Publish or Perish the Thought

Now that I'm a publisher, I have entered into what is no doubt the most difficult and treacherous area of writing known to mankind: rejection letters.

You'd think that having gotten them myself for years now it would be easy for me to just whip one off. The problem is, having gotten them for years now, I know how fraught with hidden meaning they are to the people who get them.

For example, take this typical rejection letter: "Thank you for sending us your work. We read it with pleasure, but are unable to use it at this time."

Most writers would translate that as follows: "You are kidding yourself. This thing never had a snowball's chance in hell here. In fact, we found it so hysterically bad that we shared it with everyone we know for a good laugh. Still, what a sick individual you must be. Send us another manuscript and we'll take out a restraining order."

Sensitive, you say? Not really. For one thing, often enough, that is what it means. But put yourself in the writer's place.

Here's the situation: You sent the best thing you've ever written to the prestigious albeit somewhat obscure literary magazine, Noble Dirt. It is important to you that Noble Dirt finds your work suitable for publication because:

1. You haven't published anything in a long time and you're coming up for tenure; or

B. If you can publish something in a reputable journal, a book publisher might become interested in doing an entire collection of your work, which would make the delusion that you are making a living at writing a hair less insane and/or help you get the kind of job where you can start worrying about tenure; or,

iii. You have given up everything and been living like a Bohemian for so long that if you don't finally publish some damn thing or other your entire identity will collapse.

As added background, let's say that, as is typical with many literary publishers, it's been approximately 27 years since you sent that work off to the aforesaid magazine — which has a policy against simultaneous submissions -- and you've been waiting to hear back ever since.

So when the big day comes and you finally see, in your mailbox, that the SASE you sent off with your submission to Noble Dirt has come back to you, you immediately become one tense chihuahua.

Here's what you're likely to find inside:

A. A detailed plea, perhaps several pages long, perhaps in expensive brochure form, asking that you take out a subscription to Noble Dirt;

2. More promotional material featuring quotes from many famous writers you never heard of attesting to what a great publication Noble Dirt is;

III. A teeny, tiny slip of paper with the Noble Dirt logo on it (the outline of a pile of dirt) and the following lone sentence: "Thanks but no thanks -- The Eds."

That's it. You don't even get a full-sized piece of paper. They don't even spell out "editors."

Plus, you paid for the stamp. And the envelope.

Oh, all right, so not every publication is quite so cold. Or at least, there are levels of rejection. From the editors of Another Chicago Magazine, I once got a form rejection that was a checklist with three choices. The first said something like "Thank you, please try us again." The second said, "Thank you." The third said, "Whoever told you you could write?" (I got the first one checked off, thank you very much.)

The topper, though, has to be the rejection letter sent out by a Chinese economics journal that was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years back: "We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of a lower standard. As it is unthinkable that, in the next thousand years, we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity."

You can imagine what a good writer would read into that. Economics scribes are probably heading out the door right now to go jump off a bridge.

So you see my dilemma. My solution? "We've decided not to publish your work because (you fill in the blank)."

We'll see if people can accept that.

Dennis Loy Johnson is the editor of MobyLives.

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