Inside / Outside
A very good blog, to which I've linked before, In the Shadow of Mt Hollywood, has an interesting discussion of rejections of various kinds -- and also follow the links. (And someday I will get around to explaining why I think John Bruce is right in identifying an 'arms race' among graduate students, and why I -- contra him -- think this is a good thing).
I've received my share of rejections, for both fiction and non-fiction. One of my novels made it part way up the agent/publisher chain, only to die suddenly. I got a lovely personal rejection from the Ed-in-Chief at one of the two most respected magazine publishers of fiction. But I also got many, many form slip rejections.
For my scholarship there haven't been quite as many. Beowulf and the Critics got a form letter rejection from Oxford UP (suckers!), and I got an article rejected from Anglo-Saxon England with a one-sentence email (the article was published in another respected journal), and I got the harshest ever rejection from Anglia when the great Helmut Gneuss (and I'm not saying that sarcastically; he really is a giant in the field) hand-typed a list, in German, of all the stupid mistakes I'd made in an article (I learned that you don't want anyone describing any part of your work as a "mangel" -- trust me on this).
But the biggest difference between academic rejections and fiction rejections was that the academic ones almost always give you things to fix. So, due to Helmut Gneuss' generosity, especially given how stupid some of my errors were, I was able to make all the changes he and the other reviewer suggested and get the article accepted at an equally prestigious journal: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. And here's a link to the Table of Contents for this month, when my article, my most technical piece ever, will be published. Considering how much I sweated blood over this article (On Re-Dating the Old English Translation of the Enlarged Rule of Chrodegang), I (almost) feel like I deserve to be in the company I'm keeping in this issue.
But now that I'm on the inside, as an editor of Tolkien Studies, I of course think that editors aren't as evil and stupid as I used to. There's a strange paradox in editing: you're swamped with submissions and at the same time you have a lot of trouble finding what you're looking for. It's not that all the pieces are bad (not at all, actually), but many don't necessarily fit. One of the three editors doesn't agree that the piece is methodologically sound, or the piece wasn't written for a specialist audience, or the author doesn't seem up-to-date on relevant debates, or (and this has happened a couple times) something that looks fine to the editors gets nixed by the anonymous outside reader.
Now Tolkien Studies doesn't get as many submission as the Atlantic Monthly (thank God!), but it's still a struggle to search through to find the kinds of pieces that will make for an exciting issue: not too much overlap, a range of works considered, a blend of "big picture" discussion and technical things. I now have a new appreciation for what the editors at other publications are doing. I know I'm never trying to be cruel or discouraging (and I mean that; even if a piece isn't right for us at all, that's no guarantee that the next thing the author writes might not be perfect; I want to encourage him or her to submit that piece), but I have screwed up, and I can see how easy it is to damage someone unwittingly.
Writing: you slit your wrists, pour the blood on the page, and then strangers say it's not red enough. Crazy profession.