. Don’t try to conform your writing to them either. Find the ones that can live harmoniously with your work.
When next you are rejected, don’t attack the editors or your own writing. If you must respond, do so graciously. If you must revise, do so cautiously. Or, you could do what the best writers do: move on.
Nathaniel Tower is the managing and founding editor of Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press. His short fiction has appeared in over 200 online and print publications. In 2014, Martian Lit released his first short story collection, Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands. He is a former high school English teacher and the former world record holder for the fastest mile running backwards while juggling. He currently lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughters. Visit him at nathanieltower.com.
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