KR BlogWriting

To Hell with You

I know not to get my hopes up about a short story submission while it’s still under consideration. When it comes to literary journal submissions, the competition is intense, and the many variables involved in editorial decisions make the odds of acceptance low even when the work is strong. As a result, I’ve long subscribed to the notion that it’s best to put the submission out of mind until the notification arrives.

Even so, for one of my stories out at a particular journal, my hopes started to creep up as time went on. For starters, I have a good sense of this journal’s submission and response schedule, and it was clear my story had stuck around much longer than other pieces. I also happen to know, as an editor who’s worked on the back end on the two major online submission managers, that this journal uses a specific descriptor in their status section to indicate a piece has reached a higher level of consideration. My story had been marked with that status for weeks.

Still, I tried not to think about it. Too many writers waste time and energy obsessing over the status of their submissions. For example, many writers get excited when their submission moves from “Received” to “In Progress” in Submittable, but in reality, the Received/In Progress statuses are mostly meaningless.

An “In Progress” label could simply mean the editor assigned your submission (along with dozens of others) to a reader on staff; it very well might not have been opened or read yet. Meanwhile, a story will remain in “Received” status even after it’s been read multiple times if the editor didn’t take any other action, such as voting, commenting, or assigning it to another team member. Furthermore, longer wait times might mean the piece has moved on to additional rounds of consideration—but most likely, it just means the overworked editors are behind in their reading schedules.

I did my best to put the fate of this story out of my mind. But when an email from the journal finally arrived, my hopes shot up anyway, because this clearly wasn’t a standard rejection. The email opened with the kind of personal touch and specific praise that had “acceptance” written all over it. Just as I was starting to feel relieved this story had found a home, I reached the final line and was jolted back the reality. This was not an acceptance; it was actually a personal rejection.

Close, but no cigar—nothing I haven’t experienced before or won’t experience again in this business. I was disappointed, yes, but I didn’t feel defeated. If anything, I felt defiant.

Perhaps I have Saul Bellow to thank for that reaction. Whenever I teach a workshop surrounding literary rejection, I share this quote from Bellow: “I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’”

This particular short story is part of my taboo collection, and it may be the piece with the most potential to make people uncomfortable. Based on the subject matter alone, some publications simply aren’t going to want to touch it. By now I’ve received a host of rejections for this piece—including many personal rejections from editors who have called the story devastating, timely, powerful, and well-crafted. But so far, no one has agreed to publish it. Maybe no one ever will.

I’ve been at this lit mag game a long time as both a writer and editor, so I know to take rejection at face value. If these editors had really, truly, 100% fallen in love with my story, they would have taken it. But they didn’t. Does that make me question my writing, or change my approach, or give up on trying to get this story published? No.

As literary writers, we can be so beaten down by the rejection, the pitiful pay, the dearth of readers, and on and on that it’s pretty liberating to cast all that off and decide: This is what I want to do, and to hell with anyone who tells me otherwise.

I already know I’ll send this story out yet again, to a new crop of journals. I’ll continue writing what I want, as well as I can, and I’ll stay the course despite disappointment and rejection. That’s all that matters, in the end. To hell with everything else.