No weekend-reads

Brian Doyle

The most honest rejection letter I ever received for a piece of writing was from Oregon Coast Magazine, to which I had sent a piece that was half bucolic travelogue and half blistering attack on the tendencies of hamlets along the coast to seek the ugliest and most lurid neon signage for their bumper-car emporia, myrtlewood lawn-ornament shops, used-car lots, auto-wrecking concerns, terra-cotta nightmares, and sad moist flyblown restaurants.

“Thanks for your submission,” came the handwritten reply from the managing editor. “But if we published it we would be sued by half our advertisers.”

This was a straightforward remark and I admire it, partly for its honesty, a rare shout in a world of whispers, and partly because I have, in thirty years as a writer and editor, become a close student of the rejection note. The shape, the color, the prose, the tone, the subtext, the speed or lack thereof with which it arrives, even the typeface or scrawl used to stomp gently on the writer’s heart—of these things I sing.

• •

One of the very best: a rejection note sent by the writer Stefan Merken to an editor who had rejected one of his short stories. “Please forgive me for not accepting your rejection letter,” wrote Merken. “At this time I cannot accept a rejection of my short story. I accept more than 99 percent of the rejections I receive. Many I don’t agree with, but I realize that accepting a piece of fiction for publication is a very subjective judgment call. My acceptance of your rejection letter is also a subjective process and therefore I am returning your letter to you. I did read your letter. I read every letter I receive. Your letter was well-written, but due to time constraints from my own writing schedule, I am unable to make editorial comments. I do make mistakes. Don’t you, as an editor, be disheartened by this role reversal. The road of publishing is long and tedious. You need successful publications and I need for successful publications to print my stories. I will expect to see my story in your next publication. Good luck in the future.”

• •

The range and scope are astonishing. I have twice received two-page rejection letters from magazines, one an epic and courageous deconstruction of my essay and its many flaws and few virtues, and the other an adventure in sophistry that I still marvel at, in the way you admire a deft bank robber from afar—such astounding creativity, turned to such empty enterprise. In the early days of my own career as an editor I took rejecting pieces very seriously, and tried, as much as possible, to write a thoughtful note explaining why the piece was not quite something for me to accept and pay for. But as all new editors learn, such earnest letters from editors very often are taken by writers as invitations to amend and resubmit pieces, or worse, to argue and debate, and most editors come round eventually to terse generalities simply to defend their working hours and shreds of sanity. Plus I learned that debating poets in particular was painful, although it did give me the chance to daydream about a series of rejection notes designed specifically for poems, which would fault rhythm, meter, cadence, swing, image, line-breaks, verb choice, elusiveness, allusiveness, self-indulgence, self-absorption, liability to lust, and too much muck about love. I nearly had the card printed up that way, with little boxes you could check, like Edmund Wilson’s famous EDMUND WILSON REGRETS THAT HE CANNOT . . ., or the lovely form letter that Ursula Le Guin sends to this day, but I got sidetracked by a torrent of devotional poetry that I had to reject posthaste, and never got around to it.

• •

Many magazines lean on a form letter, a printed note, a card, and I study them happily. The New Yorker, under the gentle and peculiar William Shawn, sent a gentle yellow slip of paper with the magazine’s logo and a couple of gentle sentences saying, gently, no. Under the brisker Robert Gottlieb, the magazine sent a similar note, this one courteously mentioning the “evident quality” of your submission even as the submission is declined. Harper’s and the Atlantic lean on the traditional Thank You But; Grand Street, among other sniffy literary quarterlies, icily declines to read your submission if it has not been solicited; the Sun responds some months later with a long friendly note from the editor in which he mentions that he is not accepting your piece even as he vigorously commends the writing of it; the Nation thanks you for thinking of the Nation; and the Virginia Quarterly Review sends, or used to send, a lovely engraved card, which is worth the price of rejection. The only rejection notice I keep in plain view is that one, for the clean lines of its limbs and the grace with which it delivers its blow to the groin.

I am no poet, as friends of mine who are poets are quick to remind me, darkly, but here and there I have inflicted poems on various and sundry small quarterlies, and I have come to love the bristle and bustle with which they reject work. I mean, it takes brass balls, as my brothers say, to reject a batch of poems with a curt note while including a subscription form to the review in the same envelope in which the rejection huddles. You have to admire the defiant energy there, the passion for persistence. The sheer relentless drive of the small to stay alive is more remarkable, in the end, than the grandeur of the great, no?

