Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jack Livings on Dealing with Rejection

In the 36th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Jack Livings, author of The Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), shares insights gained from being on the other end of the slush pile.

About ten years ago I put in some time as a slush pile reader at a literary magazine. Submissions arrived daily in huge canvas U.S. Mail bags, the kind you’d use if you wanted to dispose of a body in the East River. There were teetering piles of manila envelopes everywhere.

The magazine’s offices were in a New York townhouse, and readers sat in the basement in old wing chairs. In the morning you’d put your stack of envelopes on the floor by your chair, and over the course of the day you’d read your way down to the grimy carpet. There was a window, and it had bars on it. I tried to read carefully, with hope in my heart. On any given day I rejected between 50 and 70 stories. In retrospect, I probably wasn’t doing myself any karmic favors.

I was, at the same time, sending my own stories out to magazines. Three or four times a month I’d go to my mailbox, and there would be yet another thin envelope addressed to me by me, and I’d open it hoping to find a scribble at the bottom of the slip, a lifeline. Try us again? I wish I could say that reading the slush pile made me sanguine about my own rejections, but it still stung when I got a rejection slip, and it still does.

I did, however, form some impressions that might be of use to you. For starters, we writers can never know what’s led to a rejection. Sure, it’s most likely that our story isn’t half as good as we think it is, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume your story is publishable. It could just as easily be that the editors already have two stories on the same subject in the hopper and, as good as yours is, they don’t need another one. Or it might not fit into a theme issue the editors are putting together. It’s possible that your story, which happens to be written entirely in dialogue, is brilliant, but the editors might be into heavy exposition. Who knows? You can avoid this situation by actually reading copies of a magazine before you submit your work. You’ll have better luck with places that publish fiction you like. Trust your taste.

Know that editors don’t read with the eyes of god. Do you have strong opinions about fiction? So does the person reading your work. Would you call your opinions subjective? Same goes for the person reading your work. See where I’m going with this?

Even if your all-dialogue story lands in the hands of a dialogue-loving editor, she might not connect with your story. She could be a wildly sophisticated city kid who doesn’t get the lizard metaphors in your story, which happens to be set on the edge of a desert. Or, as luck may have it, your story might find its way into the hands of an amateur herpetologist who knows so much about desert lizards that he can’t reconcile your metaphorical use of the fringe-toed lizard with his own knowledge of the reptile’s habits. Do not let rejections determine whether or not you will go on.
Fringe-toed lizard: Apt metaphor?

Because when we’re starting out, there are so few tangible markers of success—there’s publication and there’s rejection—it’s easy to look at that stack of rejection slips (or queue of emails) and see an argument for giving up. Do not give up. Read. Work. Labor over your sentences. Learn. Success isn’t publication, failure isn’t a rejection slip. In this most human of endeavors, mark your progress according to the honesty of what you’ve put on the page. Have you told the truth? Find the answer, and your worth as a writer, in the solitary process of writing, in your dedication to the practice of the art. Do it well. Go on.