Attention conservation notice: when I was editing Going Down Swinging we used to send out rejection letters that were meant to be funny. Plus some thoughts on the nature of rejecting authors’ work.
Keywords: rejection, rejection letters, empathy, kindness, supervillains, humour, playfulness in literature, correspondence.
Word Length: 1,412 words.
When Alicia Sometimes invited me to help out with editing Going Down Swinging I was very excited. We had quite a few ideas about reinventing the magazine, or at least doing things that we hadn’t seen anyone else do before with journals (at least at that time). It’s a bit like being given the keys to the Bat-mobile – obviously the first thing you do is open her up and say “let’s see what this baby can do”. Very exciting.
We wanted to make Going Down Swinging fun in every possible way. This included the excitement of a regular spoken word CD being included with the journal, the brightly coloured cartoon-style art on the cover, the (hopefully) whimsical subject index, the regular inclusion of comics on the journal’s pages and our fairly irreverent way that we put out our calls for submissions. “We muck around. We’re silly. We’re having fun with this,” was kind of the message I was hoping to get across. Not to say that we couldn’t be serious about writing when we needed to be, but we wanted there to be a good balance between worthiness and playfulness.
Another one of the things I wanted to have a go at playing with was the rejection letters that we would send out to unsuccessful aspiring contributors. I wanted our rejection to reflect this playfulness too. As a writer myself I’ve been rejected many times, and I’ve always been a little unsatisfied with the tone of most of the rejections I’ve received.
Getting your writing knocked back will always suck, but it sucks even more when it feels sort of off-hand and dismissive. They’re a practical tool for overworked and underpaid journal editors, but form rejections often feel like the person doing the rejecting can’t even be bothered taking the time to respond – they just dump you on the ‘no’ pile, press the big red ‘reject’ button and out comes no-thanks boilerplate #276(c). Sometimes it feels like it might as well be an UNWANTED stamp right across the top of your submission.
There are times, though, when a well-crafted rejection letter, whether it be a form letter or not, can create a sense of empathy – a sense that the person who’s doing the rejection has thought about what it feels like to be rejected.
We knew we were going to be dealing with a lot of contributions, and in terms of replying to hundreds of people, a form letter just makes things so much easier. There were only two of us at the start (our little team bloomed to become four when Steve Grimwade and Anna Hedigan joined up), so we needed to do things smart and efficiently. Form letters were the way to go, we decided. But even if we were going to be bulk no-thanks-ing, we agreed that it didn’t have to be a HARSH bulk no-thanks.
I think Alicia and I have always found solace and comfort in humour, so when it came to deciding how we’d make our rejections less harsh, the idea of making things a little bit silly was forefront in our minds. To that end we composed the following letter:
Thanks so much for your contribution to Going Down Swinging.
Unfortunately, we have decided not to accept your work for publication. Please do not take our decision personally, as it may be due to a number of factors, including:
1) Our complete inability to discern and fully appreciate the subtle metaphors laced throughout your writing, due to a terminal case of thick-headedness on our part;
2) The lack of blatant references to dairy products in your piece(s);
3) The editors of Going Down Swinging suffering from mild aphasia brought on by acute Jelly Bean Poisoning Syndrome (JBPS); or
4) Something else, maybe.
We urge you not to assume that this particular rejection letter is intended to refer to your entire oeuvre, past, present and future, but rather to take it in the spirit which it is meant (vodka and tonic, perhaps?) and continue to grace us with your submissions at forthcoming interstices in the space-time continuum.
Thanks once again for taking the time to send us your work. We hope this letter finds you in good cheer and good health.
From issue to issue we switched and swapped the various implausible and cartoony reasons for rejecting work. One year we blamed it on a lady supervillain who’d paralysed us and sent the rejection as part of some evil plot.
Another year we explained that the author had not made enough overt references to Russian teen-lesbian pop group TaTu (remember them? – yeah it was the early naughties…). Once we simultaneously blamed radioactive pterodactyl Rodan and French sculptor François-Auguste-René Rodin, and another time we blamed potential litigation that might arise due to the work’s (completely coincidental) striking similarity to the work of Gary Numan.
I like to think that our rejection letters addressed a range of possible reasons for rejection, (from matters of taste to the vagaries of compiling an anthology) at the same time as encouraging the contributor to continue to submit their work, all the while maintaining a friendly tone and softening the blow a little with some outright tomfoolery.
In hindsight, I can see how such an over-the-top rejection letter could be taken the wrong way, and I must admit that were I these days to craft a rejection letter I’d go for something less bouncing-off-the-walls and more subtle in tone. We did get a lot of nice feedback from our rejected contributors, though, many of them saying that they had enjoyed reading the letter in exactly the way I had hoped they would.
One of our rejections also had an extra paragraph encouraging contributors to edit and revise their work before sending it on to other journals. This was inspired by my concern that too much weight was being given to the school of thought that authors should just keep sending their writing out until someone accepted it. To me this seemed to be saying that the only reason a piece could be rejected was the author and the editor’s tastes diverging, instead of the writing being in need of work.
We only included that paragraph once. While well-intentioned, because it was a fairly general statement it came across as too generic and impersonal, and could too easily be read as too harsh or too critical. The next year we removed that paragraph and I attempted instead to include individual comments as part of rejections if I thought I had something specific and constructive to offer. I think that worked out much better.
I said that the feedback from our kooky rejections was mainly positive, but we did have one contributor who took particular exception to our rejection, going so far as to report us to the State Literature Officer of Western Australia, complaining about us being “rude, condescending and insulting to writers. “I have received my share of rejection letters in the past,” the contributor said, “but this one takes the cake for being patronising, offensive, and mocking in tone.”
I wrote back to the contributor immediately (cc-ing the SLO), apologising for any offence caused and explaining our reasoning behind the way we rejected authors. The WA SLO, to his credit, got back to me very quickly saying that he thought the letter – and my reply – was okay, but that obviously not everyone shared the same sense of humour. We never heard back from the contributor.
That contributor’s email was a good reminder that the process of rejecting an author is a complicated and emotionally charged process, one that requires more than a soupçon of sensitivity and empathy on behalf of the editor doing the rejecting. To my mind the best kind of rejection letter is one that is personal (if not personalised) and honest, but most of all one that is kind.
With that in mind I’d like to finish by saying to anyone who got a rejection letter from Going Down Swinging between 1999 and 2004: I hope you took our letter the way we intended, but if I caused any offence with the tone of that rejection, I wholeheartedly apologise. If I’m being totally honest, it wasn’t a lady supervillain or Gary Numan who made me do it.
It was Mothra.
Adam Ford was co-editor of Going Down Swinging issues #18–#22 and is author of poetry collections The Third Fruit is a Bird, Not Quite the Man for the Job, the novel Man Bites Dog and Heroes and Civilians (short stories).