The first piece of fiction I ever wrote was in middle school, though I’d say I “started writing” with the first glimmer of public-facing intention in high school. There’s a couple slapdash short story collections of mine floating around Amazon somewhere and, as embarrassing as this is to admit, I did once do thing where I printed out copies of these books and then intentionally left them places, like the New York City subway, for strangers to find so they could be utterly transformed by my prose. I was a teenager, so I didn’t know any better and have long-since stopped.
The problem for me, when I was first starting out, was that I didn’t know any published writers and so didn’t know I had to submit my work anywhere. This is a problem for a lot of young writers — the publishing industry is opaque, confusing, and frequently demoralizing. Eventually I sort of figured it out. I sent my first piece of fiction via the ubiquitous literary submission manager Submittable in January of 2017; I have since been rejected 185 times. My latest was back in January of this year.
Some things are inevitable for a writer. You will fear that you aren’t very good at it, and you will get rejected, which fuels that first fear all over again. Of course, rejections are inevitable in life in general, but they take on a weird significance in the creative realm by virtue of being directed at you personally and often not having much to do with you at all. It doesn’t really matter how many times you’ve been published, your work isn’t going to be the right fit for most places. And if you’re writing fiction, the options are even more limited. Still, those rejections, often in the shape of a form letter, can be discouraging.
My first rejection letter, from a publication I won’t name because it doesn’t matter, began by thanking me for my submission, as most places do, before continuing with this: “You know, each work we receive is important to us—deserving the same kind of attention it most likely took to create it—which makes us especially grateful for your patience in awaiting our response.” As far as first declines go, that’s not bad and I remember feeling a sense of melancholic pride. There are only so many ways to say “no thanks” so most letters are similar, but after about twenty, I started to notice the effortful variations (“we are unable to publish your piece at this time” is a personal favorite, as if they forgot how). Of all the ways you can let someone down, I think the worst one is “condescendingly supportive.”
Writer Bradley Babendir encountered this phenomena recently, in a rejection letter that really captures the form:
I saw this tweet when a friend later posted it to a Slack for our writing group, with the caption “WHY ARE THEY ALL LIKE THIS THOUGH.” Another friend replied, correctly, “I hate supportive rejections. Just punch me in the throat and move on.” Similarly, Babendir went on to say, “a good rejection is very simple: thanks for sending us your work. we’re going to pass.” A couple days later, another writer, Erin Somers, chimed in, saying, “I think writers who are just getting started think they have to take a bunch of shit from corny lit mags as they scrounge for any crumb of success. No. There is nothing to be gained from taking shit from dorks. Write 'em off forever and find some place less embarrassing.”
You’re more likely to receive the dignity of a straightforward response from established literary magazines, an example of that trusty correlation between prestige and terseness. It makes sense on both sides though, not just for the harried slush reader who doesn’t get paid enough to wade through thousands of pieces, if they get paid at all, but for the writer as well. After all, the recipient of the rejection letter is only interested in one question: Yes or no? Once they receive an answer in the negative, patting them on the head for a good effort or expressing how sorry you are just makes the whole thing both disappointing and undignified.
“It’s not you, it’s us!” these letters insist. “You should get over this quickly because you have other places to submit to!” Except it often isn’t and you often don’t, and both parties know this. Some publications only allow you to submit one piece of writing to them exclusively until they either accept or decline it, as opposed to “simultaneous submissions” where you can send the same piece out to multiple places at once. In that case, you really do need a quick, simple response.
As the poet Diane Seuss said, intending for me to take her words out of context for this very blog, “You’re always risking annihilation when you connect.” In this way, those seemingly sincere words of regret or encouragement that make up unnecessarily treacly form rejections are meant to have an alleviating effect. And perhaps the idea behind them is a sincere desire to encourage writers. But there are few things more discouraging than being treated like a fragile little baby, even if many writers really are.
What happened to that first piece I submitted, you ask? Well, the good news is I ended up sending it to fifteen different magazines before it finally got accepted by a small, MFA-run lit journal. Then the place that published it shut down not long after so, really, you can’t always celebrate your successes either.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.