“After Careful Consideration, We”: An Editor’s Manifesto
James McAdams | June 4, 2020
On my birthday, I received well-wishes (“Happy Birthday James! A one-time offer!”) via e-mail and text message from various companies: mortgage, auto insurance, medical marijuana. Additionally, my junk mail harvested similar sentiments from Wayfair, Southwest Airlines, Autozone, et al. offering “special Birthday deals for James!” We’ve all received these kinds of messages: fake, batch-emailed, insincere, revealing the logical extension of Internet Marketing, what I’m going to term “Control+ V Culture.” Form. Copy. Paste. Personalize. Send. Repeat. Delete, delete, delete, until we feel clean.
Thinking about such issues, however, teaches us a lot about the nature of art and writing. If you’re like me, you probably agree that what Southwest Airlines, for example, does here is inauthentic, unethical, and crude. It’s not a world we like being a part of. Instead, when I write, and you write (however you do it), we both create worlds where people are singular, ideas are holy, style is life, and words flame with meaning.
The same day I received these aforementioned message, I received this rejection from a prestigious literary journal (names redacted):
I know (“Twitter-know”) the editors of this journal, who are eminently sweet and compassionate. My problem, as I hope you’ve inferred, is that this rejection letter uses the same modes of Control+V Culture as the aforementioned messages: the fake intimacy (“dear james mcadams”), the corporate syntax (“we”…), and the “well wishes” that if we think for a second cannot be true—the editors of this journal cannot possibly “wish [me] the best of lucking placing [my] work” because this email is going to hundreds of people a month, it’s not psychically possible, right? I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. Instead of being aflame with meaning, these words become soggy., over-used, and ultimately meaningless.
This makes me feel lonely and wonder if we editors can do better. Thus, my thesis: commercial Control+V Culture has seeped into the literary world, the world we join to escape bullshit, inauthenticity, catfishing, algorithmic exploitation, and this is 1) frustrating, and; 2) fixable.
If you agree, there are at least two fixes. Instead of sending a fake rejection letter, replete with locutions such as “after careful consideration,” “we wish you the best of luck,” “we appreciate the chance to read,” “thank you for sending,” “we are sorry,”—just write “NO.” But, if your current practice is to send a rejection letter that seems personal, by virtue of the transparent effort of tweaking the submitter name and title name, then I would submit that it only takes ~ one hour a week to send rejection letters that are indeed personal. I’m not suggesting that you write a formal critique or multi-page reader report with bunny emojis, but rather that we (I’m talking to all editors here, myself included) find time in our week to at least write one sentence that is real in our rejection letter(s) to authors. One true sentence makes all the difference, as Hemingway observed in A Moveable Feast.
Is this possible for you, as an editor? I don’t know. Maybe you work three jobs, maybe you have a ton of kids, maybe you teach seven adjunct classes (like me), maybe you need to practice self-care (do that!). In those cases, just write “no,” or don’t respond at all. It’s really fine! I suspect, however, that it’s not too hard to find an hour a week that allows you to write one sentence about someone’s work. I know this is true because two very hardworking writers and editors in the flash world do this 24/7: Cathy Ulrich at Milk Candy Review and Christopher James at The Jellyfish Review. Chris and Cathy are both wonderful writers, to the best of my knowledge very busy people, yet they are famous and loved for their ability to conjure up lovely little rejections that make us feel appreciated and loved. Here’s an example from Cathy:
This is amazing: the only difference between this and the soulless, corporate rejection at the top is one sentence. I share numerous Slack channels with other authors, and a response like this makes everyone’s day. We all celebrate like kids on Halloween!! For one, Cathy is a careful reader and often gives great editorial advice; but even more than that, it just makes you feel like a real person talking to a real person about art and shared love, not some drone receiving a bank statement or coupon for tires.
Therefore, I have a few suggestions: If you don’t have time to write a real rejection letter, just say “no”; if you somehow don’t have time to write “no,” then don’t write anything; please never (I have seen this) send a rejection and then in the same email ask for donations or subscriptions.
AND THEREFORE AND FINALLY WE COME TO THE POINT!:
If you have any free time at all in your life write one true rejection. It could save someone’s day, it could save someone’s faith in art, it could save someone’s life. Alea iacta est.