One hope I have for my cranky future self is that I would still be flexible enough to accept useful new technology and not be dated to, say, 2010 by refusing The Newfangled Thing of 2038 which will Revolutionize Our Lives*. Bill Morris in The Sorry State of the Rejection Letter sounds exactly like the future self I would not want to be by decrying e-mail rejections and extolling snail mail. He has this notion that in the Good Old Days, editors actually paid attention to rejected writers.
I’m always suspicious when someone pulls out the Good Old Days Card. Memory tends to filter out all the bad and boring stuff. The reality of the old days is, I suspect, less cozy then those armchair reminisces.
I first started submitting stories when I was a teenager, in the late nineties. At the time, I did not have access to the internet as my parents thought it was still too expensive. So I did a lot of research on writing markets at the library. I would copy all the relevant markets into a separate notebook, make sure my stories were formatted correctly, and then send them off to the addresses I had along with a SASE**. All of this was done with some stealth as I did not want my parents to question me on why I was wasting paper, printer ink, and stamps on a quixotic endeavor.
And then the internet came along–in the form of free access for university students on campus. I discovered that there were markets which accepted electronic submissions and I decided: no more snail mail. As a college student, one is always conscientious about where one’s money is going. If I had the ability to send off a submission for free, then why not?
Then, there is the actual technology on which one does writing. While a typewriter is quaint, I would not want to actually use one. Correcting typewritten things seem like a pain. (Who the heck wants to retype an entire page anyway?) Computers make all of this easy. And if someone develops a piece of technology in the future which will make this even easier, I would at the very least try it out.
As for the rejection letters, I had the impression that editors were too busy to write detailed ones. I had always believed that form rejections (if I got anything back in the first place) was standard operating procedure. They get tons of submissions and it is just not logically feasible to send actual letters to everyone. An editor’s job is to pick out the good stuff for publication–not to baby bad writers. Morris has this notion that editors should give out critiques on stuff that’s been rejected so that he can learn from the writing mistakes he has made. But is that really part of an editor’s job description? Editors are more like gatekeepers, not teachers. They are under no obligation to give you anything else if you’ve sent them an inferior piece of writing. If Morris wants critiques, he should ask an actual writing teacher or critique partner.
This could be compared to other kinds of jobs. Let’s say you submit a resume to apply to a job position and then later get a notice that you didn’t get the job. You can’t expect the company to also send you a letter telling you in detail what it was on your resume (or what wasn’t on your resume) that made them reject you as a job applicant. That’s just plain silly. If they’ve rejected you, that meant that either you weren’t right for the job or there was another applicant who was just plain better. All you can do is apply for the next job opening.
At any rate, I do not think that writers are entitled to anything, let alone an editor’s critique, just because they got up the nerve to submit something.
Perhaps Morris is disgruntled because the form rejections give one the impression that the publishing industry is a factory where things get constantly churned out in quantity if not necessarily in quality. He argues that publishing should slow down and publish fewer books and concentrate on quality–however that may be defined. But as a reader, I would be much saddened if there were fewer books in the bookstores. As an independent-minded person, I really chafe at the idea that the publishing industry can be trusted to cherry-pick a few books that they think will be good for me. I want the ability to choose what I like. Sure, I might get overwhelmed at times, but for me, if I’m overwhelmed it’s more about the state of my mind than the actual presentation of choices.
And as a writer, I hope that one day I’ll find my niche audience. Rejections of any sort are useful because it tells me that the market I’ve submitted to was not the correct one–in other words, it was not the correct audience. Of course, the rejection may also indicate that I’m just an awful writer, but hey, at least I tried.
*Given that it’s not too expensive.
**Self-addressed stamped envelope.