Writerly Rejection in the Digital Age

As a fiction writer and someone who frequently submits to literary magazines and contests, I'm not denying that electronic submissions are a godsend. They are. I love the ease of submitting my work via email or the now-ubiquitous Submittable. Good riddance to the days when I had to print, package, and ship submissions at the post office. But, though I love to submit electronically, I miss being rejected by snail mail.

Here's how it went back in olden times: When you submitted to a lit mag, you'd include a hardcopy of your short story and a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Then, when your chosen lit mag ultimately decided "Thanks, but no thanks," they'd tuck a rejection form—usually not even a whole sheet of paper, but a mere half or quarter—into your envelope and send it back to you. In your mailbox, you'd find an impossibly thin envelope, addressed in your own handwriting, and there was absolutely no doubt that it did not contain good news. Good news does not come in a SASE.

Email, though! Email is...unpredictable. Usually filled with crap, but sometimes filled with goodies. Like acceptance letters! Here's how it goes: I open my inbox, and there, in fat, bold-faced font, is an email from Literary Magazine. It has an innocuous subject line like "Your Submission to Literary Magazine." I try not to get my hopes up, but in the three seconds it takes to click the email and wait for it to load, my heart has begun to pound, my hope has swelled. In mere seconds, I reach a peak of anticipation that rivals the Christmases of my childhood! THIS COULD BE AN ACCEPTANCE LETTER!

Oh, never mind, it's not. "Thank you for the opportunity to read your work, but we're sorry to say that this piece is not for us...blah blah you suck blah..."

*Cue balloon deflating.*

In hindsight, what I appreciated most about a physical rejection letter was its unified nature: every sensory detail suggested rejection. There it was, nestled companionably between the bills and the junk mail; nothing triumphant there. And then there was the envelope itself: its cheapness, its lack of return address, the thinness of its contents. Everything felt right; everything said, "Nope!"

And yeah, it sucked, but somehow, these email rejections feel a thousand times worse, and I think it's because of those damn three seconds. Those three seconds of possibility, where I can't help but imagine myself as the type of writer whose work has risen above, has been chosen. When that visionary moment is undercut by the reality of the rejection, I end up feeling stupid and embarrassed, as if I've just been caught practicing my Pulitzer acceptance speech in the mirror.

I don't think there’s a solution for this. Maybe lit mags could kindly use more direct subject lines? How about “Regrets from Literary Magazine” or “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up”?

Really, though, this is an unsolvable dilemma. I don't think my reality will ever match my ambition, and I'm pretty sure that rejection is the thing I can rely on as much as death and taxes. But I try to remind myself that it's out of my control. All I can do is write and rewrite and write better and keep sending my work into the world. Maybe it'll pay off, and maybe it won't. Who knows? But it's only if I stop trying that I'll truly be a reject.