All but a few of the journals I have sent work to in the past 2-3 years have now switched to electronic submissions—a huge savings for all involved, in time, paper, effort—but, looking at the stack of rejections I’m finally recycling (musty scent from previous apartment trumps sentiment), I have a tangible sense of an entire way of doing things, and feel of The Way Things Are Done, that abruptly ended without my quite realizing it.
Shenandoah and TriQuarterly now publish online-only, which seems, anymore, to hold (diminishing?) stigma only because they were formerly and so substantially in print (both website are excellent, readable and enjoyable to spend time with). Most rejections now come as emails, using or adapting similar templates, so that I have occasionally confused who rejected which story. Excel and I spend a lot of quality time together sorting sad and hopeful columns.
Shenandoah’s rejection slip, on thick, smooth paper, was nice enough to use as a bookmark, if I’d wanted. The note is formal and remote—”although the poems, story, or essay in this submission don’t quite meet our immediate needs”—but someone took the time to hand-write “Thanks for trying us!” Mid-American Review thanked me by name, and the reader signed her name (Megan), below the typed, “We wish you every good fortune.” Personalized impersonal—a good combination. You can re-create and appreciate the time taken over you, the thoughts spared.
One journal’s letter, with my name and the sender’s scrawled in, said, in bold:
please believe me when I say we would enjoy reading your work in the future. This is not a come on or an idle gesture.
Another, a slip of paper, was less smitten:
Because our staff changes from year to year, feel free to submit again as our editorial tastes shift.
I prefer the frankness of “we’ve decided against this one” or the tempered “it’s not quite right for us” to “we must pass” or “we cannot publish the work you have submitted to us,” which seems to want to wash its hands (cannot? Who’s stopping you) and place blame squarely on the writer. What could you have been thinking, writer, to send this stuff?
I entered many contests in the first few years I was sending out work. The Iowa Review’s rejection was a generous nod from a conversation I didn’t know enough to fully partake in:
Our choices, of course, reveal at least as much about us as about you and may chiefly expose our limitations as readers.
Some journals sent a subscription form along with their rejection:
[journal x] has a distinctive literary style that cannot be conveyed through description. Simply put, you have to read it for yourself to know what kind of work we favor.
(Guilty as charged; I hadn’t read the journal). Others—well, what can one say to this:
Even though your story was not chosen as this year’s winner, we extend to you a heartfelt thank you for entering our competition. By submitting your entry fee you not only helped pay the expenses of this contest, but also provided scholarship monies for deserving candidates. […] Please consider entering our competition again in the future.
I’m reminded of my advice to composition students who put “provided excellent customer service” on their resumes. Less may not be more, but more may not be what you want.
A few slips register less as rejections than as acknowledgment:
Don’t you want stationary of your own, simply to have a tree like that? Typeface, spacing; all gorgeous.
In 2009, more than 3/4 of the work I sent out was sent out in print, slipped into manila envelopes with signed cover letters and self-addressed stamped envelopes. This year I’ve sent maybe 5-6 print submissions. It’s expensive, rife with chances for error, and shockingly time-consuming; better in "the cloud." But, accurately or not, print subs did let one quickly develop an inadvertent sense of journals’ personalities—or of the funds that, in all too many cases, are diminishingly allotted to literature.