Category Archives: Literary Rejections

We Count

sidewalk graffiti, Greenwich Village

VIDA* recently released its statistics on published work along gender lines in major literary magazines. If you haven’t heard by now, the results revealed that men dominate. By a mile. Consistently. Across all magazines. What ensued is a wave of dialogue about the disparities, one that VIDA* begins by saying:

“But as these facts come to light–no longer imagined or guessed at–so does the truth of publishing disparities, the unfortunate footing from which we can begin to change the face of publishing. We are no longer guessing if the world is flat or round; we are wondering how to get from point A to B now that the rules of navigation are public and much clearer. Questions long denied will lead us to new awareness, to challenge current publishing practices, and to query the merits of selection on the level of individual publications and review journals alike.”

The Southern Review’s Jeanne Leiby did a count of the litmag’s past publications (as well as its submissions). The count revealed a slight favor towards male writers…and the submissions reveal the same. The result? More questions than answers from Leiby:

“I’m pleased with these numbers, but I still have more questions than I have answers. I want to know why there isn’t parity in the slush pile. Are there simply more men writing? Or are there more men submitting? I’m seeking a way to see the larger landscape, the whole industry, the biggest picture possible to give context to what we’ve discovered. What are the percentages of women and men in undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs? Is there a break occurring someplace in the chain? What is the ratio of male to female literary agents? What is the ratio of female to male editors? Publishers? Does the gender of the editor or publisher have a direct correlation to the work she publishes? Some of these statistics shouldn’t be too hard to come by, and gathering the numbers is an important first step. VIDA has shown us that there is a problem. Now what can we do to fix it?”

Brevity also jumped into the discussion, with a concerned, but brief post about their most recent issue, raising again, more questions than answers to the issue of gender disparity.

And Kartika Review, the litmag for which I was Fiction Editor, did a quick count of all of our past issues: 49% of the published literary work was by male writers, and 51% of the work by female writers. We didn’t do a count of the submissions–we haven’t been tracking gender. Did we favor women? Or is this a reflection of our slushpile? Do Asian Pacific American women (for our litmag is an APA-focused litmag) submit more often? But then again, the slush pile isn’t all writing from Asian Pacific Americans–we’ve published a number of works written by non-Asian Americans, Kelly Luce and Jill Widner included.

As a litmag editor, I didn’t let gender or ethnicity sway my decisions–but I was still very conscious of each issue’s selections. Was there a balance between gender? I tried very hard to achieve that–sometimes going so far as to reach back into the slushpile to select an additional piece (but not replacing pieces) to do so. Was there equal representation between all the regions of the Asian diaspora? Though impossible to represent every region of Asia (Southeast Asian, South Asia, West Asia, East Asia….), I was conscious of representation throughout my tenure as Fiction Editor.

As Fiction Editor, I was also conscious of my position as a gatekeeper–a bouncer, if you may. We at Kartika Review are humble enough to fully admit that we’re not the “hot club” on the street–we’re the small, neighborhood dance club off the beaten path. The line outside our door may not be as long as those of other litmags. But–I was still a doorman/bouncer.

And I felt, many times, like the bouncer in “Knocked Up,” played with apologetic brillance by Craig Robinson, admitting the entrance system is unfair, “It’s not cause you’re not hot, I would love to tap that ass. I would tear that ass up. I can’t let you in cause you’re old as fuck. For this club, you know, not for the earth.”

Sometimes, I swear, I wish I could include that quote in my rejection letters from Kartika, which I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaated dreaded sending out. As a fellow writer, I felt like each rejection letter was a sucker punch sent out into the universe.

Editors and agents are gatekeepers. We have responsibilities to art (we have to pick the very best), and we also have social responsibilities (we have to be conscious of what our selections represent).

What few people, if any, are bringing up around the VIDA* count is that publishing does not only have gender disparity issues–I feel there are issues around race, too. (Yes, I’m going there). The awesome, always-keeping-it-real-who-can-now-add-Pulitzer-Prize-Winning-to-his-descriptors Junot Díaz, alluded to this issue of representation at AWP. In my friend Elizabeth Browne‘s AWP summary she admitted, “I giggled uncomfortably when Junot Diaz told us how white we were (‘there’s Boston white, and then there’s AWP white’).”

I love that VIDA* has opened the door to a dialogue that needs to begin in earnest. I love that VIDA* has opened the door wider to consciousness about gender disparity in publishing. That we have questions to answer. Important questions to answer. Because these questions might, and hopefully, lead to self-examination and revision of our processes. Because these questions will wake a publishing conscience.

But I think we must also apply these questions about equality to categories beyond gender. I am going to take the liberty of taking Jeanne Leiby’s thoughtful questions and add color:

“Are there people of color writing? Are writers of white European descent submitting more than people of color? What are the percentages of people of color and whites in undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs? Is there a break occurring someplace in the chain? What is the ratio of literary agents who are white to literary agents who are of color? What is the ratio of editors who are of color to editors who are white? Publishers? Does the ethnicity of the editor or publisher have a direct correlation to the work she publishes? If there is a problem…what can we do to fix it?”

