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Dumb Shit That Gets You Down

Rejections are tough, no question. And editors, God bless ’em, are known to reach out on occasion and provide a word or two of explanation–usually to soften the blow. But sometimes it backfires. Sometimes what an editor, through the goodness of his/her heart, provides by way of explanation can be outrageous, insulting, or worse: can stick in your head like the inane chorus of a damn top 40 song, just to make you feel hopeless, despondent, and hateful.

I’m not going to name the journal, let alone the editor, but the most recent case of this happening earned me the following: “One of the reasons I passed on your story was I thought it was a bit too long. And not just for our mag, but for what it was doing.”

Now, I could list out the reasons why this irritates me. I could find fault with it’s logic. I could recuse its author. I could continue my tantrum. But all that is sheer defensiveness. What I’m interested in here is the pain. Are there any criticisms you’ve received from editors (or anyone, really) that have stuck around beyond their usefulness, causing irritation, anxiety, or dismay? Maybe if you gave voice to them here, you could set yourself free.

29 thoughts on “Dumb Shit That Gets You Down

  1. A visiting prof once told me my story about an old woman who tended bees her whole life, who dies and is carried away by them, was laugh-out-loud funny. Because it wasn’t realism. And anything that isn’t realism is impossible = absurd = ridiculous = therefore funny. I had a hard time with that.

    1. MoGa – Great, I have a similar rejection and I have to quote it, “I don’t often say things like this, but this story feels sloppy and sort of cliche. The talking cat thing is kind of old hat, the style is unnecessarily sparse and some of the weirdness feels a little tacked on. I’m going to say no. I’m sorry for my brutal candor.”

      This is the most memorable one I’ve received. I mean, it rolled off my back, but I remember it vividly – I know the journal well enough to find it in my email archives.

      It seems to me (cue Silverblatt) that rejections are more about the editors than the writers. Some say history books are more about the time they are written in than the time they are being written about. It’s about taste. Some editors are very constructive when they say things-Scott Garson, Steve Himmer (I’m still editing that story Steve!)-and some say what they liked and what didn’t work and some just give opinions. I try to be constructive at Corium when I offer something, but it is about taste and know-how – don’t send The Gettsyburg Review a story about a talking cat (I didn’t).

      1. An agent recently passed on my novel with some comments that made clear she’d read very little of the manuscript despite pretending otherwise in her suggestions. That rubbed me the wrong way, whereas if she’d just said it didn’t hold her interest enough to finish (as another agent told me), I could respect it as helpful feedback.

    2. I would’ve had a hard time with that one, too. I probably would’ve funneled bees into that professor’s room while he/she slept.

      I was once told by an agent that while my query intrigued her, the first chapter of my novel was too didactic. I had to look that up, and now, forever, I will know the definition. And now that I know it, I don’t see what she meant.

      An editor of a journal told me a story I sent her was too “weirdly matter-of-fact.” I don’t think she understood dry humor. Or maybe I just did a bad job of writing it? Probably.

      I had a judge of a contest tell me that he doesn’t believe any stories about writers are acceptable. It seems like there are a lot of those, though, right?

      1. Well, she was a realist. It was interesting to hear a realist’s perspective.

        Oh, and several different versions of the story went on to see publication in Serendipity, Quick Fiction, PANK, and Drunken Boat, so there’s that.

          1. Same universe is one thing. I’m interested to know how many drafts it takes before you’re actually working on a new story entirely, rather than a different version of the same one. Probably a fine line.

            1. When I finished my Master’s thesis, “Giant Slugs,” a press offered to publish it (this was back in 2004). I was flattered but turned the offer down, mainly because while I thought it was a good thesis, I wasn’t crazy about it as a novel. And so I decided to revise it.

              Revise it I did. Five years later, I had an entirely different Giant Slugs. (A few thousand words at most made it from the thesis into the 100,000-word finished novel.) So I probably could have published the thesis as a separate book.

              I’m glad I didn’t, though.

              I wrote another novel called “Giant Slugs” in the late 90s. It was totally different, though, and I never published it—just one small excerpt as a story. (I was apparently determined that my first novel be called Giant Slugs.)

              So, three novels to write one novel. I figure that’s not so bad, though.

  2. the only rejection that has stuck with me for a long period of time was a story where the editor told me that the link between the couple in the story and the central metaphor was “too overt.” besides being in the title the metaphor is only mentioned twice in over 2k words. i think it annoys me because it feels like a sloppy critique that’s trying to disguise itself as intelligent by talking about the metaphor of the story. or because perhaps what they really meant was “the metaphor doesn’t work for us” in which case i would have just shrugged my shoulders.