• •

Sometimes I daydream of having rejection slips made up for all sorts of things in life, like for moments when I sense a silly argument brewing with my lovely and mysterious spouse, and instead of foolishly trying to lay out my sensible points which have been skewed or miscommunicated, I simply hold up a card (BRIAN DOYLE REGRETS THAT HE IS UNABLE TO PURSUE THIS MATTER), or for when my children ask me to drive them half a block to the park (GET A GRIP), or when I am invited to a meeting at work I know will drone and moan for hours (I WOULD PREFER TO HAVE MY SPLEEN REMOVED WITH A BUTTER KNIFE), or for overpious sermons (GET A GRIP!), for oleaginous politicians and other mountebanks (IF YOU TELL ONE MORE LIE I WILL COME UP THERE AND PUMMEL YOU WITH A MAMMAL), etc.

On the other hand, what if my lovely and mysterious spouse issued me a rejection slip on the wind-whipped afternoon when I knelt, creaky even then, on a high hill over the wine-dark sea, and stammered would would would will will will you you marry me? What if she had leaned down (well, not quite leaned down, she’s the size of a heron) and handed me a lovely engraved card that said WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT WE CANNOT ACCEPT YOUR PROPOSAL, DESPITE ITS OBVIOUS MERITS? But she didn’t. She did say yeah, or I thought she said yeah, the wind was really blowing, and then she slapped her forehead and went off on a long monologue about how she couldn’t believe she said yeah when she wanted to say yes, her mom had always warned her that if she kept saying yeah instead of yes there would come a day when she would say yeah instead of yes and really regret it, and indeed this very day had come to pass, one of those rare moments when your mom was exactly right and prescient, which I often think my mom was when she said to me darkly many years ago I hope you have kids exactly like you, the ancient Irish curse. Anyway, there I was on my knees for a while, wondering if my lovely and mysterious paramour had actually said yes, while she railed and wailed into the wind, and finally I said, um, is that an affirmative? because my knees are killing me here, and she said, clearly, yes.

• •

I suppose the whole concept of the editorial Yes is properly the bailiwick of another essay altogether, but I cannot help pondering the positive for a moment, for there are so very many ways to say yes, more than there are to say no, which is interesting on a philosophical and cultural level as well as an editorial one. You can say yes with glee and astonishment, you can say yes with the proviso that you anticipate changing this bit or that, you can say yes while also saying we’ll need to sail toward one more draft, you can say yes to a piece of the piece, you can say yes to the idea but not to the piece, or you can, in a sense, say yes to the writer but not to the piece—this isn’t quite for us, but we’re interested in the verve and bone of your work, call me. The best advice for saying yes I’ve heard came from a friend of mine who edits a nature magazine. Use the phone, he says. It matters that a voice says yes. This is the same guy who says you should always envision a writer as your mom when you say no, so as to avoid being snotty, and that you should overpay a young writer on principle once a year, just to mess with the universe.

• •

My friend James and I have for years now plotted a vast essay about editing, an essay we may never write because we have children and paramours and jobs and books to write, but we take great glee in sketching it out, because there are hundreds of subtle joys and crimes of editing, and editing is hardly ever what the non-inky world thinks it is, which is copyediting, which is merely the very last and easiest piece of editing—rather like a crossword puzzle, something you can do near-naked and beer in hand. Real editing means staying in touch with lots of writers, and poking them on a fairly regular basis about what they are writing and reading and thinking and obsessing about and what they have always wanted to write but haven’t, and also it means sending brief friendly notes to lots of writers you have never worked with yet in hopes that you will, and also it means listening to lots and lots of people about lots and lots of ideas, some or all of which might wend their way into your pages, and it means being hip to the zeitgeist enough to mostly ignore it, and it means reading your brains out, and it means always having your antennae up for what you might excerpt or borrow or steal, and it means tinkering with pieces of writing to make them lean and taut and clear, and always having a small room open in the back of your head where you mix and match pieces to see if they have any zest or magnetism together, and it means developing a third eye for cool paintings and photographs and drawings and sculptures and carvings that might elevate your pages, and writing captions and credits and titles and subheads and contents pages, and negotiating with and calming the publisher, and fawning at the feet of the mailing manager, and wheedling assistants and associates, and paying essayists more than poets on principle, and soliciting letters to the editor, and avoiding conferences and seminars, and sending the printer excellent bottles of wine on every holiday, including Ramadan and Kwanzaa, just in case.

• •

And dickering with photographers, battling in general on behalf of the serial comma, making a stand on behalf of saddle-stitching against the evil tide of perfect-bound publications, halving the number of witticisms in any piece of prose, reading galleys backwards to catch any stupid line breaks or egregious typos, battling on behalf of the semicolon, throwing away all business cards that say PROFESSIONAL WRITER, trying to read over-the-transom submissions within a week of their arrival, deleting the word unique on general principle and sending anonymous hate mail to anyone who writes the words fairly unique, snarling at writers who write We must or We should or, God help us all, the word shan’t, searching with mounting desperation for a scrap or shard or snippet of humor in this bruised and blessed world, reminding male writers that it’s OK to acknowledge that there are other people on the planet, halving the number of times any writer says me or I, checking page numbers maniacally, throwing away cover letters, checking the budget twice a day, and trying to read not most but all of your direct competitors, on the off-chance that there might be something delicious to steal.