I quailed before posting this–because I’m no activist in the realm of activists. But this is also an excellent opportunity to broaden the discussion. This is an excellent opportunity to DO something, even as my friend Margaret La Fleur uses these numbers to address HR3 (the “no taxpayer funding for abortion act,” not even for rape victims, not even when the mother’s life is at stake).

We all count.

*Vida is also the name of my friend Patricia Engel’s awesome, unblinking, critically acclaimed (by the NY Times, even) story collection, one you should buy and read.


Filed under Fiction Editor, literary magazines, Literary Rejections, Publishing, Writing

On the Other Side of the Other Side


Not too long ago, I wrote a post about being a fiction editor at a litmag and specifically, about the deep regret I feel about rejecting writers with whom I empathize. I myself get several dozen rejection letters a year. It sucks. And being on the other side of the judging table makes rejection all the more complicated for me.

Today, Colleen Lindsay blogged about what NOT to do when you get a rejection from an agent, over at The Swivet. She gave a very specific example in the form of a response to a polite rejection letter she’d sent out. The letter goes like this:

Colleen Lindsay:

Thank you for making it clear, through your response to my query, that you are unquipped (sic) to represent fiction writers who are working at the very highest level today.

Best of luck with your list of minor writers, third-rate writers, irrelevant writers, non-writers.

You lose, silly woman.

Patrick Roscoe

Do NOT write a “fuck you letter” to someone who rejects your work (unless you are Norman McLean after having written A River Runs Through It to critical acclaim, whose object of fury was the editor of the publishing house who “played games” with his first manuscript before thoroughly rejecting it).

And I have to say–I get “fuck you emails” at the litmag on a regular basis, despite the fact that I write personalized rejection letters that I make sure are polite and respectful of the writer. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and erases any regret I might have had in my decision.

I’d understand a “fuck you letter” if I accepted your piece, played mind games with you and your piece, and then ended up rejecting it anyway–but not when it’s a response to a polite, straightforward, rejection letter.


Filed under Fiction Editor, Literary Rejections, Publishing

The Other Side

an old bottle of liquid paper

I’m the fiction editor over at Kartika Review, an Asian American litmag founded by Sunny Woan several years ago. I love my work there, which includes going through the slushpile of submissions, reading occasional snarky emails, sending out acceptance letters, working on special projects, and courting and then interviewing Famous Writers, most recently Chang-rae Lee and Nami Mun.

There is one thing I abhor: sending out rejection letters.

Just today, I sent out a big wave of rejection letters communicating, “Thank you but no thank you, and please don’t be disheartened and good luck,” albeit posed in kinder phrases to ease the blow. (Nothing eases the blow–and I know this firsthand). Now I’m ducking from the karma. I hate sending out rejections. I’ve been sending out rejections for over a year now as fiction editor, but I don’t want to reject stories. I want to fall in love with all of them and I want to be able to publish all of them.

This is what it’s like to be an editor, to be an Arbiter of Fiction, lobbing back the hopes of writers. Perhaps other editors love this position but being a fiction writer myself, there’s a part of me that is sickened by empathy.

And here’s the honest truth: sometimes after I send out a rejection letter, I experience a wave of self doubt. I think, “Crap. Maybe I should have accepted that one.” That is only followed by a massive internal scream that can best be described as, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuck!!!!!” (This “Fuuuuuuuuuuck!!!! is only beaten by the “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!” I hear when a brilliant piece is accepted by another litmag before I can accept it).

But in the end, I have to make choices. How much time will this piece take to be edited/revised to its full potential? Does it pierce my cold heart? Was my heart colder that day than another?

I email the writers whose work almost thawed my heart, to please submit again. And I hope they submit again.

(And as a writer, I’ll keep submitting work, too).

Update: A friend of mine, who is also a teacher, mentioned a similar struggle in grading papers: B or A? Could be an A, but it’s not a perfect essay…so…B+ or A-? Hrmm…B+?


Filed under Fiction Editor, Literary Rejections, Publishing

Rejection: Man, Woman

plum blossoms

I got a rejection letter in the mail today. The rejection letter was from/for a fellowship that was by all definitions a longshot for me (add in the current economy, and make that longshot a pipe dream, given the influx of applicants for such things now). I didn’t think I would get the fellowship, but I still put myself out there, and I still dared to hope and desire.

I sensed a rejection before I even tore the envelope open; it was an anorexic envelope that included one sheet of paper, a sheet that was filled with three typed sentences that took up only a little more space than the fellowship’s letterhead logo:

Ms. Zilka:

I am sorry to inform you that your application for a 2010-11 ***** Fellowship was not selected by the review committee. The committee is able to award only two fellowships this time, and it received over 140 applications, so please forgive the impersonality of this letter. We do sincerely wish you well with your writing plans, and we wish we had more fellowships to award.

