Dealing with Rejection

Andrew Madigan deals with dealing with a publisher’s rejection.

Charles Bukowski’s first published piece was, ironically, ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip’ in Whit Burnett’s Story magazine. I thought of this today when I opened my email, sipped a double-espresso (okay, I’ll be honest, it was a quintuple), got ready to greet the day, and confronted an awful rejection.

We don’t want this.

No thanks. No pretending that it’s nothing personal. No softening the blow. 

Not a great way to start the day, but it was still better than one those impeccably fake and simpering rejections that tells you how special you truly are, and not to worry, that your voice will get out there, and not to buy a sturdy length of rope.

I’ve received 1,000’s of rejections over the years, and some of them still sting. The good ones – handwritten, with personalized messages! – I can still remember. (Mostly, because I sleep with them under my pillow.) I get a lot more acceptances these days – maybe 40 percent of the whole: I’m a frequent contributor to my Mom’s blog – and very few rejections. Instead of rejections, I get silence. No response. Not sure what the editors are doing. Strict email filtering protocols? Skipping work?  Playing email like it was Asteroids and the Delete button was Fire? 

My first submission elicited my first rejection. The university quarterly, which was supposed to be quite good. They rejected all three poems – quite rightly, I’d guess – but said that one wasn’t as terrible as the rest. Yeahhh! However, it was unpublishable because I had used underlining and dialogue. Poems do not do that! Well, they do. To be clear, Student Editor from 30 years ago (I’m still mad), there are no rules in Art. That’s the first rule. 

It was Bukowski, coincidentally, who taught me that poetry could have dialogue, underlining, recipes, descriptions of puking and hangovers, whatever you want. (This may seem like an elegantly sophisticated bit of symmetry, returning to Bukowski, but it’s just an accident. I’m not that clever.)

The worst rejection was from a top university quarterly in the Midwest. The Azure Peony or The Forlorn Buckeye. A very earnest and well-regarded literary journal. The note was, by my reckoning, a B-3, the very best kind of rejection. A B-3 is entirely handwritten and contains both strong encouragement and a request to submit further work. (An A-3, by the way, might be apocryphal. It is entirely handwritten and contains absolutely no encouragement and requests that the writer submit no further work, ever.) The note said:

We really enjoyed this piece. It was hilarious. One of the best things we’ve read in years. We were all rolling around on the floor laughing. We won’t be publishing it.

How did we get from the first four sentences to the last? I was confused. 

Comedy, that’s the rub. University quarterlies are often quite humorless, true, but comedy’s not easy. Nonetheless, comedy rarely gets an Oscar and is rarely appreciated as much as it should be. As Moliere said, dying on stage while portraying a character who was pretending to die (yeah, it confused the hell out of everyone), Dying is hard, but comedy is harder.

But dealing with rejection is even harder than that. 


andrew madiganAndrew Madigan is a freelance writer/editor. He writes for Washington Parent, Arlington Magazine, Salon, The Guardian, Five O’Clock, Gate37, Punch, and other periodicals. His work has appeared in The Believer, The London Magazine, The Iowa Review, The New Haven Review, Phoebe, The North American Review, Gulf Coast & other journals. His novel, Khawla’s Wall, is published by Second Wind.