L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

Jean Hannah Edelstein

One thousand is a conservative estimate of the number of books and book proposals that I rejected during my two-year publishing career. I have rejected books that have ended up selling for lots of money, and I have rejected books that were plagiarised wholesale from already-published writers, and I have rejected books more than once because I changed jobs and got them through the post again at the new company. I once went out for a drink with a nice man only to realise 15 minutes into our date that I had once rejected his book, too.

With all of this hard work under my belt, you can imagine how excited I was when I learned that an editor is calling for writers to send in their rejection letters to be published in a compendium in 2010. I will be spending the next year waiting and hoping that one of my carefully-crafted pieces of heartbreaking correspondence makes the cut.

Now, I suspect that the real aim of this compendium is to provide the rejected with a bit of cold comfort, an opportunity to offer some kind of riposte to the publishing professionals who have hurt their feelings by saying that their space operas or Jane Austen adaptations just aren’t good enough. What I suspect the book won’t do, however, is acknowledge that writing rejection letters is a delicate skill, one that must be fine-tuned over time (weeks, even) as one digs out from under the slush pile. For it is not easy to achieve and balance the two central goals of a truly accomplished rejection letter: trying not to make the writer feel distraught whilst also discouraging him or her from ever contacting you ever again.

In many respects, techniques for achieving that first goal have much in common with the kind of rhetoric that many people popularly apply to the end of a romantic relationship: the “It’s not you, it’s me” approach. We all know, of course, that it doesn’t really work – that the person on the receiving end of this sentiment almost always concludes “It is me!” but writers of rejections go on trying it for want of any less cruel approach.

Thus, you get the common trope of “I am ever so sorry to say that after considering your manuscript [reading the first couple of execrable pages and then bashing down the corners and smudging fingerprints on the ones further in] that I feel that I am not the right person for this book.” I usually aimed to make this sentence as long as possible, with a generous helping of adjectives. It seemed more heartfelt. I could then feel less guilty about potentially breaking writerly hearts, even though sometimes what I really wanted to write was, “Dear ‘Writer’, Please throw your laptop out of the window and never go near it again because this typescript is a shocking abuse of a perfectly good and innocent alphabet.”

But the danger in being too nice is that the jilted writer will come back to you, much like the rejected boyfriend so unbruised by your kid gloves that he feels you haven’t quite split up. Spurned writers often seem particularly concerned by the perfunctory nature of many rejection letters, and I agree that these feelings of affront are not totally ungrounded. After you spend years writing a book, it is not very nice to get it back with a letter that obviously took seconds to copy and paste.

But the careless haste is not simply due to literary agents and publishers and their myriad assistants being jerks. Many are lovely people, but they are lovely people who need to spend their time on the clock working on the books that they have already committed to, because that’s what they’re paid to do. In fact, many people who make their crust in publishing would actually quite like to offer a bit of literary coaching to writers who they can’t offer to publish but whom they think have potential. But in order to do that they either have to devote limited spare time to it, or become creative writing teachers.

And thus, while I appreciate that people might be hanging on to rejection letters that seem particularly well-crafted, it’s really not worth risking a loss of dignity through devoting time to being enraged and bitter and fixating on the fact that the person who rejected you misspelled your name and is thus too illiterate to appreciate your genius. There are better places for new writers to direct their energies.

One thought on “The fine art of literary rejection letters

  1. adriankyte says:

    So now we know!

    Liked by 1 person

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