I swallowed a sigh and walked into the house, the mail cradled in my left arm and my iPod in my right hand. I peeled the mail off my arm (I was sticky with sweat from a workout that entailed going up and down hundreds of stairs) and set it down.

Then, I sat myself down. I had been hurt worse from rejections before; I had sort of expected this, but I really am just sick of being hurt by rejections. I thought of all my friends who seemed to handle rejection better than I did, and thought of what they tend to say: “They suck, they don’t know what they’re missing! I guess I didn’t fit their mold, I’m too unique. They only pick one type of writing, my writing’s too radical. Wow, they suck because they don’t know how great I am.”

The voices were all male. Because these were things said by all my male writer friends. Hrm. Coincidence, I thought. Mostly, I was sad about how I couldn’t pick myself up. I was sad that I couldn’t find a way to boost my own ego, and that I would allow myself to go to emotional hell and back, each and every time I faced an emotional hurdle.

Because I couldn’t find a way to affirm myself, I went to my Facebook page and wrote a status update that read,

“Instead of running out & eating a donut for consolation/therapy, I’m going to do what a friend of mine did & ask to hear nice things from my friends here on my FB wall, instead. (please let there not be zero nice things).”

Within an hour, ten friends leapt to my rescue and wrote beautiful things in the comments. They were things I should say to myself, but somehow never do (what I tend to do is criticize myself into oblivion–and on most days I tell myself, “Keep going anyway”). I was so overwhelmed by the thoughtful generosity and kindness of my friends that I decided to compliment them in return. The thread has turned into a lovefest, one that reminds me of the importance of friendship (I vowed a few years ago that I would have GREAT female friendships in my life).  If you’re not the mushy kind, you may barf now–but even you may be touched by what my friends wrote on my wall.

My friends prevented me from going into a tailspin, one with which I am very wearily familiar. Thank you to all of them.

Coincidence or not, none of those first ten responding friends were men (as of this writing two hours after posting a request for “nice things about me” only one male friend has posted–and he is an especially empathetic soul from my college days). And p.s. I have a ton of male friends on Facebook.  Dudes, I do not fault you–because I am wondering if there is just a different venue of support when it comes to ego-boosting here, when it comes to the genders.

I can’t help but bring up the patterns–they are too obvious to ignore: the pattern that (most, but not all) men know to boost their own egos and the pattern that (most but not all) women don’t take rejection well.  Also, there’s the pattern that women can express their support and ask for support, perhaps, in a way that men don’t/can’t.  I wonder if women get their ego boost from external sources, like I just did.

I wonder if boys/men get rejected over and over from an early age in ways that girls/women do not. I can think of one example, dating, in which men are expected to initiate the request way more than women. I remember that in college, whenever I would ask a guy to go out on a date with me, the answer would inevitably be yes. When I asked why it was that I always got “yes” as an answer (even from men that I thought were “out of my league”), a male friend said to me in a “duh!” voice, “Because women never ask men out. We’re going to fucking say yes if you ask us out!”

I wonder if boys/men face a different emotional battlefield and thus develop thicker skin. I have never seen the men closest to me in my life, cry more than once, each, and that was when facing incredible emotional trauma. I was shocked by the nature of their weeping, like a rusty machine trying to move, their tears falling but their bodies unfamiliar with the mechanism of crying so that the sound came out in an unwilling way, so that I heard an almost choking sound. Women, for the most part, cry more often than men. We may face a battlefield, and we may have issues with vulnerability, but I wonder if it’s nothing close to what men face in terms of being able to show vulnerability. We cry. We ask for support. We receive support. I’m not sure men can do this to the same effect.

I once made a comment about how “men love playing video games, especially little gameboys with little screens that they manipulate with their thumbs.” My Famous Pulitzer Prize Winning Writer Mentor gave me a sharp look and said, “Think about what it is that is done to boys and men that makes them want to shrink life down to a little box and their thumbs.”

I thought about that. And I’m thinking about that now when it comes to the male psyche and ego and their ability to handle rejections. That perhaps males have to figure out a way to survive by developing internal mechanisms to boost their own egos. Because the world won’t do it.

For the record, my Facebook status asking friends to say nice things about me was not my own idea; a friend (who happened to be male) had asked for “nice things” on his Facebook wall only a few hours earlier. In a few hours, my wall was filled with amazing and generous and thoughtful and kind and intimate comments. His was filled with funny, witty banter about how he didn’t smell, how he could make good howler monkey noises, and other humorous remarks expressing resistance to comply with his request.

The only people who said truly nice things about him were women.

I lament the fact that I can’t find a way to boost my own ego.  But maybe those who know how to boost their own ego have had to fight bigger wars, and thus that ability comes at great price.

There are men who take rejection hard–there are men who have killed themselves over rejections.  Some of the kindest, most empathetic and encouraging words I’ve received in the wake of rejection are from men. And there are women who can brush off rejection.  But what I’ve witnessed is what I’ve witnessed, and the pattern I’ve seen is real.

I have no answers, only many questions–and I welcome you to enlighten me.


Filed under Literary Rejections, The World, Writing