  3. I could just hang out here and write all day! I don’t know where to start. Wow.

    This one didn’t get me down. I don’t want to talk about the ones that get me down right this second . This one annoyed me and now makes me laugh. I linked to it on my blog. Here’s my little blog post graph with some of this man’s words-

    Patrick Rapa has a blog called “I Read A Short Story Today”. A long time ago, he read my story “She Was Everything to Him” in Fiction Magazine and didn’t like it. My favorite part of this critique is when he says, “I wish everybody who sets his/her fiction in New York City would move. It can be done well, but. It’s boring. It’s snobby. It adds nothing. Hell’s Kitchen. Park Slope. Been to those places. ”

    HAHA. “Been to those places.” Gotta love it.

  4. I think sometimes the needless rejection is a bit more annoying. I recently received a personal email from a big literary journal (name withheld, of course), stating that the main editors loved my piece and wanted to publish it, but that the guest editor passed on it because it didn’t fit her style. Why doesn’t the main fiction editor get the override on this? Oh well.

    Still, that kind of thing ought to make us hopeful that there are thoughtful editors out there that make the effort, even if the end product of their “good intentions” are sometimes…misguided.

  5. read something negative about one of my books online a few days ago and it stuck with me. the reviewer said it wasn’t what they were expecting, based on other stuff i’ve written, or what they’d heard of me. i don’t know. it didn’t necessarily make me upset, but got me thinking.

    it made me want to write a children’s book and an encyclopedia.

    my larger point: it gets me down when authors are chastised for not doing the same thing over and over again. or for wanting to write in wildly different styles.

    1. But look at it this way, the critics do that to most everyone. Beckett for instance. People expected Waiting for Godot over and over and he gave them Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape and as time went on the reputations of those plays rose and then they beat on the new ones.

      Also: You are being read.

      1. like i said, it didn’t necessarily make me upset.

        and i was being totally serious about wanting to write a children’s book and an encyclopedia.

        you can help me write the encyclopedia.

      1. or Beck even, who’s initial record deal with geffen gave him the freedom to make less commercial records for other labels whilst recording more marketable albums for geffen.

        1. But Beck is a Scientologist…haha. It was the Martian in him that made him do things differently.

          No, he’s a great example. J to the C to the O- she’s another example. (Ms Oates.)

          I also don’t mind if people do the same thing, or mull over the same things, or keep the same style. It’s all good, if it’s good.

          Juliana Hatfield’s new cd, Peace and Love, is so different than her last one, and still, so Juliana. As long as you are still infusing some youness, something essential, than – do whatever.

          1. yeah, i don’t get the scientology thing. but his original record deal has always been an inspiration to me. if i ever got to the point where i had a book deal with a big publisher i know i would want that freedom to still experiment and do oddball things with small publishers, because i like that freedom to play with my art.

  6. My editor-in-chief at Corium (the awesome) Lauren Becker sent this submission to me a few weeks ago as we revved up for submishmash.

    Submission Title: my story


    I responded promptly:


    Thank you for submitting to Corium, but as you are the managing editor I don’t think it ethically responsible to submit stories for consideration. And even though you submitted rather than just pasted it in an issue is beside the point.

    Re: the story. ‘My Story’ is not a very original title. I know it’s your story, because you sent it. As for your story of one word which is “text” – I’m afraid to say that I don’t get it. It doesn’t move me. Maybe you meant “text message?” Is this a cry for help? Did you cell phone company raise your rates? I don’t know, but I think you need to revise this story.

    Best in life and art,


      1. Yeah, we is! I still think my story, though brief, was worthy of more consideration and less ridicule from Mr. Gerke. (btw, Mr. Gerke, the story was “test,” not “text.” You might want to revisit.)

        The rejections I dislike most? I love this, it’s fantastic, you are my new favorite writer, I just can’t get over how amazing this is. Did I mention I love it? I’m going to pass.

        My favorite rejection (to lighten the mood?): an editor advised me that my story did not wrap him up in a carpet and throw him over its shoulder. I do not expect to ever get another rejection as great as that.

  7. I got one of those rejections the other day, and what made it more painful was that the editor was also a writer whose work I admire. The editor told me that in my story s/he wanted “a little less exposition overall” — for a piece of flash fiction that was almost all dialogue with a teeny bit of exposition in the opening sentence. Maybe I was sent someone else’s rejection, or the editor was in a hurry and typed the opposite of what they meant, I don’t know. But in this case a form rejection would have felt better.

  8. Editors, of course, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Form responses draw ire. So do personal explanations–even positive ones, since they leave you feeling lied to (if you liked it so much, why didn’t you just take it for the next issue or something?).

    Still, some of the shit we come up with to justify our low opinions of art strains credulity. Ask someone to explain or, better yet, *show* what they mean by citing the text, and they’d be hard pressed to do so. More often than not, it’s just an attempt to give voice to a feeling. The feeling of “I don’t like it.”

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