And then away to lunch.

• •

My friend James has a lovely phrase for the joy of actually editing a piece: mechanic’s delight, he calls it, and I know whereof he speaks, for I have sipped of that cup with a deep and inarticulate pleasure. I have been down in the engine room of very fine writers’ minds, my fingers following the snick and slide of their ideas into sentences. I have worked like hercules to clean and repair a flawed piece and bring out the song fenced round by muddle. I have distilled vast wanderings into brief journeys. I have snarled with delight to discover a writer deliberately leaving a fat paragraph for me to cut, a gift he confessed with a grin. I have said no to the great when they were fulsome and yes to the unknown when they were stunning. Many times I have said yes when I should have said no, for all sorts of reasons, some of them good, and more times than I know I said no when I should have said yes.

• •

I have rejected essays but turned them into letters to the editor. I have rejected essays but asked to borrow one or two of their paragraphs for class notes in the back of my magazine. I have rejected essays but recommended submission to another magazine, which is a polite service to the writer, but I have also rejected essays and inflicted the submission on another magazine, which is a venial sin. I have rejected essays by pleading space concerns, which is not always a lie. I have rejected essays I admired for inchoate reasons that can only be caught in the tiny thimble of the word fit, about which another essay could be written. It doesn’t quite fit, could there be any wider and blanker phrase in the language, a phrase that fits all sorts of things?

• •

I was lucky to train under wonderful and testy editors, a long brawling line of them, starting with my dad, who edited a small trade newspaper, laying it out in the basement of our house with redolent rubber cement and long strips of galleys and galley shears the size of your head. He was and is a man of immense dignity and kindness, and no editor or writer ever had a better first editor than my dad, to whom I would show my early awful overwritten overlyrical self-absorbed stories, which he would read slowly and carefully, and then hand them back, saying gently beginning, middle, end. I thought he was going nuts early, the old man, but he was telling me, in his gentle way, that my pieces were shallow, and that no amount of lovely prose matters unless it tells a tale—a lesson I have tried to remember daily since.

On my first day as an editor, in Chicago many years ago, beneath the roar and rattle of the elevated train, the first great editor I worked for gave me a gnomic speech about how we do not use the word hopefully to begin a sentence here, another remark I never forgot. Later, in Boston, I worked for a very good editor whose mantra was elevate the reader, and then I worked, again in Boston, for a genius editor who actually had a bottle of whiskey in his desk and a green eyeshade in his office. He cursed beautifully, in great rushes and torrents, and wrote like a roaring angel, and had been in a rabbinical seminary, and had shoveled shit in an Australian circus, and driven a cab in Brooklyn, and much else. As testy and generous a man as I ever met, and a glorious editor, whose driving theme was say something real, write true things, cut to the chase. More advice I have not forgotten (hopefully).

• •

Some of the best yesses I have issued over the years: yes to a sixty-year-old minister in Texas who had never published an essay in his life or even sent one to an editor but he finally wrote down (very slowly, he told me later) a brief piece about the two times in his life, many years apart, a Voice spoke to him out of the air clear as a bell and to his eternal credit he did not in the essay try to explain or comment on these speakings for which refusal to opine I would have kissed him, given the chance. Yes to a twenty-year-old woman who wrote a lean perfect piece about her job running the ancient wooden-horse carousel in a shopping mall. Yes to a sixty-year-old woman who wrote the greatest two-line poem I have ever seen to date. Yes to a thirty-year-old Mormon man who wrote an absolutely haunting essay about laughter (which was also funny). Yes to a twenty-year-old woman who was a waitress in a bar in a rotten part of town and wrote a haunting brief piece about the quiet people who sat at the bar every night when it closed. Yes to a sixty-year-old man who drives a bus and wrote a piece about a six-year-old girl who was so broken and so hilarious and so brave that when I finished reading the essay I put my face in my hands and wept and wept. Yes to a fifty-year-old doctor who had sent me arch essay after arch essay but finally sent me a perfect essay about the best teacher she ever had, to which I said yes so fast I nearly broke a finger. Yes to half of an essay by Andre Dubus, an essay we were cheerfully arguing about when he died of a heart attack, and I asked his oldest son if I could print the good half and not the mediocre half, and he said yes, which made me smile, for I could almost hear Andre cursing at me happily from the afterworld, in that dark amused growly drawly rumble he had when alive.

• •

When my own essays are rejected I immediately inflict them on another editor, whereas I am always mindful of my dad’s advice that a piece isn’t really finished unless it is off your desk and onto another’s, and I am that lesser species of writer who can never stay focused on One Important Project but always has four or five pieces bubbling at once, so my writing life is a sort of juggling act, with pieces flying here and there, some slumping home through the mailbox and others sailing sprightly away in their Sunday best, eager and open-faced. When one slouches home, weary and dusty, I spruce him up and pop him into the mail and lose track until either he comes home again riddled with arrows or I get a postcard from another desk, sometimes in another country, I’ve found a home!

And then every few years I gather some thirty or forty together again, actually printing them out and spreading them out on the floor, a motley reunion, so as to make a collection of essays, and I have often thought that there is an essay even in this small odd act, their jostling for position, my kneeling over them attentively, worrying again about their health, listening to their changed and seasoned voices, listening for who wants to stand by whom, putting them in parade order like kindergartners bounding off on a field trip, two by two like braces of birds. No one ever talks about the paternal aspect of being a writer, the sending of your children off into the world, where they make their own way, go to work, enter homes, end up in the beds of strangers, and only occasionally do I hear news from the frontier. But such is the wage of age.

• •

Why do editors say no, anyway? Well, I cannot, of course, speak for All Editors, and I cannot even properly speak for myself, because I reject some pieces from a murky inarticulate intuitive conviction that they’re just not our speed, but there are some general truths to note. We say no because we don’t print that sort of material. We say no because the topic is too far afield. We say no because we have printed eleven pieces of just that sort in the past year alone. We say no because the writing is poor, muddled, shallow, shrill, incoherent, solipsistic, or insane. We say no because we have once before dealt with the writer and still shiver to remember the agony which we swore to high heaven on stacks of squirrel skulls never to experience again come hell or high water. We say no sometimes because we have said yes too much and there are more than twenty pieces in the hopper and none of them will see the light of day for months and the last of the ones waiting may be in the hopper for more than two years, which will lead to wailing and the gnashing of teeth. We say no because if we published it we would be sued by half our advertisers. We say no because we know full well that this is one of the publisher’s two howling bugabears, the other one being restoring American currency to the silver standard. We say no because we are grumpy and have not slept properly and are having dense and complex bladder problems. We say no because our daughters came home yesterday with Mohawk haircuts and boyfriends named Slash. We say no because Britney Spears has sold more records worldwide than Bruce Springsteen. We say no for more reasons than we know.

• •

Even now, after nearly thirty years as an editor, years during which I have rejected thousands of essays and articles and poems and profiles and ideas (even once a play, I have rejected a play, there’s the phrase of the day), I still, even now, often feel a little sadness when I say no. Not always—I feel nothing but cold professionalism when I reject a submission from someone who clearly hasn’t the slightest idea or interest in the magazine itself, and is just using the magazine as a generic target for his or her work; for example, people who submit fiction, which we have never published—or never published knowingly, let’s say.

But far more often the writers have looked at the magazine, and are submitting something we might publish, and did make it with all their hearts, and it just doesn’t make it over the amorphous and inexplicable bar set in my head, and I decline their work with a twinge of regret, for I would so like to say yes, to reward their labor and creativity, the way in which they have opened their hearts and souls, the courage they have shown in bleeding on the page and sending it to a man they do not know, for judgment, for acceptance, for rejection. So very often I find myself admiring grace and effort and craftsmanship, honesty and skill, piercing and penetrating work, even as I turn to my computer to type a rejection note, or reach for one of our own printed rejection slips, to scrawl something encouraging atop my illegible signature. So very many people working so very hard to connect, and here I am, slamming doors day after day.

• •

After lo these many years as a magazine editor I have settled on a single flat sentence for my own use (“Thanks for letting me read your work, but it’s not quite right for this magazine,” a sentence I have come to love for the vast country of not quite right, into which you could cram an awful lot of sins), but I still have enduring affection for the creative no, such as this gem sent to a writer by a Chinese publication: “We have read your manuscript with boundless delight, and if we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of a lower standard. And, as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition and beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.”

I have been an editor for thirty years, and in those dark and inky years during which my eyesight has gone and my fingertips have been hammered into blunt squares, my patience evaporated and my posture shot to hell, I have never seen, given, or received anything to top that as a rejection notice, and so I conclude as once did that noted editor Henry Louis Mencken, of Baltimore, who once finished a harangue aimed at newspaper editors (whom he called “a gang of pecksniffs”) by noting that “no one has asked me for my views, and moreover, my experience in the past has not convinced me that they are desired. So perhaps I had better shut up and sit down,” which I do.

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